Everything you need to know about art therapy

Everything you need to know about art therapy

Even if you don’t consider yourself to be an artistic person, you can benefit from art therapy.

“We all have creativity in us,” says Nancy Morales, LAPC, ATR-P, a registered art therapist at Cancer Wellness at Piedmont. “We’re born creative. We spend the first five years of our lives being and exploring the world in a creative way. And then as we go through school, slowly we're taught to stop being creative and instead to be more logical.”

“I was a little nervous about an art therapy class, thinking I needed to be artistic,” says Nancy Olsen, an art therapy participant. “But being here, I've learned that I enjoyed the process rather than the end product. Sometimes I'll just do things just to play around and a lot of times, they don't turn out very good, but it was fun. That's how we learn to do things, by experimenting.”

Process art therapy vs. product art therapy

There are two practices that encompass all of art therapy: Process art therapy and product art therapy.

“In product art therapy, the emphasis is on the end product,” explains Morales. “It can empower people because they are learning to master materials. The symbolic image that comes back, or the piece that comes back, can be crucial to the person's sense of themselves because when we create something, we're creating almost a mirror of ourselves.”

Process art therapy, she says, is similar to the psychotherapeutic practices of talk therapy.

“We manipulate materials, pounding clay, moving paint around,” she says. “So, you're smelling, you're touching, and through that process, you often are processing emotions that you might not have known that you were dealing with. When we’re working with art materials and creating through the art process, our defenses are often dropped.”

Olsen agrees. “I think of art therapy as a way to express myself because if you don't feel like talking, sometimes there are things inside you that need to come out. When we come into the class, there's always something that can help us work through some of the stuff that we have inside us.”

“When you can remove an image from your mind and stand back from it, you can then look at it, detach a little bit of the emotionality, and then you can start talking about it,” explains Morales. “And when you can talk about it, then you can add logic to it and you can process it through logic that way.”

She adds, “Through studies, art therapy has been verified a therapeutic choice for PTSD. It's been studied to reduce anxiety in cancer settings, as well as any setting. It's effective for depression. And it's fun.”

Another class participant, Colette Parent-Hay, found meaningful connections through art therapy.

“I like art and I thought, it's an opportunity to try these new things,” she says. “I'll meet other people that are trying to do the same thing, make connections, make friends. I've enjoyed every class that I have come to. I like the Monday classes, Art in Service, where we are doing things that help someone else. At the time I started, they were doing silk scarf printing to give to cancer patients and I found that really rewarding.”

What to expect in open art therapy studio

In open art therapy studio, the focus is on process art therapy,. 

“Open art therapy studio is about just playing with the materials,” says Morales. “It does take some time for people to warm up to that idea, that I really don't have an expectation for them to create something. I have clients who come to our groups who never make anything. They come in and they use the materials, and they work with them. They find a lot of comfort and a release of energy. And then they go. They're not worried about a final project.”

“I wanted to try this class about clay because I'd seen some of the other ladies work with clay,” says art therapy participant Sally Raymond. “I really love it, because I get tactile. It's kind of a release and I can work with clay while I'm talking to people. I started doing little flowerpots. I'm on my fourth one, and I'm learning. Each one gets a little bit better than the one before. So, that's been kind of satisfying.”

Art therapy helps you let go of your inner critic

“We label ourselves with our inner critic. Our inner critic is always sitting on our shoulder, and keeping us from doing things that we always wanted to do,” says Morales. “And in these classes, we offer all those things that throughout your life, you're like, ‘Oh, I always wanted to take a pottery class,’ or, ‘I always wanted to paint.’ In such a safe environment as a therapy group, where your identity and your conversation is kept private, it's a perfect place to come and be supported by the other members of the group, so you can let down your own defenses and begin to create.”

“I think one of the things that this group has shown me is how differently different people deal with their cancer,” says Raymond. “And being able to talk through it, listen to other people and encourage other people has been really good for me as well.”

Olsen adds, “I keep coming back because I enjoy the socialization with the other group members, I enjoy the camaraderie. And because most of us have all been through the same thing, sometimes it helps. Maybe I'll help somebody with a comment I made. Or maybe they help me with the same things. You might find a whole new avenue for yourself to be creative.”

Get inspired by more creative ways to express yourself.


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