Image Courtesy of Expressive Art Inspirations

What is Art Therapy?

(Image courtesy of Expressive Art Inspirations)

… Or rather, ‘What is it like to be an art therapist?’

To find out, I spoke with two practicing art therapists earlier this year – both are absolutely passionate about their work and the positive impact it has on their clients, both within the NHS and in the community.

Art therapists are first and foremost therapists, using art-making to aid the therapeutic process.

Clients work intuitively to create an image or a shape. Afterwards they might look back on the art and discuss it to uncover layers of meaning, or metaphors for how they are feeling.

Last month I attended the 5-day Foundation at The British Association of Art Therapists (BAAT) in North London. Art therapy is a relatively new profession since the 1940’s, and it is really wide-ranging – the course showed the many facets of the profession.

Dr Val Huet, art therapist and CEO of the BAAT defined art therapy’s main purpose: “To increase understanding and personal insight through art-making – to help people to build resilience, reduce distress and improve well-being.”

She also highlighted the non-verbal nature of image-making, in some cases enabling clients to open up more easily than with talking therapy.

We heard several practitioners speak about their specific area of expertise, and present case studies:

-Diane Eagles spoke of her inspiring and challenging work with elderly people who deal with complex mental health issues and dementia, at the Central and Northwest London NHS trust.

Alex MacDonald, art therapist and social media officer for the BAAT, discussed her work within an inner city school, offering art therapy to children with learning disabilities and behavioural issues.

-Bobbi Lloyd presented the work of Art Refuge UK, which she founded to offer art therapy activities to displaced people. She spoke of their work in Nepal with Tibetan refugees, and more recently of their project in the Calais refugee camp. She said  in those desperate situations, even though art-making may not seem like a life-saving activity, together with spirituality it can be a crucial “protective factor, which can help individuals cope with traumatic circumstances”. A truly inspirational talk.

Quite soon into the course, it became clear that the question I was really asking myself was, ‘What does it actually take to be an art therapist?’

A brilliant role-play exercise was led by Mary-Rose Brady, art therapist and Director of Operations at BAAT. Split into groups of 3, we took turns in the role of the client, therapist and observer. Each fictional ‘session’ brought up questions, practical tips and observations which we discussed as a group. Overall I got a sense of the specific attitude required to be the ‘therapist’: A caring, curious and empathetic attitude, but also one that is stable and composed. Using clear communication is crucial. Resilience was a word that came up a lot during the week too.

The week-long combination of talks, group interactive exercises, practical art-making and Q&A sessions was an intense but a really useful experience for me.

Thank you to all at BAAT for sharing your knowledge, experience and passion for art therapy with us!

Read more about art therapy here.


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