Art Therapy

Here’s a description of art therapy, if you’d like to know more about it. It’s written by Samantha Kelly, MA, ATR, who creates all our art-based activities for Clara Tales.

Whenever I mention my work as an art therapist, I always get a few comments asking what art therapy actually is and how it works. That, my friends, is a good question. No one having any idea what you do is all part of the art therapist territory. This also means that I get lots and lots of chances to introduce people, like you!, to the wonderful world of my work.

Frequently Asked Art Therapy Questions:

What is art therapy?

Art therapy is a form of expressive therapy that combines psychotherapeutic theories and techniques with the creative process. Instead of just talking about a problem over and over again, art therapy gives people a chance to engage in a visual/auditory/kinesthetic experience as an alternative means of processing issues. Art therapy not only uses the inherent healing power of the creative process but also focuses on the idea that art can be a means of symbolic communication.

How did you get into art therapy?

I first discovered the amazing potential for using art in a therapeutic setting when I worked as a staff at an adolescent residential treatment center my last year as an undergrad. I didn’t even know about the profession of art therapy, however, until I moved out to Oregon after finishing college and was trying to decide what the heck to do with my life and a BA in Visual Arts.

I think it was my mom, actually, who casually suggested the field of art therapy to me, having just seen it featured on her AOL homepage as “One of the fast up and coming professions” or something like that. When I discovered Marylhurst University offered a great art therapy program and was only an hour commute from where I lived in Oregon, I began researching it all more. I went to an informational open house at the university and was immediately hooked. I started the application process shortly thereafter and, happily, was accepted.

How long have you been practicing art therapy for?

I started working in the mental health field my senior year at BYU, as a staff at a residential treatment center for adolescents. That was over 5 years ago. It’s been 2 years since I finished grad school. So, all together, including my work in grad school, I’ve been practicing art therapy specifically for 4 years now.

How many years of schooling does it take to become an art therapist?

Art therapy is a master’s level profession which means that, at the very least, you need a master’s in art therapy (or related psychology/counseling field) in order to practice. I got my bachelor’s degree in visual arts with a minor in psychology. Most BA degrees take at least 4 years to complete. I actually was able to finish my undergrad degree in 3 years but that’s only because I really blew through it. I attended school during every summer as wells as going full-time during the regular fall and winter semesters.

Then there’s grad school. Every school is a little different but most programs can be finished in 2 years, if you go full-time. That’s what I did. Marylhurst University also offers a 3-year track which is part-time. A lot of students preferred that because then they could actually wok at the same time while going to school. It just depends on what your needs are. For me, living off of student loans and finishing school sooner was the best option.

So total, from BA to MA degree, you’re looking at a minimum of 6 years of schooling.

What do I need to know about the application process for art therapy programs?

For art therapy grad programs, the application requires GRE scores, a personal statement, images of your artwork, essays, etc. Also, having previous experience in some kind of human services work is almost always a must when applying for a graduate program in art therapy, or any related counseling program, for that matter. Having previous experience will also help you decide if working with people in a therapeutic manner is something that you actually enjoy doing.

Every school’s application process is obviously different. I’d say, however, that either a bachelor’s degree in art with a minor in psychology, or the other way around, would be sufficient for any school. The best way to find out more specifics, though, is to talk to the programs you’re interested in and do a transcript review. Then you can find out exactly what kind of classes you need to take or have taken before you apply.

The application process is involved and very time-intensive but totally doable. So don’t let that deter or overwhelm you. Just take it one step at a time.

What kind of classes did your graduate work focus on?

My art therapy program was great in that it was, essentially, a double master’s. I graduated with a master’s in art therapy and a master’s in counseling. Having a master’s in mental health counseling and being eligible for licensure as a professional counselor (LPC) can open a lot more doors for you as an art therapist and master’s level clinician.

My graduate work focused on counseling theories, individual/group counseling, various specific subjects with counseling (addictions, special populations, ages, assessment, etc.), and then, of course, how to apply the principles of art therapy in counseling practice. It was intense but so worth it.

How fast did you find a job in art therapy after you graduated?

It took me about 5 months to find a job in art therapy after finishing grad school.

What kind of work schedules do art therapists typically have?

Art therapists can work in a lot of different capacities. Just like any other job, there are full-time positions, part-time, on-call, and contract work.

Art therapists work with all different populations of people and age groups.

What are some key traits an art therapist needs to have?

First, and foremost, an art therapist should have an in-depth and personal understanding of the creative process and how this process can lend itself to emotional healing. Many art therapists found their way to the field of art therapy because, they themselves, had many personal experiences with the healing power of art.

Being able to be genuine, compassionate, a good listener, and a love of working with people and helping others are also common characteristics of those who choose to work in mental health.

How are you doing passion-wise and career-wise as an art therapist? Is it everything that you hoped for and beyond?

Honestly, there are many times when I’m in the middle of leading a group at work and think to myself, “I can’t believe I’m getting paid to do this!” Practicing art therapy is a wonderful blessing in my life. Some days are hard- but that’s just the nature of working with very acute patients in a psychiatric hospital setting. It can be intense. But you learn quickly how to deal and how to emotionally detach yourself in a healthy way. There are many levels of care in mental health- I just happen to work near the top as far as the most emotionally intense level. But yes, doing art therapy, both group and individual, is wonderful. I really do love it.

Having a master’s degree in a counseling field as also allowed me to teach at the college level. I teach Concepts of Stress Management for Utah Valley University’s community health department. I never had this in my plans and it sort of just fell into my lap. It’s been an amazing experience and I’ve discovered that I really love teaching as well!

What is your favorite thing about being an art therapist?

I feel like art therapy can be almost like a secret weapon in treatment settings. It can be a much less intimidating and more safe means of exploring difficult emotional material than simply talking about it. My favorite is working with teenagers because they genuinely love the creative process and are willing to go so much deeper, so much quicker through the art than they may otherwise. I love being able to give people something that they can really connect with in a deep way and that helps heal emotional wounds.

That’s just one little thing that I love about being an art therapist. I could write pages and pages about everything else I love.

Me & art therapy

I earned my Master’s degree in Art Therapy Counseling a few years ago and recently earned my ATR (Art Therapist Registered) credential.

I work in a psychiatric hospital as an art therapist. Most people assume that art therapy is only used with kids. Not so. Art therapy can be used with any age and I get the opportunity to do just that in my work at the hospital. I run art therapy groups with children, teenagers, adults, and families. I work with people who are severely and chronically mentally ill and/or who are dealing with substance abuse issues. I love my job.

What an art therapy group could look like:

My groups can be very different. It all depends on the population I’m working with and their needs in the moment. I think breaking it down by age is the easiest way to see the range and variety of what art therapy can be like.

Children’s group:

I’ll bring in a great big piece of butcher paper, some markers, colored pencils, and oil pastels and have the kids work to create an island together.

This directive usually brings up a lot of themes that we talk about at the end of group. For example, issues like positive friendshipping, boundaries, communication, and problem-solving show themselves pretty quickly when you’re having hospitalized children work together on one artwork.

Adolescent group:

One directive that I do a lot with the teenagers is “inside/outside.” Basically, I’ll go into the group, we’ll do the intros/check-in and then I’ll say something like, “Today’s theme is inside/outside. Interpret it however you’d like and then make a drawing about it.” Once the artwork is done, we sit together in a circle with everyone’s drawing on the floor in front of them. Then we go around and each kid has a chance to explain their art, answer other’s questions, and get feedback from their peers

Issues that come up from this kind of directive is the idea of feeling one way on the inside but putting on “a mask” or showing a different emotion on the outside. When the kids do the art about this, it gives them a chance to visually explore their inside/outside selves and then safely reveal both sides to the whole group.

Other directives I often do with adolescents include:

  • draw something that’s hard for you to talk about
  • draw how you are now and how you want to be
  • free drawing

Working with teenagers is my favorite. They really love being able to express themselves creatively and will quickly grasp onto the art process as a way to address relevant therapeutic issues.

Family group:

I also lead a multi-family adolescent group. So we have the kids with their family members (usually parents) all in one group. For this group, what I usually have the kids draw something they really want to say to their family and, similarly, have the family members each draw something they really want to say to their child. Again, once finished with the art, they get the chance to share the meanings behind their artworks with each other.

Different themes emerge every time with this group in particular. Regardless of the issues that pop up, however, it’s almost always very emotional with a lot of crying and hugs.

Adult group:

Once a week I do a group with adults who are either severely depressed and/or are going through medically-assisted detox. I bring in paper, glue sticks, and magazines and have them make a collage about “hope.” At the end, we share the finished collages and they talk about things that came up for them during the process.

This is a great directive because it serves multiple purposes all at once. The process of making a collage can be not only fun and creative but also soothing and calming. It forces the person to focus all their attention to what they are doing in front of them. People often comment on how nice and relaxing it felt to do the collage. At the end, they also have a visual, tangible product of personal hope for them to hold onto and take with them. Win win.

More art therapy info:

American Art Therapy Association