I define art therapy as the use of art materials to externalize one’s inner world for the purpose self-inquiry, transformation, and integration. These days we hear a lot of "it's not about the product; it's all about the process." Sure, I love the process arts, and the process of creating art is deeply significant; AND that's just half of the journey that takes place within an art therapy session. After the art is created, a third entity enters the therapy room, joining the therapist and client, and that entity is the art product, and it also matters - deeply.
Process: Creating art
The creative process begins with the nebulous ingredients of emotions, thoughts, ideas, and unconscious urges. Through the application of art materials, these unseen entities solidify and manifest as concrete shape and form. Art therapists are trained in when to offer which types of materials, which art prompts to give, and how to support the creative process as it is unfolding. Perhaps most importantly, we bear witness and hold space for our clients to create.
Product: Making meaning
Art therapy does not end with the experience of the art product being created; rather, the art therapist works with the client in a second direct experience of the image – deciphering meaning from the art produced. The product matters not in the level of artistic skill displayed or the "beauty" of the image. All of the art world or art industry rules are thrown out the window in art therapy. This is a whole different ball of wax. All marks made are art.
By directing the client’s attention upon the art object, it begins to mean something to the client. Making meaning of objects first occurs early in life as an infant interacts with the world, and organizes objects in its visual field so that they begin to carry importance or meaning. In a similar way, when a client discovers a line or a color in their art, they can begin to make meaning of it and see previously unrealized perspectives.
In this process of unfolding meaning, the role of the art therapist is a facilitator and one who journeys with the client. This includes the art therapist knowing how to suggest inferences based on the graphic evidence and encourage the client to speak about the image. The concept of isomorphism in art therapy is often used to describe how the art product is an external representation of the internal state of the client, or as art therapist Janie Rhyne says, the art's form leads to content or meaning. For this reason, as an art therapist, I aim to stay image-centered, elicit a phenomenological description of the image, and keep in mind all facets of the client, their environment, and their culture.
When looking at art a client has created, I exercise my training in mindfulness to suspend my own projections and impulses to interpret, thus allowing the client’s image to arrive with freshness into my awareness. Unfolding meaning from the image is a collaborative process between the client and the art therapist, held in the safe container of the therapeutic relationship. It works beautifully when I can witness my client creating art in session, followed by hearing the descriptions and stories about the image being told by its creator.
An art therapy experience is a round trip journey: It manifests content from one's unconscious mind out into the art materials. Then from the new creation, meaning is made and newfound discoveries are integrated back into one's psyche. This journey may occur within a session or over a span of several sessions, and however long the path, an art therapist is uniquely and specifically trained to walk alongside you all the way there and all the way back.