Creating a Healing Art Therapy Space
Five Considerations

By Duanita G. Eleniak, MSW RCSW ATR BCATR RCAT

Creating a healing art therapy space requires careful thought. Here are 5 considerations that come up frequently during supervision of art therapists about to go into private practice.

Working in More than One Space

Before I created the Healing Studio on West Esplanade in North Vancouver, I worked in an office in East Vancouver as part of a family and children’s mental health team. We were fortunate to be able to have quite a nice playroom that three therapists shared.

Having two spaces to work out of (my office and the playroom) posed some creative challenges. For example, I really liked Marie Jose Dhaese’s (my mentor) way of ending sessions with children. She would light a candle and the child would center, breathe and blow out the candle. I could not leave a candle in the common playroom, so I began the wish basket. In a beautiful basket (with a handle) I placed a candle. I could take the basket into whichever location I happened to be working with the children. At the end of session I would light the candle, give the child an opportunity to center and then blow out the candle. This easily solved the challenge of not knowing which space I would be working in. It also very quickly took a life of its own. Children began to leave things in the basket. Each time they came back they would be certain to see if their ‘treasure’ was still there. The wish basket, originally designed to accommodate the fact that I had two spaces, began to be a therapeutic container that could hold the children symbolically between sessions.

Many of the art therapists I see face similar challenges of having more than one space to work out of. There are many ways to meet such a challenge. Most develop an ‘office’ in the trunk of their car where they carry the tools they need. If this is your situation, and you have many locations, a little imagination goes a long way to bridge and transition yourself.

Storage

Another crucial thing to think about regarding a space for doing art therapy is storage. Many products can be created during a very short space of time. If you are planning to keep these until the end of therapy, plan on having a lot of storage space. You will need space for flat work as well as three-dimensional clay and sculpture work.

A drying wall is a great idea if you see client’s one after another. You can hang their pictures face side in until they are dry thus protecting confidentiality. Ensuring that storage space can be locked and closed is also an important consideration regarding confidentiality. If these elements are in place, nonverbally you are communicating to your clients that you will protect their process and honor their privacy. This element also prevents a lot of conversations with child clients that go like this, “What is that?” (Referring to another child’s art). “Well that is someone else’s work so I cannot tell you about it. I can’t talk about their work just like I keep yours private.” Out of sight, out of mind and the element of privacy is communicated immediately and concretely.

Some therapists take pictures of the art work and keep the pictures for their records while allowing the art to go home. Whether to allow client’s to take their work home or not is a controversial issue. Your decision will depend on the client, safety factors in the home, your own ideas about confidentiality and the therapeutic process, etc.

Sharing Space

The most important thing to think about when considering sharing a space with others is whether or not your ideas about space are compatible. Sharing space is a common experience for many art therapists beginning their private practices. Before you share, ask yourselves the following questions:

1. What are your standards of cleanliness in a studio/playroom/art room? It is very energy draining to have to go into a playroom early before sessions each time and clean up someone else’s mess. Conversely, if cleanliness is not a big deal for you, it gets very irritating to have a partner who keeps telling you to clean up or to blow the sand off the sand tray shelves before you leave. Ideally, your studio mate will have similar values to you around cleanliness.

2. What is your philosophy regarding toys and art materials? Are you o.k. with having second hand toys and art materials from garage sales? Or do you only like to give your client’s new toys? Are you o.k. having dirty or broken pastels in the playroom…or do you insist that all pastels/crayons, etc. be new and clean?

3. Are there any toys/art materials that you or your share person cannot stand to have in a healing space? Are guns okay in the playroom? Is powder tempera paint okay (note that powder paint is a health hazard since the powder can be inhaled and will turn into paint in a person’s lungs)? In one share situation I was in, one of the play therapists could not stand the sound of blocks being poured out. They could not easily be part of the playroom.

4. Do you like to set up art materials in a similar way?

5. Are your schedules compatible?

Studio Rules

Related to the issues of trust and safety are the studio rules. Basically I keep them very simple. Some examples of rules I have to give are: 1) No one gets hurt in the studio. It is my job to keep people safe. I usually need to give this rule if a child gets overenthusiastic about playing with the toy sword, for example; and 2) No toys leave the studio. Children inevitably ask me if they can take a toy home. My usual response is, “No. All of the toys have to stay here so that others can come and play with them too and so that you always have what you need every time you come. If you need something to take home we can make you something.”

Accessibility

During the initial phases of my private practice I received many referrals simply because my space was wheel chair accessible. This factor can greatly influence the type of clientele referred to you. How many stairs do you need to ascend to your studio? Could a Grandma climb them easily? What are the elevators like to get to your studio? Do they creak and groan and give a child a fright before they even get to you? What is parking like around your place? Consider all of the factors your clients will have to encounter on their visit to you because all of these factors make up their total experience.

Just as in buying a home, location is of primary consideration when you begin your practice. Your location and accessibility to the location will determine the amount and type of clientele you build.

Conclusion

These are only 5 points to consider when setting up your art therapy or expressive therapies practice.

What other considerations have you had to deal with in your career? Feel free to share your story with other in the Mentoring Community forum.

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