Home                                                                                              Go to Arts & Art Therapy


Art or Therapy? Or both?
by Jean Walker, Dip Transpersonal Art Therapy


Share |


Editor's Note from Karen Adler: A succinct, intelligent article which looks at the natural healing tendencies of the psyche and how art therapy taps into this natural resource.

“Art heals by cultivating imagination with a trust that a revitalized spirit will treat its own disorders.” ~Shaun McNiff 2004 pg 104

No matter what our circumstances, all of us must come to terms with the fact that life wounds us, both psychologically and in other ways.  This is the nature of being human. To live in this world is to know suffering. Ironically, that which wounds us can also make us stronger and more resilient. Just as our physical body is equipped with in-built healing mechanisms that adapt to stresses and strains and invading organisms, so the human psyche has inherent drives and capacities for healing and wholeness.  

Psychotherapist, Carl Gustav Jung drew attention to these natural and largely unconscious self-organizing forces that exist within each of us, driving us to search for meaning, even in the darkest times. Our pain causes us to re-examine the choices we have made and the world in which we live. As we learn to ‘be’ with our suffering, we allow it to inform us. Finding meaning within difficult circumstances opens us to new life direction and we begin to create a different, more authentic ‘map’ to guide our journey. Our suffering becomes easier to bear as we become more sensitive to the guidance that is always there for us within our pain. Rather than being victimised by our wounds, if we can be ‘in relationship’ with them then we can utilise them as messengers that guide us on the road to a life fully lived.

From the earliest of times, humans have made art, danced and told stories. Not only have these activities added richness to our cultural history, but they have provided a sense of meaning and purpose to individuals and to societies facing conflict and adversity. Viewed from this perspective, it might be argued that art-making and creative expression are essential tools for survival and transcendence.

The very process of art-making moves us to a state of consciousness that is outside the ordinary or mundane. As stated by Elise and Kaleo Ching (2006):

“Creativity is the language of dreams, the little known, the unknown, the subconscious. Its vocabulary consists of word, movement, colour, space, line, shape, density and energy, which can take you to the heights or depths of your soul at a pace safe for you. It is a language by which your ancestors, your sacred source, and your inner being send you messages.”

The expressive arts engage body, mind and soul in a dialogue of metaphor and symbol that is unique to each performer or artist. An appropriate attitude for embracing such an encounter is one of openness and respect. By approaching our creative activities with respectful presence, acceptance and a sense of playful curiosity, we can establish a sacred alliance with unconscious aspects of our selves. We can embrace and dance with the mystery of our being, allowing its message to unfold in its own way and in its own time.  

Through its power to integrate and transform the trauma of life, art-making and the creative arts become therapy. By this definition, an art therapist may be described as a skilled witness who holds the space in a way that facilitates the transformative potential of the creative process. Such a space is built on trust, respect for boundaries, and with constant attention to client safety. Transpersonal art therapists combine skills in client-centred counselling with creative processes that act as doorways for self-awareness and growth. Unlike the fine arts, the emphasis in art therapy is on the process of creative expression rather than on the development of artistic skill.

Art can be a wonderful container for uncomfortable emotions. What has been internally suppressed can be externalized through painting, drawing, clay work, collage or movement and sound. Once an emotion has been given tangible form, it can be recognized, named and processed. Transpersonal art therapists avoid analysis or interpretation of others’ images. The artist is the author of the work and the recipient of its message. The therapist’s role is to facilitate the artist’s dialogue and relationship with their works. This is not always a dialogue of words since words can sometimes be instruments of avoidance and control (McNiff 2004). 

Images are metaphors, dense with information, energy, emotion and meaning that will continue to unfold over time. Just as our relationships with people develop and change through exposure and opening ourselves to allow the other in, so we benefit from being with our creative works and allowing their energy into our bodies to become a felt sense. This felt sense becomes another metaphor to be explored and expressed through a variety of creative means. An image may be embodied, expressed as movement, given sound and responded to with more painting, poetry, music or journaling. The possibilities are endless and the benefits ongoing.  

Our works of art are truly living partners in a healing relationship that spans our lifetime. As with all significant relationships, they grow through regular contact, a welcoming, open heart, a willingness to be authentic and an attitude of acceptance and non-judgement.



Have a comment or question? Visit our Arts & Art Therapy Forum to start or join a conversation.



Share |

About the Author

Jean Walker is a transpersonal art therapist practising in Canberra, Australia. Her background is in psychology, human movement studies and body work. She facilitates ‘Healing through Art’ groups at the Tuggeranong Arts Centre and writes in her spare time. She is passionate about empowering others to access their inner healing resources and to reconnect with the transformative energy of nature and symbol. Contact: jeanwalker@iinet.net.au.







Ching, E.D. and Ching, K., 2006, Faces of Your Soul : Rituals in Art, Maskmaking and Guided Imagery. North Atlantic Books, CA, USA.

McNiff, S., 2004, Art Heals: How Creativity Cures the Soul. Shambala Publications, Boston.




Add a Comment   
    We welcome your comments. Thank you for sharing!!


Spiritual & Healing Practices | Healthy Lifestyles | Community | Arts | Find Practitioners & Orgs | Forums
Online Learning Center | Costa Rica Retreat Center | Submissions | Editors | Terms and Conditions | About Us / Contact Us


Disclaimer. Each category is under the supervision of dedicated editors who are passionate about their topic and believe that raising people's awareness is one way to make a difference in the world. You may or may not agree with all that is presented. Since respectful discourse is an excellent way to learn and grow, we welcome comments on articles and your participation on the Forums.

  © 2008-2018 ATH     REGISTER      LOGIN Design by MacDaddi | Developed by AWE