For thousands of years art has been used as a tool for communication.
Art making has been used as a means of group interaction, conflict resolution, diagnosis and self-expression. The therapeutic use of art has existed for centuries with a diversity that echoes the varieties of artistic experience and needs. It has been used as a symbolical vehicle to capture the inexpressible in an image. Art has endured through time as a means of healing power. Shamans still use carved figures to facilitate a relationship with the gods; Navaho medicine men continue to heal with sand paintings.
Art therapy is a relatively new human service profession in the field of psychotherapy. It is a profession that is described by the American Art Therapy Association as the therapeutic use of art making within a professional relationship, by people who experience illness, trauma or challenges in living and by people who seek personal development. Through creating art and reflecting on the art process and product people can experience increased awareness of self and others, can better cope with distressing symptoms, stress, and traumatic experiences, enhance cognitive abilities and enjoy the life-enhancing process of making art. The art therapist has an understanding of the art experience from a psychological and aesthetic perspective and assists clients in a building internal sense of self-awareness through their artwork and personal reactions to the work.
Art therapy practice has a knowledge base grounded in theories of personality, human development, psychology, family systems and art education. Because art therapists are trained both in art and therapy, they are knowledgeable about human development, psychological theories, clinical practice, the healing potential of art and multicultural traditional uses of art. Because creativity and psychotherapy are both about change and transformation they can enhance one anothers effectiveness.
One of the earliest recognized pioneers of art therapy in the United States is Margaret Naumberg who was born in New York City in 1882. Naumbergs primary identity was that of an educator who was next a psychotherapist and then an art therapist. She is often referred to as the founder of art therapy in the United States.
Certain intellectual and sociological developments in the late 19th and early 20th centuries fostered a climate in which Naumbergs ideas could find support. The child study movement, progressive education, more humane treatment of mental patients, the psychoanalytical theories of Freud and Jung helped set the stage for innovations to follow.
In 1915 Margaret Naumberg founded the Walden School in New York City. She believed that children thrive when they are encouraged to express themselves spontaneously through creative expressions and find motivation to learn through the subjects that most interest them. Naumberg saw the importance of the inner life of a child as expressed through art forms as being as vital to a rich education as the pursuit of knowledge.
The ideas of Jung, Freud and the circle of psychoanalytic thinkers of her time influenced her. Using their theories she came to view art making as a technique equal to verbal therapy in its natural evocative power to unlock repressed material. Naumberg believed that the process of art therapy is based on the recognition that a persons most fundamental thoughts and feelings derived from the unconscious reach expression in images rather than in words. When symbolic aspects of imagery as well as verbal and cognitive aspects of the experience are part of an art therapy session an integrative and healing opportunity is possible.
In the 1970s there began to be a noticeable, theoretical division in the ranks of art therapists. Those who practiced art as therapy emphasized the innate healing power of making art. Those therapists who considered their practice art psychotherapy used art as a healing tool within the framework of verbal psychotherapy.
For those who practice art psychotherapy the created image in an art therapy session is seen as a symbolic and external expression of ones personal state of mind and is a safe place to begin talking and disclosing feelings with a therapist who is trusted. This is the psychoanalytical construct known as transference.
The art therapist combines a particular theoretical framework or eclectic combination of psychological theories with knowledge of the evocative qualities of each art medium to formulate specific art interventions and any assessments that would follow. The therapist can then use this information for assessment as part of a treatment plan.
In addition, a group of diagnostic assessment tools have been developed by art therapists that are used clinically and in research. These are administered only by art therapists who are trained to do so. Some of these include the Diagnostic Drawing Series (DDS), the Ulman Personality Assessment Procedure (UPAP), and the Levick Emotional and Cognitive Art Therapy Assessment (LECATA).
Art as therapy regards the process of art making as of great therapeutic value intrinsically. Art as therapy values the art process as much as the product. In contemporary terms it could be rephrased as art as healing.
The fluidity of watercolor, the mold ability of clay, the smearing and rubbing qualities that pastel invites relationship to and a reflection of the needs and issues of the person creating art. A successful artistic experience can reflect a valuable glimpse of successful effort in general. Rather than look for the symbolic implications in the art product, a client and therapist can find insights within the process of making art.
However, all these therapeutic models share common ground in seeking to help reconcile emotional conflicts, increase self-awareness and self-esteem, and manage behavior and aid in increasing quality of life.
The seventies and eighties were formative years in the growth of art therapy as a separate profession. Primary partnerships with medicine and psychiatry resulted in jobs being created in mental health centers, medical centers, day treatment programs and substance abuse programs.
In the last decade there has been a revitalization of art therapy as an integral part of expanding social services and a new focus on the healing aspects of expressive arts. Art therapists can be found working collaboratively with allied health professionals in palliative care programs, in cancer centers, in complementary care program, in prisons, in trauma relief teams and personal growth classes. Art therapists are employed in school systems to address the needs of children with physical and learning disabilities.
After 9/11 art therapists did valuable work with both victims and family members of the Trade Center collapse and with police, fire and health units at the scene. Inexpressible horror found space for a witnessing and a grieving with crayons and paint on a page paper.