I first met Elspeth at a collage workshop (shout out, August Studios and Lydia Cecilia!) and remember thinking, “Okay, this girl is really good at collages.”
I then learned that, in a sense, she did this kind of stuff for a living… because she’s an art therapist.
Now, colour me naive, but I had never in my life heard of art therapy. All I knew was I wanted to learn more—and apparently so did everyone else. We all peppered her with questions for a good half hour, probably more. She was an excellent sport with us.
And, you know me, the very second thought I had after, “Who is this cool woman?” was… “Ohmygoodness I bet her studio is rad.”
So, here we are.
Join me as we take a gander through art therapist Elspeth Robertson’s light-filled sanctuary and learn about the care she has taken in designing a space that welcomes people just as they are.
Miranda: “Art therapy” is an entirely new term to me… but I’m already slightly obsessed. Tell us what art therapy is all about.
Elspeth: Art therapy is a therapeutic discipline where you use art to help express feelings and provide a communication aid. There are two categories of art therapy.
One is art in therapy, which is where we are talking about a specific theme, and I might invite you to draw what that looks like for you. We might talk about what the image means, the feelings that are being conveyed in the image, and bring it into the therapeutic process. I like to say that it’s like adding another person to the room. The art is the other person and you can dialogue with it.
The second is art as therapy, which includes recognizing the inherent therapeutic benefits of art making. Anyone can do art as therapy. Anytime you’ve been at home, for example, making art on your own because you know it relieves stress for you… you are working therapeutically with art – the same way you might journal or take a walk or meditate for the therapeutic benefits of those practices. When you’re making art with an art therapist, though, we have a broader and more specific knowledge of what kind of mediums might be helpful for processing things.
So, let’s say you come in and feel really angry. Instead of beginning with talking about why you’re angry or what happened, an art as therapy process would help get you into your body—rather than your head. We might squish some clay, or use markers and jab at a piece of paper, or rip up the paper altogether. As we’re doing this, we might talk about how you’re feeling. What did it feel like to rip that paper? Do you notice a difference in your body? Afterwards, we talk about how to introduce coping mechanisms like this into your day-to-day life.
To me, that’s why art therapy is so cool. It can be exactly what you need at that moment.
How does this form of therapy work for those who feel like they’re the farthest thing from a natural artist?
I love working with people who come in and say that they’re not good artists. Great! That’s not what we’re here for. We’re not here to make products. We’re here for the process and the unfolding. This thinking does come up a lot. Probably because art is a school subject and it’s where people start to feel a lot of shame when they aren’t able to perform in this specific way. And since I work a lot with high achievers and those with anxiety (so, those who are very used to doing things “correctly”) it can already be a therapeutic intervention to say we’re going to do this, and we’re going to do it however we do it. There’s no correct way. It’s okay to try something new, and maybe fail at it. We can be here and process it together and see what that feels like.
Liberating. Although, I imagine it would be difficult for some of your clients to even accept that as a premise—that art therapy is all about the process and not the piece staring back at you at the end of a session.
Yes, it can be difficult at first, but once that premise clicks, it is freeing for so many of my clients.
Let’s talk about this welcoming space you’ve designed. Did you have a vision for how you wanted people to feel when they walked into your studio?
I want you to feel a little bit of magic. And like you’re going to your friend’s house for a cup of tea. Believe it or not, this is the only building I looked at when searching for an office – I knew right away that this was the right space. I had (and still have) very clear ideas of what I want for my clients. They deserve to be in a space that holds them, that feels inspiring, magical… that feels like somewhere their creativity can come through. A space where they feel like they can cry, laugh, and just fully be authentically themselves.
Part of my journey as a therapist is to really get away from the medical model and process how systems are impacting our mental health. And that’s something that comes up so much in my therapeutic work. Coming into therapy should never make you think, “Is there something wrong with me?” No, it’s supposed to feel like a treat, something kind that you are doing for yourself.
I’ve heard that the single most important factor in predicting the efficacy of therapy was the relationship you had with your therapist. How did you consider the role that your studio has in the relationship that your clients have with you?
Our program director, when I was going to school for art therapy, was very focused on radical hospitality, like radically making people feel welcomed. So when you arrive, do you want a tea? Can I change the fan’s setting? Would you like a blanket? How can I make this comfortable for you?
I fully poured my heart and soul into designing the space because I want people to feel that I am here for them. And so much of that is communicated nonverbally. So, if I’m surrounding my clients with items that maybe their mom used to make them, like a tea, or invite them to cozy up on the couch with a blanket, it really makes a difference throughout the entire session.
Designing a therapy office comes with such unique challenges because, unlike your own home, you’re not solely designing with your wellbeing in mind, or that of your friends or partner.
Instead, you centered the entire design process around your clients and how you want them to feel. Was this challenging given the wide variety of clients you have, and their own unique cultural backgrounds?
I was considering trauma-informed care a lot in the design process. I want people to be able to engage with all of their senses in this space. So, even if we’re just sitting here, you can have something to play with, or draw with, or even just rest your eyes on. The name of my practice, Intrinsic Therapy, leans into this as well. I want people to connect with their innate ability to communicate through art. This is found throughout all cultures – evolutionarily, art and creativity have been with us for longer than spoken language. It’s even one of the first ways that we communicate developmentally; we create before we can speak.
How lucky do you feel to have not one, but TWO beautiful rooms in your studio? How do you utilize them both?
I use one as the art studio and the other, with the couch, as the counseling room. The counseling room can also function as a parent waiting room when I have kids as clients, too. This is another reason why I feel this space just holds people as they are. For parents, I don’t want you waiting in your car! I want you to come upstairs, lay on the couch, do some yoga, or even just have some time on your phone while I’m working with your child. You can both feel safe and comforted in this space.
Connect with Elspeth + dig into her favourite artists below
Dive into some of Elspeth’s favourite artists below. Plus, connect with her anywhere below. (I promise you her Instagram feed will make you smile.)
From top-left, clockwise:
Olga Luzea, Painter
Intrinsic Art Studio (this is Elspeth’s work who I had to include because she is v talented)