Recently I had the opportunity to sit down with not one- but two! art therapists and delve into a fascinating topic that I really don’t think people know a lot about. I didn’t know a ton about it except what I ascertained from talking with my sister- a drama therapist.
Essentially art therapists utilize art-making as a tool with which to gain insight about their patients, and of course help the patient to interpret these insights as well. The Wikipedia page on Art Therapy is pretty informative if you’d like to read more, otherwise I’ll just jump right into the interview:
Mackenzie Sainz and Katie Dunlap graduated from the same Masters in Art Therapy and Counseling program. After a year long clinical internship, they joined up again at a Chicago-based behavioral health hospital.
I started off by asking them the difference between art therapy and traditional therapy.
M: While psychotherapy is mainly talking, art therapy brings in a way to express feelings and a way to put things out there that maybe you’re uncomfortable saying. You’re letting someone evaluate what they’ve created and letting their own psyche tell them what is there.
K: I describe it as you’re almost using art as the way to communicate. Sometimes, with every age, people can’t put their thoughts into words as easily as they can put them into visual expression.
ME: Do you have a favorite project that you do, or is there a project that the kids tend to all like?
M: We tend to focus on feelings-based art, so one thing I do is give them lots of different colors of tissue paper, and ask them to think about how they’re feeling at that time, and pick a color of tissue paper that goes with that feeling. Then on their paper, I ask them to put a ton of that color down if that feel that way a lot. And if you feel it a little bit, just put a little bit down.
It’s really cool to watch them sit back and just look at their feelings- like a feelings map- and talk about what takes them from feeling this feeling to that feeling and be able to point at it on paper instead of to just talk about it.
K: I do some feeling creatures with the kids sometimes, because they can put their feelings onto something else- they put them onto this “creature”, Mr Alien or Mr. whatever they want it to look like, and then it’s not just a discussion about feelings.Their own come into it naturally, but they get to keep it at a distance and it feels safe.
ME: Do you find that they’re weirded out at first sometimes- because you’re asking them to make things instead of just sitting and talking to them?
K: I think like in anything you can get a gamut in the type of responses, but sometimes in the beginning there’s some resistance. I feel like people are used to working with art up to a certain age- in school- and then they make the decision, or someone makes it for them, whether or not they’re going to continue making art.
M: I think it’s a way of taking pressure off of yourself, because if you put that disclaimer out up front, (well, I’m not creative), it’s kind of like saying don’t expect something else out of me, and it gives you permission to not be that great at it.
ME: Do you have a specific moment that you remember from working with a kid that stands out in your mind as really special or exciting- or made you realize you were in the right profession? (Then I realized I was putting them on the spot with a hard question, so I stammered on some more) Or maybe not so specific- is there a time when you might be working with groups and things start to jive with what you’re having them all do- or they kind of get into it?
M: I love it when a kid who has a lot of walls up and is like, “This is stupid. I don’t want to do it.” Well, that’s not the part I love, but they see everybody else doing it so they start making art, and I might have music playing in the background, and then 2 minutes later, the kid is so engrossed in what they’re doing, they’re bobbing their head, maybe their tongue’s hanging out while they focus. I think that’s where really great stuff can come from; getting to the place where you’re just focused on what you’re doing in that moment.
K: The moments where you get to see the children being children, ’cause I think that a lot of the kids we see have been through some pretty traumatic situations in their lives, and as a result those walls are up, or they have a hard time being present in the room. Like Mackenzie was saying- when it clicks and you see them genuinely being kids.
ME: What is a typical session like?
M: I usually try to start out verbally and ask how their day is going, then I ask what they’d like to do. Then we’ll make some art and depending on how it’s going we can talk while they’re doing art, but sometimes they need to just be in it and mentally escape for a little while.
K: I usually let it be open. If we had all this time it would be great because we’d have it be open for the first part, to help you gather info. and build a rapport, and then help guide them for the second part.
ME: Okay, here’s a potentially hard question to wrap things up. How do you think art enhances a child’s understanding of the world around them? I mean, when working with art with kids, what do they take away with them?
M: I think that’s addressable on a few different levels. You have the obvious ones of hand-eye coordination, motor skills, exploring new materials. It also gives them a sense of autonomy to make their own work- to explain it to other people. Especially n a therapeutic environment, being accepted for that artwork can be very empowering. We focus on there not being good art or bad art- whatever they make is valid, that means their emotions and their thoughts are valid, which I think is a really healthy conversation to have with a kid, as they’re figuring out who they are and interacting with other kids. Especially in a group- learning to appreciate other kids’ work- it helps their social skills.
K: Also coming from the angle that it lets you twist how you see things. It helps to pick up little nuances in how you actually see things but also in how you feel. It helps them notice the little things that are so often valuable- can give them a sense of pride to build on the little things and go from there- which can be really helpful for someone who has been broken down. To see the small things and build from there.
Originally I was planning on posting this whole video (which I actually edited down for this written interview. But then as I watched it, I realized I need to shorten and consolidate and all that good stuff. My confession to you is that I haven’t a clue as to how to do anything video related, so I opted to post the written interview instead. I have a feeling this will come as a relief to Katie and Mackenzie. I know I prefer it, since I was backlit by a bright window and looked like a floating silhouette head asking scintillating questions.