Stacey Waterson has been an arts therapist since 2011.

Still considered alternative in New Zealand, arts therapy has long been established in the United States and parts of Europe.

Stacey is based in New Plymouth, but spends two days a week working in Wanganui, where she is contracted by Whanganui Safe & Free to work with survivors of sexual abuse and violence. In New Plymouth, she has her own private practice with a variety of clients.

She also runs arts therapy workshops with Taranaki-based movement therapist Conor Kelly. Their next workshop is in Hawera on July 6, as part of the South Taranaki District Council's Winter Workshop series.

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So what exactly is arts therapy? It's a question Stacey gets a lot.

She describes it as a mix of counselling, psychology and arts. The Australian and New Zealand Arts Therapy Association (Anzata) describes arts therapy as "[using] creative processes, including art making, drama, and movement to improve and enhance physical, mental and emotional well-being".

Stacey Waterson says she is not there to 'fix' people. Photo/Bevan Conley
Stacey Waterson says she is not there to 'fix' people. Photo/Bevan Conley

Arts therapy works by accessing non-verbal parts of the brain, and it can help a person emotionally, mentally, and even spiritually, Stacey says.

"In a trauma situation, language can desert a person. Someone who is sexually abused is often threatened by their abuser not to say anything, so they're too scared to talk about what happened to them.

"When that happens, creative therapy can often access that deep stuff."

Each therapy session lasts about an hour.

"We start with a bit of discussion about how the client is doing, what they want to achieve at the session. Then we spend 30 to 40 minutes in creative time, and finish with 15 minutes of processing."

Talking about their artwork can be safer for a vulnerable person who finds it difficult to talk face-to-face with a therapist for an hour.

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The focus is on the creative process, rather than on the technical aspects of art. All art made in therapy sessions is confidential - either kept by Stacey or the client, or destroyed by the client.

The art medium is important and can be therapeutic in itself, Stacey says.

"If someone feels they have no control in their life you don't give them paint, because it's hard to control. You give them a pencil and a rubber. Someone who is angry might benefit from using clay, which they can pound."

She also uses drama and movement during her sessions.

Stacey never intended a career in arts. She originally trained in medical laboratory science, then studied psychology at postgraduate level. It was while working at a residential home for drug and alcohol treatment that her interest in the arts developed.

"I noticed there was a lot of creativity happening. The residents were all journalling and making art and I thought, something is going on here."

So she began to research arts therapy and found the three-year Masters programme at Whitecliffe College in Auckland, the only place in New Zealand that offers training to be a registered arts therapist.

Stacey failed at her first attempt to be accepted for the programme, but was successful second time around.

"[The programme] was one of the hardest things I've ever done, but so worth it. I learned so much about myself, my personal growth during that time was phenomenal."

Stacey gets great satisfaction from her work these days, but admits she's uncomfortable with the word "therapy".

"It implies that there's something wrong with a person, and I'm going to fix them. I see it more as walking beside a person on their journey - I might be holding the lantern for them, but they're choosing the path."

CAROL Gash has seen with her own eyes just how powerful art can be.

A devout Christian, Carol began volunteering at Whanganui Prison with her husband and a friend five years ago, teaching Christianity and prayer to prisoners.

That led to a further volunteer stint teaching art, and now Carol, a self-taught artist, is employed as an art teacher by the Department of Corrections for six hours a week. She teaches a group of about 10 prisoners at Whanganui Prison.

And she starts with the basics: drawing, acrylic and watercolour painting, portraits, mixed media and coloured pencil.

"I just love teaching, so I want to pass on as much as I can."

The woman known to the prisoners as "Mum" or "the art lady" has discovered some real talent among the men.

"There's one man who does the most incredible portraits - they're like photographs.

"He really captures the soul of a person. It's wonderful when someone picks up a pencil, having no idea they have a gift."

But even greater than talent is what the men get out of their art classes, Carol says.

"I've seen men come in, crushed, feeling like they have nothing to offer, and they become confident, with their heads held high."

The men learn to work together, to acknowledge each other, to problem solve, and to start and finish a project.

"We critique each other's work, and it's been fantastic to see the more advanced students helping out the newer ones."

Some of Carol's students have told her they want to pursue their art further once they are released from prison.

"A lot of them are carrying old wounds, but art has a healing quality. That goes for anyone."

Carol admits she gets a lot out of the classes as well.

"I take my own art with me and work alongside the men when I can. I always say we are on a journey together.

"We have a blast. It's a real pleasure to teach there."

An exhibition of the men's artwork was held recently at the Davis Library, an event that Carol said they were very excited about.

Carol has a clear purpose for her time with the prisoners.

She is guided by a verse from the Bible: "For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."

"That's what I want these men to have - a hope and a future,"

she says.