Witnessing Process


Witnessing Process

There is no agent of change that comes without risk.  The same is certainly true for art media and methods; art therapists use them prescriptively to calm or stimulate the nervous system, contain or expand affect, delay or promote conscious awareness, and integrate somatic/emotional/cognitive processes for the purpose of regulation and resolution.  Each medium and method comes with indications and contraindications.  Because of this, it’s important that any clinician who asks clients to engage in artmaking experiences be aware that a client’s process is more important than her or his products.


The creative process reveals a great deal of information about an individual’s functioning, including challenges and vulnerabilities that might not have manifested themselves during any verbal exchange preceding the artmaking experience.  Activating subcortical brain regions via experientials has the potential for triggering implicit memories, and clients can regress or even be retraumatized by engagement with art media and methods that aren’t appropriate for their condition or presenting needs.  In “Through the Eyes of the Law: What is It About Art that Can Harm People?” (2008, International Journal of Art Therapy, 13[2], 65-73), British art therapist Neil Springham recounts his experience as an expert witness in a case that involved a non-art therapist who demonstrated a lack of adequate training for using art in therapy and a lack of competence in his ability to use changes in a client’s behavior as a means of guiding the session.  The client ultimately sustained permanent physical injuries as a result of the therapist’s actions/inactions.


Whether you are a seasoned therapist or a new practitioner—and especially if you don’t have formal training in art therapy—it’s crucial to remember that clients need be observed for shifts in status, such as revving up or shutting down, while they are engaged in the creative process.  These changes should be used to inform your approach so you can make necessary adjustments.  If you see these shifts happening, it’s possible that your choice of medium or method contributed toward the client’s instability.  You might need to switch gears in as seamless a manner as possible by providing alternative media or methods in order for the client to reregulate.  It’s important not to remove art materials altogether, which creates a failure experience for the client, unless imminent harm is likely.


Using the client’s responses and reactions during the creative process as a means of assessing somatic, emotional, and cognitive functioning is essential to the provision of competent therapeutic services.  If you are using art as an agent of change, it’s well worth your while to select media and methods that are appropriate to each client’s specific needs and then attentively witness and respond to the experience that ensues.  To do otherwise isn’t worth the risk.


With appreciation for the important work you do,

Megan July 2012

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This is a thumbnail of an image that was released into the public domain by its creator, Andrea Schafthuizen. Click here for more information.