How to heal with paint, brushes and a canvas

Art therapy has taken the medical world by storm of late. Learn how (and why) the practice works.

How to heal with paint, brushes and a canvas

Art therapist Angel Duncan (right) working with a patient

When words fail, art therapists step in.

This unique job within the health care industry uses the creative process of making art to help people explore their feelings, particularly those experiencing anxiety, trauma from things like combat or physical abuse, loss of brain function, grief and depression.

“Art therapy fills a gap where traditional psychotherapy hasn’t worked and allows a patient to communicate on a different level,” says Donna Betts, president of the board of the American Art Therapy Association and assistant professor for the art therapy program at The George Washington University. “As practitioners, we have the satisfaction that we have reached someone and helped them rise from a low to a relatively normal level of functioning.”

If you're picturing camp-style arts and crafts or adult coloring books, think again. Art therapists usually hold, at a minimum, a master’s degree from an art therapy program recognized by the American Art Therapy Association. They also complete at least four years of postgraduate clinical experience. Only then can they be qualified for these roles, which can be found anywhere there’s a mental health team—including hospitals, schools, psychiatric and rehabilitation facilities, community mental health clinics, wellness centers, forensic institutions, crisis centers, senior communities, veteran’s’ clinics, juvenile facilities and correctional institutions. A recent AATA membership survey found most positions in this field pay between $30,000 and $80,000.

You’ll get to be creative

Many art therapists travel to the client, packing a mini art studio to facilitate a session. But like art itself, there is no “typical” when it comes to the structure for an art therapy session. Different mediums, such as painting, drawing, mask-making, collaging or sculpting might be used. A session might build on a work in progress, or it may start something new.

Sometimes the art creation only takes up five minutes of the session, and then acts as a discussion prompt for the remainder.

There may be a constant therapeutic dialogue or minimal verbal exchange, says Daniel Blausey who owns a private practice studio, Studio Blue: Art + Psychotherapy in Boulder, Colorado, and primarily works with men with histories of childhood sexual abuse and HIV/AIDS, and with young people and their families across the LGBTQ spectrum. “Being present as an art therapist requires a supportive, non-intrusive, empathetic and compassionate presence.”

You’ll help people explore emotions

Creating the art itself is just the first step. “I might ask a client, ‘What is it like to see the image you described on the paper?' or "What did it feel like in your body when you were drawing?’" says Blausey.

The therapist also has to capture the intent with patients who are less verbal. Art therapist Angel Duncan, who serves as director of research education at the Neuropsychiatric Research Center of Southwest Florida based in Fort Myers, primarily works with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia patients in the local area. “For my patients with Alzheimer's,” she says, “I write what they tell me on the back of the art, even if the language is fragmented. Because while I might not understand, their family usually will. This allows families to have something to talk about and celebrate.”

“Using art to discuss feelings is especially important for really young children with limited vocabulary who need help figuring out how to talk about the person they miss,” adds creative arts therapist Grace Colangelo, who works at MJHS Hospice center in Brooklyn, New York.

You’ll have a lasting impact

Art therapists say they feel honored by their role in helping clients and their families process and express weighty emotional issues.

“It’s so gratifying when I help a bed-bound grandmother make a sculpture of her hands wrapped around her grandchildren’s hands and then find it displayed prominently in the home,” Colangelo says.

Duncan, too, says she sees the lasting rewards of her work with her Alzheimer's patients. “Seeing their faces light up while painting, processing what they created, capturing their memories and being able to share those with their loved ones is a gift,” she says. “Too often they get dismissed, stigmatized and ostracized, but their art, coupled with what they say about it, is astounding and reflects a working mind that didn't forget.”

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