Written by

Jessica Pietrasanta

Humans are story telling and meaning making beings. It’s how we connect, survive, and grow. We know who we are and what is acceptable long before we have language; in our first six months of life, we get a sense of whether the world is safe for us or not. We find forms of communication that help to ensure that our needs are met.

Some of the oldest forms of human communication include talking or making sounds, drawing, painting, dancing, acting, and using symbols (1). Therefore, it makes sense to provide and have access to therapies that cater to these different, unique styles of communication.

Art therapy- who is it for?

Art and creative therapies are for those who may not always have the words to express themselves. It is for those who don’t find the verbal approach helpful or safe. It is not uncommon for people of varying ages and background to find themselves feeling stuck and unable to express themselves verbally. One reason for this could be because emotions are processed more in the right side of the brain and language is hindered when overwhelming emotions occur, it goes offline (2). Art therapy can work to connect neural pathways of language. Art therapy is about giving voice to our emotions and inner world, without the need to express it verbally.

“Imagination gives us the opportunity to envision new possibilities- it is an essential launch pad for making our hopes come true…Without imagination there is no hope, no chance to envision a better future, no place to go, no goal to reach”

-Bessel Van Der Kolk

How does art therapy work?

Research shows that art therapies (dance, art, drama, theatre) can reduce anxiety and encourage communication. Art therapy has also been shown to be effective at building confidence and heightening self-esteem (3).

Art therapy is not simply arts and crafts. Art can create ‘aesthetic distance’ for people to explore their difficulties safely. The art can open a dialogue about feelings. A person does not have to be verbal to benefit from art therapy.

“Art in therapy” typically uses art as a component of a talk-based therapy, while “art as therapy” suggests that the art making is, in and of itself, therapeutic. Change occurs during the process of physical interaction with the art materials, through the making of a significant art object, through redirection of feelings into the images, and through communication with the therapist via the art object (4).

The arts therapies are client focused- it’s about the connection between the you, the therapist, and the art. The process is about making connections to themes, meaning and how you can create a plan for your future in individually meaningful ways.

In art therapy, you are in the driver seat, the therapist is the passenger. There is no need to have art making experience, there is no pressure to make something beautiful or “good”. It is about metaphor, self-expression and learning about yourself through the physical act of making art. By exploring art materials in a sensory-oriented way, allows you to practice staying in the here and now, with your thoughts, with your emotions, in a way that feels safe for you.

When you look at a work of art, it is as if it is looking at you. You are the one who is being listened to.

Olafur Eliasson

One of the key challenges people may experience when accessing therapy is engagement and connection. If you access a therapist that communicates in ways that does not feel natural to you, or safe to you, it can be challenging to form a therapeutic relationship and continue ongoing sessions. 

By understanding and honouring the uniqueness of each individual, therapists can make sessions more meaningful and engaging for you in order to create sessions that fall in line with your recovery goals. When we approach engagement creatively, in this way, you are more likely to attend and connect with your therapist in session.

Creativity is the most potent and transformative tool that we have at our disposal. It belongs to all of us. Use it unapologetically.

Jessica Pietrasanta, Art Psychotherapist


  1. https://www.sahistory.org.za/article/oldest-forms-human-communication
  2. Repairing Language: Art therapy for mutism symptoms, Sandra Gaskell
  3. Chambala, 2008; Ustinova,(2009). pg 3
  4. Art Therapy As An Intervention For Psychosis Susan Dingsor, MA, LPC, ATR-BC, 2017