The Dawn of Art Therapy

Four You Gallery
February 16, 2021| Christine

“Every artist dips his brush in his own soul, and paints his own nature into his pictures”
Henry Ward Beecher

Long before spoken and written language were developed, communication was visual. For thousands of years, across continents, through the rise and fall of civilizations, mankind has relied on art as a means to connect – as a means of expression and interaction, both with their outer worlds and their inner worlds. And as mankind evolved, so did the use of art, ushering in the age of art therapy.

Painted by an “Art Therapist" about his journey inside a psychiatric unit

As defined by the Good Therapy Organization, art therapy, “a hybrid field largely influenced by the disciplines of art and psychology, uses the creative process, pieces of art created in therapy, and third-party artwork to help people in treatment develop self-awareness, explore emotions, address unresolved emotional conflicts, improve social skills, and raise self-esteem. Art therapy primarily aims to help individuals experiencing emotional and psychological challenges achieve personal well-being and improved levels of function”. Do you have to have previous artistic experience? No. Will you be assessed on your artistic ability throughout the sessions? Also no. Each session is unique and caters to the clients’ needs – creating a safe space allowing them to express their thoughts and emotions. According to the British Association of Art Therapists, “art therapy practice has evolved to reflect the cultural and social diversity of the people who engage in it”.

A visual testimony from a patient about the power of art therapy sessions

So, when exactly did art therapy become a thing? The short answer is “the 1940’s”.
British artist Adrian Hill conceived the term “art therapy” in 1942 when he came to realize the healthful benefits of painting and drawing while recovering from tuberculosis. Also in the 40’s, five influential writers of the time played a significant role in ushering in the age of “art therapy” and its development as a recognized field. They were Margaret Naumburg, Hanna Kwaitkowska, Florence Cane, Edith Kramer, and Elinor Ulman. What were their contributions? According to Good Therapy Organization, “Margaret Naumburg, often described as the “mother of art therapy,” established the Walden School in her home city of New York in 1915. She is widely viewed as the primary founder of the American art therapy movement. Hanna Kwiatkowski, born in Poland and educated throughout eastern Europe, was a talented sculptor and artist, who eventually moved to the United States and began working at the National Institutes of Mental Health, where she bridged the gap between her passion and her profession by introducing art into the therapy sessions she conducted with families. Florence Cane was an art educator who utilized teaching methods emphasizing the importance of free artistic expression and encouraging emotional creativity. Edith Kramer proposed the more process-oriented art-as-therapy approach that defined goals of supporting the ego, helping the development of identity, and fostering growth. Elinor Ulman established the first art therapy journal in the United States and initiated one of the earliest training programs in the field.”

A child with his art therapist during a session

So, what does an art therapy session look like?
According to the American Art Therapy Association, “art therapists are master-level clinicians who work with people of all ages across a broad spectrum of practice”. A master’s degree from an accredited institution is non-negotiable for art therapists (even at entry levels), and they are required to meet and maintain required ethical and quality standards established by the Art Therapy Credentials Board (ATCB) in order to be able to practice.

During art therapy sessions, the practice differs from one session to the other based solely on the clients’ needs. The sessions could be individual or group sessions, and no two sessions are the same. Art therapists often combine psychological, spiritual and artistic theories with clinical techniques to achieve the desired therapeutic outcome. Some widespread techniques used in therapy session include painting, finger painting, doodling, scribbling, drawing, carving, making collages (among others).

A patient’s painting of a rising Phoenix to symbolize a close family member fighting and beating drug addiction

While most people still view therapy in the conventional sense and are reserved about it, art therapy allows for a creative expression of the self in a fun, enjoyable, and stimulating way.
“Creating artwork allows your mind to be in a safe place while it contemplates the tougher issues you are dealing with. One can use the tools of brush, paint, pastels, crayons etc to expose and even for a short time color those issues in a different light.” ― George E. Miller

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