Interview with Teresa Woodruff, Founder and Director of Art It Out Therapy Center

Interview Q&A with Teresa Woodruff and Lisa Heidle

Prof Pic of TeresaTeresa Woodruff is the founder and director of Art It Out Therapy Center in Atlanta, Georgia. The Center opened in 2009 with Teresa as the only therapist. Very quickly, she added another therapist and today the Center has five therapists, administrative staff and interns. Teresa shares the path that led her to Art Therapy, how art is used in therapy, what makes a good Art Therapist, and steps to take to become an Art Therapist.


LH: What made you want to go into Art Therapy?

TW: When I was young, I always loved art. I thought I would be an artist or an art teacher when I grew up. I loved making art and being creative. Throughout college, I realized that I used creativity as my own therapy. If I had a very stressful day, I found that drawing or painting was truly calming for me. The calming effects that art had on me led me to research the numerous positive effects of creative expression, and I came across Art Therapy. I learned that if someone is having trouble expressing their thoughts or emotions, they often can express it creatively. Even thoughts and feelings that are difficult to communicate verbally, people are usually able to express them through art. I realized that it was my calling to help people and that I could do so by using a combination of art and therapy.

LH: What does it mean to be a licensed Art Therapist?

TW: Art Therapists are extensively trained in using art to help clients achieve their goals. To become an Art Therapist, you must attend a Master’s Program that is accredited by the American Art Therapy Association (AATA). Most programs consist of 60 credit hours. After graduation, therapists must receive continued supervision from a Board-Certified Art Therapist. You can become a Registered Art Therapist (ATR) after 1,000 client contact hours. After you pass a board-certifying examination, you can call yourself a Board-Certified Registered Art Therapist (ATR-BC).

LH: Define Art Therapy and how it is used in a therapeutic session?

Art Therapists work in various ways. I work in a cognitive behavioral manner and also use a directive approach, which is rare in an Art Therapist. A directive approach means that as a therapist, I come up with art activities (also called interventions) tailored to the client’s needs and goals.

For example, if I am working with a client whose goal is to gain frustration management skills and learn to calm himself when he is frustrated, we may work together to create a clay volcano. While creating the volcano, we may discuss how anger can build inside people just like lava builds inside the volcano. If we do not find an appropriate way to release our anger, it can cause us to erupt or act out in a harmful way. The visual symbol of the volcano can help clients understand how anger can build, how truly harmful eruptions are, and we can process frustrating events and speak of them as eruptions. Together in session, we may make the volcano erupt and discuss the client’s feelings about the eruption. The clients take artwork home after sessions, and the artwork itself serves as a tangible reminder to implement the skills we are working on.

In an average session, the client will create artwork based on his or her goal, we will process the artwork, discuss specific skills and talk about how the client can try to use the skills in his or her life. Clients often receive homework, because this can help the skills translate to their lives outside of the therapy room.

LH: Can you explain Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?

TW: Cognitive behavioral therapy is based on the idea that our thoughts affect our behavior. If we can change our thoughts, we can change our behaviors. For example, if your sister eats the last chocolate chip cookie, you may think: “She knew I wanted that cookie. She only ate it to be mean to me. She hates me. She always does this to me.” Thinking these negative thoughts may lead you to become extremely angry, act out, and possibly hurt your sister. On the other hand, you could think: “Maybe she just wanted that cookie. I’ll bet I can ask Mom to make more. It’s really no big deal.” These type of thoughts are going to help you remain calm, help you calmly and nicely ask mom to make more cookies, and you likely will not hurt anyone or lose control.

The belief is that if we can control our thoughts and think positive thoughts, we will be more in control of our actions and our lives would be better. In working with clients with anxiety, it is an empirically-based and well-studied treatment modality that is extremely effective. And many of our clients have anxiety.

LH: How does Art Therapy differ from traditional talk therapy?

TW: With a lot of children, I find that it is very difficult for a child to come into a therapist’s office, sit on a couch, and begin talking. Engaging in an activity makes it less threatening to talk, they are not forced to make eye-contact, the atmosphere is relaxed, they are engaging their creative right-brain (the emotional side), and they are invested in the project they are working on (making them happy to be in the therapist’s office).

When children draw pictures, we are then able to talk about the characters in the pictures as if they have their own thoughts and feelings. For example, if a child draws a family portrait, she may be more willing to talk about how her character in the drawing feels, what she likes and dislikes, and what she thinks about certain events. For many children, talking about the drawing is less-threatening than talking about their own feelings.

In Art Therapy, we use clay, make jewelry, paintings, oil pastels, watercolors—we use a variety of art mediums. When the therapist is excited about the mediums, our clients are excited too. At Art It Out, we try to use things that are different and fun.

LH: What do you think are the essential characteristics for an Art Therapist?

It’s important that an Art Therapist is creative. To be an Art Therapist, I don’t think you have to be good at art but I do believe it’s important that you have knowledge of a variety of art mediums. For example, if you are working with a client who struggles reading facial expressions, encouraging them to take pictures of different facial expressions would be helpful. You should know enough about photography to give them some basic knowledge of the medium. If they are using oil pastels, you should know how to help them get the affects they want. It’s often that I’m working with a client and they will get frustrated by their art work. Getting clients to problem solve as they are working on something is a big part of Art Therapy; however, if a client is completely stuck and truly can’t solve the problem, it’s important that the therapist knows what might lead them to the solution. Sometimes that includes an art technique or trying different materials to help them get the affect they want.

LH: What characteristics do you look for when hiring other therapists?

TW: I have found that when hiring therapists, it is most important that their personalities and their abilities fit with our mission. At Art It Out, we look for therapists who appreciate cognitive behavioral therapy; who have experience working with people who struggle with anxiety, depression, and social skill deficits; and who truly value using creative and unique art activities. We have weekly supervision where we discuss different Art Therapy aspects and how to best help our clients.

LH: What advice would you give someone who is considering becoming an Art Therapist?

TW: Years ago the Art Therapy programs were solely Art Therapy programs. About twenty years ago, many of those programs shifted to Art Therapy programs that also encompass counseling, social work or marriage and family therapy. I have found today that if you are only an Art Therapist and you are not also a licensed professional counselor or licensed marriage and family therapist, your employment opportunities are going to be limited. For example, in the state of Georgia, Art Therapy is not yet a license. That means you cannot be reimbursed by insurance if you are an Art Therapist and not also a licensed professional counselor. My best advice to someone considering becoming an Art Therapist would be to attend a 60-hour Master’s Program and make sure that you are going to meet licensing requirements as a licensed professional counselor or marriage and family counselor in the state you live in. This dual license will likely improve your chances of finding a job that you want.


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