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My Path to Art Therapy

I was asked a great series of questions the other day, “My 16 year old is considering art therapy as a career path. Are there courses that you would recommend? Are there colleges that we should be visiting? What majors should she be looking at? How many years of college/graduate school would it take? How many years of residency? Is a PHD required? Are there different requirements to become an art therapist? What are the steps to take from high school to owning your own practice?”

All great questions! So here are my thoughts on the above. Everyone’s path is different, which makes the field so interesting. Everyone pursues a career in art therapy for their own reasons, whether they’ve worked with an art therapist themselves, experienced personal or family difficulties, mental illness, or medical illness, experienced heartache or just believe in the power of healing through art! I could go on and on, but the reasons one becomes an art therapist are endless, just as the path to becoming an art therapist is personal and there is no “right way” to do it!

Every state is different in regards to art therapy and what one needs in regards to practicing as an art therapist. It is also a personal choice whether one wants to pursue registration (ATR) and credentialing in art therapy (ATR-BC), and Art Therapy Certified Supervisor (ATCS). But let me back up a the education piece first.

Speaking for myself, my path to becoming an art therapist started with the pursuit of a Fine Art Degree. I have always had an affinity for art and so I studied art and theatre design in my undergraduate schooling as well as post graduation. I graduated with a B.A. in Costume Design with a Minor in Fine Art. After graduation (like many of us do) I tried out many different jobs, though almost all pertaining to the arts. I eventually moved to NYC and worked as a milliner (hat maker). I have a wide variety of experiences as an artist and as a human being, which I believe has allowed me to be a better therapist, having some life-experience under my belt prior to pursuing my Master’s Degree in Art Therapy. Taking time off before pursuing schooling and a career in Art Therapy is not necessarily needed, as everyone has a different life experience. Some of my school colleagues began their undergrad degree in the pursuit of becoming an art therapist, so went straight from their undergrad to graduate school. Many of us had taken time off from school, so there were folks in my classes of all ages (ages 21 to folks in their 60’s) with all different life experiences. This made for a much richer educational experience in my opinion! People in my classes were there because they wanted to be there and they came from all over the U.S. and from other Countries as well.

Finding the Right Fit - Deciding on a Graduate Program

I’m getting ahead of myself, so I’ll back up a little further. Because I took time off between my undergraduate schooling and returning to school, I had to take prerequisite classes prior to applying to art therapy programs. There are a certain number of studio art classes and psychology classes that one needs to take in undergraduate school in order to graduate from an art therapy program (though depending on the graduate program, you may not necessarily need to complete these classes prior to attending graduate school, just as long as you have taken them by the time you graduate from your graduate program). My suggestion would be to look at graduate programs in art therapy during your undergrad program or when you begin to take a look at returning to school and find out what specific credits you need in fine art and in psychology.

For myself, I researched art therapy programs while pursuing my prerequisite classes. Again, every program is different. I attended SouthWestern College in Santa Fe, so I needed abnormal psychology. developmental psychology, and two psychology electives. The Art Therapy/Counseling Program at SouthWestern also required at least 18 credit hours of undergraduate studio coursework which includes: painting, drawing, ceramics, 3D art, and two studio electives. Also, if one decides they want to pursue an Art Therapy Degree after they’ve graduated from an undergrad program, but did not major in art or psychology, never fear! There are Master’s programs that will still take you, who will still accept your B.A. or B.S. in any field as long as it is from an accredited institution.

Because every program is different, I found myself still needing a pottery/ wheel/sculpture class. I was still accepted into Southwestern’s program and ended up taking the studio art class at the local community college in Santa Fe during the Summer, while still attending the Master’s program at Southwestern College. I was not alone in this, as several of my fellow classmates were completing their needed studio art classes as well! But again, I can not stress enough, every program is different.

There is also the question of the GRE or entrance exams; not every school requires this, so depending on how you feel about these tests this does not have to be a barrier for you. (For me personally, I was very excited about this, as I am a poor test taker though have always excelled academically).

My state has several art therapy programs but I moved out of state specifically to attend Southwestern College. “WHY???” you may ask. It was a good fit for me personally. I spent a lot of time looking for the right fit. It’s not just about will the school accept you, but will you accept the school? This is the first important step for your career path as an art therapist, and everyone approaches the area of psychology with a personal mind-set in how they want to practice. i.e., treatment approach. For me, I believe in a humanistic and psychodynamic approach...and I felt that this specific school embraced these.

I also went to several schools in person, to narrow down my choices. My thought on this, “If I’m going to be spending intensive time and money on schooling, then it needs to be right for me”. There was a school that sounded perfect on paper but when I went for a visit, it just didn’t feel right. When I went to Southwestern College, I knew that that school was for me! Southwestern College is experiential, holistic, transformative, and person- centered. They really open up the space for one to look at their selves during their time in this program. This school and program made me step outside of my box many times, which I believe because of my unique educational experience at Southwestern College, I have a different awareness and approach to the practice of art therapy and psychotherapy. I was also able to complete a certificate program in Grief, Loss & Trauma during my time at Southwestern, which further enhanced my experience. They have several speciality certificate programs to choose from if you are interested in pursing further knowledge in the field of counseling. Please check out Southwestern Colleges website for further questions at, The mission of Southwestern College is “Transforming Consciousness Through Education”. Consciousness, as understood at Southwestern College, is the capacity and willingness to live life with intentionality and the highest possible level of awareness regarding our personal, social and spiritual purpose for being here.

Again, I need to stress that the graduate school you attend is truly a personal choice. So start googling art therapy schools, as well as reviewing the sites: and

An important piece that I don’t want to forget, school accreditation. I highly recommend attending a school that has been approved by the American Art Therapy Association. This will make it much easier/smoother, for you when (if) you decide to pursue your ATR or your ATR-BC. Not every school is accredited (or keeps up to date on their accreditation) so make sure you double check.

The Graduate Program and Its Structure

How long does schooling take? I took the full-time track, so I finished in 2 years, which included my practicum and internship. Many of my other classmates did part-time. It all depends on what’s going on in your life, finances, and what you want to do. The great thing is that you have choices! Every school is different, some programs are 3 years full time, depending on their curriculum.

So you may ask, “What is practicum and what is an internship?” Practicum was in my second year and lasted 6 months (two quarters), where I attended classes as well as began providing counseling and art therapy to individuals, families, and groups at the Southwestern Counseling Center in Santa Fe, which is connected to Southwestern College.

My internship was my last 6 months (two quarters) where I provided counseling while under the supervision of Southwestern and an in-state ATR Supervisor. (Side note: I’m currently supervising an art therapy/ counseling student during their internship and am enjoying the experience of giving back. I was quite lucky and blessed to have landed an amazing in-state ATR Supervisor during my internship, so I remember being on the other side of things). At Southwestern, the students are able to do their internship out of state, so my husband and I returned to our home in Oregon. I interned at a non-profit agency that provided subacute mental health services to children and teens as well as a day treatment program. I had not worked with children and teens prior to my internship. It was during this time that I found that I loved working with teens and families and I would never had known that if I hadn’t jumped in and tried working with a population that I hadn’t worked with before. During my time at this program, budget cuts were happening and the program was changing (this seems the norm for non-profit mental health)...all part of the politics in the world of health care and especially mental health.

I knew going into my internship that my goal was to pursue credentialing and licensure. Which meant that I would pursue my ATR (Registered Art Therapist) and LPC (Licensed Professional Counselor). This is a personal choice and I’ve worked with many therapists/counselors/social workers who have not pursued registration or licensure. For me, it made sense because I knew that I eventually wanted to have my own private practice; which you don’t need your license for in Oregon but there are stipulations to this which you can check on at:

Working towards Licensure

There was an inquiry in regards to “residency”. This is a little different in the counseling world compared to the medical/doctor world. But I feel that the word “residency” summed up my experience while I worked towards my ATR and especially my LPC. There are requirements for both, which include many, many hours in the field, both working directly with clients and indirectly (paperwork, social work, etc.). For the LPC, I needed 2,400 supervised direct client contact hours, the masters educational component, indirect hours, and the examination. There are very specific rules and requirements for acquiring you LPC. My advice, be sure to review all the rules and requirements prior to pursuing you license. The process is VERY precise and everything must be done exact! Also, every state has different licenses in the mental health field, i.e., LPC, LPCMH, LMHC, LCPC, etc).

For the ATR, it is about your education (this is when it is helpful for you to have graduated from an AATA approved program; if you didn’t you will need to put more hours in to receive your ATR), studio art and psychology hours, direct and non-direct hours, and supervision (no test for this one!) Again, check on the website for further information.

I know, the letters for the credentialing, licensing, and organizations get a little confusing. Below is clarification taken from the ATCB website,

...AATA is a membership organization. AATA is the entity that is responsible for developing and sustaining the profession at large. The mission of the AATA is “to serve its members and the general public by providing standards of professional competence, and developing and promoting knowledge in, and of, the field of art therapy.”

The ATCB is a credentialing body. As a credentialing body, the ATCB creates and maintains standards associated with earning art therapy credentials. The mission of the ATCB is "to protect the public by promoting the competent and ethical practice of art therapy." In response to it’s mission, the ATCB offers three credentials: Registered Art Therapist (ATR), Board-Certified Art Therapist (ATR-BC), and the Art Therapy Certified Supervisor (ATCS).

In my mind, one of the big things for me is that one has a test and the other one doesn’t. (Yes, those darn tests!) But there are other important aspects as well. Further information can be reviewed on both of their websites. But don’t get too overwhelmed, each step is do-able, but you need to take it one step at a time! For myself, I didn’t think too much about pursuing my ATR or my LPC until after graduation, because my main focus was my internship and completing all of the graduation requirements. (And that little nagging concern about finding a job!)

The Real World

For me, there was quite an abrupt shift from graduate school to my internship, to the working world of mental health. Luckily, because of my ATR supervisor during my internship, I had a little heads up to what was to come. I also had ongoing support from a seasoned professional who was able to normalize some of my fears.

Since graduation, I’ve spent a fair amount of time working both in the community as well as working with the residential population. I believe that my training not only as a counselor but as an art therapist has allowed me to serve those in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to without the training and belief in the healing aspects of art therapy.

Today, I have a private practice and hold both an ATR and an LPC. My path to becoming an art therapist has not been a straight and narrow route, and for me, that’s what was meant to happen. On my path, I learned to ask a lot of questions (to a lot of people), find support in those I trusted, take a really deep look into myself, do art, do some more art, balance work and life, and self care. I continued on, even when I doubted myself and felt others doubt my career choice too...because I knew in my heart that I was meant to become an art therapist. Obviously, I didn’t do it for the money (there are many other jobs and careers, often much simpler and easier, that pay much, much, more). I followed this path because I believe in the healing power of art. It’s as simple as that!