Can Art Heal Trauma?
Meet the therapist helping her clients through artwork.
Amelia Hutchison, a Canadian art therapist, spoke to INJECTION all about how she began art therapy, the work she does and the misconceptions behind it.
First of all, how did it all begin? What made you want to become an art therapist and how did you go about doing so?
Creativity has been my own best ally in moving through grief and trauma. Early in my life, I experienced how painting could hold experiences that were hard to put into words - art helped me make sense of the senseless. As a teenager, I felt drawn to the idea of art as a tool for mental health care.
I began by studying fine art at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. At art school, I felt like I didn’t fit in. I wanted to make work that was more about the emotional transformation that happened in the process, so I focused on community arts; using creativity as a tool for social justice and community.
From there, I moved back home to Canada to study art therapy at a small school that specialises in land-based healing and anti-oppressive therapy practice. These days I work online with adults and focus on issues related to burnout, hustle culture, and social media use. I’m interested in using art therapy to challenge the wellness industrial complex and the attention economy.
Take me through a typical art therapy session, how does it differ from conventional therapy?
Instead of using conversation to explore emotions (traditional talk therapy), in art therapy I support clients to create art as a way of regulating their nervous system, gaining insight, or processing emotions. Every session looks different! Sometimes I’ll prepare an activity to explore a specific topic. Other times I’ll support my client in making something spontaneous.
After my client has created something (visual art, poetry, movement, etc...) we will look at the art and talk about what they see and how the process felt. I combine techniques from counseling, psychotherapy, and expressive arts to help the people I work with explore the meaning in their creative process.
What kind of feedback do you get from clients? How do they compare it to conventional therapy?
I think people are often surprised by the things that come up in their art making. When we make space to create spontaneously and without a final product in mind, it’s possible to reach a flow state or uncover things that aren’t obvious to our conscious minds. This is one reason it’s really important to be trauma-informed as an art therapist.
I also think many of us don’t have regular opportunities to be away from screens. The folks I work with often talk about how radical and affirming it feels to make things with their hands again. The act of creating seems so simple, but I think it’s one of the best tools we have for staying tethered to ourselves when we spend lots of time online. I think art is real self-care.
Have you ever received any kind of backlash about the work that you do?
Less than personal backlash, I’m challenged by systemic issues that come with working in mental health care. Therapy can feel hierarchical and disempowering if a therapist isn’t deliberately working to disrupt the traditional model; where they are the “expert” and know their clients better than they know themselves. In my practice I aim to share that power and help clients tap into their own sense of agency and self-knowing.
I also think it’s challenging to support people in their mental health when our ideas about “wellness” are so shaped by capitalism, colonialism, individualism, and white supremacy. I talk a lot with clients about the systems we live within and try to help them to shift away from feelings of personal responsibility for collective problems.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about art therapy?
Some people believe art therapy isn’t real therapy! It can be misunderstood as “just arts and crafts” when actually it is rooted in counselling and psychotherapy. Art therapists are practitioners with master’s level training - similar to counsellors and social workers.
What would you say to somebody who is interested in art therapy but skeptical about it?
I would say that you don’t need any experience or skill to benefit from art therapy. It’s so much more about the process than the final product. An art therapist can support you in feeling more comfortable with art materials and learn to use them in ways that are very different from an art class.
The wonderful thing about art therapy is that you get to explore yourself in ways that go beyond language. It can be so empowering to express yourself in colour, shape, movement, poetry, and more... I encourage people to look into art therapy if you’re curious about creative ways to care for yourself.