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Art as Therapy or Art in Therapy? (Part 1/2)

It’s seems like an age since my last post, particularly as I’ve been reading up on how others are getting on through their blogs. For instance, in reading Kate Murdoch’s blog on Keeping it Going, I’m reminded of how Projects unedited provides such a vital networking tool. Particularly when art making can sometimes feel like a rather odd and insular activity…. it’s helpful to have other creative thinkers around you as an encouragement, helping you to move your ideas along.

In regards to this blog, one of the things that has been on mind recently is trying to articulate how my experience of art making is a therapeutic experience as well as an artistic one. It’s quite a difficult thing to put into words….

Whenever I find myself trying to explain to others what art therapy is it’s always with some degree of trepidation and unease. Hence after speaking to Lee last month I found myself thinking a lot about how to differentiate art therapy from other artistic practices. I guess the real question is at what point does art making become therapeutic and how can these affects be quantified?

In considering the links between art and therapy it’s been useful to reflect upon the origins of art therapy and it’s affect on how it’s practiced today. In Art Therapy, David Edwards cites the artist Adrian Hill as being one of the first to acknowledge the therapeutic benefits of drawing and painting whilst he recovered from Tuberculosis (2004:1). For Hill, the value of art therapy was rooted in allowing the inhibited patient to become completely immersed in the art making process. He suggested that in participating in creative activities the patient would be able to build up a strong defense against unprecedented misfortunes (2004:1). Incidentally I was reminded of art making in this context when watching the Culture Show recently and discovering the work of Scottish figurative artist, John Bellany (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01ny2y7 ). Like Hill, Bellany had been hospitalized in the 1980’s due to liver failure (a result of alcoholism). Although he worked prolifically throughout this time generating numerous drawings and paintings (often self portraits); adorning the walls of his hospital room as a visual record of his recovery. As such, both of these stories echo the cathartic affects of art making and how it can be used to make sense of difficult or traumatic experiences.


Art as Therapy or Art in Therapy? (part 2/2)

However Edwards is also keen to highlight the influence of psychoanalyst Margaret Nuamberg who’s own slant on art therapy; whilst different from Hill’s, is closer to the therapeutic model used today. By contrast Nuamberg’s model for art therapy is intrinsically connected to psychoanalytical theory, placing emphasis on releasing the unconscious by means of spontaneous artistic expression in which the images produced are a form of communication between the client and therapist (2004:1).

Essentially; Naumberg’s position might be described as championing the use of art in therapy, whereas Hill advocates art as therapy (2004:1). Whilst these differences seem minor, the altered wording of these terms represents an important distinction. The reason being that art as therapy endorses the potential of art to heal whilst art in therapy emphasizes the triangular relationship that exists between the art therapist, the client and the artwork. Subsequently within this triangular relationship the notion of healing or therapeutic change is not only restricted to the activity of art making, but can occur through the client-therapist relationship as well.

In overview these descriptions do help to differentiate art therapy as a practice in its own right. They also distinguish art therapy from other services that make use of art though not explicitly in a therapeutic way. As I continue to spend time on the course these ideals are being continually reaffirmed and are encouraging me to think about art therapy’s broader applications. However even as the practice becomes more widely recognized within sectors of the NHS, social services and education, they’ll always be a minority who’ll regard art therapy with some degree of skepticism. As Lee points out, Some people have a really good understanding and that’s really exciting. Some people are open to knowing more about it and that’s cool. And some people, no matter how well you explain it, are not going to get it and maybe don’t want to get it either’ (Dee, 2012). Therin lies the challenge!


Edwards, D., (2004), Art Therapy, London: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Dee, R., (2012), Art as Therapy, Projects unedited, Posted: 25/10/12, Available at: www.a-n.co.uk/p/2422257/, (accessed 27.11.12)

Murdoch, K., (2012), Keeping it Going, Projects unedited, Posted: 26/11/12, Available at: www.a-n.co.uk/p/2295372/, (accessed 26.11.12)

1 Comment

I’m really excited by some of the things I’ve started to generate as part of my MA studio practice. I’m beginning to see a real synergy between the things I’m making and the things I’m thinking about; perhaps in part due to personal therapy. A recurring motif has been the circle and trying to find order in disorder. Whilst these symbols or themes (particularly the circle) are fairly universal they continue to pervade my thinking. One example of this is a series of small shapes I’ve started to fashion out of scrap paper found in the studio. Over the course of the last few weeks I’ve taken to collecting papers of varying colours and types and then feeding them through a paper shredder I brought in from home. Evidently the accumulation of paper into an entangled assortment of colours and textures (see opposite) reminded me of my own anxieties having started on the course. An overriding sense of being overwhelmed with dates, deadlines and psychoanalytical theory, and desperately wanting to process this information into a more manageable form. Even during the first week when we were supposed to be keeping a dream diary I found myself unable to as I wasn’t even sleeping! My mind was just racing all of the time. Similarly the work I’ve been making out of paper shares a lot of these concerns. In taking a pragmatic approach I first started by stringing these paper strips together in long, continuous strands and ordering them chromatically. I had originally intended to be really stringent about their ordering; moving from warm to cold colours, but as you can see (bottom image) there are some inconsistencies.

One of the most interesting facets of the course thus far has been understanding that the meanings of art works created in a therapeutic setting are not always immediately obvious and can take time to unravel. Moreover their symbolic meaning may acquire significance through their repetition. Subsequently when I look and these circular forms I’m reminded of a number of different things, often ideas that run contrary to one another. For instance, in the context of the circle I initially start to think about a feedback loop – a type of circuit that allows for feedback and self-correction (linked to Control theory). In this instance the circle pertains to some sort of order and autonomy. Oppositely the circle can have negative connotations like when someone says they’re ‘going round in circles’.

To offer an alternative dimension to these conversations I’ve become increasingly interested in the mandala imagery of Swiss psychologist and psychiatrist, Carl Jung. ‘Mandala’ is an ancient Sanskrit word meaning magic circle. They are found in the art of many religious traditions where they are employed in the service of personal growth and spiritual transformation. Jung used the mandala as a therapeutic tool and believed that creating mandalas helped to make the unconscious conscious. Subsequently it would be useful to undertake more research into the origins of the mandala form and how these depictions may compare with mandala imagery used in Jungian literature.