POLYPHONYJournal of the Irish Association of Creative Arts Therapists
Reviews Observations

Review: Handbook of Expressive Arts Therapy

Published on May 09, 2022 by Pamela Whitaker

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The Handbook of Expressive Arts Therapy, edited by Cathy Malchiodi and. published by The Guilford Press (2023), showcases expressive arts therapists who call for a recognition of their profession and its contributions to healthcare. The book’s contributors (listed at the end of this review) proclaim an urgent call for the arts therapies to become collaborative and integrative in order to provide an extended range of creative health services.

Their assertions accentuate the significance of aesthetics as an interdisciplinary imperative, which offers multiple methods of therapeutic communication.

As a whole, the book acts as a counterpoint to the singularisation of any one approach to creative therapy that may emphasise a distinct formulation of expression. In essence, the authors urge arts disciplines to extend their associations in order to compose a continuum of artistry with corresponding personal and societal impacts.

The expressive arts therapy practitioner offers multi-modal experiences contributing to rejuvenating outcomes for both psychotherapy and wellness. This is a value-added approach that enlivens through a creative production of restoration and possibility. Expressive arts therapists do not emphasise artistic boundaries, but rather an exploration of possibilities that relate to capacity and resourcefulness. The expressive therapies practitioner is skilled at facilitating multiple dimensions of sensory experience promoting “action oriented communication” (Malchiodi, 2023a, p. xi). It is this cultivation of agency and vitality that is a prevailing feature of the book, with the authors collaborating as mentors and allies in the context of a therapeutic relationship with their clients.

The book is curated as a collection that combines conceptual frameworks and action plans for practice. The message of the book is to promote an integrative approach to the delivery of the arts therapies that seamlessly moves between image, sound, enactment, physical movement, and contemplation. There are three sections organising the chapters into dedicated topics — namely the foundations of expressive arts therapy, its core practices, and its application as a compendium of artistry.

The expressive therapies room is consistently imagined as a non-prescriptive studio, respecting the aesthetic preferences of each person to make what they will with choice and curiosity (Figure 1).

This is a personalised service which underscores the trauma-informed ethos of the authors to support attunement and expressive consonance. Each person’s unique form of artistic inquiry and visual storytelling is valued and facilitated by way of interdisciplinary co-engagement. There is an emphasis on life in the making, as opposed to reverting to distressful circumstances, as an evocation of hope and self-efficacy (Malchiodi, 2023b). This is not an avoidance of overwhelming experiences, but rather an appreciation of the opportunities available each day to compensate for hardships and psychological wounds that continue to impact.

Figure 1: The Family in Disorder Curated by Cinthia Marcelle at the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art (MACBA)

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Whitaker, P. (2022). A collective experiment in artistic co-production and transformation. [Photograph]. Ireland: Private Collection.

Note: The photograph was taken at Cinthia Marcelle’s exhibition at MACBA titled A Conjunction of Factors, which was created by distinct communities of invited participants. Marcelle defines a conjunction of factors as spontaneous interactions and multiple forces that produce accumulation. “Driven by a desire to disorganise the hierarchies and binary oppositions that pattern our daily interactions, the interconnected layers of Marcelle’s practice express a consistent concern with reimagining the dynamics of collectivity” (MACBA, 2022). These equalising interactions are also a feature of expressive arts therapy.

The chapters in the book are written to encourage an engagement with theory and practice. The book begins with the foundations of expressive arts therapy, its fundamental approaches, ethos, and significance in cultivating embodied empathy. The multiplicity of this creative continuum promotes a panorama of metaphoric associations for each participant that also validates their experiences. There are explanations regarding the multimedia characteristics of expressive arts therapy and how its arts-based inquiry can be utilised as either a sequence or as a simultaneous assembling according to the needs of each person (Estrella, 2023).

The expressive arts therapist is both a participant and beholder who artistically companions each person by way of resonance or observance.

There is a facilitation of sensory alignment between the expressive arts therapist and client, which contributes to self-regulation and an internalised sense of capability. Self-regulation is described by Malchiodi as a responsive form of communication produced by attuning through rhythm, kinaesthetic synchronisation, and therapeutic witnessing (Malchiodi, 2023c). The expressive arts therapist is equipped to offer materials and methods of co-regulation, encompassing an ability to both witness and respond to a client’s creativity in motion. Co-regulation through rhythms of artistic alignment (co-creation) and synchrony are a prevailing theme in the book that support improvisation and experimentation.

The compilation of artistic mediums available to the expressive arts therapist bestows added resources and potential capacities for expressive communication (Figure 2). Each chapter author is generous with their sharing of theory, practice and trauma-informed proficiencies in the following modalities: sand tray therapy, body mapping, bilateral drawing, music, art, drama, dance and play therapy, creative writing, mindfulness, and narrative therapy. This list is only the starting point of the resources the reader will discover in this content-rich book, which demonstrates a duty of care to service users through material and artistic diversification.

Figure 2: One Body – Bbeyond Performance at the Highlanes Gallery, Drogheda

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Whitaker, P. (2022). One-body performance traces of materials and physical actions. [Photograph]. Ireland, Private Collection.

Note: Bbeyond is a performance art collective based in Belfast which “is committed to promoting the practice of performance art and artists in Northern Ireland and further afield. The artist collective aims to raise consciousness of live/performance as being integral to the world in and around us, inspiring reflection and enriching lived experience” (Bbeyond, 2022). Performance art reflects the somatic artistry of expressive arts therapy and its innovative use of materials mapping body gestures and forms of movement.

No one art form can serve everyone, and therefore an aggregate of therapeutic modalities is preferable for the service user who may be unsure of which creative art therapy is best suited to their needs and aspirations. The emphasis on kinaesthetic aesthetics using movement, voice, and stillness provides a repertoire of life tools for the home and life studio as well. The possibility of including singing, meditation, writing, dancing, and art-making at home (or as part of community activities) has significance for what Malchiodi refers to as “the circle of capacity” (Malchiodi, 2023d, p. 146). The circle of capacity has a correlation to life potentials of becoming. Malchiodi critiques distress-informed trauma recovery models, and instead encourages “the capacity to inhabit body and mind through resourcing enlivenment, empowerment, self-compassion, joy, playfulness, and curiosity” (Malchiodi, 2023d, p. 148).

Her approach contradicts limitation, instead promoting life expansion and each person’s ability to live their life to the fullest. This is a refreshing message of possibility and growth and designates the expressive arts therapies as offering multiple forms of achievement for re-imaging life as an assembling of ands.

My suggestion for the book’s next edition is to showcase the studios of expressive arts therapists, and how they are curated for choice and engagement across multiple sites within the therapeutic space. The arrangement of materials in studios should demonstrate to readers how to facilitate the art of movement with objects that can prompt the soundings of both body and mind. There may be words, or not, but the reverberation of materials as forms of production is a distinction of the expressive arts therapies that document routes of therapeutic travel.
I recommend this book for arts therapists who are keen to collaborate with their colleagues in the creative arts therapies, and who wish to seek additional training in the profession of expressive arts therapy. For each arts therapy practitioner the artistry of the book will guide their own discoveries using multiple mediums of inquiry — each a route for therapeutic versatility and symbolic aptitude. The book contains a team of colleagues who are there for you in their generosity of skill sharing and encouragement. Spend time in their company and you will become the benefactor of their knowledge and clinical expertise.

Contributors to The Handbook of Expressive Arts Therapy

Laura Beer, Department of Music Therapy, Colorado State University

Cornelia Elbrecht, Institute for Sensorimotor Art Therapy, Australia

Karen Estrella, Department of Expressive Therapies, Lesley University, Massachusetts

Amber Elizabeth Gray, Restorative Resources, New Mexico

Craig Haen, Private Practice, New York

Sue Ann Herron, Person Centred Expressive Arts Institute, California

Theresa Kestly, The Sand Tray Training Institute, New Mexico

Mitchell Kossak, Department of Counselling and Expressive Therapies, Lesley University, Massachusetts

Patricia Leavy, Independent Scholar, Maine

Suzan Lemont, Pandora’s Playspace Creative Studio, Netherlands

Cathy Malchiodi, Expressive Arts Therapy Institute, Kentucky

Jamie Marich, The Institute of Creative Mindfulness, Ohio

Laury Rappaport, Department of Expressive Arts Therapies, Lesley University

Shoshana Simons, Expressive Arts Therapy, California Institute of Integral Studies, California

Renee Turner, Expressive Therapies Institute, Texas

Karin von Daler, Healing Arts, Denmark


Bbeyond (2022). About Bbeyond. https://bbeyond.live/about/ 

Estrella, K. (2023). The integrative process of expressive arts therapy. In C. Malchiodi (Ed.). The handbook of expressive arts therapy (pp. 81-97). Guildford Press.

MACBA (2022). Cinthia Marcelle: A conjunction of factors. https://www.macba.cat/en/exhibitions-activities/exhibitions/cinthia-marcelle-conjunction-factors 

Malchiodi, C. (2023a). Preface. In C. Malchiodi (Ed.), The handbook of expressive arts therapy (p. ix-xiii). Guildford Press.

Malchiodi, C. (2023b). What is expressive arts therapy? In C. Malchiodi (Ed.), The handbook of expressive arts therapy (pp. 3-21). Guildford Press.

Malchiodi, C. (2023c). Frameworks for expressive arts therapy. In C. Malchiodi (Ed.), The handbook of expressive arts therapy (pp. 21-39). Guildford Press.

Malchiodi, C. (2023d). Trauma-informed expressive arts therapy. In C. Malchiodi (Ed.)., The handbook of expressive arts therapy (pp. 142-154). Guildford Press.

Pamela Whitaker

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Pamela Whitaker is the course director for the MSc Art Psychotherapy course at Ulster University, Belfast School of Art. She has written editorials, chapters and articles on the topics of environmental art therapy, visual and material culture, festival art therapy, the walking studio, and art therapy pedagogy. She is the founder of Groundswell (www.groundswell.ie) a social enterprise that supports open studios within university, community, and cultural contexts, with a specific emphasis on biodiversity gardens, urban streetscapes, and outdoor gatherings of celebration.