‘The difference between Art therapy and Art creation?’


by Elisabeth Eitelberger AThR, Arts Therapist COPE

Where it all starts:

I know it is sometimes hard to distinguish between art therapy and art creation if we just look at the creative act alone. So, what is the difference? Simply said, the presence of another is vital in art therapy as in any other psychotherapy. This is why the process involved is quite different from common art creation.

Human beings are not made to exist by themselves. We develop through relationships. From the time we are born, our overall development (such as behaviour, speech, and social interaction) is dependent on observing, mirroring, and being supported by others (in the first instance we talk about the main caregivers). In therapy we try to repair in the here and now what has been ruptured at some stage of the client’s life and aim to meet needs that haven’t been met before. The therapist uses co-regulation throughout the session to help the client relax and be present. In Arts Therapy this involves elements like somatic exercises, grounding activities, working with soothing materials to stimulate the sense of touch or creating together.

My role as an Arts Therapist ranges from allowing the child or inner child in an adult to be in the moment and symbolically play, create, and express themselves, while I am present for them. The client for instance may have had no chance for proper bonding with a caregiver as a child. At other times it is about giving the voice and autonomy back to a client, whose feeling of trust was broken due to a traumatic experience.

From my perspective, when I engage in an art therapy session as a client myself:

While I often use creative tools (which can be anything from activating my imagination to creating physically with my hands or the whole body), it is the therapeutic relationship’s qualities that enhance this process and lead to healing and growth. I need a witness, who responds to me and my actions so that I can learn and develop what it takes to have my needs met. This is how I can (re-)build trust in the world around me, which ideally leads to a healthy relationship with myself and others. This is when I feel worthy and develop self-esteem that helps me succeed in life.

I am also an artist, so I am aware of how different it is to make art from making art in therapy. In therapy, the creative act occurs in the space right there and then, occurs unplanned, unintentionally, and suddenly but in reaction to the therapeutic relationship. The more I let material and topics evolve through the relationship that I develop in sessions, the more I can figure out what’s wrong, what bothers me, and what asks for my attention. Feelings and emotions come up and the artwork becomes the communicator between me and the therapist, something starts to appear from the depths of my mind, my psyche, my soul. And in exactly that process a shift takes place and arts therapy starts to do its unique thing of helping to gain insight and heal wounded parts of me.

Title: We mirror, we communicate, left and right-hand drawing, one follows the other, pens on paper, EME, AThR, COPE, 2024

Let’s return to what you can expect from Art Therapy sessions as a client:

When we engage in making imagery in the space of therapy, we do something. This again creates the feeling of flow and motion, change, something happens, and makes us feel alive and acknowledged. We escape the inner stuckness, we don’t experience this blockage as something permanent anymore and can see the light, even if there is darkness. However, the tunnel that we look down appears to have a surrounding landscape, a landscape that we can see again, a landscape that we may change, and transform based on our own needs and desires.

Having such experiences in therapy and a therapist to acknowledge it with you, allows you to create hope, hope that this can happen outside therapy as well, that you can take things into your own hands, that you have a say in how you want your present and future look like, that you can notice things. Meanwhile, we build resilience in therapy together so that – on days when you don’t feel so well – you can remind yourself that you are human and have emotional ups and downs, that it is ok to regress in the process to progress, as a healthy body moves through contraction and expansion.

Why Arts Therapy works and for whom:

You do not need to feel artistic to benefit from this approach. It can be even more beneficial for people, who do not tap into their creativity and imagination daily. In a nutshell: the tools we use and the process we develop in arts therapy are about activating the left and right brain, both body sides and the whole body as such. This again encourages our brain to create positive thoughts and sends signals back into the body that help cleanse our system. That’s a very basic explanation of the far more complex and groundbreaking neuroscientific research that provides a lot of proof that tapping into our creativity by nurturing our ability for imagination helps heal the body and mind.

I adjust to my clients who have different needs in the creative encounter:

Ideally, we work in three phases each session a) checking in/bringing an issue into session b) the action-based phase of talking/creating and c) reflecting.

During the action-based phase, some prefer to keep talking, others move around the space or create in silence, while I (the therapist), hold space, assist, and primarily witness the process. Their need is to be cared for, seen, and encouraged through my being present with them.

Some prefer to create, while they also want me (the therapist) to create something by myself next to them. This often happens at the beginning of therapy when there is anxiousness in the room and the relationship has to develop a bit further. At that stage, the client starts to claim their space in the relationship and needs encouragement to express whatever comes spontaneously. When they witness me doing that, they can mirror the action and build confidence.  

The third version is that we co-create and work together on a piece or topic. This way, we communicate through the artmaking process, and share our experience at the end of the session. My response to the client’s work often serves as an additional element of their creation, helping them verbalise and gain insight into their action.

In summary:

Having said and written this, it reflects my approach and how I work as an Arts Therapist. Each clinician has their unique way of working with clients, depending on their lived experience, professional development in particular interest areas and former studies. My psychoanalytic approach is paired with a great interest in somatics and embodied philosophies and extensive experience working with the Arts in different settings since I was a child. My curiosity for the human psyche and the body’s abilities to move and express feelings and emotions to others has been a constant in my life. It keeps me engaged with the world around me and it helps me continually to learn about myself.   

Elisabeth works with clients of all ages. Her clients’ presentations and conditions are as diverse as her space which suits every age group and is filled with materials and tools that wait patiently on the shelf until they become useful for self-expression when words are not enough.

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