Lifestyle / Psychological

Art therapy at Rhodes

By Jesame’ Geldenhuys

Pablo Picasso once said that “Art washes from the soul the dust of everyday life.” With this in mind, it is easy to understand the rise of Art therapy as a therapeutic practice.

Eight years ago, a collaboration between two friends; Jan Knoetze, Rhodes University Psychology lecturer, and art therapist Eloff Snyman, sparked the introduction of an art therapy course in the Rhodes Psychology post-graduate curriculum. Since then it has paved the way in South African academia as being the only kind of academic art therapy course in the country.

Art therapy is a form of expressive therapy that uses traditional art methods (such as painting and drawing) and creativity to improve a person’s physical, mental and emotional well-being. Although it only began as a profession in the mid-20th century, evidence has shown that the creative process involved when expressing oneself artistically can help resolve issues, manage feelings, reduce stress, and improve self-esteem and awareness.

Art Therapy is particularly a new breath of air for South Africa as no training in the field is offered in our country, even though the profession is recognized by the South African Medical and Dental Council. But since Snyman returned to Grahamstown 10 years ago, he has painted the town with art therapy; providing a safe space where he practices it, and in his post-graduate course.

Art therapy is non-directive as it mostly aims to give a person a space of “Illumination, realization, self-knowledge, return of confidence and discovery,” Snyman explains. He says that art therapy is all about creating a safe environment in which anyone can come to express themselves and whatever challenges they are facing, “Within the space of expressive activity is the platform for healing and an opportunity to process information and life,” he says.

Greg Wilmot, a Counselling and Sport Psychologist and former student in the post-graduate course, states “Sometimes it is too painful or uncomfortable to grapple with something that is buried in the unconscious. Equally, if one is looking to give their unconscious a bit of room to “speak”… Art therapy gives that space.”

Snyman explains that external environments are usually controlled and judged. “Eventually the mind tires of that and you need something a bit more meaningful.” Using different mediums and innovative expressive methods, the aim is to follow the narrative of unconscious expression and illuminate the symbolism. These expressive methods come in a variety of creative tools. Wilmot explains a particular favourite technique that he encountered in the art therapy course as ‘unconscious scribbling.’ Using your non-dominant hand and your eyes closed, you have to draw, scribble and explore the paper with your medium. “You eventually start running out of conscious ideas and begin to create shapes and patterns that are derived purely from your unconscious,” he says.

The therapist and client then work together in trying to understand the individual’s personal process. “The art object itself is also a means in which communication can occur between the art student and art therapist,” says Amy Christie, a current student in the art therapy course. An important part of the Art therapy process is in internalizing the creative expression and understanding it, which in turn leads to an increased awareness of self. “There’s a theory that to talk about something destroys it – I say that’s wrong. How you talk about it; subtly, respectfully, is what it’s about,” says Snyman.

Wilmot explains that as Psychologists, it is encouraged to use a range of therapeutic tools to match with the needs of the client. “Art therapy offers a chance to do just that. Further, being able to tangibly but safely gain insight into one’s own psyche is hugely important for Psychologists of all levels of experience,” he says, when explaining the benefits of the course offered at Rhodes.

  • The British artist Adrian Hill coined the term ‘art therapy’ in 1942
  • Art therapy as a profession began in the mid-20th century, arising independently in English-speaking and European countries

Some Art therapy methods include:

  • Painting/drawing with non-dominant hand
  • Blind-folding
  • Barefoot walking/exploring blind-folded to focus on senses
  • Unconscious scribbling
  • Colour therapy (chromotherapy)

For an interesting little clip on how Art therapy works in action, check out this link:


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