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What is Expressive Arts Therapy?

Diane Farnsworth | Expressive Art Therapist

“Art therapy asks of each emotional condition this question: what does the emotion want?  What are its features, its characteristics?  How does it sound in my chest and throat?  How does it move through my body, what is its dance? Not how can I dance it.”

James Hillman

“We use our minds not to discover facts but to hide them.”

Antonio Damasio

“Art makes the invisible visible.”

Paul Klee

Expressive Art Therapy,(EXA), is an exploration through the arts, a form of therapy where the process of creation is emphasized rather than the final product like in traditional art-making. You do not have to be a professional artist to benefit from EXA therapy; it is about exploring and expressing yourself, not about technique. Unlike art therapy that focuses on visual arts like drawing, painting and sculpture, expressive arts therapy includes other artistic modalities such as creative writing and performance arts, (dance, acting, music), and any other form of play-therapy that an EXA therapist might feel inclined to introduce to her client. It is not unusual for some expressive arts therapists to work with three or even four creative modalities in a session. Expressive arts therapy is an approach not a method. The client’s imagination becomes the vehicle in a session and the therapist a facilitator and collaborator instead of an analyst or advice-giver. The therapy is essentially in the creative process of art-making. As a result, clients often feel empowerment from their own self-discoveries and experience emotional shifts during or after sessions.

Psychologist and specialist on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Dr Peter Levine wrote in his book In An Unspoken Voice, ‘it was never possible to treat the body in isolation from the soul’, pointing out that art is suitable for healing both dimensions. ‘Traditionally healing was carried out within a ceremonial context’ he adds, referring to ancient societies such as the Paleolithic, Native American, Siberian Shamans, and a myriad of others.

Working with artistic methods falls under what Levine refers to as ‘symbolic healing’ because it involves both the physical and the psychological dimensions of a person. Play-therapy ‘requires that we give up knowledge and control’ Levine writes, and with this lack of control we gain freedom which results in self-discovery. Expressive arts therapist and former practicum supervisor, Peta Schur once said that ‘not all discoveries are pretty, but EXA gives terror and suffering a voice, an image, a movement!’ In this creative process, the art modality gives distance to the pain and fear that the client is working through, so that the work does not become debilitating as does some forms of therapy where a client relives her trauma over and over again, instead of experiencing a gradual release from the suffering. Expressive arts therapy is a potpourri of play, art and ritual, where the imagination is free to explore and express the inner core of self and the relationship between self and the rest of the world. Ideally, this creative exploration expands from the imagination to various art expressions, then trickles into everyday life.

Because no two expressive arts therapists are alike in personality or life experience, it is essential to choose a therapist who best fits your personality.  Like in any relationship, chemistry is key.