Stress & Wellness: Art as Therapy

By Emily Harrison As we round out the end of this year’s column exploring all things wellness and creativity, it seems fitting to look at an area which encompasses both of these – art as therapy (or perhaps more accurately – exploring personal growth and empowerment through creativity).

 “All children are born artists, the problem is to remain an artist as we grow up.” ~ Pablo Picasso

For me, the ability to paint and draw peaked early…at around aged five…and that’s about where it stayed. Creativity instead has come to me through words and other forms…but I do wonder what would happen if I picked up a paint brush.  This seed thought led me to investigate further the area of Art Therapy, and I was intrigued to discover it goes far beyond the paint brush.  I interviewed Melbourne-based Creative Arts Therapist and Artist, Jennifer Berlingieri, to find out more about this modality and how she balances her own artistic pursuits while working in a creative field…

Hi Jennifer, tell us a little about Creative Arts Therapy? In Creative Arts Therapy sessions, we use creative therapy and counselling to support and encourage self-exploration and personal development.  It is appropriate for anyone who is interested in deeper self-awareness and personal growth, and no previous arts experience is necessary.

What’s the difference between Art Therapy and Creative Arts Therapy? The main difference is that Art Therapy only uses visual art, like drawing, painting and clay, for creative expression and personal growth.  In Creative Arts Therapy we use Art Therapy, as well as other creative modalities, like Dance-Movement Therapy, writing, symbols, mindfulness, sand tray, music and more as therapeutic tools to assist and empower people in their personal exploration.

How did you become interested in this as a modality? My interest in Art Therapy evolved from a combination of factors. Years ago, I left my first career in New York in Fashion to go off travelling.  I ended up travelling for a number of years, settled in Australia and was in transition between careers.  I was living out bush in NSW and dedicated a lot of my time to finally exploring art making.  I gave myself permission to buy art materials for the first time and had a go at drawing, painting, collage, 3D sculpture, whatever I could, and not only did I absolutely love it, but I realised that the art making was helping me process whatever emotional experiences I was going through at the time.  In combination with my old favourites of journalling and dancing, art making was a new kind of personal language that really helped me express myself to myself, feel validated and figure some things out. It was a very powerful experience.

Eventually I questioned, “Are other people doing this?”  So after some research I discovered Creative Arts Therapy was a formal therapeutic modality, not just some odd thing that I was doing!

Can and do artists or people in creative fields need/use art therapy? Absolutely, artists can and do benefit from Creative Arts Therapy!  I often find that people who are artistically inclined might have to move away a bit from their expectation that their creative work has to be of a certain aesthetic, or that it needs to be “good”.  That’s a lot of pressure!  Using creativity as a therapeutic modality is a completely different context to using it as fine art or for commercial means.  The emphasis is not on the finished product, but on the meaning one finds in their work and what one can learn about one self from the process.  So what matters is that the work is authentic, honest, and heartfelt.  What it looks like doesn’t matter at all!

The feedback I get from people in creative fields is that Creative Arts Therapy helps them move away from their expectations, loosen up, experiment and return to the sense of play that’s often lost when creativity is taken “too seriously”.  This can be a very powerful way of moving through creative blocks.  On a deeper level however, it helps them to therapeutically explore the personal issues and questions that are important in their lives, and this can lead to long-term life changes and benefits.

The clients and groups you work with must be incredibly diverse – is it necessary for people to come with a reason, purpose or outcome in mind? The people I work with are extremely diverse.  It’s not at all necessary for people to come with a reason or purpose in mind.  Participants only need to be open to the process and whatever evolves out of that.  Like any therapy, what arises is unpredictable.  Very often I’ll have someone attend a private session or workshop with one specific issue in mind, and ultimately they’ll get to a whole deeper level, which often surprises them.  For example, someone might originally attend in order to explore a career change or a relationship issue, but eventually they might go deeper to find they are looking into their core values or their overall behaviour patterns in relationships.

The benefits I see in people are also diverse, and often surprising.  It’s a privilege to work with people who are willing to be open and experimental, and who value their own personal development and self-knowing.  To see people change or have a little epiphany before my eyes is amazing, and to see them feel empowered because they got to an important realisation in their own way is the most rewarding thing I think.

How do you make sure you create time and space for your own artistic/creative pursuits? This is an ongoing challenge for me, as it is for many people who want to have a creative life as well as a professional one.  One thing that works for me is having a group of like-minded peers that I get together with every month or so, to do debriefing and artwork.  It helps enormously to have the structure and support of the group to make sure that I don’t neglect my own creative expression altogether.

Another thing I do to stay connected to my creativity is to keep a visual journal, and make just a quick drawing or write a short journal entry early in the morning before I start my day. I don’t do this every day, but even just once a week or once a month is better than nothing. These quick dips into my journal keep me connected to myself and to my own creative expression.  Having said that, I’ve just had a baby a few months ago, so all that is out the window at the moment!

For those interested in the training or experience to become a Creative Arts Therapist? To become a Creative Arts Therapist, you have to do Post Graduate study, either a Graduate Diploma, Master’s or Doctorate.  The course work is experiential, so you’re learning CAT techniques by doing them, rather than hearing about them.  Therefore, the study involves the willingness to do in depth personal development of your own.  The professional experiences of a CAT are endless, as creative therapy techniques can be used to work with very diverse people.

Many thanks to Jennifer Berlingieri from Creative Arts Therapy for sharing her experience and expertise. 

Emily Harrison is a writer and yoga teacher with a passion for understanding our unlimited potential. This is her last post for the CWC and she’s enjoyed writing and sharing on all things wellness for the CWC audience this year. In 2013 she will be delving more into her own writing and creative pursuits. Do keep intouch over at, @emyogawrite. Wishing you the best of health and boundless creativity.