An Art Therapist Thinks About Art Therapy
In addition to creating her own exuberant, radiant works of art, Magdalena Errázuriz also works professionally as an art therapist, helping others who may have difficulty explaining themselves verbally to begin to express themselves without words. For many, this is the key that allows them to unlock the emotions and ideas within so that they can access them, understand them, and begin to share them with others. Magdalena agreed to share her experiences of art therapy, and some advice for anyone considering entering it as a career, with the Agora Gallery blog.
What came first for you, the art therapy or the art?
Art definitely came first for me. I was already well into my career as a painter when I first started thinking about the uses of art in therapy. I believe now that the combination of the two is perfect for me – although different, the two aspects of my career compliment each other in valuable ways.
Painting is a rather individualistic activity, a very personal process, and I needed to balance that with a more socially-oriented activity, something that involved other people. When I first learnt about the existence of art therapy and its uses I felt that it was ideal for me.
My experience as an artist helped me all the way through my studies as a therapist, since I was already familiar with non-verbal language, and the expression of feelings through art, as well as artistic materials and their uses.
What initially made you decide to become an art therapist?
I’ve always been inclined towards social activities. During my school days I used to take part in and organize social help for different institutions or for particular needs during national emergencies caused by rains, floods, or earthquakes. I’ve also always wished to be an artist, specifically a painter, but when I had to make the choice of what to study I found myself terribly confused. I thought that I could be a nurse since I was so keen to help people. I eventually decided to study art but I also enrolled myself in a volunteer program in the oncology department of a children’s hospital. I was the youngest volunteer in the hospital, so I found myself playing and drawing with the children.
It was then that I discovered that art was a wonderful way for children to express their fears and doubts in regards to their disease. They started sharing their emotions with me, feelings which they had not been able to communicate verbally with anybody, not even with their parents or doctors. It was during that time that I started doing research into art therapy and possibilities were available to me to study it in Chile. In time, further decisions were made and I studied art therapy.
What connections do you find between art therapy and art itself?
Art is, to me, a way of thinking through images. During the creative process one works with ideas, memories and emotions that are brought up and organized and understood. I use many different techniques and materials in a single project, depending on whatever I need to “say” or convey. Art or the creative process functions the same way in art therapy. The main difference resides in the fact that in art therapy there is always a therapist present who helps the individual with the mechanics of what is involved, and with whom one can establish a form of nonverbal communication. The therapist also helps with emotional support.
What is the most rewarding aspect of your work as an art therapist?
Since last year, I have been working in “Corporacion Esperanza,” an institute which helps adults in drug and alcohol rehab. Patients attend daily sessions where they share group and single therapy as well as professional training. The idea is that at the end of their time there, they will be ready to integrate themselves properly into society. In this center, art therapy is viewed as a support to the whole interdisciplinary program, so that issues brought up in art therapy are reviewed and assessed during other sessions.
This is the most rewarding aspect for me, that whatever new problematic areas or issues appear during my sessions, they are taken as valid and approached during other sessions. Even the patients are able to recognize the value of art in the “discovery” of their own issues and ask to take their work to their tutors and the therapists in charge. The potential inherent in verbalizing emotions brought up nonverbally is wonderful to see.
What impact does your work as a therapist have on your art?
I think that the question and answer should be put the other way round. It is my work as an artist which has the main effect on my art therapy work. It is through my experience as a painter that I am able to recognize nonverbal communication and the contribution of the materials to the overall effort. I like to think that is my perspective as an artist that makes the difference and that thanks to that I am able to see and read things which maybe could remain unseen by others. I like to put the emphasis on the process and not the final result, both as a painter working for myself and as a therapist helping others. To me the process is the essence of creation – the moment to think, organize, help and make necessary changes.
What advice would you give someone interested in becoming an art therapist?
First of all I would tell them to study Art Therapy properly, as a degree and not only through isolated courses. Since it is a fairly new area, it is common to see people working without the proper qualifications, study and knowledge, and this is not really fair to the patients – art therapists can have an enormously beneficial impact, but lack of training risks causing harm instead of improvement. One must be trained and prepared to offer support for emotional crises or the unpleasant emotions that can appear during the process.
I would also tell anybody who is interested that it is important to have a wide knowledge of art and the creative process, and the ability to work with as many materials as possible, since these are the true tools in the process.
Finally, one must always bear in mind that much is learned through practice. Every patient is a new challenge and with each one there is a whole new world to be discovered – for them and for the therapist. It is through the process of accepting this and working together in this knowledge that everything is accomplished.