Interview: My Brilliant Career

Finding healing through art

Tessa Whyatt is an art therapist who uses art to help her clients work through their emotional issues. She tells Margaret Harris how the therapy is well suited to children who find the process of making art a natural method of communication

What does an art therapist do?

Art therapists work with people who are dealing with difficult issues, thoughts and feelings, using a psychotherapy base. What is unique about our approach is the emphasis on communicating through the art-making process, instead of the spoken word. Art therapists provide various art materials and help the client go on a personal exploration, with a focus on healing and reflection. We encourage clients to tell their stories using art and creativity as a processing tool. The therapeutic relationship is a key factor, and the art therapist provides a safe space for them to express their difficulties.

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Where and what did you study to become an art therapist?

I initially completed a BA degree in fine art at the University of Cape Town, specialising in sculpture and psychology. Then I did my master’s in art therapy at the University of Hertfordshire in the UK. At present, people can study art therapy only overseas, though it is a recognised profession in South Africa, and I am registered with the Health Professions Council. There are only a few of us working in this country, but it’s an exciting time for our small community. It is an interesting and different career, and I have a range of practical work experiences. I currently work part time for a non-governmental organisation called CATh (Community Art Therapy Programme) at the Red Cross Children’s Hospital, mainly in the burns ward, and at schools in Nyanga with children who are struggling with difficult issues. Many have experienced violence and loss. I also do private work with both adults and children.

How does the therapy work?

In the session, there is usually art-making time and reflection time. What is important is the client’s choice of art materials and what they do in the process of creating. A key factor in art therapy is the triangular relationship between the client, their artwork and the therapist. The art is therapeutic and relaxing in itself, but it can access deeper difficulties, allowing for the symbolic expression of emotions and also allow clients to physically work through emotions.

Is it better suited to children than adults?

Art therapy is equally suited to people of all ages. It is accessible and helps with a wide variety of problems. With children, the art is a natural medium for communicating. Art therapy helps with anxiety and builds coping skills. It is used worldwide in schools for kids with emotional and behavioural problems, in the court systems and in hospitals. With adults, it can be good for those who need to learn to “play” or whose issues are rooted in their childhoods. Adults are so used to talking that it almost becomes a defence mechanism against dealing with the issues at heart.

With teenagers, it is particularly great for building self-esteem and confidence. I have colleagues who work in addiction rehabilitation, with people with special needs and in the field of trauma counselling, and it is also helpful when working through depression and other mental health issues. It can be used with groups, couples, families and siblings, not just for individual therapy.

What are some of the things that you can tell from a picture?

I look at the process of the art-making, the way the client uses the art materials and what they choose to use, the order in which they lay things on the paper, the colours and symbols used and what they express. But I don’t interpret the pictures or read into the image, because those would be my own thoughts, and we have to be particularly careful not to do that.

I encourage clients to tell me the story of their picture, and they give their interpretation. One image can hold many different levels of meaning. Sometimes I can suggest things and ask questions to get us to explore the image in more depth. Depending on what is drawn, I can ask: who is inside a house, where is that person going or what is the animal thinking or feeling? The image is filled with symbols and projections that only the client may recognise through discussing what they have produced. At other times, there is no final product because it may have been thrown away, torn up or destroyed, which are all relevant to the process of the session. It is also not always two-dimensional art. For example, a child may use clay to work through anger issues by repeatedly building a form and then breaking it or beating it flat.

What does art therapy offer that other forms of therapy don’t?

Art-making is natural and spontaneous, which renders the therapy less threatening in the first place. Furthermore, it allows for non-verbal expression and reflection, which is very different to normal talking therapies. This means that it is a particularly great way of working with people who struggle to express their feelings in words, for kids who don’t have the language, for people with special needs who can’t speak or those too traumatised to talk. Art therapy is especially good in our country because it can transcend cultural and language barriers. The art also gets to the root of an issue by accessing the right side of the brain and unconscious processes.

What did you want to be when you were a child?

As a child, I used to make countless drawings of my dream houses, so I decided I wanted to be an architect. Then, after school, I discovered that I was really good with kids and I knew that I wanted to help people directly.

What are the tools of your trade?

Any sort of art material will do. I like to offer a large range to choose from, but a blob of clay or a pencil and some paper would be sufficient if there was nothing else. I like to offer pastels, colouring pens and pencils, paint, clay, scissors and collage items, different coloured paper, magazines, beads, glitter, etc.

You are also an artist. Is this a requirement for an art therapist?

Having some sort of art portfolio was an entrance requirement for the master’s degree because, as art therapists, we need to have an understanding of different materials, techniques and processes. I have a background in art, but many of my colleagues have first degrees in teaching, nursing or psychology.

What inspires you?

I love the smile on the face of a child when they see me walk into the ward. I’m totally inspired by the change I see in the way someone can express themselves – the “ah-ha” moments when they discover symbolic meanings in their image, the benefit I see them getting from my attention and the power of holding the therapeutic space.

Published in the Sunday Times Careers section, 29th April 2012