For both creative and non-creative thinkers, art therapy is a highly successful tool for expressing stress or emotions difficult to put into words. Communicating to an art therapist through visual art, music or dance is proven to strengthen thought management, social awareness, stress release, and communication skills in patients with diagnosed PTSD, depression, anxiety, eating disorders or a learning or social disability. But lately society has misappropriated the purpose of art therapy by buying into stock goods and services. These commercially-renowned ‘art therapy’ methods absolve the need for individual self-expression and instead market cookie-cutter creative outlets to a disillusioned public seeking counseling from a product or business. These art exercises are not harmful to anyone – some encourage meditation and social skill development – but still by no means should they be considered ‘therapy.’
1. Adult Coloring Books
This past holiday season the coloring book craze swept the nation as adult-marketed coloring books held five out of the ten best-selling book spots at Amazon, playing a significant part in preserving the print book industry. Adult coloring books contain masterful designs that seduce anxiety-riddled parents, employees and college students to string together several hours of peaceful coloring a day. Adult coloring books target what publishing houses call the “Peter Pan market” or a grown-up community that was neglected sufficient play time in their childhoods and is making up for lost time. There are also adult summer camps and an adult pre-school program that cater to this same audience.
However, adult coloring books do not classify as a form of art therapy because they encourage participants to complete pictures created by someone else. Professional artists generate meticulous patterns and ink designs for publishing houses to fashion into workbooks. The participant is only in control of the materials and colors they choose to embellish a picture not only did they not imagine, but has been reproduced into billions of copies found in bookstores everywhere. In this way, adult coloring books limit individual creative expression art therapy patients need in order to communicate their feelings and instead just provide busy work. An alternate art therapy exercise would be to buy a sketchbook and paint, draw or make your own designs, then bring them to life without coloring inside the lines of someone else’s work.
2. Purchase-and-Paint-Your-Own Pottery Studios
Everybody as a kid probably either hosted or attended a children’s birthday party at one of these franchised pottery studios. These places provide painting supplies and shelves of sculpted-and-fired clay figurines for people to customize and retrieve days later after it’s glazed in the studio’s kiln. Public pottery studios are usually a hit among families, adult clubs and church groups.
Even though purchase-and-paint-your-own pottery studios encourage a sort of healthy comradery in children and adults, this activity also should not count as art therapy. Granted there are rehabilitation centers like Bridges to Recovery that use clay to teach therapeutic classes using mindfulness training, tactile sensation and meditation. On the other hand, average people still mistake recreational pottery chains as blue-collar art therapy services. Working with clay in your hands releases tension and helps develop fine motor skills which do not happen when two people paint the same stegosaurus figurine manufactured from the same store. A clownish atmosphere coupled with mass-produced pottery items only serve as a play space to decorate toys that redirect stress and energy, not as a licensed institution that uses art to treat a mental disorder. An alternative art therapy exercise would be to play around with wet clay on your own and fashion your own sculpture before firing and painting it.
3. Paint Nite Classes
This is another adult art activity that has exploded across big cities and suburbs. Paint Nites are adult painting workshops held at local bars and restaurants where an instructor leads a class in remaking a certain picture for everyone to take home. In this way, Paint Nite instructors insist that even though the same scene is reconstructed twenty times, each person’s individual flair makes every painting unique. Participants also tend to not hold back on the booze during these night-outs.
However, places like ArTherapy for Me’s ‘paint and sip’ studio, Welcome to Paint Therapy and, wait for it, Paint Therapy Uncorked are giving people the wrong idea about art therapy. These studios claim that their “artlaxation” specialists will show you a good time while you paint your worries away. Several studios also mention that they are most popular among bachelorette parties and kid’s birthday parties. Don’t get me wrong, Paint Nites are an original and fun way to exercise creative muscles with friends while supporting local businesses. But there’s no way re-creating the same picture alongside a crowd of tipsy mothers is going to help your diagnosed mental illness in the way that counseling and controlled medication will.
Also, why does everyone need to paint the same picture? A more therapeutic way to explore these art classes would be for the instructor to challenge the audience with a theme for their paintings and demonstrate simple painting techniques for beginners. In this way participants let art transcribe their senses and emotions linked with that theme to create their own landscape or portrait that speaks for itself. I should also mention that performing art therapy exercises under the influence of alcohol is not recommended seeing as liquor distorts natural creative impulses.
Art therapy is not meant for everyone and I’m not arguing that all of these products or services promote art therapy as their goal. Nevertheless, the misconception that any popular art or craft activity can be therapeutic is frustrating for art therapists and confusing for art therapy patients. There is a difference between taking a jazz dance class and inventing your own moves on your own. The latter requires imagination and individual choices to communicate thought and emotion to an audience, whereas the former only requires the ability to follow directions. The wonderful thing about art is that it’s impossible to package and label; so a good trick to keep in mind is if it comes with instructions, it’s probably not art or therapy.