History of Expressive Arts Therapy

The field of Expressive Arts Therapy (EXA) was founded in the early 1970’s by Shaun McNiff, Paolo Knill and others at Lesley College Graduate School in Cambridge, MA. It emphasized an interdisciplinary or “intermodal” approach to the use of the arts for healing, in contrast to the specialized arts therapies, which at the time restricted practice to one artistic discipline and usually were based on an established psychological framework.

From the start, the Lesley programs put the arts at the centre, searching for theories that come from the practice of art-making, what was called “theory indigenous to art.” In this way, Expressive Arts Therapy placed itself in a long tradition – the arts have always been used for purposes of celebration and healing, whether in a religious or cultural context. EXA emphasizes the experience of art-making. The work (or “product”) is important, but only insofar as it contributes to the experience of the client in an effective way. The role of the therapist or “companion” is to help the client go through a process of play and art-making that will give them a sense of aliveness and open up new possibilities for self-development.

Philosophy of Expressive Arts Therapy

EXA is based on what we call poiesis, the Greek word for making or shaping. Human beings do not come into an environment to which they are pre-adapted; rather they shape the world around them to fit their needs. This shaping can be creative or destructive. EXA aims to help the person find creative ways of shaping their particular environment so that it can become a home for them, a place in which they can realize their potential. Creative self-development in relation to others is key to growth; in EXA we try to build therapeutic relationships in which clients can feel both supported and challenged.
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As Expressive Arts Therapy developed, its theoretical basis became more clear. Paolo Knill developed the theory of intermodality, in which he clarified the use of the different sensory modalities and artistic disciplines in therapeutic practice. In order to facilitate the full range of clients’ expressive possibilities, the therapist must herself be comfortable with a multiplicity of modes of artistic expression. This does not mean that she must become a professional in all the arts; rather, we speak of a “low-skill, high-sensitivity” approach: therapists must cultivate their sensitivity to all modes of expression without necessarily becoming experts in each of them.

Essential to our method is what we call “decentering.” Rather than focusing (or “centering”) on the problems that clients bring, we help them move into the alternative world of the imagination, an experience that can give them an experience of a wider “range of play” that can then be brought into their daily lives. Through staying on the surface of the experience, paying close attention to both process and product (rather than reducing them to some psychological framework), the client can find meaning and direction that can help deal with the difficulties that they initially presented. This theory of decentering in expressive arts therapy is most fully presented in the book, Principles and Practice of Expressive Arts Therapy: Towards a Therapeutic Aesthetics, by Paolo J. Knill, Ellen. G. Levine and Stephen K. Levine. See Publications.

Art-in-Relationship is our motto.
History of ISIS CANADA

In the mid-nineties, Paolo Knill left Lesley and returned to Switzerland to found, together with Ellen and Stephen Levine, The European Graduate School (www.expressivearts.egs.edu), with MA and PhD programs in Expressive Arts Therapy. ISIS Canada was founded in 1991 by Ellen and Stephen Levine, together with Fran Harwood, as a free-standing training institute affiliated with EGS.

ISIS graduates can get credit at EGS for their training at ISIS, and receive masters degrees by attending three summer schools in Switzerland and writing a masters thesis.

ISIS Canada is also part of the International Network of Training Centres in Expressive Arts Therapy.

ISIS has trained expressive arts therapists in Toronto for over twenty years. Our graduates have gone on to work in agencies and clinics, as well as in private practice. In the spirit of Expressive Arts Therapy, we like to think that the training has helped ISIS graduates to shape themselves in accordance with their own possibilities of development.

Philosophy of ISIS CANADA

Becoming a therapist is itself a creative process that requires the use of all our capacities and an ability to decenter from the literal world in which we live, in order to be able to enter freely into the alternative world of the imagination and make it a home for ourselves. Only then can we find the resources we have to meet the needs of our clients. The ability to play with others with high sensitivity to their particular way of being in the world is key.
Art-in-relationship is our motto: we emphasize both creativity and relationship.

At ISIS we hope that students will acquire not only the skills that they need but also the self-development that is necessary to become a good therapist. Through the combination of class-work, readings, practicum experience, studio work and personal therapy, students go through an intensive educational process that can provide a solid basis for therapeutic work. We are proud of the school we have shaped in Toronto, and we intend to continue and develop in new ways that will both work for ourselves and fit our changing world.