If you’re a TikTok lurker, like the other billion of us, you may have stumbled upon a video on your For You Page where someone encourages you to get off your phone and grab a drink of water.

“That’s enough scrolling time today,” they’ll cheer. “Why don’t you close the app and go for a walk?”

As good as their intentions are, many of us will roll our eyes and continue further down the rabbit hole. But Amelia Hutchison, the art psychotherapist behind @art_therapy_irl — and her private practice, Art Therapy In Real Life — provides a different brain break.

“What color is your heart today?” she’ll ask the camera, holding out a bushel of colored pencils, wide-eyed behind her rainbow assortment of glasses.

And the people in the comments answer. In poetic one-liners,  questions about their own healing journeys, and stitched videos; more than 85,000 followers respond to Hutchison’s prompts.

Outside of TikTok, the Canadian care provider offers clinical care through one-on-one client relationships, as well as open studio and group sessions, all expanding access and experience around one thing: the power of art therapy. 

What is art therapy?

Art therapy is an integrative approach to psychotherapy using art-making, creative process, and applied psychological theory for those seeking relief from mental health conditions. In addition to clinical care, art therapy practices can be used in non-clinical environments like workshops and classes.

As collective mental health needs shift and evolve to respond to modern social upheaval, more therapeutic and psychological resources will develop, too. 

While tools like cognitive behavioral therapy — commonly referred to as “talk therapy” — are helpful to some, other approaches or modalities, like art or music therapy, can empower folks with different diagnoses, traumatic experiences, or mental health goals.

How does art therapy work?

Art therapy works by engaging the mind and body in ways that are different from verbal articulation alone, calling upon art materials and directives to activate sensory responses connected to emotions and experiences. 

According to the American Art Therapy Association (AATA), when facilitated by professional therapists, art therapy can effectively support personal and relational treatment goals, as well as community concerns

The AATA says that art therapy is used to:

  • Improve cognitive and sensorimotor functions
  • Foster self-esteem
  • Foster self-awareness
  • Cultivate emotional resilience
  • Promote insight
  • Enhance social skills
  • Reduce and resolve conflicts and distress
  • Advance societal and ecological change

Art therapy approaches can often be especially helpful for trauma survivors, as trauma activates the side of the brain used for emotional, visual, spatial, tactile, and artistic experiences. 

Meet Amelia Hutchison, TikTok’s art therapist

A headshot of Amelia Hutchinson is beside a screenshot of her @art_therapy_irl TikTok profile. She has curly blond hair and wears a gray and black sweater. In front of her are art supplies like colored pencils and scissors.
Hutchison's following allowed her to open her own private practice, where she offers a number of art therapy services. Left photo courtesy of Amelia Hutchison

As mentioned, Hutchison uses these tools, not only in her own work, but on a new, larger scale, inviting people from all backgrounds to get a taste of this creative approach to mental healthcare. 

I sat down with Hutchison for an interview for our recently released Art Edition of the Goodnewspaper. While some of her story is shared in the print edition of the paper, I am excited to publish our full conversation.

Read our discussion below, and don’t forget to follow Hutchison to tap into your own inner Picasso. 

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Kamrin (Good Good Good): Tell me a little bit about how you got involved in art therapy. How did you know that this was your path of focus? What about it stood out to you?

Amelia Hutchison: Art therapy has always been my plan. I was really lucky as a kid to have lots of access to great creative spaces; specifically painting classes with an abstract painter, from the time I was six until I went off to college. They weren’t very structured classes because it was abstract, and I had these classes as a kid following some pretty intense trauma and some grief from a very young age, and I had this space, I think, to kind of explore without words. 

Those classes weren’t therapy, but I think because I had a creative space to express things in color and shape and metaphor, even though I wasn’t actively doing healing work, having that space in my childhood, post-trauma, gave me this kind of extra mental health toolkit. 

A paper chain is made of various loops with drawings and watercolor designs.
Hutchison has loved using art as a healing tool from a young page. Photo courtesy of Amelia Hutchison

Words are wonderful. I write a lot of poetry myself, but I think words can be limiting, especially when we’re younger or might not have language when we’re dealing with things that are unspeakable. So, having this expanded toolkit for just, like, being in my brain and being in the world made post-traumatic growth possible for me as a young person. So when I heard about art therapy as a teenager, I was like: ‘Yeah, that thing.’ And there was no question after that. 

Kamrin: What is your educational background like as an art therapist?

Amelia: I didn’t immediately go in that direction, actually. I did an undergraduate degree at the Maryland Institute College of Art that kind of focused on community arts and painting, which was great, but also that was just very fine-art specific. 

In the kind of community organizing and facilitating I was doing, I always felt like I was kind of missing a clinical piece, and I wanted more of the kind of mental health training to accompany that. So I decided to pursue graduate studies in art therapy back in Canada, where I’m from. 

Kamrin: You can approach this from a clinical perspective, or a personal perspective, but how would you say art benefits us psychologically? Like, how does creating make us better humans?

Amelia: I love that question. I think it's kind of similar to what I said before. Words are one part of how we experience the world, right?  Language is incredibly valuable. And when we expand the ways we express to include things that are nonverbal — maybe it's movement, maybe it's sound, maybe it's something visual — I think it gives us range to explore all of the facets of being human. 

I found for many of my clients, people are attracted to art therapy because whatever it is that they're working through, words aren't feeling like they're getting to it. Or, in some cases specifically, we’re working with trauma. 

Trauma lives in the visual side of the brain. It’s hard to heal something like trauma when we're working with the cognitive analytical side of the brain. That’s why somatic therapy is really effective, and art therapy is really effective. 

When we pull in visual tools, it gives us just another way of exploring and integrating things that are about memory or from the context of the brain that are really visual.

When we pull in visual tools, it gives us just another way of exploring and integrating things that are about memory or from the context of the brain that are really visual.

Talk therapy is amazing, but it's also just one way that we can approach caring for our mental health. And for some people, having a conversation is not the most comfortable way of making a connection or processing, thinking about folks who maybe have experienced trauma, or neurodivergent folks. 

I fall into that category myself. Like, having a conversation, making eye contact? Not always going to work. But having this other element in the therapy space, I think it takes the pressure off of the conversation and gives another place to explore together with your therapist.

Kamrin: That really resonates with me. I am very much someone who tries to analyze all of my feelings and not actually feel them. I think this is exactly one of those tools, as opposed to just, like, talking it out or thinking it out, I realize this feeling needs to live somewhere else outside of me. So I think that's a really cool approach.

Amelia: You’re nailing it. Like, that idea of something living outside of me is one of the most important parts of art therapy. 

Not only do we get to kind of express something in a context that is respectful and supportive and safe, but we're also taking something inside of our bodies, taking it outside and giving it form. 

What would anxiety look like as a sculpture? What would fear look like as a symbol or a color? Actually having the experience of externalizing a feeling or memory we have can be really therapeutic for people. 

And then, not only is it outside of us, we can manipulate it. We have the power to change it and transform it and tell a different story for it. And that in itself is incredibly validating in moments like this in our social history where we don't have a lot of control. To have one place in our lives where we do get to shape the narrative or practice asserting control over something is so important. 

An art therapy quote reads: "what would anxiety look like as a sculpture? What would fear look like as a symbol or a color? Actualy having the experience of externalizing a feeling or memory we have can be really therapeutic for people."

Kamrin: I love that. Tell me a little bit more about your practice and your offerings. I know you do clinical work and workshops. Can you dive into that for me?

Amelia: Yeah! So, in building my practice, it's been really important to make things as accessible as possible. And being in this kind of age of teletherapy or digital therapy has really made that possible in the last two years. 

Right now, I offer one-on-one therapy, and that's the clinical mental health treatment side of art therapy, where I'll meet with a client, work on setting goals, working with whatever mental health diagnosis they have. We hold that through a psychotherapeutic lens and use the art as a tool to help them meet whatever mental health goals they have. 

And those types of offerings are the ones that are kind of under the jurisdiction of the regulatory bodies. The great thing about that side of the work is that you get to go deep and you get to develop a relationship with a therapist that could potentially be long-term. That's really where someone would go for individual attention and if they're wanting clinical advice related to their specific issues or whatever, it is their brain therapy.

That’s about half my practice. I'm also trying really hard to make spaces that are more open and more accessible for people, ones that aren't kind of limited by where I live. I'm only able to work with people in certain states and provinces because of those kinds of regulations, which are important. 

And I think some of these art therapy skills can translate to different kinds of therapeutic support groups or open studio spaces. Not everyone needs or wants one-on-one therapy, but maybe a group of six people that are meeting for a month to explore a certain topic with some guidance feels amazing. 

A green crayon and orange crayon sit on top of a white piece of paper covered in colorful scribbles.
Hutchison utilizes a number of mediums to help her clients. Photo courtesy of Amelia Hutchison

Other therapeutic groups are kind of closed groups where there will be a certain number of people meeting and building relationships and exploring through art with the support of an art therapist. 

And then I'm also running an open studio these days, and that's kind of even more loose. That's like a drop-in space where anyone can sign up and come, and there is maybe an idea or a prompt, but just an open room to create within. 

I know for myself, as a person with ADHD, body-doubling is how I get things done. If I pay for something, even if it's like $5, or even if I've just signed up for something, if I know there's other people going to be there, those kinds of spaces for me, that's how I can land and be accountable to something, even if it's an art practice. 

So, yeah, I run another thing called Anti-Hustle Art Studio, and that is a twice-weekly group where people can come and make art with the intention of making things that are not for their jobs, not for sale, not to be posted on the Internet, just to make things just for themselves, against the grain of productivity culture, whatever that means to them.

A screenshot of the Anti Hustle Art Studio webpage
Hutchison hosts the Anti-Hustle Art Studio twice weekly. Screenshot taken from arthterapyinreallife.com

Kamrin: That’s so cool. I find that, a lot of times, people will believe that art is very exclusive or that it’s, like, reserved for people who are specifically trained as artists, or things like that. Obviously, your work is the antithesis of that: art is a healing tool for everyone. Tell me more about how we can normalize art in that way, as a way to take care of ourselves. 

Amelia: I love that you're asking that question. The number one question people have is: “I'm not an artist. Can I do this?” Verbatim is like: “Oh, I couldn't even draw a stick figure.” That's the sentence people say that shows me their defense is coming up.

The whole point of art therapy is that we get to use art materials to have an experience that might give us some information. We're not working towards a final product that looks like any one thing, and that's uncomfortable for people. 

An art therapy quote from Amelia Hutchison reads: The whole point of art therapy is that we get to use art materials to have an experience that might give us some information. We're not working towards a final product that looks like any one thing."

We have all of this cultural conditioning that the only people who get to enjoy or benefit from art are the ones who have technical skills, who maybe were rewarded as children or college students for drawing in a certain way — likely a way that was kind of a Eurocentric aesthetic value or something that is deemed as profitable.

And if it wasn't those things, then maybe we received this messaging of: “I’m not talented, I'm not good, art is not for me. I can find other outlets for myself.” But I think one of the amazing things that can happen in art therapy is you have this space to just play and make things and learn from that experience without needing it to be something. In the end, I do a lot of work with clients where we set up a circumstance where they can't actually make a masterpiece. 

We're using Playdoh, or we're drawing with our non-dominant hands. We're doing something like bilateral drawing — which is drawing with both hands at once. So there's so much information and value in just having the tactile experience of art material that we can miss if we think that the only reason to do something creative is to have a pretty final product.

Kamrin: How have you seen people benefit from that? Like, through TikTok? You have this platform where people are responding to your questions or prompts. How do you see this play out on a day-to-day scale?

Amelia: The first thing I think of is just that learning to think in metaphor can be so beneficial for folks because it gives us another way of interfacing with the world. There's kind of a binary there if someone asks how I’m doing. “I'm good” or “I'm bad,” right?

But if someone asks the question, like, “what's the weather in your heart like today?” think of what that would look like if I gave you a studio full of art materials and then you had a chance to explore what came up for you in the process. It’s so much more expansive.

I think the real benefits I see with the folks I work with is, first of all, a self-assurance of, like, I have this way of knowing myself and communicating with myself that feels really authentic and really personal. But then also this space of divesting from productivity, culture, and perfectionism. 

I think the real benefits I see with the folks I work with is, first of all, a self-assurance of, like, I have this way of knowing myself and communicating with myself that feels really authentic and really personal. But then also this space of divesting from productivity, culture, and perfectionism. 

Kamrin: How did you get started posting on TikTok? Was it kind of just like a tool to market your business, and then it became more of this space for people? What was that journey?

Amelia: I didn't know what to expect from that space. I've been on Instagram for years and years, but I like video. I like performing. I like public speaking. And I really like how stripped down a platform like Tik Tok is instead of the static pose, something that feels really polished. I like hopping into a conversation with someone.

 And my thinking when it comes to using social media as a tool for marketing a business, my ultimate goal is to begin to create relationships, to start building a sense of trust, whether that's the people I'm going to work with or just giving people a sense of what the field is. 

My real mission with my Tik Tok, and with my social media presence, is just to get the word out about art therapy being valid, real, and evidence-based, and not just this kind of floofy, crafty thing. 

I was posting consistently with some simple informational videos, and then one thing just kind of caught wind, as they kind of can do on TikTok, and now I feel like there's been this community space created. There is this cool dialogue happening, and I've been able to kind of start and run new, different kinds of groups and step away from working only with client agencies. It's been really cool.

Because of TikTok, all of this information is being disseminated in this really exciting way. I feel like TikTok is kind of like the opposite of gatekeeping when it comes to kinds of information.

Three screenshots show Amelia Hutchinson's TikTok account.
Hutchison shares a variety of videos and ideas on her TikTok page. Screenshots taken from @art_therapy_irl onTikTok

Kamrin:  That being said, why is it important for us to make things that are not for the gaze of the Internet?

Amelia: Now you're touching on the ultimate irony of my work, that I've accidentally become a social media therapist who talks about the impact of social media on our mental health.

I'll speak from my own experience first. It’s been years, up until recently, that I made something and just kept it for myself. There was always this kind of perception of “what are people on the Internet going to see? How am I going to tell the story of this piece of art as it relates to the work I do?” 

The gaze of the Internet started to kind of infiltrate my creative process, and I think it was harder and harder to make things just because it felt good or just for myself. 

The gaze of the Internet started to kind of infiltrate my creative process, and I think it was harder and harder to make things just because it felt good or just for myself. 

I think a lot of people experience this when it comes to sharing pictures of their lives, or if you set any precedent for yourself of being vulnerable on the Internet, there comes this time where you question: “What is just for me? Who am I when no one is watching?”

I think when it comes to a creative practice, it's a really important question. What do I make that's just for me? How is it different from the thing I make or the thing I sell or the thing I've known for? So, I mean, that's the rationale behind the Anti-Hustle Art Studio, to make things that no one gets to see except for you, if that's how you want to use the space.

I also think that having an analogue space in our lives to create and express fosters this incredible sense of connection to self authenticity, of just actually touching the physical world. 

Social media collapses context. And I think what brings us back into a sense of context, into a sense of our humanness are these concepts of: “What can I feel with my body? What place am I existing in the world? What happens when I manipulate material?” 

Having these really human and tactile experiences, I think, is a really important antidote to the fact that we live online now.

A colorful abstract painting sits beside two paintbrushes and a palette full of colorful paint.
Hutchison shares process photos and videos on her social media platforms. Photo courtesy of Amelia Hutchison

Kamrin: What are your favorite tips or exercises for someone just getting started with art or who wants to try out art therapy?

Amelia: There are so many things. As far as practices, I think bilateral drawing is an incredible tool for nervous system regulation. But really, start by getting yourself some materials that are not precious. Go to the dollar store, and just find something that your inner child wants to play with. Give yourself permission to play without the agenda of making something.

Amelia’s insights were originally published in the April 2022 issue of the Goodnewspaper: The Art Edition. Learn more about the Goodnewspaper and subscribe today for more good news.