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Art Therapy vs. Therapeutic Art-Making

Raney-Mills Turner, LPC, ATR

Guest Blogger

You have likely heard these things about art: Art heals. Make art, not war. Art crosses cultures. Art knows no bounds. Art is a language all humans can speak. Art-making is much more than crafting at the kitchen table with a toddler or even submitting work for a gallery wall, although these are nice visuals to imagine.

Hi, WhiteFlag folks! I’m Raney-Mills Turner, a Registered Art Therapist, Trauma-informed Energy Worker, and Licensed Professional Counselor in New Orleans, Louisiana; and I’m thrilled to be offering an ongoing Blog Series on Art Therapy, what it is, who it might help, and how.

My mission is always to protect my clients, protect my client’s art, and protect the field; and I feel grateful because that’s why WhiteFlag asked me to write this series for their followers. Art Therapy is a real field that gets tossed around out there in the ether as an uncredentialed mental health service, but it’s real, y’all, and it’s for everybody. So what’s the difference between making art and Art Therapy, you ask?

Per the American Art Therapy Association definition, “Art Therapy is an integrative mental health and human services profession that enriches the lives of individuals, families, and communities through active art-making, creative process, applied psychological theory, and human experience within a psychotherapeutic relationship…[it] is used to improve cognitive and sensory-motor functions, foster self-esteem and self-awareness, cultivate emotional resilience, promote insight, enhance social skills, reduce and resolve conflicts and distress, and advance societal and ecological change.”

I would add to this definition that from the perspective of neuroscience, creating art in a therapeutic setting stimulates your Central Nervous System and activates parts of the brain that may lie dormant in verbal processing. The act of creation while using your hands to explore a feeling or a memory or a bodily sensation creates new neural pathways that can bring forth an array of emotions. Sometimes catharsis (emotional release) and sometimes more pain, and then, of course, all of the emotions between these places. That is why I am here, to help you figure out how to help yourself create more, make more, process more emotions through creativity, but also to educate you on why sometimes making art does not always meet your expectations. It’s about the intention and the process; not so much the expectation or the product. Or maybe the art-making opens up a memory that surprises you. From a healing place, this is appropriate. We just want to make sure we help you feel safe and stay safe while making art.

“Often the hands will solve a mystery that the intellect has struggled with in vain,” stated Carl Jung, a Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst from the 1950s.

In a technical sense, Art Therapy is something you do with a professional; and you can go to the American Art Therapy Association website and find a real human (hopefully) in your area (or virtually from afar) via their Art Therapist Locator option. Or you can simply contact me at raneydaytherapy@gmail.com.

Art Therapy is directive, as in, “Draw yourself as a piece of furniture.” Or Art Therapy is non-directive, as in, “Here are some supplies. Feel free to explore.” There are official Art Therapy assessments for diagnosis and progress measurement.

Personally (and professionally), I think that Art Therapy and “the act of making art” share a mysticism in that the piece of art YOU create becomes a “phenomenon.” This is called Phenomenological Art Therapy Theory. The art becomes something that you birthed, that is now outside of you, no longer a part of you, a new phenomenon to study, observe, explore, and respect; and you can use symbolism and metaphor to further access your own unconscious psyche which, in turn, evokes healing and repair of the more broken places.

So back to what I said about protecting the client, the client’s art, and the field! As you, the reader, the WhiteFlag community member, are ethically not my client, I still care enough to want you to understand that your privacy and your feelings of safety are of the utmost importance both in working with an Art Therapist (or any healthcare provider, for that matter!), but also as you work with yourself to heal.

Please remember that your creative process and your healing are sacred. Your art, as I mentioned above, is its own phenomenon; and sometimes you want to submit it to an art gallery and sometimes you want to burn it to ashes so that it will never be seen again.

Please remember to do either of these things with full consent and respect. We respect our art and our art materials as we might respect our friend, or even our own body. More on this in a future post!

Meanwhile, I am going to write this blog series and cover some topics like what to do if your personal art process makes you feel worse (instead of the intended better), some safer ways to explore art emotionally on your own, and maybe even some more fun neuroscience and how to get more grounded in your body through art. I’m grateful to be here and hope to be of service to you and yours in this weird and wild world we have found ourselves on this timeline we call life.

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