So what is art therapy, anyway?

I’m an art therapist who is “home grown” on the local scene, growing up in the Humber Valley and having earned a B.A. with honours in psychology from Grenfell. Loving both art and psychology, I went on to earn a masters in art therapy from the Kutenai Art Therapy Institute in Nelson, B.C. I’m really excited to establish a professional art therapy practice here – the first of its kind on the west coast of Newfoundland.

But what is art therapy anyway? Many people aren't quite sure what I mean when I tell them that I'm an art therapist. It's not surprising - although introduced to Canada by Dr. Martin Fischer in 1969, this form of psychotherapy has only recently branched into Atlantic Canada. However, the name "art therapist" has been widely used by local artists, recreation workers, occupational therapists, counselors and social workers to describe their own work with art directives. It’s really not surprising when people get this term confused with recreation, instruction and even solitary art making.

So what is the difference?

Art-making, whether alone or in a group, can be fun, relaxing, and – some would argue – even therapeutic. We all have a physical reaction to image creation, stimulating and eventually triggering pleasure circuits in the brain. It’s what neuropsychologists refer to as “flow” and athletes identify as a “runner’s high”. Similar experiences involve good food, good music, and even drugs. Art making also reduces the activity of the “flight or fight” area of the brain, decreasing stress levels, reducing anxiety and even lowering blood pressure. So when we’re deeply immersed in creative activities, we feel really good.

However, simply doing art is not the same thing as tackling serious clinical issues in a therapeutic environment.

Art instruction is all about learning skills and techniques in completing a specific art project with specific art materials. Art is taught by a qualified artist or art instructor. As a student, it is important not to “dive right in”, but to wait until step by step instructions are given by the instructor in order to complete the project. At the end of class, everyone will have learned the same skill sets in completing the same project. Everyone’s project should look more or less the same.

In art therapy, the client is encouraged to explore different art materials, and to decide what to create. Although open ended directives are sometimes given, specifics of the whole art making process are left up to the client.

Sometimes an art project can be used as a form of therapy with clients who have various physical or mental health issues. Even though the project will be the same, the process is different for each particular client - depending on their needs. Adjusting the work space, time spent on art-making, focusing ability as well as other factors all play a role in building up independence and the self-reliance of the client. Although some of these factors will play a role in my practice, recreation workers use art for this purpose as well. In fact, recreation therapy will use many different forms of recreation (not just art) in order to facilitate success for the client.

Although sometimes open ended directives are given, in art therapy, no specific art projects or activities are needed. The client does not even need to be good at art in order to benefit.

From the Canadian Art Therapy Association website:

“Art therapy combines the creative process and psychotherapy, facilitating self-exploration and understanding. Using imagery, colour and shape as part of this creative therapeutic process, thoughts and feelings can be expressed that would otherwise be difficult to articulate.”

Art therapy – sometimes called expressive therapy or art psychotherapy – is just that: therapy. Sessions are facilitated by a qualified psychotherapist who has graduated from a master’s program at an accredited institution. As in any therapy, the whole client-therapist dynamic is an important part of the process. The therapist acts as a guide and a dialog partner, providing a safe space for the client to explore thoughts and feelings. The creative output (not necessarily a completed picture) is used as a foundation to discuss experiences that may be difficult to express in any other way. The therapist can also use the physical reaction to art making to his advantage; by activating pleasure circuits and lowering “fight or flight” activity, the client may not feel as overwhelmed when examining personal issues. In fact, the reflective discussion between the therapist and the client helps in further reducing the activity of the “fight or flight” system. This verbal component connects all three levels of the brain (sensorimotor, emotional and logical) making it easier for the client to generate new insights and connect ideas than if the he was simply creating art alone.

It takes years of specialized training in both psychotherapy and art in order to meet Canadian professional standards. These standards are in place to protect the client as well as the profession. To find out more about art therapy in Canada, please visit

To find out more about art therapy on the west coast, including whether art therapy is right for you, your family member or client, please give me a call at (709) 632 9464 or visit Individual, group, in-person and skype sessions can be arranged.

#arttherapy #artinstruction #artpsychotherapy #recreationworkers #socialworkers #artists #occupationaltherapists #DrMartinFischer #pleasurecircuits #fightorflight

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