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The History of Art Therapy

According to the American Art Therapy Association (AATA), art therapy is the use of art creation as a form of psychotherapy for people experiencing trauma or illness, seeking personal development, or struggling to deal with the day-to-day act of living. Through the act of creating art and thinking about the process and medium, people are able to develop skills that increase cognitive ability, increase awareness of self and others, and help them cope with the distressing symptoms or limitations imposed by disability or disease. The primary purpose of art therapy is to help patients heal their mental and emotional wounds as much as they can.

When Was Art Therapy Started?

Although contemporary art therapy is a fairly new practice, art has been used since the beginning of human history as a medium for communicating thoughts and ideas. The oldest cave painting was found in the El Castillo cave in Cantabria, Spain and dates back 40,000 years to the Aurignacian period. Though researchers are uncertain as to the exact purpose of the cave drawings, it has been theorized that they were likely used as part of religious ceremonies or to reach out to others in the area.

Moving forward in history, art became an instrument for self-expression and symbolism. However, it wasn’t until the 1940′s that the therapeutic use of art was defined and developed into a distinct discipline. The discipline arose independently in America and Europe. In England, the first person to refer to the therapeutic applications of art as art therapy was Adrian Hill. While being treated in a sanatorium for tuberculosis, this artist suggested participating in art projects to his fellow patients. This was just the beginning for him and he discusses much of his work as an art therapist in his book “Art Versus Illness”.

Hill’s work was expanded upon by the artist Edward Adamson. He worked with Hill to introduce this new therapy to long-term British patients in mental hospitals starting with the Netherne Hospital in Surrey. He continued establishing programs in facilities up until he retired from the industry in 1981. Adamson went so far as to open a studio where patients could freely create art without comment or judgment from others. He was a proponent of “non-interventionist” art therapy where patients simply created art for self-expression rather than for psychological interpretation by a clinician.

During his career, Adamson collected over 100,000 pieces of art made by patients and displayed them. It was his hope to foster greater understanding of the creativity and contributions of the mentally ill by sharing the fruits of their labor with the public at large. There is much debate today about the ethics of displaying patients’ works and whether they should be considered outsider art or clinical records. Out of the mass amount artwork he collected over the decades, only 6,000 pieces remain and many are on display at the Wellcome Library.

The two pioneers of art therapy in the United States were Margaret Naumburg and Edith Kramer. In the mid-forties, psychologist Margaret Naumburg began referring to her work as art therapy. Unlike Hill, Naumburg’s work was based on the idea of using art to release the unconscious by encouraging free association. The resulting artwork was considered symbolic speech that the therapist encouraged the patient to interpret and analyze.

Dr. Edith Kramer was an Austrian woman who studied art, painting, drawing, and sculpture in Vienna. After becoming a U.S. citizen in 1944, she founded the art therapy graduate program at New York University and served as the Adjunct Professor of the program from 1973 to 2005. During approximately the same time period, she was also the Assistant Professor of the art therapy graduate program at George Washington University in D.C.

By the middle of the 20th century, many hospitals and mental health facilities began including art therapy programs after observing how this form of therapy could promote emotional, developmental, and cognitive growth in children. The discipline continued to grow from there becoming an important tool for assessment, communication, and treatment of children and adults alike.

Contemporary Art Therapy

While there are programs that focus purely on “art as therapy” and allow patients to freely express themselves through the medium, most art therapy programs are designed to, figuratively speaking, get in people’s heads. In addition to art itself, people in the field are trained in human development, psychological theories, counseling, and other related disciplines that assist them in assessing their patients and developing effective treatments for them.

While art therapy started in mental health institutions, the therapists can be found in a variety of settings including:

  • Medical and psychiatric hospitals and clinics
  • Outpatient treatment facilities
  • Schools including colleges and universities
  • Shelters
  • Correctional institutions
  • Nursing homes
  • Halfway houses
  • Residential treatment facilities
  • Private practice

People in the field are just as likely to work as part of a team of professionals that includes physicians, nurses, rehabilitation counselors, social workers, and teachers as they are to work alone. Art therapy can be and is used in family counseling, bereavement counseling, treatment of behavioral disorders in children, treatment of mental and physical disabilities, drug and alcohol rehab, stress management programs, and many other areas where the healing capabilities of art can improve the patient’s condition.

Career Opportunities

To take advantage of the job opportunities in the field of art therapy, people must possess interpersonal skills, be empathetic and sensitive to the plights of others, be emotionally stable, and have a deep understanding of art. A master’s degree in art therapy from an AATA-accredited program is the minimum education level accepted by employers in the industry. Additionally, potential therapists are required to obtain state licensing, certification from the AATA, or both.

There are a number of colleges and universities that offer art therapy master degrees. Alternatively, a degree in a related field – like psychology or counseling – is acceptable as long as you have completed a minimum of 24 credits in art therapy coursework. More information about the history of art therapy and educational requirements can be found at the American Art Therapists Association website.