I have just come back from holiday, travelling in Western Australia with my hubby. Over the two weeks we had lots of short social conversations with people; friends, tourists we met on a river cruise, the information guide, the fisherman in the bar or the other couple waiting in line for food.

As usual we were asked, where we were from, how we were travelling and many times, what we do for a job/ living etc.
My husband is an audiologist, and most people are satisfied with the explanation; he tests hearing and fits hearing aids. Then they want a consult on the spot about their mother, husband or self, not hearing in certain situations. We joked that he could have had a small profitable business on holidays, testing hearing and recommending hearing aids.

On the other hand, I generated a lot more curiosity, bewilderment and uncertainty when I said, I am an art therapist. “ooh that sounds interesting,” “what exactly is art therapy?”, “is that something you do with children?”

I should be used to it, because my family, my closest friends, even my personal trainer say, “I have never heard of Art Therapy, what is it exactly?”
The first time it happened on our holiday was with some old friends, people we haven’t seen for four years and with whom, I thought I had talked about my current job / work / career. Strangely, I was surprised, and thrown off balance trying to explain what I do. I was fumbling, mumbling and searching for ways to express myself and answer a very straight forward question, “What exactly is art therapy?” I was talking to an engineer and a doctor and I felt strangely uneasy, like I was trying to defend a position, a job, a strange occupation that seemed unusual.

Then I was struck, OMG, I teach this stuff. I need to get my head straight about explaining Art Therapy. But later, I realised, we have a huge problem that the general population, really has no idea what we do. I thought about how much time, we spend in the course, teaching students how to explain Transpersonal and so little time explaining Art Therapy.

I need a better elevator pitch

So this led me to thinking that I need a better elevator pitch. To be ready to explain but also look for opportunities to talk about Art Therapy, for starters, and also Transpersonal Art Therapy to anyone and everyone who is willing to listen. I want to foster a conversation and spread the word.

So some ideas that I had are:
· You’ve heard of counselling well, art therapy is a type of counselling that uses art as its primary language; a way of communicating emotions, experiences and stories. It is especially helpful when people find it difficult to put their experience into words.

· Art therapy builds on our own natural creativity and imagination for insight and healing. It is deeper than words, because we create from a place beyond our intellect and personality and as we create, we’re less concerned with ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ or what others think of us. It offers freedom and wisdom as we connect with the hidden and lesser-known parts of ourselves. So we can begin to reclaim parts of ourselves and move towards wholeness and belonging.

Then as more questions arise…
· When we talk about art, it can be collage, painting, working with clay, drawing, writing, movement and even music and song.

· Everyone has the capacity to express themselves through art. In art therapy, it is all about the process and the experience and not about the product. Art is a way of accessing our imagination, a way to make sense of our world.

· The process of making art may sometimes be enough to help regulate a person’s nervous system, or express a difficult emotion or explore a sensitive story. Other times, using art is a way of accessing the subconscious, our subliminal world to find meaning and insight.

· One important part about our approach to Art Therapy is that we don’t interpret a clients art. We don’t use art as a diagnostic tool. Sometimes, the client will see meaning in their art and we encourage them to explore any symbols or images that appear to them.

· Art Therapy is for all ages, for all abilities and for any and everyone. It isn’t just for children or the elderly or people with a disability.

Then I might tell a story

When I cofacilitated an art therapy group for teenagers impacted by cancer, our art processes were adapted to ways that the young people could relate and express themselves. In one activity each person created a character and drew a cartoon about their character overcoming an obstacle. We had a rabbit find a way to unearth a fresh carrot, a balloon that need to avoid a prickly hedge, a star looking for a place to shine in the night sky and a dog that got stuck in a muddy river. Beautiful use of metaphor and symbols to tell a story about finding a way out of a difficult and challenging place. We didn’t need to unpack or analyse the metaphor, we simply held space for the stories to be told.

Then what exactly is Transpersonal Art Therapy?

Transpersonal Art Therapy is a holistic client-centred approach. We work with all aspects of the client including their physical, emotional, cognitive and spiritual wellbeing. We use guided visualisation, poetry, music and movement to help a person connect with their imagination and their inner resources. Transpersonal Art Therapy helps clients connect with their own metaphor, symbols and images through dreams, art, journalling and visualisations.

Another story to explain
One time, I worked with a group of women who were feeling at a loss, their children were growing up and their role of mothering was diminishing. They were confronting feelings of uncertainty and emptiness. One of the most powerful experiences we did together was using objects from nature, sticks, leaves, seed pods and feathers to create a mobile to symbolise their future life. Each woman chose objects that held symbolic significance to them as they wove, tied and connected these to a stick. They shared their stories about the meaning that each part held for them.

In the Art Therapy Source Book, Cathy Malchiodi writes,
“Art therapy is based on the idea that the creative process of art making is healing and life enhancing and is a potent form of communication. It utilizes the creative process which exists in every individual, to promote growth, insight and transformation. Through art making as therapy, you may find relief from overwhelming emotions, crises or trauma; discover insights about yourself; achieve an increased sense of well-being; enrich your daily life; or experience personal change. It is a way to make sense of that which is painful, to create personal meaning, to enhance wellness, and become whole.”

So, when someone asks what you do and then the invariable, “oh, art therapy, what’s that?” – how will you answer? What’s resonated with you from this article? We’d love to hear your approach and response, if you’d like to share it in our FB group. Let’s get the word out there so we can all help our communities move from ignorance to inspired awareness, celebrating the healing potential of this wonderful and powerful therapy!

3 Comments

  1. Malinda

    What a fabulous article! I still have trouble answering this question! Your wise words will really help me to better explain this amazing work. Thanks so much for writing and sharing this article, Jenny.

    Reply
  2. Tracey Mekitarian

    Thanks Jenny, I have been finding myself in a similar position with my career change from teaching to art therapist and even found myself explaining art therapy to my orthopaedic surgeon yesterday 😀

    Reply
    • Jenny Fisher

      Hi Tracey, That’s wonderful to hear you are spreading the word even to your surgeon. Jenny

      Reply

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