By Pamela Mueggenberg, MA
As I was working through my Master's program, my teachers would often tell me that, as an Art Therapist, I was not only a clinician, a helper, and a facilitator of creativity—I was also an ambassador for my field.
Art therapy is a relatively young psychological modality and one that is often misrepresented by coloring books, paint covered toddlers, or pathos-filled artistes. Talking to artists and those in the creative field, art therapy can sometimes be viewed as redundant—all art is therapeutic! Why would I need a therapist there when I can treat myself? Talking to clinicians, art therapy can be seen as fringe, touchy-feely, non-evidence based.
I am pleased when I'm able to disabuse people of their initial judgments of art therapy, and teach them what sort of good, clinically viable, beautiful work we can do.
Let's start with the assumption that all art is therapeutic.
Art making is indeed a powerful tool that can be used to explore your internal world. Engaging in a creative endeavor can evoke all sorts of mental states, some therapeutic or soothing, some anxious or self-deprecating. Would I consider a person coloring in pre-fabricated drawings to be engaged in therapeutic work? Probably not, but I bet they're having fun.
Is a child, frustrated after failing one more time at drawing what's in their head so they decide "I just can't draw," doing therapy on themselves? Obviously not, and because of lack of trained facilitation, that experience may do more harm than good.
Anyone has the capacity to facilitate therapeutic creative work, but having an actual art therapist on your side can be immensely helpful. Art therapists are specifically trained in employing media choice, canvas size, work space, timing, process, metaphor, symbolism, the triangular relationship between artist/therapist/artwork... to respectfully help an individual develop their voice and explore their world.
All art therapists are practicing artists who respect the innate power of creativity to heal people when that power is wielded responsibly.
Art therapy also has a basis in clinical psychology. In my graduate program we were able to take classes in abnormal psychology, statistical analysis, diagnostic assessments, developmental psychology, career counseling, and ethics alongside classes in graphic development, group art practice, art directives, sand tray, and somatic awareness. We not only learned how to facilitate art, we became skilled clinicians able to work with any number of mental health concerns.
An important note: while art therapists often converse within their client's visual language, we do not "interpret" a client's work to make diagnostic or forensic assumptions. We do not inexplicably divine a client's past, diagnosis, or living situation from their artwork. That would be absurd, and profoundly ill-advised.
Art therapists do not end their education after graduate school. To be licensed as an art therapist you must work with clients, doing art, for a minimum of 1,000 hours and meet with an established art therapist for 100 hours before you are allowed to take a comprehensive national exam that covers the history, ideas, and practice of our field.
Despite having extensive counseling experience, enough to earn me licensure as a mental health professional, I have not yet met my hours to be a licensed art therapist (I'm working on it though!). This is indeed a well-earned distinction.
Straddling these worlds between art and therapy and integrating them into a cohesive tool for change is immensely satisfying.
I am proud to be an ambassador of my field and introduce people to the skill, intelligence, compassion, experience and education I have seen in my art therapist colleagues.
If you are ever curious about what art therapy can do, please let me know! I love talking about it, and helping people better understand just how transformative art therapy can be.