Art Smarts

As part of my undergraduate art studies, I had to take quite a few art history courses. My professors can attest that I did better in some of them than others. This largely had to do with my interest level. One can only look at so many Gothic churches and Renaissance paintings. I never really cared about all the religious themes and parts of churches, etc. But contemporary art-well, I could study that all day long. I can appreciate all of the history though. There is a difference between liking a work of art and appreciating it. What I like is narrow and suited to my own particular choices of media and content. What I appreciate is the grand scheme of movements, the breaks from convention that have rocked the art world throughout time.

I teach art history as part of my art therapy groups. It is important to understand the tradition that we artists are a part of. I want my clients to have the language of art, a visual vocabulary if you will. We look at art work and dissect it in terms of the elements and principles of design. Is it harmonious? Where is the motion? How does the artist use line, shape and form? Where does your eye go to first and how does it move over the work? How does the artist use color? What are primary, secondary and tertiary colors and how do they relate to each other and inform the work?

By learning the language of art, my clients learn the critical thinking skills to employ in their own work. I am not primarily teaching them how to be fine artists, but they seem to enjoy the art making process more when they understand the mechanisms and history of art.  They especially enjoy hearing about the personal lives of the artists.

There is much debate about whether mental illness contributes to creativity and I don’t intend to resolve the controversy in this forum. But hearing about artists who have contented with serious mental illness and/or addictions seems to help my clients have a context within which to understand their own illnesses and art making. It actually seems to give them hope. If they could do it, then so can I. And look what they did in spite of their struggles.

Building recovery skills is a large part of my work. Teaching art history appears to build confidence, inspire hope, and pique interest in art making. Who could ask for more?


Art Therapy: An Elevator Speech

The Question.  It’s inevitable.  “So, what do you do?” Depending on the circumstances, I may answer that I am an artist, a teacher or an art therapist.  While I am extremely proud of being an art therapist, I have sometimes been a little hesitant to share this.   My fear (and this is well-founded) is that the person will start to tell me about their personal problems.  But let’s assume that this person is genuinely interested in what art therapy is all about.   How can I explain my life work in 3 minutes?

While I hesitate to define art therapy against anything, I will.  Let me tell you what art therapy is not. It is not reading inkblots.  It is not interpreting drawings.  It is not about coloring and doing “cut and paste.”  Let me tell you what art therapy is. It is a profession practiced by highly trained individuals with graduate degrees and clinical licenses.  Art therapists are both fine artists and trained mental health professionals.  Art therapy draws (pun somewhat intended) on strengths, on the the drive to create and on the human need for community.  Art therapy uses the creative process to heal.  Whether it is a Sudanese child drawing an image of the attacks on their village, or a victim of domestic violence making a collage about her traumatic home life, or a person with an eating disorder drawing a self-portrait reflecting their  body image, art therapy has the power to capture their experiences and communicate it to another.   Another.  A trained other who has the clinical experience to hold the emotion being expressed and help the person process it and heal from their pain.

“So, what do you do?”  I proudly answer “I am an art therapist.”

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