The Art of Life: Art Therapy

Healing through art therapy

By David Reese/Montana Health Journal


Bright autumn sun streams into Allyson Norwood Bush's art studio in a brick building in Kalispell.

     A painting on an easel depicts a large tree, with a solitary elk standing beneath it. Shelves on the other side of the studio are lined with small clay caricatures, masks and other artwork. A small, wooden table sits in the center of the room, with two chairs.

Here in this bright, simple studio Bush does her work as an art therapist. Here she helps clients create peace in their lives by creating art.

     Art has always been a window to the soul. Creating art in a nurturing, safe environment in a clinical therapy setting is a way for Bush to help clients through a wide range of emotional challenges.



It might be a simple sketch on piece of paper. Or a series of cartoons, or a papier mache mask. Whatever the medium the client and she choose, the process of creating art begins the conversation between the client and Bush, the art therapist.

Art therapy involves two concepts: that the creative process itself is therapeutic for the person practicing it; and the products of making art are helpful in communicating ideas between the client, self, therapist and others.

Art therapy is not new in clinical settings, but it is fairly new in Montana, where the Montana Art Therapy Association has recently taken root. Norwood Bush is one of a few registered art therapists in Montana. She earned a master’s degree in art therapy from New York University in 1997.

Art often delves into the unconscious, tapping into psychoanalytic theory. “There is so much that comes out in the artwork and the relationship to the artwork itself,” Bush said. “It’s like there are three people in the room.”

Art therapy is especially useful in situations with young children, who might otherwise not be able to verbally portray feelings. Art therapy is a way for a client and the therapist to create a metaphor for self, a token that is separate — yet accessible — for a conversation of the self. This helps the art therapist to increase flexibility in therapy, decrease rigidity, and allow the client to take chances and explore their outside world and their relationship to it.

Flathead Valley Art Therapy owner Allyson Norwood Bush

Flathead Valley Art Therapy owner Allyson Norwood Bush, right, with a client. Brenda  Ahearn photo

     Bush says there is a great distinction between a registered art therapist and a therapist who might use art in clinical practice. The use of art can be a powerful tool in therapy, unlocking places in a client’s unconscious that an untrained therapist might not be adept at handling. Registered art therapists are master’s prepared artists and therapists who undergo years of training and supervision specific to their field. “If therapists want to offer art making in their practice that’s ok. It’s also important that the therapist actually be an artist, she said. “Art bypasses the verbal censors. It gets to the heart of the matter very quickly. It’s much easier to see yourself in the art, because it’s a visual, living record of the session.”

     With this kind of power inherent in art therapy, there has to be an ethical side to using art as therapy. “It’s a fast track of getting to the core issues, if a person is willing,” Bush added. “But it can also uncover a lot of pathology that the person might want to avoid.”

Art therapy is also indicated for use with people who have post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety, Bush said.

In addition to the final product of the art and the conversation it endows, the process, itself, of creating art can be therapeutic. “Often a therapy session might involve just me watching a client make art,” she said. Often it may be a time for a client to relax and reflect, perhaps the only time allowed during a hectic week.

One client, for instance, began by drawing the hands of a clock. This led to what Bush said was a surprising discussion of how the client was fearful of growing older. “It was surprising because the client was not consciously thinking of growing older when drawing, but only afterward, when addressing her art, found that this issue was a central theme in her life that was causing some anxiety,” Bush said. “My goal is to help people make sense of their lives.”


     There may be clinical analysis in the art process, but there is no judgment of the quality or the method of creating the art. “The art is what the client says it is,” she said. “I allow the client to come to their own conclusions.”

Bush said art therapy is useful for adults, but it’s often indicated for children. Unless they identify as artists, people often stop doing artwork around the age of 14, she said. But art-making is a very useful, therapeutic tool because art helps people come up with a new ending to a story in a way you can’t do when you’re verbally trying to control the ending.”

For example, one of her clients spent months working on a project to create a blanket and a model of a small child. The process and the art helped nurture a conversation between Bush and her client to help the client resolve issues about his childhood. The process was therapeutic in that the soft fleece patchwork blanket required daily, repetitive movement and attention to the fine detail of sewing pieces together. The child seemed to need this grounding to feel safe in his body and to learn to be present in the moment. The baby he created then had a warm, nurturing environment and thus he metaphorically began to care for and nurture the baby in himself. “We couldn’t have ever talked about that,” she said. “It was way too big. Sometimes there are no words.”

   While art therapy is relatively new in Montana, it’s catching on. Kalispell Regional Medical Center recently launched a program using art therapy for patients in cancer treatment, which will begin in March 2013.

“What’s art therapy?’ is a common question I get,” Bush said.

There are currently seven registered art therapists in Montana, and they are the founding members of the Montana Art Therapy Association. The public and healthcare institutions in Montana are getting used to this movement in clinical therapy.

   There are no training programs in Montana for art therapy, and Bush said she’s hoping to change that. “When it comes to the arts,” she said, “people sometimes feel skeptical about their use in our lives.”

Art therapy, like other counseling modalities, is relationship based. Everything happens within the context of a trusting, honest rapport. “I really like that, as opposed to being silent and observant,” Bush said.

As an artist, being an art therapist combines two of her passions in life: art, and helping others. “I have the perfect job,” Bush said. “All of my best experiences in life are in art.”

On the Web: Flathead Valley Art Therapy:




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