By: Alison Dowd

As a psychotherapist with training in art therapy, I am often asked what art therapy is and how it works. In grad school, I was encouraged to develop an effective elevator speech that promotes the efficacy of art therapy. I suppose the following words are my attempt to speak a more complicated, and truthful, relationship to this profession and practice. Additionally, I would like to guide folks to resources that call for all creative arts therapists to engage more critically and consciously with the political implications of our work.

In 2016, my art therapy graduate education coincided with the presidential election of Donald Trump and the subsequent appointments to his political administration, which stoked the embers of neonationalist hate rhetoric and galvanized White Supremacist ideologies across the United States and abroad. During these events, the American Art Therapy Association (AATA) enthusiastically endorsed Second Lady Karen Pence’s advocacy of art therapy with the presumed intent of good publicity which would be advantageous for recruitment and funding. Not only did Karen Pence make art therapy her public initiative in the White House, but she also actively supported anti-LGBTQ and anti-abortion policies of her husband, Mike Pence. Therefore, what emerged was a professional alliance with an administration that does not align with AATA ethical principles and standards. This emerging political context greatly influenced my understanding of art therapy as a politically charged practice.

Art therapists risk viewing our clinical work as operating separately from political discourse. By upholding standards of professional neutrality, practitioners passively collude with the dominant forces at play in American culture; including, but not limited to, poverty, ableism, racism, misogyny, ageism, xenophobia, heterosexism, settler colonialism, etc. In turn, these discriminatory forces marginalize the most vulnerable communities; the people mental health practitioners often espouse to support.  We must consider civic engagement as clinical intervention. 

I frequently grapple with my own participation in elite institutions (higher education and the mental health industrial complex) that propagate the harms they seek to remedy.  As a White, heteronormative, neurotypical, temporarily nondisabled, cisgender woman, my participation in the field of art therapy is continually affirmed through the material I encounter. Individuals who are supported by systems designed for them are able to successfully navigate through them. This navigational ease gives institutional access to certain people who, in turn, wield the power to influence and substantiate dominant frameworks. These biased perspectives are then institutionalized into practice, serving the interests of people from dominant groups at the expense of others. Art therapy is no exception to this pervasive dynamic of colonizing the consciousness of the socially, racially, and culturally marginalized.

I would like to guide folks to articles that have shaped my understanding of how structural oppression is operationalized within the creative arts therapies. The authors call for engagement with critical theory (including frameworks such as queer theory, disability studies, intersectional feminist theory, and critical race theory) to resist established practices. As I traversed my education during the Trump era, the following literature provided me with a constructive context within which to think about art therapy more expansively, beyond the clinical realm:


  • Sajnani (2012), a creative arts therapist, introduces the notion of response/ability as a cornerstone of practice for creative arts therapists. Response/ability, as defined by Sajnani, is the ability to respond to oppressive societal forces, including the social, cultural, and political experiences that generate community trauma and individual hardship.
    Sajnani, N. (2012) Response/ability: Imagining a critical race feminist paradigm for the creative arts therapies. Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, 39(3). 186-191.
  • Gipson (2015) writes about her own social location as a Black art therapist and educator to illustrate how it influences her practice. By centering marginalized narratives in predominantly White institutions, she interrogates messages of dominance in academic frameworks of art therapy practice.
    Gipson, L. (2015). Is cultural competence enough? Deepening social justice pedagogy in art therapy. Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, 32(3), 142-145.
  • “White civil rights rallies” have publicly re-materialized throughout the U.S. and these actions have emboldened white neonationalist hate speech and racist agendas under the pretense of civil rights advocacy. Hamrick & Byma (2017) reference the rise in hate speech and hate-based policies enacted by the Trump campaign, and call on White art therapists to acknowledge and dismantle the role of White Supremacy in art therapy practice and education. The authors address the importance of White art therapists serving as mentors for one another in order to dismantle toxic Whiteness and White fragility within art therapy.
    Hamrick, C., & Byma, C. (2017). Know history, know self: Art therapists’ responsibility to dismantle white supremacy. Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, 34(3), 106-111.
  • Concurrent with rising neonationalist sentiments, zero-tolerance immigration policies were brazenly promoted by the Trump administration, including an explicit ban on travel for people from seven Muslim-majority countries. Talwar (2017) calls attention to the ethical responsibility of creative arts therapists to politically engage when laws begin to violate basic human rights.
    Talwar, S. (2017). Ethics, law, and cultural competence in art therapy. Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, 34(3), 102-105.
    Kalmanowitz, D. (2016). Out of our mind: Art therapy and mindfulness with refugees, political violence and trauma. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 49. 57-65.
  • Karcher (2017) addresses the way the U.S. political climate is causing harm to LGBTQIA+ communities. Experiences of sociopolitical trauma and discrimination greatly increase barriers to accessing services and support for LGBTQIA+ peoples (Ard & Makadon, 2011). Karcher calls upon art therapists to acknowledge the intersection of their client’s identities, as well as examine their own social positioning.
    Karcher, O.P. (2017). Sociopolitical oppression, trauma, and healing: Moving toward social justice art therapy framework. Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, 34(3), 123-128.
    Ard, K.L., & Makadon, H.J. (2011). Addressing intimate partner violence in lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender patients. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 26(8), 630-632.
  • Zappa (2017) addresses the need for art therapists to challenge social structures that perpetuate harm toward gender-independent people, particularly in research through the pathologization of gender. Zappa introduces a queer intersectional framework of art therapy that critically examines the language we use to disrupt a social hierarchy of gender.
    Zappa, A. (2017). Beyond erasure: The ethics of art therapy research with trans and gender independent people. Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, 34(3), 129-134.
  • Kaiser (2017) examines how institutions, laws, and public policy enact trauma on people who seek mental health services. She advocates for structural competency as a framework for understanding systems of privilege and domination at the expense of vulnerable communities.
    Kaiser, D.H. (2017). What do structural racism and oppression have to do with scholarship, research, and practice in art therapy? Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, 34(4), 154-156.
  • U.S. settler sovereignty has caused severe trauma to Indigenous communities through physical and psychological exploitation, displacement, and genocide. Supporting individuals impacted by colonialism requires more than the emancipation of the mind to alleviate suffering; it requires total repatriation of Indigenous land and life (Tuck & Yang, 2012), which is an intrinsically political task.
    Tuck, E., & Yang, K.W. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 1(1), 1-40.
  • Gorski and Goodman (2015) write that a decolonizing view of counseling and psychology “pushes us to gaze up at the power hierarchy, where inequalities are embedded in systems and structures that privilege the few at the expense of the many” (p. 7). As professionals working with individuals and communities whose concerns result from social exclusion or political disenfranchisement, it is critical that practitioners engage with these larger systemic issues.
    Gorski, P., & Goodman, R.D. (2015). Introduction: Toward a decolonized multicultural counseling and psychology. In P. Gorksi & R.D. Goodman (Eds.), Decolonizing “multicultural” counseling through social justice. New York, NY: Springer.
  • Corey et al. (2015) explain that counselors have an ethical and moral responsibility to advocate for social justice beyond the walls of our counseling sessions. Providing emotional support is crucial, but does little to change the conditions that affect vulnerable communities. Corey et al. (2015) write about how the community mental health movement advocates to change conditions that affect people, rather than focusing on changing the people who are affected.
    Corey, G., Corey, M.S., Corey, C., & Callanan, P. (2015). Issues and Ethics in the Helping Professions (9th ed). Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning.


As a psychotherapist, I am interested in art therapy as a restorative tool to self-soothe, increase insight using nonverbal expression, and expand imaginative capabilities within the self to thrive within oppressive systems. However, to me, creative practice is not crayons and markers. It is the dedicated effort to radically re-imagine our lives by critically engaging with the social and political material of our world. This is an effortful practice that requires deep imagination.