So, what exactly does an art therapist do?

There are some really delicious things about the work of an art therapist.  Art making every day, time in the studio, contact with art materials, watching people grow and learn through the creative process.  Yesterday I even got to have the “I am not an artist” conversation with a client while they were making a beautiful silk scarf.  I run groups, train students, order materials, coordinate a vocational arts program and work on special projects.

I work in the open studio model.  Open studio is a little different from traditional art therapy.  Instead of giving a directive to a group, each person works on their own self-directed art work.  The therapist typically makes art alongside the clients.   The processing of the art work is much more organic in that the conversations arise naturally rather than the typical “go-around” where each person shares something about their work.  It sounds easy, but it’s not.  The therapist is still attending to each member of the group and keeping the group process going while encouraging clients to interact with each other.  The therapist makes their own art not to share with the group necessarily, but to model art making as a purposeful, meaningful and useful activity.

In addition to my responsibilities as an art therapist, I have a variety of other tasks to tend to.  Depending on where you are working, you may have some similar duties.  I think it’s important for art therapists in training to understand that we are quite often called upon to do many things besides work in the studio.  It is the nature of the system and it actually makes you more valuable to have a variety of skills.   I make staff assignments, close down our restaurant, drive the van, organize trips, run the laminating machine, coordinate a meeting, sit on a treatment team, organize the library and generally jump in wherever I am needed to keep our boat afloat.

So I think the question really is “What doesn’t an art therapist do?”  Given our sometimes fragile status in the work place due to our eligibility for licensure and perceived value as clinicians , I think it is important to not only be trained as an art therapist but to have a broad skill set and be willing and able to use it.  And yes we get called on to do things that are art-related but not necessarily art therapy e.g holiday decorations, etc.  Just do it, help out and don’t get too hung up on the whole “I am a therapist, not a decorator” thing.  You are an artist and your expertise is called upon in many ways.  Be a team player in all aspects of your job.  It helps with how art therapists are perceived, it helps the clients and it helps you.

So, that’s a typical day in the life of this art therapist.  What does your typical day look like?  What are you called upon to do?  What model do you work from?


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. hannah
    Jan 15, 2011 @ 16:50:02

    Oh my goodness–what a great description Jenna. As you say, what don’t we do? An overview of my work on a pediatric floor: Meet one-one bedside with our patients, coordinate a daily art group in our hospital playroom and supervise student volunteers who work there. The music therapist and I are also trained in Reiki, so we offer that as an adjunct treatment for pain.

    As you mentioned, many other activities crop up around the holidays: creation of props for Valentine’s, St. Patrick’s Day and on through the cycle of the year ending with escorting Santa and Mrs. Claus around the unit. My favorite slightly out of norm activity, though, is escorting patients to procedures. I love the variety of my work and the knowledge that when I arrive, I cannot expect anything to go as planned–but I know that it will involve immersion in art, life and children.


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