One important element that sets art therapy apart from art as therapy has everything to do with our relationship with and engagement with image and imagination.
Isn’t Making Art Therapeutic In and Of Itself? And Just What is “The Imaginal?”
Maybe you’ve had experiences in which making art, or creating in other ways, has felt beneficial, you may have felt “in the zone,” and as if it were a therapeutic experience in some or many ways. We might refer to those experiences as art as therapy, and they absolutely do help us understand the power of what it is to involve ourselves in creativity and its role in our well-being.
Maybe you’ve also had experiences with imagination and exploring images from inside you. A good example would be remembering and wondering about a dream. And how about the experience of trying to tug gently on the thread of a dream, trying to ease it into your waking life from where it was happening in another state, trying to help it across the “space” between sleeping and waking so that you can remember it, and wonder about it in your waking state? This is an experience with the imaginal. And it is these particular ways of involving ourselves with image and imagination that set art therapy apart from art as therapy.
So What Is Art Therapy? (And Why Do I Keep Using “Image” Words This Way?)
Art therapy is a professional mental health and human services field. It integrates applied psychological theory with image-making within a therapeutic relationship. (Visit American Art Therapy Association for more info about art therapy). Art therapy is facilitated by a trained art therapist, and offers ways to explore and deepen your understanding of yourself through creating and working with imagery and imagination.
Art therapy is depth therapy, and like other depth therapies, it involves our relationship with unconscious material and how we encounter it, find meaning with it, create with it and process it in our conscious lives.
The applied psychological theoretical home base for my own study and practice of art therapy is archetypal psychology. In explaining archetypal psychology, James Hillman writes, “The datum with which archetypal psychology begins is the image.” He references Carl Jung’s position that image and psyche are one, and relates that psyche is primarily an activity of imagining. (1)
Archetypal psychology has us understand that images “are the psyche itself in its imaginative visibility;” and that an image “is given by the imagining perspective and can only be perceived by an act of imagining.” (1)
Archetypal psychology invites and nurtures a deep respect for images however they present to us, and however we interact with them, in dreams, poems, artwork, reverie, or even in the words we use. This makes it an ideal theoretical home for art therapy with its processes rooted in image and imagining through creating and exploring imaginally.
The Sublime Interim–Why Work with Image and Imagination in Therapy?
Our “imaginal sense” is how I often refer to the part of us that imagines —-as a sense, just as active and important as our other senses. The imaginal is REAL, not to be confused with how the term “imaginary” has come to connote “not real.” We’re often unaware of our imaginal sense and of just how regularly we apprehend our reality in terms of image.
I also sometimes refer to the imaginal as a sort of “place,” or “space,” an experience of metaphorical “territories ” that include an in-betweenness, where images live, come and go, or pass through, in between unconscious parts of ourselves and more consciousness parts.
John O’Donohue writes that only the imagination “can navigate the sublime interim….” He calls the imagination the “most reverent mirror of the inner world,” and writes that “the imagination works on the threshold that runs between light and dark, visible and invisible, quest and question….” (2) Art therapy can take us to wherever imagination is working or playing, including where it’s navigating the in-between.
Art therapy at its best, I believe, is much more than symbolic self-expression, and subsequent conversion of that expression into something logical through an operation of interpretation. The question “what does it mean?” (that we so often ask of art and of dreams), is, I think, the well-traveled gateway to the place where we’re likely to keep finding out only what we already know; the place where we expect to persuade psyche’s material to conform to our logical sensibilities with their bias toward the literal.
I believe art therapy at its best is an engagement with the imagination, with the imaginal, where the language is one of image and metaphor, not of reason, and where the request of the psyche is to abide as an engaged witness to image and metaphor, to remain curious, and to see and listen in new ways. This means not extracting a “meaning” from an image so that we can quell our curiosity or satisfy our preference for logical sense over imaginal sensing. Can we ask: “what is being communicated inside us in a language that was never meant to be literal?” (3)
The way a dream becomes an invitation for us to engage with the psyche in the language of the psyche, so too the drawing, the painting, the image created in whatever way in art therapy extends to us the same invitation. In art therapy we can explore not only what can be created through acts of imagining, but also what we perceive through acts of imagining.
Art therapy helps us tolerate the seemingly contradictory, the incongruent, the presence of sometimes oddly-clad, oddly-behaving, material crossing from our unconscious into our our consciousness. Art therapy helps us dwell with this material and these events, and appreciate the nuances of their complexity.
Art therapy gives us vehicles and motivation to go exploring beyond the regular terrain of reason, logic and narrative. With it, we have new means to see, feel and hear what can’t be, or isn’t, spoken. With art therapy, we have new passages to our inner world, and access to profound, sometimes surprising, psychological experiences.
Art therapy helps us cultivate our imaginal life and learn how to care for it by responding to image with image. And caring for the imaginal is caring for the psyche.
So, Just How Creative Can We Get With This?
For many years, I’ve enjoyed designing and facilitating art therapy experiences for individuals and groups. The art therapy groups have as their focus various therapeutic/metaphoric themes.
If you’re intrigued by any of this, about cultivating your relationship with your imaginal sense and how art therapy might benefit you, whether as a sole therapeutic undertaking or as an adjunct to therapy you’re already pursuing, I welcome the opportunity to meet with you. During an in-person consultation, we can discuss your needs.
If you’re interested in either of the two group art therapy opportunities described in this post, please call right away for an appointment. No previous art experience is necessary, and supplies are furnished.
Lenan Rust, LPCC, LPAT, ATR-BC holds licenses in both Clinical Counseling and Art Therapy. Since 1992, she has been serving survivors of sexual trauma and individuals experiencing depression, grief, anxiety and other forms of suffering. She serves adults of any gender who are dealing with these or other issues related to identity, challenging life events or “places of stuckness,” and believes that therapy is an excellent way to increase our sense of wellness, authenticity and mindful presence in our lives.
- James Hillman, Archetypal Psychology A Brief Account
- John O’Donohue, Anam Cara, 1997
- Russell Lockhart, Psyche Speaks, 1987