Two expert psychologists focus on Art Therapy, where they combine the creative potential of art with psychotherapy With Dr. Olcay Guner and Nur Dincer Genc, we had a deep dive into this practice with the book they wrote for the experts.
I am a writer and a reporter who follows interdisciplinary developments in culture and arts, from music to painting, architecture to literature, sociology to philosophy for the last 20 years. In truth, every class- and age-oriented activity in this area -amateur or professional- had its mark on me. Maybe the most extraordinary of these marks I got from the shelves of a bookstore which I dropped by in Alsancak, in one of my travels to Izmir in the last months. The book titled Sanat Terapisi (Art Therapy), published by the city’s Yakin Kitabevi in 2019, offered an alternative reading and development map between spiritual profile and self-development. So contacted Clinical Psychologists Dr. Olcay Guner and Nur Dincer Genc. With the hopes that their information, available on Arkas News, live at least as long as their books and practices, I wish every one of our readers an enjoyable read…
BOX: In the area of Art Therapy, the oldest and most established organization in the world is the American Art Therapy Association, founded in 1969. The non-profit civil group, which intends to create and use interaction and communication between art therapists for individuals, families and social groups in need in different fields, also convenes annually for conferences and presentations given by specialists. Besides providing expert training in select fields, the 51-year-old American Art Therapy Association also supports internship and award-winning research projects. The book by Cathy A. Malchiodi, released in 2003 with example visuals from workshops and therapy sessions, is regarded to be among reference resources in this field.
What were the stages before you wrote your book and how did you decide to write it? Those interested in art therapy, what needs of them does this book address?
Olcay GUNER: I always wanted to be an artist since childhood, but coincidences and opportunities led me to Clinical Psychology. For a very long time I wasn’t even aware that I could associate art and psychotherapy. Until right after the earthquake of 1999. Many trainers came from overseas to train and upskill us for field works for collective psychological trauma, and among these trainers was the Art Therapist Rina Lerner Buberoglu. I first experienced Art Therapy in a group workshop that we did with her, and I was fascinated. I found myself at crossroads in my professional career. I found an opportunity to bond art and psychotherapy. This also fostered my already great excitement towards my profession.
Then I started researching what training I could get in this field, which resulted in my receiving around 800 hours of training from very important trainers in this field. Among the many psychotherapy methods that I’ve learned, the one I most valued was the art therapy. Because it’s not limited to words. As a therapist you think that the word “anxiety” means more or less the same thing when mentioned by your clients, but when you let them express their anxiety through art, you can just see how different and how unique everyone’s anxiety is. Of course there are words in art therapy, but there are colours, images, shapes, symbols and metaphors too. It is almost impossible for a client to censor what they will express, bring to the session. It is inevitable that many experiential issues that the client never thinks of mentioning will just be plainly reflected onto their artworks during the session. And this is the most surprising, amazing and maybe the most attractive side of art therapy. These words from a client say it all “In my previous verbal therapies the sessions took shape based on what I said. Now my artworks, which I just naturally create without really knowing during our sessions, set our paths to go. I trust them and I think that they give us a better starting point. These works know what I need to work on and they almost whisper it to me…”
Just like this client, I trust the polite healing power of art, therefore creativity. I believe that this natural power, self-flowing with sincerity and candour, is an efficient guide both for the therapist and the client.
Unfortunately there is no certified art therapy training or master program in Turkey with international validity. Therefore if you wish to experience art therapy you will need to chose the most qualified training programs among short art therapy sessions which provide certificate of participation, and you make up your way as you go. Resources in Turkish are also very scarce. So we wanted to create an all-around work for our colleagues at beginner level in art therapy.
I can say that the book has two important functions. The first is to get to know art therapy, and the second is to apply it. The first chapter studies art therapy as an approach.The chapter includes information about its history, the areas of application, its connection to schools, how it heals, use of materials and space which will give you ideas about what kinds of exercises you can construct for children and adults to address various problems and, how to construct an art therapy session and group applications.
Nur Dincer GENC: After starting my studies in the field of psychology, I attended several trainings related to therapy methods and techniques. I used most of these enthusiastically in my practices once I’ve learnt how to apply them. However, everything seemed restricted and limited to words while using this practices. Together with the Art Therapist Rina Lerner Buberoglu, whom I met in 1999 after the Marmara Earthquake, I got involved in art therapy which I had been seeking and lacked in my professional life for a long time, and which I believe is pure magic for me. “Close your eyes, take a piece of clay in your hands and think about what you felt during earthquake, let your hands move freely”. When I looked at the sculpture I made, I was shocked to see all the feelings I wasn’t aware of, completely as they are.
I have been applying art therapy for about seventeen years now; the astonishment people experience when they use an art material for the first time and create a work amazes me each time. It is incredible to watch the feelings and thoughts that we try to hold back, censor and try to hide even from ourselves, just getting out of our mouth and turning into a story or a painting.
When we observed the rapid effect of art therapy on improvement in the field of trauma, we supported our colleagues with efforts to establish Art Therapy Techniques in Early Response to Trauma Training in Psychiatric Association of Turkey after 1999, provide training on response to crisis using art therapy techniques to our colleagues that would take part in site activities following Van earthquake, “Response to Crisis with Trauma and On-Site Art Therapy Techniques” activities performed in Art Psychotherapy Association established in 2012, and by sharing our knowledge in support trainings for workers in Soma. We have been arranging Art Therapy groups aimed at children and young people in various age groups since 2000.
We have also been continuing our “Traditional Art Therapy Workshop Activities” for adults which have been held in October in Datca each year since 2011. In this journey we have started to improve ourselves and help, we aim to share our knowledge and introduce art therapy to our young colleagues, share the information we have gained over years and help to people, although indirectly, by teaching what we have learnt to others. We also want to collect all the activities we have used in our “Art Therapy Practices with Children” trainings since 2016 in a book. I hope that this book will serve as a guide for my colleagues that share the same enthusiasm in working in the field of art therapy. Based on the belief that expression of vulnerable aspects of individuals is an important step towards “healing”…
You focus on subjects such as “Expressive Art Therapy” with children, young people and families in your practices. Could you tell us about these practices and their target individuals?
Nur Dincer GENC: There are actually quite a wide range of areas in which Art Therapy is used. Art therapy can be used not only with children, teenagers, families and adults, but also for improving the performance in business and school environments, providing training, raising awareness, creating a team spirit as well as enabling personal development. We can also perform group practices in social projects and traumas.
Many therapeutic fields can be listed as the targets of Art Therapy:
- Getting rid of emotional conflicts
- Raising awareness
- Reducing anxiety
- Addressing and working on painful experiences (loss, trauma, depression, age periods)
- Improving social skills
- Managing behaviours
- Developing problem-solving skills
- Increasing self-worth.
We can apply these practices either on individuals or groups. So, they differ from verbal therapy sessions in including art studies within the therapy process. The people that receive art therapy do not necessarily have to be prone to art or to have engaged in art previously. The activities performed are aimed at therapy; they are not part of an art workshop or class. The aim is to enable the individual to address a problem that he/she has difficulty to express in an aesthetic and kind way, and express and get to know that problem more easily.
Contrary to the “art for art” philosophy that focuses on the finished work, art therapy focuses on the “creation” process. More importantly, the aim here is doing art for development of the individual rather than producing a creative result.
Can the book be experienced by an “ordinary individual” or is guidance or supervision of a specialist required?
Dr. Olcay GUNER: This is not an art activity. It is related to use of art in psychotherapy. So the main purpose in performing psychotherapy. Art is just a tool. Therefore it must definitely applied by specialists and experienced under their supervision.
Besides, art therapy must be clearly distinguished from “occupational therapy”. In art therapy, art is not used for relaxation purposes only. Products of art therapy serve as a tool that deepens therapy, guides psychotherapy with the data that it reveals, makes the session specific to client by going beyond the words, makes use of the healing power of creative energy, reveals feelings and thoughts, and puts the problems of client into a new perspective by affecting both the right and left lobes of brain. The aim of art therapy is to deepen psychotherapy, make it specific to individual, benefit from use of the power of creative energy, and make the therapy aesthetic and attractive.
Art therapy emphasizes the importance of improvisational, uninterrupted and spontaneous creation. Could you clarify this?
Olcay GUNER: Let me explain it this way; having observed painters for months, Csikszent Mihalyi admired their concentration mostly. Painters were painting in a state of trance, forgetting about eating, drinking and their tiredness. Once they completed painting, they were hanging that painting on a wall and going back to their normal lives like nothing happened. After examining hundreds of painters, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi understood that the feeling of real happiness and flow is experienced during the process of doing art.
The flow is characterized by: The feelings of happiness, deep concentration, emotional dynamism, an increased feeling of superiority, losing oneself and personal superiority. Csikszentmihalyi called all of these feelings “flow”. Clients that receive art therapy experience such deep concentration and let themselves go with the flow. The clients that are involved in the flow perceive their works as a gift, and yet these works include many elements that must be addressed in psychotherapy.
Would it be right to say that following the art and culture activities in daily life might be as healing as the case studies given in this book?
Dr.Olcay GUNER: We can perhaps suggest that culture and art activities in our daily life have some improving, growing and even balancing effects, however this is certainly not equivalent to art psychotherapy. For instance, sometimes a work of art may trigger a negative experience that is located in a hidden part of our mind. Therefore we may be disturbed by such work of art. However, tolerating what disturbs us rather than avoiding it, trying to see it in an unbiased way, and finding what is in us in a work of art can improve us. Our clients also sometimes reject and do not like a work of art that expresses lots of things about them, just because it is in a wrong form. In sessions, when we want them to look at those works with tolerance instead of being alienated, we can observe that they notice many important clues about themselves and improve accordingly. In brief, helpful things may not always be presented to us in a well-packaged form. In that case, unpacking and examining those disliked packages may be important since they include some significant tips for improvement. And works of art may sometimes provide us with a balance.
Our feelings may shift from one border to another. For instance, we can feel very successful or incompetent. Art can provide a balance between these highly concentrated states for all of us. If you have a still life, a very complicated and complex work can balance you. And a very calming work may provide balance if you have a very complicated life.
Shortly, what we watch, what we prefer and what we don’t like can provide us some clues about ourselves but I’m saying it over and over again that this doesn’t turn out to be art therapy. We cannot suggest that there will be “healing” by this way.
Would you recommend art therapy with children and adults spontaneously (family-oriented)? Are there such examples?
O.G.-N.D.: Art Therapy can be applied individually or as a group. Group therapy can be applied on individuals with the same problem (individuals that have undergone a mass trauma, people with the same disease; for instance cancer patients group) as well as groups consisting of family members. It is possible to apply art therapy on parents and children spontaneously. Family and art therapy practices not only help solve the relational problems in the family but also serve as a guide for parents in subjects such as parenthood and setting limits, provide social skills for children and correct their behaviours, and help them in determining roles in a family.
Sometimes parents consult us complaining that their children do not obey the rules. Applying art therapy on all the members of family, observing the behaviour patterns of parents towards their children, understanding how the children perceive their parents, monitoring their relations and how they work together, and then showing the family a path to follow can help solving many problems. There are many examples of art therapy applied on families all around the world. Families receive art therapy in many problematic areas such as autistic children and their families, children with chronic diseases and their parents, families with addiction problems and their children.
Do you have any points to emphasize for the psychotherapists and public in general?
Dr. Olcay GUNER: Applying the activities in this book will not be meaningful for an individual who has never received art therapy training or experienced art therapy. It is not possible to master art therapy by attending the theoretical trainings only. Experience is the only way to learn about what happens in art therapy.
Reading and attending theoretical seminars will support and deepen what you have experienced in art therapy as well as provide a solid foundation for them; but they are insufficient on their own.
If you are interested in art therapy, you must pay attention to four elements: Being engaged in a kind of art, experiencing art therapy, receiving theoretical training, and reading. Not only us, but also psychotherapists that have been applying art therapy for long years and those that have completed their education in the field of art therapy keep receiving applied art therapy trainings. We reach to a deeper point and learn new things in each application.
And our recommendation for the clients that want to attend art psychotherapy is: Please question the training of your therapist. Where and how long the therapists have studied psychology, psychotherapy and art therapy is very important. Unfortunately, including art in therapies has become popular nowadays. The fact that many incompetent people are trying to perform psychotherapy and include art into therapy is an issue observed by Art Psychotherapy Association in sorrow. As an effort to create a solution for this problem to some extent, Training Commission of our association is working on establishing training criteria on Art Psychotherapy. We are about to come to a conclusion. I hope these efforts will contribute in application of art therapy by competent people only.