What is experiential arts therapy? (in everyday language)

I feel like a lot of the time, a lot of people aren’t really sure what arts therapy is. 

When I mention to people that this is what I am doing, I get a range of interesting responses.

Which is fair enough, because we don’t ever know what something is until we try it, and even then, there are lots of different versions.

So here is a brief explanation, to try to make it a bit clearer!

When we are asked to tell our story, we always tell the story that we know. We know what our problems are, the reasons why this probably is, we know how to tell it in a way that makes sense. But when we do this, we only tell what we already know.

And most of the time, this doesn’t help us, or it stands to reason that perhaps it already would have?

When we do arts therapy, we can use arts modalities, or types of creative art, to learn new things, things that are unknown to us. 

For instance, if instead of telling the same story you’ve told a hundred times you try to draw something that stood out to you from a significant moment of your experience, you will do this in a way you do not already know.

You may learn something new about that moment. 

What if you use your hands to sculpt clay or playdough to represent the feeling of an experience? Will your hands will tell their version of the story? Will you learn something new about your experience?

If you use your body to create a gesture to express an emotion that was unexpectedly triggered by that thing that seems really small and inconsequential but keeps happening, your body, which remembers everything that has happened, will be able to tell you something about the emotion that is triggered.

Creative expression is a powerful thing!

In our society, we often think that only certain people are ‘artists’ once they grow up, and that the rest of us lost that ability. This is not true. We get unused to exercising our creativity sometimes, but we don’t lose it, and we can still access it at any point in our life.

There are so many things that are creative – you don’t have to be a professional painter, or actor, or singer – you might enjoy doing these things, but you can be creative by gardening, cooking, taking photos on your phone, the placement of objects on your shelf, the way you dress in the morning.

And all of these things can tell you something about yourself and your inner truth.

So, if you come in to do arts inquiry, or arts therapy – I like to look at it as researching into yourself. Thus the word inquiry

So what does an Arts Therapy session actually entail? 

We begin by sharing a safe space together with lots of creative materials. 

You will be invited to think of something that feels important in your life right now, that you want to look at. You may then be invited to think of a moment where that issue or thing was particularly apparent. (So much of our hidden inner worlds can be present in such moments.) 

You will be invited to make something creative about this.

Some examples of the types of things you might make could be: painting, drawing, movement (gesture / dance), singing, playing the handpan, playing other percussion, writing, making installations, playing with playdough, playing with nature things like leaves, sand or grass, choosing picture postcards from a large selection. (Or absolutely anything else that comes to you at the time!)

We will then engage with a process of making creative things, asking questions about them, and making more creative things, as a way of learning more about the issue that they are interested in. We go through a series of procedures to use your artworks to learn more. We work out what your values are about this issue, and if there are values conflicts present. We try to work out how you would prefer to be with that issue. Your preferred way of being.

Each session will go differently, all depending on you and your process. It’s an entirely emergent process.

So, if you have been thinking that you are not creative any more, or that you lost that ability as a child – think through some of the huge range of things you do in your life. I’m sure you’ll find there are many things where you are immensely creative. ​

Even if we have lost some of what we knew as a child, thankfully our brains renew, and rebuild, and such things can always be regained.

And so the journey to the unknown begins!

– Written by Cara Phillips – 


Cara is a MIECAT trained Arts Therapist based in Perth, Western Australia. 

She has worked in theatre and film, specialising in devising shows and films with different groups in the community about things that are of interest them.

Cara has strong values around the intersubjective connection between people.  She lives to dance in this space……….


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