By Rebekah Logan
Despite the colourful workshops and glitter-strewn table-tops, art therapy is a serious and respected form of psychotherapy that uses art as its primary form of practice.
Not concerned with turning their clients into the next Picasso or Monet, an art therapist’s main aim is to enable their client to utilise art materials and methods as a means of self-expression and stress-relief in a stable and secure setting. It is an idea reiterated by French artist Edgar Degas who wrote, “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”
So, is it time for us to view art not only as an enjoyable past-time but rather as an important psychotherapy?
Art therapy is almost unique in its practice that it relies on a three-way relationship, joining the client, the therapist and the artefact produced from their sessions.
This relationship is very important as it sets arts therapy aside from other, less practical therapeutic methods.
Using the arts as a form of therapy can prove beneficial to those who need help but struggle to express their thoughts and emotions verbally, such as children and adolescents.
Young children, of primary school age in particular, may find the standard therapeutic institution to be cold and intimidating making them reluctant to partake in the necessary practice to help them.
It is for this reason this reason that art therapy is primarily directed at the younger generation.
By combining a favourite childhood past-time such as art with therapeutic psychotherapy allows the child to be treated without inflicting feelings of isolation or intimidation upon them.
Liz Cammack, a qualified special needs classroom assistant, has 15 years of experience working one on one with children suffering from severe behavioural problems.
One of the children that Liz is primarily based with suffers from severe behavioural problems; prior to art therapy the child also received regular visits to school from a child psychologist, who in turn referred the child to a licensed art therapist.
Speaking of the benefits to the child of having art therapy, Liz said, “[It] gave the art therapist and ultimately the psychologist an insight into how the child’s mind worked because all his drawings were in black, pencils and paint, he used no colour at all to express himself in his art work.”
A child may not be able to express complex emotions such as these verbally but through their artwork enable the psychologists and therapists to determine the issues they may be having and thus draw conclusions to remedy the situation.
But does it work? “Initially, yes”, said Liz, “however, when the therapy stopped he regressed and his behaviour deteriorated. There needs to be follow-up care such as counselling and this did not happen in this child’s case.”
Art psychotherapist, Jean Beolan Gascoigne tells us that the end products vary with many involving, “the making of visual images through painting, drawing, clay modelling and collage…”
While there are a small number of children who require intensive art therapy it is important to remember that the arts can benefit children of any capability and background.
Inside Art, a creative workshop set up in Londonderry works to develop, “teamwork, leadership and communication, while encouraging participants to challenge conventional ways of thinking.”
While providing activities in everything from creating wall hangings, soft sculpture and glass painting right down to decoupage and mandala making. Inside Art also provides high quality and innovative workshops, community consultation and creative consultation.
Children partaking in one of Inside Art’s creative workshops throughout October would have seen their artwork displayed during the 25th anniversary celebrations of Londonderry’s Halloween Carnival.
While not therapeutic, art classes followed by presentations such as these can have an intensive effect on a child’s mental health as well as improving their confidence and social skills from a young age.
Projects such as these help to increasing a child’s feelings of relevance and uniqueness, something that can be lost in large groups of children.
Claire Heaney-McKee, Inside Art’s creative workshop facilitator, describes a child’s creativity as, “innate, and continued exposure to art cultivates self-expression, improves concentration, develops planning skills and enhances dexterity.”
Kathryn McCloskey, the mother of a child suffering from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Autism, feels that art therapy has helped her son, “in ways [she] could never have imagined.”
One of the primary concerns with children suffering from these disorders is a life-long struggle to cooperate in everyday social situations.
Kathryn told me animatedly of how a careful combination of increased amounts of exercise and art therapy has drastically improved her both her son’s interpersonal and cognitive skills.
“He still struggles with his academic classes and that, because he doesn’t like the structured environment, but in the playground, during breaks, he’s far more interactive with the other children than he used to be.”
The informal environment in which art therapy takes place is imperative to its success as a form of psychotherapy for children, they enjoy escaping, what they generally feel is a confined and constricted environment within their day-to-day classroom activities.
It would appear that, at least where children are concerned, the time has come for art therapy to take step forward and encourage more verbal psychotherapy to take a back seat when treating children with complex issues.