Artistry As Therapy

Apr 13, 2014

Art Therapist Joan Phillips in her office
Credit Molly Evans

Joan Phillips knew art therapy was her calling when she first heard of it in the 1970s because it married her love of art and helping people. A practitioner of more than 30 years as well as a professor of art therapy at the University of Oklahoma, Phillips discussed with Assignment Radio’s Molly Evans her experiences over the last three decades in the still budding branch of counseling.   

The collages, paintings and drawings that adorn the soft, sage green walls of Joan Phillips’ private practice in Norman, Oklahoma are both intentionally anonymous and explicitly telling of the abuse, depression and family issues that her clients face. As a counselor, Phillips abides by the mantra, “Do no harm,” but through art therapy, she encourages her clients to transform their vulnerability and pain into images that enlighten and embody their struggle. Her clients’ art will never be exhibited or seen by the public, but Phillips hopes the unique practice of art therapy will finally gain the attention she believes it deserves.

"I think the main thing people don’t know about art therapy or the creative therapies is just that they even exist," She said."There’s the client and the therapist and the art. And the art itself is sort of like a player that we can sit back and look at that art and talk about it like it’s another person in the session. Some techniques even include like, ‘What would that tree say if it could talk?’ or ‘What would the girl in picture do?’ So that you can kind of get some distance from your problems and talk about the art and not yourself."

When clients first come in Phillips she says that each session is a little different.

"I might not even use art in the first session, especially with an adult," Phillips said. "I don’t want to scare them off or throw them in the deep end of the pool expressively. Very early on, by the second session I’m definitely going to have them doing some art. And with adults it’s typically a collage, and with children it’s typically whatever they want to do because they’re more likely to choose and engage and have ideas on their own, so I don’t even have to think of what they should do. They’ll just jump in."

Phillips deals with children with suicidal thoughts, abuse in the family and depression issues. She says that in these cases it is important to set the correct atmosphere. 

"First, I try to set an atmosphere of acceptance for there’s no expression that’s not OK," She said. "There’s nothing you’re going to show me or do or express that I don’t you know want to see. I’m accepting of it all. And then in their art, I’m going to really be looking for signs of hopelessness, which is the key factor on suicide. If you see a lot of hopelessness, it’s really a red flag. I’m trying to access a lot, but at the same time, let the client know that it’s fine to tell me those things; they don’t have to cover it up; they don’t have to hide those feelings, and I’m going to try to work to keep them safe."

She practices at the art therapy center in Norman with children and families but she's also an instructor of art therapy at the University of Oklahoma. Phillips said that although it takes some work, coming to the university is relaxing for her

"Of course therapy is a very taxing profession, and you get a lot of what we call ‘secondary trauma’ or burnout or issues with working with people," She said. "So for me it’s almost like a break coming to the university and dealing with basically healthy, intelligent, curious individuals that are looking at art therapy from that academic point of view but still seeking some self-development and expression. I’m very invigorated by it; sharing my profession, hearing their comments, watching them get interested, and it kind of recharges me for work at the office with clients, which is more slow. I don’t always see the same amount of results. It takes time to know if someone’s getting better using art therapy. So it’s a good balance for me."

Art therapy also helps Phillips when she is feeling overwhelmed.

"I don’t make art along with clients," She said. "I’m always focused on them. But between sessions and on my own time, I will create art about my work. I actually write a lot of poetry these days, and so poetry is another way I can express what’s going on in a session, but not name any names. I may not even share it with anybody. So I use art very much to recharge and express and play and relieve tension. I teach other therapists, even non-art therapists, that that’s a great outlet."

She says that getting feedback in the classroom is really what helps her step back and realize she is doing what she is meant to do.

"Well they might be few and far between," Phillips said. "I think in class it’s almost easier because I actually get feedback from students through various writing that I ask for that I can tell that what they’re seeing and hearing has some personal impact. With clients, I don’t always get the pleasure of knowing how their lives turn out. You know once they’re through seeing me, I really have no way of knowing how they’re doing. I try not to end therapy until I have a good feeling that they have made the changes they need, and they’re going to function in a better way or solve the problem they came for."

Sometimes it is hard to leave her work life at work, but she says that it's all about being suited for the profession. 

"Sometimes people think, ‘Oh I would love to be a therapist because I just love people so much or love to talk to them and listen,’ but that’s good, but that’s actually not the criteria," She said. "Actually like you need to be able to have a boundary with what you’re hearing and not take it home and not make it personal, so you can be of assistance to someone — more of a mirror than a sponge. And so I think part of it is that personal being suited to it that makes it OK, and I love art and the fact that I can use it in my job is just wonderful. I kind of jokingly say, ‘I get to use crayons at work,’ and who wouldn’t want to do that? I guess there are people who wouldn’t, but it’s a good fit with my own creativity and artistic impulses just because I enjoy it. For me it’s really not a very strong line between my life and my work. There’s just kind of all rolled together, so I’m just going to keep on living."