Meet an art therapist who unlocks emotions through images

Meet an art therapist who unlocks emotions through images

A picture is worth a thousand words, or so they say. After meeting art therapist Dr Patricia Fenner, it’s hard not to be thoroughly inspired by that idea, or the transformative power of art to express the most profound, and difficult, aspects of the human condition.

As senior lecturer and coordinator of La Trobe University’s Master of Art Therapy program, Dr Fenner is an expert on the role of art therapy in mental health recovery. In this conversation, she shares how art therapy came about, what being an art therapist involves, and how making art transcends differences in language and culture.

La Trobe art therapist, Dr Patricia Fenner: “Unlocking expressivity is at the heart of what we do.”

Where did art therapy come from?

Art therapy emerged as a way to treat combat-affected soldiers in the wake of World War Two. They were suffering what we know of today as post-traumatic stress disorder: they came back in a bad state, they were hospitalised, and no one knew what to do with them.

A British artist, Adrian Hill, who was unwell himself, had started working with art in hospitals. From this impetus, doctors and psychiatrists recognised the potential for using art to help the ‘shell-shocked’ veterans, and theories started to develop about the benefits of art making. Initially, art therapy focused on the visual, which is what we specialise in at La Trobe. Today, arts therapies encompass other expressive modalities including music, dance and movement, and drama.

How prevalent is art therapy in Australia?

Increasingly prevalent. Art therapy was initially seen as a mental health intervention, and it still is. Within the mental health sector, our private psychiatric hospitals and many public hospitals have art therapists. But over the last ten years, the profession has broadened considerably.

Art therapy is part of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, because it’s ideal for people with disabilities. Our graduates have found employment at the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness and Research Centre, in palliative care, and school counselling services, where communication is significantly enhanced by having art involved. Art therapy is also used to support communities after traumatic events like bushfires. In these situations, group activities using arts modalities bring about a sense of belonging and empowerment, help with psychological and emotional rebuilding, and reduce stress.

Art therapy can help communities and individuals to psychologically rebuild after traumatic events.

What does art therapy involve?

Art therapy is making art under particular kinds of conditions and in a particular kind of relationship. At La Trobe, we adopt a person-centred approach, which focuses on helping the individual find their own meaning by expressing emotion though non-verbal means.

Sometimes it is to help someone to live, to support that person to find ways to make life meaningful. That is a very serious contract. We are not interested in the beauty or aesthetics of the final piece. Unlocking expressivity in the client is at the heart of what we do.

What about the meditative-like benefits that come with art-making – that feeling of being fully in the moment, but being lost in it, too?

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes that feeling as flow, where the individual is completely absorbed in the creative process, and finding pleasure and meaning in it, too. Our students get taught about that and how to support facilitating such experiences with our clients.

And even observing art can have therapeutic benefits?

Studies show that if one looks with intention and follows, for example, the sense of where a brush stroke has gone in a painting, something happens in the brain that replicates that experience. So there is an empathic response to the process of viewing. Galleries are also increasingly being used by art therapists to help people with dementia. They provide a way for people to identify with their own experiences, expanding conversations that have been reduced by an overall decline in memory and behaviour.

You’ve worked with a group of divorced women in a traditional Muslim setting in Malaysia. What was that like? 

It was deeply moving. It was a two-week art therapy program undertaken in collaboration with colleagues at the Universiti Malaysia Terengganu. The group of women we worked with had become divorced for various reasons. Some had left marriages where the husband was heavily involved in the drug trade, others had left when their husband took another wife. In all cases, divorce left them marginalised and with very little support. These women didn’t have mental health issues. Their major issues were loss and grief. Through our program, the women were able to reflect on their emotional experiences, identify their strengths, and the support structures available to help them.

Dr Fenner practising art therapy with women in Malaysia: “Suddenly the women could see their lives before them, represented visually.”

What was the nature of the intervention?

In the sessions we worked with a variety of themes including deeply emotional work and also the more cognitive tree-of-life metaphor to explore individual and social support structures. Later we worked on their aspirations. Suddenly the women could see their lives before them. Anchoring their stories in visual metaphor had a different effect from just talking about it abstractly. They saw their lives represented visually, which created a different kind of understanding and remembering.

And the art helped transcend the language and cultural differences?

I always go with humility, knowing that I am very much the learner in this. Wherever possible, I use traditional art forms and materials. In this case, the capacity to connect with these women through meaningful work was profound. I was changed by that.

I teach students about working in a culturally responsive way. But when you find yourself as an outsider in a culture that is so comfortable with itself, and doesn’t question itself, it’s moving. To make art, to see other people’s art, and to be able to share experiences and stories through images is phenomenal. People just have to feel comfortable enough to experiment.

With a Master of Art Therapy at La Trobe University, you can combine art and counselling to help heal mental health problems through creative practice.

Dr Patricia Fenner

Dr Patricia Fenner is a practising art therapist, senior lecturer in La Trobe University's School of Psychology and Public Health, and course coordinator of the Master of Art Therapy program.