Learn the Art of Art Therapy

How would you like to be creative and get some R&R at the same time?

Creativity 3 min read Sep 25, 2019

In this feature, we zoom in on an area of therapy that uses art as its chief medium.  Art Therapy brings together psychotherapy with creative self-expression as an aid for maintaining one’s physical, mental, and emotional well-being. By helping people freely express themselves through painting, drawing, or modelling, it helps deal with life’s stresses or even mental health issues.

To help us better comprehend how art therapy works and how it can transform lives, we had a chat with Caroline Curtis Williams, founder, artist and instructor at Vivid Art Therapy, a Richmond-based practice that regularly holds workshops on creative processes coupled with mindfulness and meditation. (Read about why mindfulness can be invaluable in the workplace.)

Calm, Reflect, Create is a 2-hour workshop designed to focus on the positive aspects of ourselves and our lives using art. Participants can reflect on their internal strengths and their external resources through the guided meditation and using a range of art materials, including paint, collage and chalk pastels. The workshop is run on Sunday afternoons, with the next one scheduled for 13th August from 2-4pm.

Can you tell us what got you interested in art therapy?

I was drawn to art therapy through completing my fine art degree in printmaking. I found that the work I was creating was a means of processing my experiences and relationships. I found myself saying, “This work is all about my relationship with ‘X’, or my experience of ‘Y’.” I had always been interested in psychology, so it seemed a natural step to combine it with art. I went on to study art therapy, which is all about using art to help people access their inner strengths, understand themselves better, and process their experiences.

What was the thinking behind Vivid Art Therapy? What is unique about the workshops you teach?

My goal was to provide art therapy services that use art to support and validate a person’s sense of themselves - their thoughts, feelings, experiences and strengths. I wanted to do this within the framework of mindfulness, which is about non-judgement, acceptance and focus on the moment. I believe that the process of creating can be used for mindfulness, and that mindful non-judgement can allow greater access to our unique inner creativity - so the two can work hand-in-hand together, resulting in a calm and open state of being. This calm state helps us counteract the busyness and stresses of our lives, helping us make meaning of our experiences and keep the focus on what is most important to us.

With the Vivid ‘Artful’ course, I wanted to provide a means by which people could explore art processes outside of the pressures of an ‘art class’, which is more about developing skills and comparing your abilities with others. In the ‘artful’ classes the emphasis is on experimentation, not results. It’s about using art to reflect on our lives and find our own personal symbols in a mindful, self-compassionate way. It’s also about having some time to explore new (and familiar) art materials and have a little fun. Often people will say that they ‘feel like a kid again’ when they can play with the materials without the expectations of creating a finished result.

What is a typical session for each class like? What can students expect to do?

Sessions start with some kind of warm-up activity which is typically exploring new art material or method of working. From there, I usually introduce the theme of the session via starting with a guided relaxation/meditation. Themes for the sessions include introducing positive psychology and mindfulness techniques designed for greater inner contentment. The main art activity explores the chosen theme, and then there is a short period at the end of the session for reflection and sharing about the experience. There is no interpretation of art works, and there is no need for any art skills.

What are some of the problems you have seen art therapy help with?

Art therapy can help with a whole range of mental health issues and is commonly used to treat depression, anxiety, chronic pain, addiction and eating disorders among others. It helps because if can be used to affirm the person beyond their ‘problems’, as well as helping them to gain insight into their thought, beliefs, attitudes and emotions around their problems.

Are there any myths about art therapy that you can clarify for us?

The main one to dispel is that you have to be “artistic” to do art therapy. No art skills are required - only the attitude to explore and imagine with an open mind, and without self-judgement. The other main myth is that the work “means something” that can or will be interpreted by the art therapist. In truth, the only person who can interpret what is created is the creator, because it is only they who know the personally meaningful content of their images.

What’s the most important thing you want your students to walk away with?

A sense that art can provide them with a way to access inner calm, relaxation, fun, creativity and personal insight. Hopefully, the classes can mark the beginning or the continuation of a journey with their own creativity. I also hope they are spurred on to find out more about the things that help them find inner peace and contentment within themselves.