Expressive arts therapy (or EXA) is a form of therapy that incorporates multiple arts modalities, such as poetry, movement, painting, collage, music, and storytelling. Process is valued on par with product, and creativity is seen as an innately healing force that belongs to all of us — whether we see ourselves as “artists” or not.
I had the privilege of studying the therapeutic application of the expressive arts with Lisa Herman, MFT, Ph.D., REAT, at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology in 2008. In her class, she persuaded us to view and utilize the arts from a fresh perspective. We were encouraged to explore unfamiliar mediums, and to use a technique called aesthetic response to intentionally respond to each other’s art with our own art. For me, her class revivified my own art making, as well as my understanding of how to incorporate the arts into therapy with any population.
Lisa received her B.A. in psychology at University of California, Berkeley; her M.S. in educational psychology/counseling at California State University, Hayward (East Bay); and her Ph.D. in integral studies with a research concentration in learning and change in human systems from California Institute of Integral Studies. She has lived and worked in the United States, Israel, and Canada.
She is executive co-chair of the International Expressive Arts Therapy Association (IEATA) and core faculty at Meridian University in Petaluma, California. She also teaches at CREATE (formerly known as International School of Interdisciplinary Studies Canada) in Toronto and has a private practice in Monterey and San Francisco.
I sat with Lisa on a cold, rainy San Francisco evening to interview her about her journey to becoming an expressive arts therapist, as well as her views on the power of images, how expressive arts therapy works, and the importance of creating artistic containers for suffering. Lisa was equal parts thoughtful and poetic, as well as irreverent and playful, as we entered what she calls the liminal space.
“Liminal” is derived from the Latin limens, which literally means “threshold.” To be in a liminal space is to be in an “in-between” zone, or a transitional space. For example, a person who recently divorced and is beginning to date is in a liminal space, as is an infant making his or her way through the mother’s birth canal. “Liminal space” is often used in expressive arts therapy to describe the realm that the client enters via the arts, a realm that holds potential, creativity, mystery, and the transpersonal. In addition, Lisa sees the liminal space as the place where images live and wait to be expressed.
Chiara Viscomi (CV): Can you tell me a little bit about your background? What led you to what you’re doing now?
Dr. Lisa Herman (LH): Well, the first thing that led me to wanting to be a therapist was that I loved stories. And I was a good listener. And people told me stories from the time that I was a child. I was also a big reader — so I enjoyed written stories, too. When I was 17, my dad died. That’s the first time that I went to therapy. I guess I must have asked to go. I felt that I couldn’t talk about how much I loved him to my mom. I had an okay therapist — he wasn’t stellar. I lay on a couch. There was no connection with him.
And then my mom took my brother and I to family therapy, and I just ran out of the room. Later on, I went to group therapy. I had a very difficult time at the beginning with adjusting to the culture of a group. It was the 70s — it’s changed since then. But I finally did adjust and I learned so much and got so interested. It was transactional analysis, and it’s very psychoeducational — we had to learn the theory as clients. We had to understand the theory and then apply it to each other. And I found out that I was very good at it, and people would respect me for insights I had, but mainly for listening.
I had a degree in English literature because I loved to read, but it wasn’t quite what I thought it would be. It was analyzing books, pulling them apart — how did the author get that effect, etc. It was ruining my reading experience. Although I had gotten that degree, I wanted to go back to psychology. So I moved to Berkeley from Canada, and I did all the psychology courses at UC Berkeley, and I did really well. And I found a therapist and the combination of having my own therapy and studying psychology inspired me.
CV: Have you always seen yourself as an expressive arts therapist?
LH: No. I never knew there was such a thing. My therapist at the time had two therapy groups; the groups didn’t know each other, as each group was confidential. A few times per year, he held weekend retreats. They called them “marathons,” and they included both groups, and you would stay up all night until everybody was crying and totally a mess and we’d pull into our deepest, darkest places.
On Saturday evening of the marathon, we had to perform something. It was part of the therapeutic idea that you had to get up in front of people and do a performance, where it was you all alone with everyone’s focus on you, and you had to keep their attention. I had a theater background, so I would do a monologue. Other people did whatever they could. Some people drew — it was expressive arts, but I still didn’t know the name of it. And it was powerful to witness each other. And by the end of Saturday night, we were the best friends we had had in our lives. We had broken down together and it felt safe but scary at the same time.
Fast forward, and I was working at a children’s agency in Toronto, as I had moved back there after working in the field in the U.S. and Israel for a few years. An office mate of mine got a flyer for a conference put on by expressive arts therapists, and I had never heard of that before. It was at a retreat center outside Toronto. The flyer said “Come drum, dance, and have fun with us.” It looked fun, so we both decided to go.
I walked into the main hall of the retreat center to register, and I could hear people in the next room. There were drums going, and people were dancing, and others had scarves. Then somebody had a huge paper on the wall, and was doing painting with movement. It was amazing. And I had a theater background already — I had been involved with theater since I was a kid, and my parents had been involved, too. So I knew the arts. And I just said, “These are my people.” And they were therapists making art, and it just totally blew my mind. So that was when I became an expressive arts therapist.
CV: So that was the pivotal moment when you found your tribe. And then from that point on, did you do extra trainings?
LH: I got involved with these people, and it was in my bones anyway. First, I was a practicum supervisor at my agency with students who were training to become expressive arts therapists at International School of Interdisciplinary Studies Canada/CREATE. So I learned from them, how they work in a special way with children and adults using play therapy and art therapy.
The director of the institute also taught at York University in Toronto, and he ran a program. One of my clients had a final performance for his course, and I went and saw the most amazing performances. My client built a dome-shaped structure with beautiful dance movements. And the other students also had incredible multimedia work. So that’s how I learned. International School of Interdisciplinary Studies Canada/CREATE then invited me to interview to be a teacher, and I taught how to be an expressive arts therapist in their three-year training program.
The school had one weekend per month where they brought in different experts in the field to teach students — a voice teacher, a dance teacher, etc. and I was trained on the job. The way I was taught was to use the arts in therapy within the frame of “low skill, high sensitivity.” This means that you don’t have to be a professional artist in every modality — or any of them, really — to use the arts to deepen your evolving knowledge of self and others. You do need to have high sensitivity to the images generated in therapy, and whatever skill level you have to express them. The process and images themselves will inform your growth. As a therapist, you help clients do what the image wants them to do — you explore what the client is saying to you through images. You might have to coach the client a bit to enter into the arts, as they might be shy. Perhaps the image wants to be movement or music. You don’t have to be a musician to use instruments — whatever comes out is meant to be yours.
You often get clients who have one modality that they’re more comfortable in. So you start with that, and then you push them into something else.
CV: What art forms do you work with as an expressive arts therapist?
LH: Well my main background is theater, and that incorporates all the arts — perhaps not so much poetry, but now I especially like it. I try to use as many different things as I can. I don’t have a huge studio space, but I certainly have people get up and move their bodies. I have a small place for making visual art. I occasionally bring in air-dried clay. I love clay.
CV: What do you love about clay?
LH: It’s primal. It’s got guts and it’s squishy. When people work with clay, their whole body gets into it. What comes out is pretty hard to control, certainly at the beginning, when they’re pounding it. I have the client start with their eyes closed, so they don’t have to feel like they have to make something in particular. They can feel what the material wants to be.
I also like it because it gives some distance. In dance and voice, you’re so vulnerable. But the visual arts, you can get people into the felt sense of what it’s like to let the material lead you, and to not come in with a preconceived idea.
CV: In your opinion, what is the difference between expressive arts therapy and regular talk therapy?
LH: Expressive arts therapists do “talk therapy.” I love words, poetry, and image-laden speech, too. The spoken word is full of images and we can pause and be in awe at a well-phrased thought or feeling. People use spoken metaphors all the time — these are talk as well. We know how to follow the image, whatever the medium. Songs have words, and everyday speech can be full of music.
So when I’m talking to someone and they say something that has a particularly evocative image, I’ll pause and say, “Let’s let the image see where it wants to go.” So talking can be an art form.
Expressive arts therapists also work in several modalities. Compared to therapists who specifically work in one modality, such as poetry therapists or music therapists, our belief system is that the images come from the same place. Some images want to be voiced, some want to be moved, some want to be expressed with a guitar. It’s not for us to impose on the image how it should express itself. The way I was trained is to surrender to the medium and let the medium tell you what the medium wants to be. You’re a servant to the medium. Now, we do shape it, and we do think of it as a co-creation. So if I’m dancing, the medium is my body, but I’m following what my body is asking me to do in the creating part.
CV: What is healing about working that way, about following images and surrendering to the medium?
LH: The arts require us to be in our body. For traumatized people, that’s a difficult thing to do. No matter what art form we do, we need to get back in our bodies. For example, photographers need to be in their bodies to get the right shot. The arts remember the creative part of being human in a tangible way. They teach people that they can make and shape something, and that transfers to life on a very deep level. You don’t have to talk to clients about how to approach their employer about a raise; there’s an empowered feeling by making art. Even if clients hate what they’ve made in the end — you’ve made something. We can encourage people to leave it until next week — to get some space before stomping on it. We never throw clients’ art away, but they can trash it themselves if they want. It can be healing for them to trash it themselves. Letting go of stuff can be healing, as it works on a deep metaphorical level.
Another way that the arts work is because of something we call decentering. People come to therapy because something is stuck. They go around and around in circles, trying to fix what’s troubling them, and they’ve run out of ideas, or fallen into depression or violence. When you move to make art, it gets you out of the stuckness into a decentered place, or a liminal space. The experience of stepping out allows for thoughts and feelings to flow. It’s not always pleasant to step out, but things are flowing. And it’s held in the therapy session. Often, expressive arts therapists will end the session by stepping back into the issue, asking a question like: “How do you feel about that problem now? Any new thoughts or ideas from having decentered?” There’s some research on it.
We do this because, as therapists, we can’t find their solutions. We don’t live their lives. They would be much more creative about finding solutions. So we don’t make those types of suggestions. Supervision should be like that, too — just opening up creativity. That’s how expressive arts supervisors work — they have supervisees step out of the stuck place, like “Why isn’t my client progressing?” or however else we torture ourselves.
CV: If we could go back to the idea of images for a second, I actually have something you wrote on my corkboard in my kitchen because I really liked it. It was a page from a paper you wrote where you said that images can destroy us if they aren’t contained. Can you explain what you meant by that?
LH: Well, that’s what my dissertation was about — it was titled “Engaging the Disturbing Images of Evil: How Does a Non-Participant in an Evil Event Engage with the Disturbing Images of That Event?” It was about those of us who didn’t directly experience a horrible, often historical, trauma, but we heard about it from other people through stories, movies, dances, or songs, and we learned about it secondhand. It’s about the secondary, or vicarious, trauma that people experience—how to engage with the images produced by that. So it’s about the images from disturbing events.
I went to the IEATA conference in Hong Kong not too long ago, and there was a group of Nepalese women who were survivors of human trafficking/the sex trade. I witnessed their dance troupe perform and learned about their work with younger women who also escaped the sex trade. All I could do afterwards was to go outside and sob, it was so moving. The image stayed with me — so what do I do with that?
In my dissertation, I wove in the work of Paul Ricoeur, who wrote about the evolution of evil. I don’t go into too much detail in defining evil — basically, it’s human perpetrated and intentional — such as genocide, for example. If we don’t allow artful forms to take shape around these things, like Picasso’s Guernica, the evil will fester in those of us who are aware of it, and it will get acted on.
CV: So if I understand you correctly, containing the images of evil through the arts helps us to transmute it and heal from it?
LH: Yes. Well — I have trouble with the word “heal.” Do you mean to “get over it”? I don’t mean that.
CV: That’s a really good question. What does healing mean? When something atrocious or traumatic happens to an individual or a whole population, what does healing mean in that context?
LH: It’s about being able to hold it and not be controlled by it. Knowing it. If you haven’t numbed out, it affects you. It doesn’t have to be a newsreel that affects us; it can even be a movie — artistic renditions affect us. So what do we do? I think writing, drawing, and moving can help. With clients, it’s the same thing. It needs expression. From time immemorial, art forms have helped us to hold this stuff.1 And it used to be done together in community.
CV: That reminds me of when I took your class, you talked about how it was important as the therapist to have your own arts practice where you could process your clients’ stuff. When I worked in domestic violence counseling, my dreams and images were really intense. So I definitely get that part about holding the images, and how the secondary trauma shows up in images, and really needing to find a container for that.
LH: And they want to be expressed — we can act them out on each other, kill each other, poison each other. Or we can contain it. And everybody can make art. We’re taught that it’s only for galleries and concerts.
CV: That’s a great entrée into my next question. It’s been really interesting working with people who might be curious about the arts in therapy, but who are very shy or think that they have to be professional artists or “good” at art. How do you work with people who are curious but very uncomfortable with art?
LH: It’s the low-skill thing. I like to start with the eyes closed, and a pastel in hand, having the client feel it move across the paper with the eyes closed. Eventually I’ll have them open their eyes and see what the image wants. Some people will start with a very tiny image. But it’s a beginning. And sometimes people are just artful on their own — their foot will be wiggling. And I’ll just say, “Cool. What does that foot want to say? What happens if you stretch that foot out? If you stood up?”
CV: I like how you explained that process about working with foot movement — I see a lot of that, especially with young people! I love the idea that there is music and art in that.
LH: I can get an instrument and work with that. It can be embarrassing for them at first, but I’ll just play with it. And they keep going. And I’ll make it so it’s fun.
CV: It’s interesting, because my creativity was encouraged when I was growing up. So sometimes it’s surprising for me to see the shame that comes up in people of all ages around creative expression. Where do you think that comes from? Is it from this idea that art is this highfalutin, academic, elitist thing? That people have forgotten that art belongs to all of us?
LH: I think that’s one reason. Do you remember The Little Prince? In the story, he draws a boa constrictor that swallowed an elephant. He shows it proudly to the grown-ups and they insist, “No, it’s a hat.” It’s stuff like that, which happens when people are quite young, where they’re denied their own experience and they’re shamed. “Boys don’t draw. Girls don’t do that.” Maybe girls are given slightly more permission. But you reach a certain age and it’s no longer acceptable to spend time making art. Or then you get lessons. And people have been ruined by lessons sometimes, when they were forced into them at a very young age. And they lose all the joy. It happened to me with piano. It took a long time for my love of music to come back. There’s also the idea that the arts are frivolous and a waste of time.
CV: To that point, what do you do when clients ask you what the value is of doing art in therapy? Or if they ask, “Why can’t I just do this at home?”
LH: My first thought is that it’s OK for them to do that at home; we can play with it if they bring it in. I like it when clients do stuff at home. Many clients find it soothing to draw while we talk. I’ve had many nice drawings come out of that.
CV: I know that you’re really passionate about integrating the transpersonal element. What is the relationship between the arts and the transpersonal in therapy?
LH: Making art is transpersonal. It decenters us; it gets us off of the one-track, production-oriented, day-to-day mindset, but it still grounds us in the body. For me, the transpersonal is embodied. I feel it now a little with you — it’s being connected in something bigger than us, but very interconnected at the same time. I feel transpersonal when I’m connected to people.
I consider what you and I are doing in this interview to be art making. I have wide definitions of art and the transpersonal that don’t separate them. There is a liminal, in-between feeling in this interview.
CV: What are we in between?
LH: Our jobs, our tasks. But something else happens. And I consider this time of dialogue making art, because it’s connected to something beyond us. But at the same time, it’s about us.
CV: It’s within and without.
LH: I don’t see the transpersonal as a separate realm. I feel that the transpersonal is always here, and sometimes we can move into it. Making art is a nice way to move into it in a concrete, visual, tangible, grounded way. I feel it; it’s a physical thing.
CV: You viscerally experience it when you move into the liminal space?
LH: Yes, I wrote about that for the latest Journal of Transpersonal Psychology.
CV: Is there anything else that you want to add?
LH: I feel a sadness right now that there isn’t more of this in our country and our world, that our system doesn’t have more art making and connection.
CV: Yes, people are really starved for it. That starvation takes forms of addiction and all kinds of things because we’re craving that connection or ecstatic expression.
LH: And that starvation fosters extremism, fascism, and insanity. There are things that are happening that are just surreal. I feel it on a systemic level, in our organizations and what I hear from family. It’s infectious — this polarization, rigidity, and inability to flow.
CV: Which is the antithesis of creativity. It’s creativity that’s been subjugated and suppressed.
CV: That feels like a potent place to end.
CV: Thank you for meeting with me. It’s been a pleasure.
LH: Thank you and likewise.
- “Holding” refers to containment, which is a psychological term that describes the way that one’s experience is accommodated, cared for, and understood in therapy. Both therapists and the expressive arts themselves can provide containment by helping the client to express his or her emotions in a safe space without feeling overwhelmed.
About This Contributor: Chiara Viscomi, MA, CMT, is currently pursuing her clinical internship in counseling. She received her master’s in counseling psychology with a certificate in creative expression at Sofia University (formerly known as the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology). Prior to that, Chiara received a BA in psychology and a BFA in drama from New York University. She is passionate about expressive arts therapy, Jungian psychology, transpersonal psychology, and integrative approaches to wellness. In addition to her clinical work, Chiara is a longtime professional writer and editor in the healthcare field, as well as a musician and performing artist. To find out more about her counseling work, visit www.lapishealingarts.com.