The Visual Language of Art Therapy…


I have the pleasure and privilege of bringing creative expression to Sanford House as the Art Therapist on staff. Sanford House contacted me after I had relocated to Grand Rapids following my master’s training in Milwaukee. At the time, I had been gracefully masterfully desperately attempting to connect with any and every counseling center in the area to schedule meetings (disguised as interviews), speak at engagements (pro bono) and facilitate demonstrations (again, pro bono). Anything to convince, persuade, and win-over psychology bigwigs of the benefits of art therapy. It wasn’t working and I was feeling incredibly burned out, worthless, and exhausted. I decided to take a break (and avoid eye contact with my angry student loan debt).


Then Sanford House called. They had found my resume online.


“I love this!” They told me in an interview they requested. “This FITS here.” They listened to me patiently, trusted my abilities, and invited me to join the Sanford House team the following week. I was invited into Sanford House the same way residents are invited – warmly, and with trust.


Art Therapy and Visual Language

As an art therapist I am a misfit in the world of professional counseling. A rebel wielding paintbrushes and oil pastels in the face of Freud’s couch! Standing atop my diagnostic and statistical manuals to reach the highest part of my painter’s canvas! Sanford House embraced art therapy as a viable and effective framework for treatment. They have encouraged alternative methods of self-exploration and self-care with confidence. Because of this, we have created a space for those individuals in our care, with a preference for non-verbal counseling or visual language.


I didn’t have to jump through administrative hoops and write long, flowery, complimentary emails in order to get attention.


As the wisdom of time tells us, I “surrendered” my anxieties, my emails and obsessively refreshing It was then (and only then) that things started to fall into place. My furiously competitive nature had played a part. My good intentions, my stubbornness, my own belief that I would succeed, but ultimately, “life” brought me right where I needed to be.

Good Story, But What is Art Therapy?

I’ve written about my art therapy work with Sanford House before in an article called, “Singing the Praises of the Adult Art Therapy Coloring Book”. But true art therapy actually involves coloring outside of the lines – it necessitates self work and digging deep. Art therapy has several components to it, and like all therapy it is a deliberate, moving, relational process that unfolds over time. First things first – some art therapy 101 to get you started:




Art therapy takes place both “on the page” and through conversation. Its goals are the same as traditional talk therapy, but the art therapy format feels more physical, visual and playful. Art therapy relies on this cornerstone: art materials and art processes aid an individual in communicating their ideas, and allows others insight into their perceptions and experience of the world.


Art Therapy IS:

A legitimized and certifiable method of counseling.  An art therapist has completed masters level education in Art Therapy and is designated by the letters ATR or MSAT. Many art therapists, including myself, are dual licensed Art Therapists and Counselors.


For everyone. I know it sounds a little counter-intuitive, but art therapy is not intended to specifically target artistic-types. I’ve often thought art therapy could be more aptly named “visual therapy” or “hands-on counseling.” Art therapy has less to do with art (stick with me here) and more to do with using your body to expand upon what you’re verbally telling me. Art therapy utilizes an individual’s whole self, and breaks down the barriers and limitations of using only one form of expression. Art therapy is writing letters, art therapy is clenching your fists, art therapy is working in silence.


Art Therapy IS NOT:

Art class. I’m not a teacher, but I do have great ideas about ways to express ourselves in session. I am none too concerned with your technical skill level (although I did attend art school in Chicago for a year, and would love to chat about “art school culture”, your favorite artists, the work you’re making right now).


Counseling Lite. This may be a brand new, novel medium for expressing yourself. And although art therapy can be incredibly inspiring, experimental, and hippy-dippy, we are still addressing treatment goals and developing conclusions, insights, etc. Folks are sometimes taken aback when we reach a counseling “aha” moment in art therapy.


Is this all making sense? Check back in to read more about art therapy in the coming weeks.




This is what I created today. How did you express yourself?




Would you like to take the next step and get help?

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Sanford Behavioral Health is licensed and accredited as an addiction, eating disorder, and co-occurring mental health treatment facility, serving all of Michigan and beyond. Each of Sanford’s facilities in Greater Grand Rapids is carefully and diligently crafted to create a welcoming and comforting environment. Sanford is led by a psychiatrist-led team of medical, clinical, and support personnel providing medication-assisted, evidenced-based treatment to residential, outpatient, and telehealth patients. For more information, visit