Exploring the Psychological Function of Art

An Interview with Mariajose Fernandez, MS, LMFT, Sunday January 17th 2021

Mariajose earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology from Texas A&M University and a Master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy from Kansas State University. She has been practicing as a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist since 2004, when she started with the Family Life Ministry of the Army Chapel at Fort Riley, Kansas. There she worked with families dealing with separations for deployments to the Iraq War, families adjusting to life together again after deployment, and the trauma of service members after participating in the war. After that, she worked in a community mental health clinic providing therapy to substance abuse clients referred by local courts. She did individual, group, and couples therapy as well as evaluations and assessments. She currently works in the local Children’s Hospital where she provides therapy to children, teens, and their families.

MJ Portrait
Mariajose Fernandez, MS, LMFT


Thank you for taking the time to talk with me about art. I wanted to set the stage for why I wanted to speak with you and what I hoped to accomplish by this conversation.

You wrote a piece about self-care for this blog a couple of months ago. And while we were discussing  that blog I realized you might have some insights in to how art helps people.

At the time I use the word therapeutic and we have since decided therapeutic is probably not a good word for it. You sent me some information about art therapy. And we discussed why it’s important for us to not represent ourselves as an art therapist and for me any kind of therapists. And we agree that’s not what we’re trying to do here.


Yes, in the profession of therapy there are a lot of rules as to how one can represent themselves. For example, I cannot call myself a psychologist as I do not have a Doctoral Degree in Psychology. I am a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist which has its own specific requirements and education. In my practice, I do a lot of Play Therapy interventions, yet I am not a Play Therapist (that also requires a certification). I’ve worked with couples before, but I am not a Sex Therapist (again, that also requires a certification). So, while I do use art as an intervention with my patients, I am not an Art Therapist.


After I received your email about how someone should not represent themselves, I checked the resources you gave me and they made that point clear.

Just the other day on Facebook someone put up meme about how they didn’t need therapy, they just needed to quilt. I think that explains what I’m talking about, people call it therapy but that’s not technically what they’re talking about. It is something else and I’ve been trying to nail it down. If it’s not therapy, I’d like to have a word for it. Do you have any suggestions?

Exploring the Psychological Function of Art


I think generally anything that calms or re-centers a person or gives them a break from a stressful situation can be referred to as therapeutic. Therapy is more of a process that’s guided by someone who’s trained in that process.

I think that instead of “therapeutic” you could say that when you create art, a psychological function is at play. And that function calms and re-centers a person, giving them a break from stress. And when a person has a break from stress it helps them have hope, it re-balances them and gives them a better appreciation of life.

Exploring the Psychological Function of Art


I shared with you some situations that I came across when I began art school and also when I was teaching art that I’ve wanted clarity for. I was hoping that if you shared how you use art in your practice that might shed some light on what I was observing in those situations.


Simply put this is how I use art in my practice as a LMFT. I use art:
To help people externalize their problems so that they can see them in a different light
To help them communicate
To have a visual representation of what is going on
As a coping skills/relaxation skills/meditation/self-care (this is one is not directive nor does it usually happen in session-people do this on their own time)


I’d like to go a little bit deeper into the four ways that you use art. Is that OK?


As a Family Therapist and in that role, I have come to realize that communication is not just verbal. I can effectively use drawing to help my patients communicate what is going on inside of them if they are not able to do so verbally.

Exploring the Psychological Function of Art


I agree that communications is not just verbal, in fact when I studied art at UTD, we often talked about art being a language. Much of my study centered on expressing concepts visually. And I came to see how powerful art is in communicating ideas.

Using Art in Family Therapy


Yes, Let’s say, someone is depressed if they can externalize their depression it gives them a sense of control. To help them control their depression I ask them to create or borrow a character they relate to that expresses their depression. They are to describe depression by drawing out what that character looks like. I ask them, “What does your depression look like?”

Being able to express what their depression looks like does two things. First, it externalizes their feelings and helps give them a sense of control. When they feel like they have some control over depression, they don’t feel so hopeless.

The drawing helps me to ask questions about their depression that are non-intrusive.

Using Characters

I ask them to give their character a name and begin to talk to it.

What do they want to say to their depression? I tell them that they can tell depression for example that they are not allowed to go to school with them. They can put their depression character in a drawer and tell it to stay put.

It takes their depression out of their body.

Sometimes kids have a hard time communicating, but anyone can draw. If a child can’t talk about what is going on, he can say it with a picture and when he does, it takes a huge load of his back.

Once a child expresses his/her internal struggles progress can take place.

Using Self Portraits

Another way I use art with my patients is by asking them to do a self-portrait. They don’t have to draw themselves as a human, they can be an animal, a creature, even an object, it is up to them. I have them do this while we talk. Drawing gets them to relax, it is an ice breaker. And it also helps them see their strengths

Student Art

Their art is a representation of what is going on inside of them. When they are overwhelmed by their life situation, art is an outlet for them to get it out.

An Example

Let me give you can example where I helped a young girl deal with bullying. She was 8 years old and couldn’t explain what was going on. I was able to find out the worst of the bullying happened in the cafeteria at school, so I asked her to think about what was going on and draw a picture of the cafeteria.

Then we took her diagram and I asked her to jump into the cafeteria picture. I had her move around and tell me what was happening using objects to represent herself and the bully. She encountered the person who was bullying her in one part of the cafeteria. I asked her if she could move away from the person and to show me where she would go. We talked about different scenarios of how she could take herself out of the bullying situation. Now she was equipped with a plan she could use as she dealt with the bully in the cafeteria. She didn’t have to feel like she could not control the situation. She could take action and remove herself from harms way by remembering the drawing.

Narrative Therapy

There is something called narrative therapy that I use. I will have the patient take the Depression Character and have them create an externalization story. The story is about how Depression came into their lives and why they invited it in. Then I have them answer the question, what will it take to make Depression leave?

They answer the question by weaving into their story a superhero or a magical being. This superhero is really them. They give the superhero all the things they need to deal with Depression and make him go away. They draw these items out. It can be a shield or a sword. These items are the internals strengths the child needs to cope. They draw them out so they can see them. Children are concrete learners, not abstract.

Then I have the child find an object to symbolize all the superpower strengths they need to fight Depression. Something like a stone they can keep in their pocket. It is there with them wherever they go. They have it right there ready to use if they need it, the strength to keep Depression away.

One boy wanted to draw a vest. And on that vest, he drew all the tools he had  learned to use to cope. He would pretend to wear that vest as he remember the new ways of dealing with problems.

These methods of using art are non-intrusive and helps the child let their guard down and accept help.


MJ, this is fascinating. And while I was listening to you light bulbs were going off in my head. I think I have connected some dots to the questions I had about my experiences while studying and teaching art.

I knew when we began this conversation it would most likely become two blogs. I decided to divide it into how you use art in your work as a Family Therapist and then next week post about some of the dots I connected while listening to you speak.

Biz News

The website and all things related to Ruthieonart are currently being rebranded. I am starting the process by exploring color and texture, by creating assets for the purpose of refreshing the look of my brand. It is a fun exercise and I am taking my time, enjoying the process.

The rebranded website goes hand in hand with the creation of a Spring Shop on Ruthieonart. A few of my friends and I are returning to create a place where you can shop for gifts. So far there are seven of us and I am looking for more shops to invite.


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American Art Therapy Association

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