You’re a what?
In high school, art helped Raja Aossey cope with the loss of a family member. Now she helps others harness the healing powers of art.
Raja is an art therapist. She designs and guides art activities to enhance the well-being of students with special needs.
What they do
Art therapists work in different settings with different types of clients. Some, like Raja, are in schools, where they work with students of all ages and meet with them in groups or one-on-one. Many others work in medical settings, such as community clinics and psychiatric hospitals, where they may help people who have a physical or mental illness. Still others have their own practice, serving clients with various needs.
But no matter where they work or who their clients are, art therapists use art and psychology on the job.
Art. Every client has different needs, but Raja says that for some, the process of creating may be valuable on its own. “The inherent act of making art, getting your body involved with what you’re making, is beneficial,” she says. For example, people who have trouble focusing may become more grounded when working with clay. Using paints, in contrast, can help people release emotion.
Art therapists design projects using their understanding of how art media and techniques can influence people. For example, Raja may ask students to create an image showing parts of their past that they would like to leave behind. Then, she may have them create an image that depicts their future and shows the positive elements they hope to build on. “It helps them think about what they want to change about themselves, what they want to be,” she says.
Psychology. Knowledge of psychology allows an art therapist to help clients understand themselves and work toward specific goals. The art therapist engages clients in reflection about the art that they have created. “It’s about exploring things they’re trying to process that they can’t verbally communicate,” says Raja. “Sometimes they’re not ready to talk, but just having a person there helps.”
When clients are ready to process their thoughts, the art therapist might discuss ways to help them deal with whatever they’re facing. For example, an art therapist might work with clients to develop coping skills or strategies for changing behavior.
Other tasks. Art therapists also do assessments, write treatment plans and summary reports, and discuss a client’s progress with colleagues. And they keep up with research and techniques, among other duties.
Art therapists who have their own practice usually have additional responsibilities, such as billing clients and promoting their business.
Rewards and challenges
Art therapy has many rewards. Perhaps most satisfying for art therapists is when they see the positive effect their work has on others.
But dealing with people isn’t always easy—and art therapists must work with clients who already face difficulties. For example, some clients may become aggressive toward others, leading to unsafe situations.
Art therapists often approach the challenging aspects of their work in the same way that they suggest clients do it: through creative self-expression. “Personal artmaking helps me to process what’s going on or how I’m feeling,” says Raja.
To be an art therapist, you must be creative and have a passion for helping others. You also need excellent listening and communication skills, patience, and an interest in human behavior.
Prepare for an art therapy career by getting a feel for the work. For example, you could volunteer with populations in a setting that art therapists typically serve, such as with cancer patients in a hospital. If the occupation appeals to you, you’ll first have to earn a bachelor’s degree; possible majors include studio art and psychology. Then, you’ll need a master’s degree in art therapy, which may also include coursework in counseling.
Most accredited art therapy programs at colleges and universities require applicants to submit a portfolio of artwork and a transcript of course credits in studio art and psychology. Graduate programs usually include a practicum, which involves observation and practice for course credit. You’ll also need to complete an internship, in which you gain supervised experience working with clients or patients.
Licensing varies by state. In some states, these workers become licensed as art therapists. Other states allow people to work as art therapists if they are licensed in another field, such as professional counseling. Professional credentials, including registration and certification, are available from the Art Therapy Credentials Board.
Jobs and pay
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not collect data on art therapists. Instead, BLS estimates include this occupation among “therapists, all other,” of which 11,770 were employed in May 2014 with a median annual wage of $55,900. The American Art Therapy Association has about 5,000 members in the United States, and its 2013 survey found that most of these art therapists have an annual salary of between $30,000 and $80,000.
Although the association estimates that the number of these workers is increasing, positions might not have the job title of art therapist. “If you’re looking just for art therapy jobs, you might not find too many,” says Raja. “But if you’re looking for community jobs where you can apply what you’ve learned, which for me meant considering licensed professional counselor positions, there are a lot more options.”
And, says Raja, no matter what it’s called, this work is rewarding. “I love the relationship I get to build with the students and seeing their excitement,” she says. “That excitement they have makes me want to go to work every day.”
Elka Torpey, "Art therapist," Career Outlook, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, April 2015.