Is This Art My “Art Therapy” Art or my “Artist ‘Real’” Art?

This post is probably mostly of interest to other art therapists and those who are curious about art therapy and its connection to “Real Art” or “Fine Art”. There is also a big topic of “High” Art vs. “Low” Art and so called Outsider Art vs. “Fine” Art… Labels labels labels. We like labels when they help us define and differentiate, and we don’t like them so much when they limit us…

So, to begin with, for people who don’t know much about “art therapy” or “art psychotherapy”, there are usually two roads to becoming an art therapist, or two “Main” roads. One is the person who majored or minored in Psychology or took a bunch of psychology classes in colleges and got interested in becoming some kind of therapist. This person finds out about art therapy and realizes s/he also has a creative side and is interested in art making and how it impacts psychotherapy, so this person continues on the road to learning more about what art therapy is, and becoming an art therapist. Along the way, this person may have had his/her own personal therapy or even sought out an art therapist to try out art therapy as a patient. Some of these people skip going to therapy as a patient and end up in some art therapy graduate program after s/he has taken the extra art classes that are prerequesites to starting grad school in art therapy. Those who skip being a patient themselves are usually encouraged to go to therapy and at some point in their time as a grad student start therapy with a therapist, art therapist, psychoanalyst or some combination of these… This person may enjoy art making and even have a media s/he prefers working in but has not really identified as an artist before becoming an art therapist… There are many variations of this type of road towards becoming an art therapist, not in the scope of this post, so I don’t mean to have this description seem limited.

Then there is the other road, that of the “Artist” who then becomes an art therapist. Some of these people are what is called a “wounded healer”. S/he may have gone through therapy of some sort at some time in his/her life and had much more experience being a “patient” than some other art therapy students and art therapists. In any case this person usually finds out about art therapy at some point in his/her career as an artist and decides to obtain training to be an art therapist because of his/her experience as an Artist and Patient or as an Artist who is interested in the healing professions for some reason. Perhaps s/he has found art making to be transformative and healing, whether or not s/he has experienced the therapy process. So this person if need be, takes the psychology courses they may not have taken in college as prerequisites for going to grad school for art therapy…

OK. So now you’re in some art therapy graduate program. You might have gone through some training by attending some sort of Art Therapy Certificate Program to see if art therapy is for you or you just dove right into grad school. While in school, no matter what the philosophy of the school is, and there are many different kinds of art therapy programs with many different philosophies, slants, approaches. Where ever you are studying, at some point in some classes, you will be asked to make art. Some might be art directives from the teachers to get across some points on the subject they are teaching. You will probably make art in supervision class, either what’s called “Response Art” responding to your work with your patients at your internship or art work in response to a classmate’s case presentation. In some programs, there is a lot of art making that takes place in your training in the classes themselves. At the program I went to, my favorite class was my first year “Materials” class, in which we learned about all kinds of art materials and their uses with different client populations. The class was a place to do a lot of “experientials” which basically means you learn through experience of using the materials in your own art work in class and at home for class assignments. As a self identified “artist”, I loved the class as it was the class with the most art making in it, and I learned some new techniques and ways of using art materials that I considered useful both in my own personal art work and in the art I made with patients or witnessed patient making.

During graduate school at some point, the phrase “art therapy” artwork or something like it comes up and is understood to opposed to the concept of personal art work or art work that you are in process of making as an artist. I went to grad school many years ago, and a lot has changed since then. At the time, I continued to have my own art studio outside of my home, and I continued to have my open studios and continued to exhibit my work in various settings and to pursue exhibitions to further my career as an artist. I made this same distinction in the sense that most of the time, as far as I remember, I was working on some series of paintings or drawings that were very different from what I made in classes and at my internship. However, I also remember making some things that I thought of as my “regular” art work even though it was made as a class assignment. I also remember being surprised that so many of my classmates did not like making art in our classes. Even in the classes that involved more lectures than actual experientials, I would be drawing in my journal anyway, as I find drawing helps me focus on what the teacher is saying. Even these days, when I attend some sort of Professional event, such as a talk or conference, I usually draw pictures as I’m writing notes in order not to lose focus on what the speaker is saying!

Anyway, at some point in studying art therapy and then beginning to work as an art therapist, I saw there is a kind of division that exists between what people term their art therapy art work and their “actual” art work that they make at home or in a studio in solitude. I did not go to art school, but my first exposure to making drawings and paintings on paper was a very unique class that I have described more in another post, so my first experience of making art was in a room with a lot of people in it, including grad student assistants to the drawing professor as well as the professor. After I graduated college, I had the great fortune of having my first art studio, a very tiny studio but my own. I immediately began paintings that involved having friends sit for me while I painted. These were more than simple portraits, but I think, looking back at my very young beginning artist self, I see that I liked having people in the room while I made my art. Along the way, I eventually developed a taste for solitude and spending time making art alone. However, I see now that I began the process without a need for solitude and that making art among others or with others was very comfortable for me, so making art in classes at graduate school did not seem so different from making art in my studio or at home. I also along the way, probably during grad school, developed a liking for making art while watching TV, even though I always had an art table at home and an art studio seperate from home in which to make art.

As I developped my private practice, I noticed this split between art therapy art and so called more “personal” art, though maybe the art therapy art is more personal as the person is more loose and open while making it. However, I have always had art therapy grad students as patients over the years, as they sometimes want to try out art therapy as a patient, and I very much enjoy working with all kinds of students. With these art therapy grad students, they either had great discomfort making any art in my presence despite what they were doing in classes and would prefer to talk in session and make no art, or they would be quite comfortable making art in session with me, but tended to see the art they made in our sessions as their “art therapy” art, which basically means they would not think of putting any of their “art therapy” art in an art exhibition, while they might have work they were making on their own at home or in a studio that they would consider as art to put in their portfolio or an exhibit. They looked upon the art they made in school and in supervision much the same way.

Probably not everyone makes such a strong distinction in their work. However it is made enough that the topic has caught my interest and brought up questions for me as an artist and art therapist. Is there a difference between the two kinds of art? For me the blurring of the distinction began in my own therapy a number of years ago when I began bringing scribble drawings and other more “unconscious” drawings to my therapist. I noticed that a theme started emerging which I then developed in my “regular” art work. However, I still kept this sketchbook of therapy art work separate from my “regular” art work. At the time I was working with a great therapist who was not an art therapist but who enjoyed free associating with me about the drawings that I would bring in. Many of them I did on the subway on the way to therapy. A while ago with a different therapist I decided to try the same thing, with scribble drawings and bringing them in to therapy. However, this time what happened was quite interesting for me in terms of the complete blurring of the boundaries between these two types of art works that we art therapists tend to make. The sketchbook was started with making traditional scribble drawings, some of which I have exhibited in this blog. I would make a scribble with whatever I had on hand, pencil, pen, sharpie, etc. and then try to find people, heads, animals, fish, or something “representational” inside the scribble. Then I jumped to continuing that process and adding collage from magazines. My first scribble drawing with collage was a kind of bridge between the traditional form of scribble drawing and something new that began to emerge. I think the photos I’ve posted here show some of this transformation process.

Then something new happened. I continued to add collage from magazines, but I started going over the initial scribbles and making them darker and filling them in next to the collages. I think of these as a kind of “meta” scribble drawing, as suddenly the marks of the initial scribble, instead of being deemphasized in service of creating some kind of image with some of the lines, became emphasized on their own as ovals and curved lines which I then began to fill with collage elements. It progressed further to the point where I began seeking two kinds of images in random magazines. The first was patterns that resembled scribbles or marks or other kinds of black and white dotted circular patterned collage pieces that went with the repetitive drawing and filling of the scribble lines with tiny circles. This is what I see as the “abstract” “meta scribble” portion of these new works on paper. The other kinds of images started to develop repetitions, and I noticed I was looking for specific images of actual things, to be very specific: arms and hands disembodied, other body parts, animals, especially elephants, owls and birds, fish, peacock patterns, and also such things as light bulbs, dolls, strangely drawn faces, and I’m not sure what else will join this list. I also brought back a drawing of a face that was used in work I made a few years ago, so that some of these scribble collage works had drawings of this “face” that is probably thought of as a kind of self-portrait. Often I also find figures of females that are put in with everything else and often they seem to be watching the entire image or dreaming it. Words cut out from magazines have also emerged in some of these works.

It is beyond the scope of this post to discuss the ideas of Outsider Art versus Fine Art and other such topics, but I think these works represent the closest I have ever come to merging my “therapy” drawings with drawings I put up in my studio as part of a series of works I am engaged in. In fact earlier today, for the first time, I took a bunch of these Scribble Collages and put them up on my studio wall. In taking them out of the sketchbook and putting them on the wall, I make the leap from the personal to the Personal Art I Want The World To See… The other sign of this transformation was that I went from the small sketchbook to a larger one and challenged myself to do these pieces on much larger paper. This happened in the same time frame that I began to actually work on these drawings in my therapy sessions on the suggestion of my therapist even though my personal therapist is not an art therapist. So this is uncharted territory for me… To be continued…

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3 thoughts on “Is This Art My “Art Therapy” Art or my “Artist ‘Real’” Art?

  1. I want to thank you for your blog entry. I came into art therapy through the other door, the art door. (8 years public gallery education, 2 fine arts degrees, no psychology). I am beginning my thesis, “Can theological reflection as an artistic practice be used to create a professional statement?” I am creating three large multi-media sculptures to help me enter this question. This is in the tradition of Shaun McNiff, Ellen Levine, Pat Allen, and Bruce Moon who value art therapist as artist as an important piece of professional, on-going development as an art therapist. I was wondering if as I work I could share with you pictures of the artworks as they are being developed?
    I am quite enjoying the anamorphic self-image that is emerging in your work, spontaneity and control in balance, very brave of you to put this on your blog.
    I chose not to distinguish between art therapy art and fine art. Art therapy art is created around a theme, and so too is fine art. Fine art has technical aspects that do not enter into the art therapy realm. I would be hesitant to dismiss art created in therapy or between session to be strictly classified as therapeutic art.
    I just finished working with three artist’s works who were exploring: a. my terror of nothingness, b. my wife’s illness, c. trauma I experience watching and reading the news. All were very personal topics, and the artwork could be seen as low-skill high-experience. (http://blairbrennan.com/paper/paper03.html). What makes it fine art and worthy of hanging in a public gallery is the artist’s reputation as a fine artist. The other major distinction is that as the work was being created the goal of creating an exhibition was part of the equation. I am questioning that premise, because the works I am creating are highly therapeutic, but are being created for public exhibition as exemplars of arts-based research.
    I think over the next few years I would like to explore the line between art therapist as artist and art therapist as arts-based researcher.
    thank-you for your blog and I hope that seeing Blair’s work lets you know that your work is refined.

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