The open studio approach to arts therapy - and why I love it.
Updated: Mar 14
Have you ever noticed a desire to create but there are blocks to diving in? You do not feel creative, you just don’t have the time, where will you find the space to make a mess? Would you consider joining an Open Studio art therapy session? That might sound like a jump – why not just do it by yourself or join an art class (you totally can!). But hear me out while I share with you the reasons I love Open Studio Art Therapy.
Open studio sessions offer time and space to create, to get to know materials that you may not have used before. It ignites in me a curiosity and playfulness which encourages me to try new things. There is also a sense of community while working alongside others. I can work quietly, or accept an opportunity to share and learn from others.
While there are different models for open studios, the art-making process is generally the focus of the therapeutic work. This can be more ‘hands off’ emotionally than traditional therapy groups, and very ‘hands on’ with the art materials, allowing space for the creative process itself to do its work. Pat Allen, an arts therapist that uses an open studio method, writes, “the healing aspects of art-making arise from the making and doing, the trying and failing, the experimenting and succeeding, alongside others”. You will have access to studio materials and equipment and can choose to work independently or with others.
It is in the moments of making that I find meaning, whether through problem-solving, understanding, or coming to know myself through interaction with the materials. I can use the materials as a companion in my work. Sometimes I will lead, other times the materials take the lead. I find this comforting, and especially helpful if I am not sure what I want to make or explore.
During an open studio session, I had a moment of not knowing what to make. When I picked up a stick of charcoal – a material I rarely work with – I noticed the elements of the charcoal and started a dialogue. Together we wrote the word restraint and then I carefully drew a self-portrait with my opposite hand. This led me to inquire into other materials, listening and being with them in order to come to new understandings.
In an open studio, the arts therapists are there to offer support and guidance when it is asked for, not to shape the discussions of the group or drive a specific theme or agenda. There may be moments of solitude when the therapists are working with other participants and moments of connection as they check-in individually with everyone in the room. They might give tips and tricks about the art materials or offer suggestions if you are not sure how to put your own ideas, sensations or impulses into form.
Being in the room with others is also very important. Catherine Hyland-Moon reminds us that "Ideas for art-making do not materialise from thin air; we borrow and build upon and remake ideas from looking at the world around us, including the work of other artists."
In my practice as an artist and arts therapist, I relish all moments of creative collaboration with others, whether on a shared project or something different, as we spark off each other's ideas and generate new content together or in response.
I also love those moments in the open studio where I am one with the materials and can just use the space and time to dive into the process of creating simply for the joy of experiencing the materials. Slowing down to enjoy the flow of watercolour or the tactile textiles in weaving or carefully cutting out pieces of a magazine for collage work.
For me, the open studio is a space to get to know oneself on a deeper, slower, and more mindful level and to do this in a community with others beside me.