I am an art therapist. When I tell people about what I do, I get a lot of:
“What the heck is that?”
“Like on Law & Order?”
“Oh, how New Age!”
(Answers to those questions later).
We art therapists are a small community, and our work is often either unseen or somewhat misunderstood. To be perfectly honest, the “mysterious” nature of my profession often works to my advantage. A scary word like THERAPY sounds more appealing, romantic, and magical to hesitant would-be clients, when it’s shrouded in a bit of mystery. THERAPY, after all, is self-indulgent. Intimidating. Expensive. ART THERAPY, on the other hand, sounds like a lot less work. “I’m not really doing therapy if I’m just doing art, right?”
So, you can imagine my surprise when I walked into my local Barnes & Noble and saw this:
Art Therapy Colouring Book by Richard Merritt;
Art Therapy: Extraordinary Gardens: 100 Designs, Colouring in and Relaxation by Sophie Leblanc;
And, Art Therapy: Aztecs & Mayas: 100 Designs, Colouring in and Relaxation by Michel Solliec
Exploding in Popularity
Art therapy has absolutely exploded in popularity over the past couple of months. (You can imagine my disappointment, I am no longer a mystery.) The success of the “art therapy adult coloring book” has allowed us (nay, encouraged us!) to partake in a bit of therapy each day. Sans therapist. “Art is my therapy!” these adult coloring book-ers exclaim. “I love to color! I love to doodle! Who knew that art could be so utterly enjoyable?! Easy?! And relaxing!”
Well my friends, the art therapists knew.
Art therapy coloring books are singing the praises of the therapeutic powers of art. We art therapists have been trying to communicate that for many, many years. (Art therapy has its roots in psychiatry and the fine arts. The first art therapists began to fight the good fight in the 1940s.) So, now that art therapy- my passion, my livelihood, my bread and butter- has become such a household name, how am I to respond?
Breaking “Therapy” Down…
Well, let’s return to the word THERAPY. I think most people would agree that the thought of a counseling regime is a pretty terrifying one. Much like the prison system or the personal lives of surgeons, a lot of what we know about THERAPY- or “counseling”- comes from popular culture (think Frasier, Dr. Phil, The Sopranos, Freud’s couch…). But when we break THERAPY down into something we can more realistically conceptualize, and grapple with it on our own terms and turf, it may be easier to get the regime rolling. When we break it down into something feasible, the thought of THERAPY is a little less terrifying. More familiar. Accessible. And what’s more familiar and accessible than that coloring book at Walmart? Buying a book is simple, coloring is simple, and, suddenly, the idea of taking part in a bit of therapy is a lot less threatening. This is why I love adult coloring books.
And here’s why I don’t.
So you’ve got the book. You’ve got the colored pencils. You’ve got your coffee and your candle and your quiet, comfortable workspace in which to adult color. I am absolutely delighted that you have uncovered the secret. Art is powerful! Art is transformative! And art is therapeutic. But I would be a bad therapist if I didn’t give you the full story about your art therapy adult coloring book.
Just like traditional “talk” therapy, art therapy takes two bodies: one client + one therapist. Although art making is incredibly therapeutic- it relaxes us, distracts us, and it clears our mind- this in itself does not art therapy make. Art therapy is a deliberate process that unfolds over time. Art therapists create an environment that encourages their clients to make self-discoveries. They learn to explore their own behaviors, and pick apart their thoughts and experiences. Art therapists are trained (ATRs complete a master’s degree in the field) to use art as a healing tool. Art therapists recognize patterns, ask questions, and make choices that are tailored to your specific goals and needs. All of these things, coupled with a knowledge of traditional counseling theory and approaches (ATRs often have a second license in Counseling, an LPC), go into your art therapy session. Like I say to folks upon our first meeting, “Art therapy is just like regular therapy, except our hands play just as an important role as our words.”
Revealing Our Secrets…
So, now that I have completely revealed my secrets and dispelled my mystery, I encourage you to explore the world of art and art therapy. Make some doodle art to relax or de-stress at work. Paint with your kids. Buy a coloring book. Or, contact an art therapist in your area. Set up a meeting. Get a look at his or her space. Find a local Open Art Studio program near you. Do some research about the benefits of participating in an art therapy relationship. Develop your own opinions. If you have found that you have quite a knack for coloring as an adult, just imagine all of the beautiful, inspiring, thought-provoking, and meaningful art pieces you could create without a pre-drawn template. Don’t sell yourself short by replacing a living, talking, trained mental health professional with a stack of mandalas.
Art therapy is for anyone of any age, gender, creed, and class. Your art therapist won’t “interpret” your art, only you can put ideas to your images (it’s your right, after all, as an artist). We will provide you with materials or directives that will stimulate your thinking and aid in your journey of self-exploration. We will talk when you feel like talking, and we’ll make art when you don’t. And, as with all counseling relationships, it’s important to find an art therapist (read: human) that you feel comfortable with. Opening up to a stranger is awkward, so find someone that makes that process feel a little less awkward.
And keep using your art therapy coloring book to relax your mind and keep your fingers busy (idle hands). I love that you’re being creative and using your art muscle. Just don’t substitute it for self-work.