Having spent the first 9 years of my career in Los Angeles before moving to Salt Lake City means that I still have many personal and professional ties to Southern California. As an alumna of the Marital and Family Therapy/Clinical Art Therapy Program at Loyola Marymount University, I’m always interested in what’s going on at my alma mater and try to participate as much as possible. For the past 4 years, I’ve traveled to Los Angeles in the spring to attend their annual Art Therapy Research Symposium.
No matter how much you love art therapy and believe in its magic, one thing is clear: the field of art therapy suffers from a lack of solid empirical research and outcome studies. Sure, the American Art Therapy Association has a peer-reviewed journal, graduate programs are encouraged to teach sound research methods to their students, and new art therapy Ph.D programs are starting to crop up around the country (psst: here’s the one I would attend if I could bend time and space), but we still lag behind other mental health professions and interventions when it comes to demonstrating art therapy’s healing power in a way that holds water for doctors, scientists, universities, etc.
Frankly, it’s not enough to say, “Just trust us! It works!” anymore. Art therapy does work, but in today’s environment it’s increasingly important to be able to communicate how, why, when, with whom, and under what circumstances art therapy is most effective.
This year’s symposium keynote speaker was Linda Gantt, a renowned art therapy researcher who developed one of the few validated and reliable art therapy assessment tools we have. Her project, the Formal Elements Art Therapy Scale (FEATS), is one of the pioneering art therapy research assessment tool.
During one portion of her presentation, she handed out around 80 examples of clients’ FEATS assessment artwork and asked us to try, without training in using the assessment, to categorize the drawings by age, diagnosis, etc. In a room full of art therapists, it was interesting how much agreement (and, sometimes, disagreement) there could be on these simple tasks.
It really drove home for me how important it is to develop tools, experience, and language to communicate exactly what it is we are seeing in the art, rather than just relying on our intuition or personal preferences. The good news is that, according to the FEATS and Dr. Gantt’s lifetime of work, there do seem to be observable trends and criteria to help us better understand and serve our clients.