The Theoretical Frame
EAT is founded on inclusion, emotional freedom and adaptability. It provides both the aesthetic distancing and containment necessary to safely explore human suffering, inviting the transformation a person may need. It is a holistic and person-centered approach to expression and change: The client's artistic expressions determine what is adressed in a therapeutic session. The Therapist's role is to keep the space safe, help the client feel empowered and validated, develop a therapeutic relationship, provide honest and constructive feedback, educate and guide.
Expressive arts therapy, like other forms of therapy, can be practiced in various ways, depending on the goal and why a person is seeking support. Some people may need a self-directed space where they can have controle over how the time is structured. Others may need more focus or have very specific needs and/or goals to acheieve, in which case a therapist may offer therapeutic inteventions as a means to access new skills.
Art in therapy, Art as therapy and Art facilitation
We all know that act of creating and engaggin in art making is intrsinctly therpeutic. However the goals of art-making, and the goals of Expressive Arts Therapy are different. There may be some variants in how visual and performing art teachers approach creativity: some teachers may work on one end of the spectrum where the art product or performance is the goal, and the aesthtic critique is how the product is measured; many teachers also work on the other end of the spectrum and consider themselves "art facilitators", meaning the goals are to fostering creativity, a process in which we may find joy and connect to our humaness.
However, only a trained Expressive Arts Therapy professional is able to hold both the creative process (intrinsically healing), and the mental health process (working with therapeutic/clinical goals) conjointly.
Though artistic skills can be gained from an Expressive Art Therapy session, one does not need to be trained as an artist or a performer to be successful in this type of therapy. Here, an artistic expression is defined as a creation which articulates the client's life experience and moves him or her, as well as the therapist, into a new dimension where he or she will have more perspective and insight on that particular matter. Beauty and health here are defined by what moves us (a sensori-emotional phenomenon) rather than by a set of cultural and mental rules. In his book Poiesis, Stephen Levine states: "It is only in the modern world-view that the healer is conceived as a detached observer working within a de-symbolized reality." (Levine, S., p.3). An Expressive Arts Therapists works from a world view in which "Pathologies are vital participants in the imagination of individual and community life: Their existence is not restricted to a designated group of sick persons who function as scapegoats for the community." (McNiff, S.; Art as Medicine, p.24). Using narration as well as other forms of art to express oneself, deepens the counselor's therapeutic understanding and identification with those places where the soul's suffering is most extreme (McNiff, S.; p.25). In the same line of thought, Stephen K. Levine wrote: "The task of therapy is not to eliminate suffering but to give a voice to it, to find a form in which it can be expressed. Expression is itself transformation; this is the message that art brings. The therapist then would be an artist of the soul, working with sufferers to enable them to find the proper container for their pain, the form in which it would be embodied."
Where does it come from?
EAT finds it's roots in both ancient and modern traditions. The practice itself of using artistic expression as a ritualized communication tool or for mental relief, is very ancient. In his article The Child, The Dreamer, The artist and the Fool: In Search of Understanding the Meaning of Expressive Therapy, Robert Landy wrote: “... through evidence on the walls of caves, in ancient documents, in depictions discovered on prehistoric pottery and in traditional ritual practicies handed down over many centuries, it becomes clear that some thousands of years ago aboriginal peoples in all continents engaged in aesthetic forms of expression for myriad purposes: to mark significant passages and transitions in the life of a community, to celebrate festive and solemn occasions, to express a feeling, to pray and worship and to heal the sick.” (p. 360; The Arts in Psychotherapy, Vol. 20,pp. 359-370, Copyright © 1993, Pergamon Press Ltd.)
In the 1940s, Veterans' Hospitals in the United States started to introduce art modalities as alternative treatment approaches.
In the 1950s, early childhood educators in Europe were using the arts to promote child development.
In the 1960s, the walls separating studio artists and their communities began to fall. In the 1970s, formulation of an expressive arts approach to therapy started to appear.
Today, this discipline is recognized internationally and nationally. It is used in a variety of settings such as schools, hospitals, individual and group counseling agencies. It is inclusive, meaning it is accessible to people of all ages and all cultural background.
How EAT Supports Change
Expressive Arts Therapy work from a body-centered perspective. The therapeutic process is enhanced by acknowledging the body-mind connection. Supporting body awarenss and somatic integration is the best way to achieve emotional and mental health. The act of creating offers us the opportunity to do that.
Language is a socialized form of representation and expression which we begin to develop as early as 12 months of age. Speaking requires the ability to initiate action, as well as the ability to detach the differentiated actions from specific context that gave rise to them. From birth to around 2 years old, we experience the world through movement and senses as we develop our sensory-motor schemes (e.g. patterns of actions which we have some knowledge and control over). As our ability for control grows in infancy, we become aware of ourselves in space and time, we develop the ability to be aware of causality, to represent events and objects in a context, and to generalize behaviors to various situations. These early stages are a time where we develop essential habits which later on will support our ability to relate and adapt to our environments.
If we feel isolated, disconnected or unable to respond adaptively to life events as older children or adults, EAT provides a safe container for embodied expression where we can explore, observe and develop new patterns of responses that will serve us more efficiently. In his article The Child, The Dreamer, The Artist and the Fool: In Search of Understanding the Meaning of Expressive Therapy, Robert Landy wrote: “One common denominator of early individual and cultural creative activity is it’s propensity to allow the creator to feel integrated while in the act of creation.” (p. 360; The Arts in Psychotherapy, Vol. 20, pp. 359-370, 1993, Copyright © 1993, Pergamon Press Ltd.). By engaging the hole body and inviting creativity, EAT elicits our natural motivation to take healthy risks and make necessary changes.
Expressive Arts Therapy and Age
Expressive Arts Therapy can be helpful to individuals of all ages. It may seem different and unnatural at first; many individual are not used to communicating via the arts, especilly adults who may have historically develop negative feelings in relation to their own creative ability. The therapeutic process often includes very little art making at first, and it can gradually increase as one's confort level does. The creative process often ends up being one of the most rewarding aspects of people's experience in therapy.
Expressive Arts Therapy is adaptable to different developmental stages:
In early childhood, EAT typically focuses on supporting developmental needs such as language, cognition, social-emotional skills, play, gross and fine motor skills. EAT can also support children as they develop healthy and positive behaviors and habits. In this case, sessions are typically activity based.
As children grow their needs and functioning become more complex. EAT can play an important role in helping them function and adapt to their environment in a variety of ways. For school age children, self-esteem and socialization are often central issues in their lives. In this case, sessions are typically activity based with some verbal sharing and processing.
As adults, our needs can vary according to many factors such as our age, family life, financial situation, work... EAT can support individuals going through long or short term difficulties. In this case, sessions often include both activities and verbal sharing and processing.
For further resources about Expressive Arts Therapy visit the International Expressive Arts Therapy Association web site
What is expressive arts therapy?
Expressive Arts Therapy (EAT) is an established health service similar to cognitive behavioral therapy, play therapy, speech therapy and occupational therapy. It is a multi-arts approach to counseling. Using narration as well as non-verbal expression such as drawing, music, movement, drama, or poetry helps to articulate life experiences with authenticity, fullness, specificity, structure, beauty, meaning and playfulness.
EAT is based on our ability to access and stimulate the imagination, by shifting from one art form to another. This concept of "intermodal transfer" (Paolo Knill, 1978) distinguishes Expressive Arts Therapy from neighboring disciplines such as Art Therapy, Music Therapy, Dance Therapy, Psychodrama... This being said, many professionals use more than one art form in their practice.
"I was introduced to ARTrelief in Watertown MA some years ago. I decided to participate in a six session “art therapy” program. I had only heard of art therapy, prior to this introduction. I set my trepidation aside and was won over quickly.
The studio is run and operated by professional art therapists and interns from local universities. They are an encouraging and enthusiastic group. ARTrelief explores many forms of the “expressive arts” with its clients. Not through lectures and or demonstrations, but by a client’s hands on doing, practicing, and exploring an art form. The studio consist of rooms dedicated to different forms of expression like; music, theater, and visual arts. Clients are encouraged communicate their inner selves through their medium of their choice.
The materials are seemingly endless and meant to stimulate the imagination in a non-judgmental forum. Clients are always offered an opportunity to explain their mental and physical “process” in bringing about each creation. Even in this explanation, if desired, the client can use an art like poetry, or storytelling to convey the message. This part, is also done in a “no pressure” fashion.
The “finished product” at ARTrelief is never the art created by the client. Instead it is a more confident, more introspective, and more successfully expressive client. I strongly encourage anyone to check it out. Just maybe you will find a part of yourself that you don’t know exists." - Carlton, adult participant