Creative art therapy has its roots in the psychoanalytic teachings of Sigmund Freud. Freud was the first to attribute psychological significance to the content of dreams, fantasies and misstatements (“Freudian slips”). Freud paved the way for modern psychology to interpret symbols, but he was stuck in a narrow interpretation that all symbols point to penis envy or castration fears. Thankfully, Carl Jung and other modern psychologists moved our understanding of symbols forward. As Janie Rhyne, author of The Gestalt Art Experience, explains: “I am not intimidated by sexual problems in the art forms; I just find it a bit absurd to go snooping around for covert sexual symbols when overt ones are so fully displayed” (p. 82).
Thanks to the groundwork of Freud and Jung, therapists in the early decades of the twentieth century accepted art symbols to be revealing of emotion. Then in the 1940s, art therapy emerged as a therapeutic modality. One of the first practitioners, Margaret Naumburg, relied heavily on psychoanalytic theory and practice. She would ask clients to draw spontaneously and then interpret their pictures through free association. Since that time, practically every branch of psychology has found applications for artwork in therapy.
Art therapy gives the client a more holistic medium of communication. Instead of struggling to put feelings into a linear format of one word after another, the client can spill out all her feelings simultaneously without worrying about grammar, syntax or logic. Art is spatial; there is no time element. It’s much closer to the way the mind works when we think about our problems.