The contribution of Gestalt therapy to art therapeutic work

The Danish Psychologist and Gestalt therapist Hanne Hostrup, creator of drawing therapy, has in the book with the same name discussed the use of art therapy from a Gestalt therapeutic perspective. She, among other things, states that the most important aspect of using the means of artistic expression with a therapeutic aim is that it serves a purpose. To ask a person to start drawing, singing, jumping or dramatizing is meaningless if the client has come with the intention to receive psychotherapy. This is why art therapy cannot be used without being deeply rooted in a psychotherapeutic theory that makes it meaningful.
The use of gestalt therapeutic thoughts and methods is well suited as a foundation for art therapeutic work. Gestalt therapy namely supports the essence of art therapy because what emerges in art therapy is “that which is”, right here and right now, which serves as the joint reference point for both the client and the therapist in the joint work. At the same time, Gestalt therapy adds a common language, which enables both the client and the therapist to put words on psychological material that could otherwise be difficult to grasp and make conscious. Thus, the client is provided opportunities to have a clear grasp of what is being worked on regardless of if it pertains to problems, exploring new possibilities, or delving into old traumas etc.

A meaningful combination

In a therapeutic process where Gestalt therapy and art therapy are used in combination, the method, on the one hand, involves raising the level of awareness through the use of the spoken word. On the other hand, art therapy invites the client to create artifacts of more or less enduring character, artifacts that very often exist on more levels than solely the linguistic one. This can, for instance be on a symbolic level, or a level of physical expression. Some of these artifacts constitute, through their sheer existence, a documentation of the client’s progressing work on self-development. This can for instance be drawings, paintings, poems, etc.
When some of the more illusive and immaterial means of artistic expression are being used, such as drama or use of the voice, no remnants of works that can be perceived through sight, touch or hearing are created at the end of the process. The process in itself, however, often leaves an impression on the client, which can provide meaning for his or her work in therapy. At moments such as these, there is the added possibility to document the process afterwards by for instance manifesting conversations or by written account. This form of commenting adds to the client’s experience of ownership and makes it possible to take responsibility for the own therapeutic work. It is additionally advantageous to have access to the works of art or manifests regarding them during and after the therapeutic process. When concluding the therapy, revisiting the works of art can provide the client with a next to ritualistically characterized experience of wrapping up a process. These artifacts can help in shedding light on the development that the client has undergone.

The many possible uses of art therapy

If art therapy is based on a suitable psychotherapeutic theory and is carried out in a responsible way by one or several well-educated psychotherapists with clinical competence, it can provide a good tool for psychotherapy with individuals, groups and families. Art therapy is also a usable form of psychotherapy in the work with individuals who for various reasons are not that verbal, people with various forms of psychological or physical functional disorders, people who suffer from dementia, etc. The therapist, of course, takes the client’s capacity and ability to practice the art form into account and the exercises are adapted to suit the client’s needs. If, however, a client shows a propensity towards psychosis, artistic means of expression should be used in a different way than previously described in this and the previous articles, or should not be used at all. Here, the psychotherapist should know what he or she is dealing with, and should in addition be aware of how dangerous it can be to use means of artistic expression in psychotherapy.

Means of artistic expressions in workplace counseling

Using means of artistic expression, as tools in workplace counseling, can also be beneficial for both individuals and groups. The counselor should, however, on beforehand agree with the person or the people entering into counseling whether or not means of artistic expression are meaningful and desirable. In case the counselor wants to use these tools, and does not have an education as psychotherapist, it is advisable that he or she attends personal counseling around these issues with a psychotherapist with experience of art therapy.

Art therapy is not a toy

There are currently many who use art therapeutic methods without being aware of how much psychotherapeutic knowledge and practice it takes to be able to receive and together with the client work through the psychological material that emerges hereby. It is, according to Hanne Hostrup:
“easy to ask a client to draw, dramatize, sing etc., and it is very rewarding to establish how quickly and precisely psychological material is expressed via these forms of expression. If, however, the therapist does not have the experience or knowledge of how to guide all of this material in a defensible way within art therapy, art therapy itself turns into “a happening”. An empty technique, which in the best case acts as entertainment and in the worst case very quickly and very efficiently may cause the client great harm.” (Author’s translation)

This is the final article in a series of twelve on the concept of psychotherapy and the use of psychotherapeutic methods. This article has covered the application of meaningful simultaneous use of Gestalt- and Art therapy in the therapeutic process.

Text and illustrations: Tine Sylvest
Photographs: Bo Mellberg

The author is a certified Psychotherapist, Art Therapist and Workplace Counselor/Coach born in Denmark, currently living and practicing in the Swedish-speaking parts of Finland.