Becoming an Art therapist – or riding the creative flow

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Words by Eleen Polson

This piece is by no means the final word on the topic. It is only my general response to one of the most frequently asked questions. Mostly by people searching the internet for an answer, who happens on my expressive arts therapy sites.

A quick note on the difference between ‘art therapy’ and ‘expressive arts therapy’. Traditional art therapy mainly uses visual art (like painting or drawing) to explore the subconscious through analyses to support psychotherapy. Expressive arts therapy uses different modalities including movement, visual art, voice work, drama, multi-media and creative writing. The focus is primarily on the process – what it feels like to express or make. Both the act of the making as well as the end-product is explored. In short, Art therapy was the parent to the expressive arts therapies, like Freud was the father of early Psychology. Today we are blessed with many different off-spring of creative techniques and methodologies, from different theoretical paradigms, all gathered under the umbrella of ‘expressive arts therapy’ as our holistic and integrative understanding has developed in recent times to foster not only healing and therapy, but also personal growth and ways to flourish.

Back to “How to become an art/expressive arts therapist”:

It is not an easy question to answer as it is straddling a couple of new and often diverse fields (much younger and less defined than mathematics or medicine). It skims the surface of highly regulated fields, like psychology and mental health services, as well as the creative domains like art, drama, music and creative writing where ‘anything creatively goes’. The question is also often born from a deeply personal experience of finding growth and healing in creative expression of some kind. And when something gives you personal meaning and clarity, you often want to share it with others – or feel that it might be a mission worth pursuing.

The answer also depends on which country on the globe you find yourself in. Different countries have different regulating bodies and prescriptions protecting “the people out there” against well-intentioned but ill-informed or even dangerous, unqualified chancers calling themselves this or that kind of coach, mentor, guru or therapist.

Before I go into a very brief summary of the practical options open to you, depending on what your starting position is, there is another important question to answer for yourself:
“What is your primary mission for asking the question? What are you hoping to achieve when you could be an art therapist?”

My first response is that you need to experience the power of therapy (be that psychotherapy, art therapy, expressive arts therapy or any other of the hundreds of new modalities out there) for yourself first. Wanting to fix or teach others before you have even ventured to explore your self is misguided. You need to experience expression, vulnerability and transformation from the inside out, with your whole body, from a reflective and accountable position. Learning from the more experienced mentors while being coached, guided or supervised through a process is the best learning by far. It takes courage to create (as Rolo May’s book taught us in the ’50s already). This is not only a journey of a weekend or even a year or two. It is a commitment to creative learning for life. The invitation is to stay in the flow and keep on broadening your understanding and experience through the different rhythms and seasons in your life. Embracing this personal creative growth is doing humanity and the planet the biggest favour. One person at a time, starting with yourself.

If you do want to pursue this broad creative field as a professional career you need to know the following:
To be an art therapist (and call your work art therapy) in South Africa you need to be registered yearly with the HPCSA (Health Professions Council of South Africa) as an art therapist or art psychotherapist, a specific category currently falling under Occupational therapy. Practicing without registration constitutes a criminal offence. (See the the legal stuff here on the HPCSA web-site) Sadly there are not currently any universities that I know of that offers a straight forward art or expressive arts therapy degree recognised by the HPCSA.  This might change in the near future. 

The only option is to have an international qualification for which you would have to individually apply to the HPCSA and complete a board examination in order to register. There are many very interesting (but very costly options if you are funding yourself!) overseas. Check out the “cream of the crop” by some of the most distinguished expressive arts therapist in the world: The European Graduate School in Switzerland with lecturers like Shaun McNiff, Daria Halprin, Stephen Levine and Paulo Knill. I had to opt for reading their books!

The second professional option is to become a music therapist or drama therapist by obtaining a Masters degree (after a relevant HONS degree). SANATO (South African Network for Arts Therapies Organisation) will help you get in contact with the universities that offer these degrees.

Another option is to have basic therapeutic training (Psychology, Occupational therapy or Social work, or registered counsellor), practising within your scope of practice and applying expressive arts therapy principle in your work. These specialisation courses can be done after and alongside the standard training. This is the route that I took. I am a registered counselling psychology with a specialization in Expressive arts therapy and trauma debriefing. I had the privilege of attending numerous national and international training* (see list below) since 2007 that not only gave me rich personal experiences but developed a deeply embodied understanding of the expressive process. Although a longer route, I am thankful for my broad psychology training (3 years BA, 1-year HONS, 2 years Masters in Counselling Psychology, 1-year internship), and 10 years in the military in different clinics.

If you come from another profession like a designer, artist, teacher or architect, there are numerous ways of tapping into the exciting new techniques and modalities currently available, with the aim of enriching your current work or personal life – without becoming a “real therapist”, or “doing real therapy”. The world needs creativity in all its forms. You can explore modalities like Biodanza , MARI – training (Mandala Assessment Research Instrument), drumming, dancing, pottery.  Or start an Artist Way (by Julia Cameron) girls-night-get-together once a month. Just allow yourself more time to grow and experiment. Be creative. Express what is inside. Feel where the creative juices are flowing. Together with others. Share your passion and your vision, by doing it. Invite others to share in your excitement.

I was so impressed with the effect of the creative connection workshops when my dear friend Michael took some pastels to his local coffee shop for his morning coffee and invited others – who would never have dreamt of such an activity – to doodle along with him! That is spreading the creative energy in your own unique way.

Be inspired, follow your heart and the doors will open in surprising ways.


List of courses Eleen did, all experiential:
• 10-day Leadership Through Art with Three Dutch Art therapists, (Studio Collective, Centurion) Jan 2009.
• 5-day Creative Connection Expressive Arts therapy training with Dr Natalie Rogers, Ireland Sept 2010.
• 5-day Conscious living, conscious dying course, with Marlies te Witt and Marlene de la Rive Box (Netherlands) in Cape Town, January 2014 and January 2016.
• 10-week Communicating through Art with Hayley Berman (Art Therapy Centre, Johannesburg) Feb – May 2008.
• 3-day Trauma Release Exercises (TRE) training Module 1 with Dr Erika Coertzen (Tzaneen) June 2015.
• 3-day Trauma Release Exercises (TRE) training Module 2 with Dr Erika Coertzen (Tzaneen) October 2015
• 2-day Short Music Journeys with Prof Dr Gina Kaestelle (Germany) in Cape Town, August 2011
• 5-day Mandala Assessment Research Instrument (MARI) Training with Prof Dr Gina Kaestelle (Germany) in Pretoria and Cape Town (2010 and Aug 2011).
• 3-day Attachment Workshop with Debbi Maskell-Graham (UK) in Pretoria, Sept 2015.
• 3-day Keys for the Clinician with Carol Lotter, University of Pretoria, Oct 2010.
• 3-year Biodanza Personal Development and Facilitator Training (2009-2012), with Carolina Churba-Doyle (Argentina) in Johannesburg.
• 4-day Voice & Rhythm in Movement with Dr. Sergio Cruz (Italy) in Sao Paolo, Brazil, March 2012.
• 5-day Biodanza Encounter with Alechandro Torro (Belgium) December 2008.
• 5-day Biodanza with Children with Alechandro Torro (Belgium) in Cape Town, July 2014.
• 5-day Deepening Masculinity & Feminity, with Anotnio Sarpe (Portugal) and Helene Levi-Biseff (France) in Portugal, August 2016.
• 3-day Imago Parenting Workshp with Marcia Ferstenfeld (USA) in Pretoria, February 2013
• 3-day Biodanza Project (Minataur, Facing your Fears) with Marlies Appy (Brazil) in Pretoria, May 2008.
• 10-session Postural Integration Course with Leonie Mare, Pretoria, Oct 2011 – Jan 2012, as well as continued Postural Integration with Jonathan Atkinson, Johannesburg, from 2015 .


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