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Section 4: What is community art counselling?

What is community art counselling?

Kamal Naran

Community art counsellor

Community art counselling is a South African model of creative healing based on the following frameworks: art therapy, psychodynamic theories and counselling methods. 

Community art counselling was developed in 1994 by the art psychotherapist, Dr Hayley Berman, out of a need to address the lack of mental health resources available in South Africa. The training equips trainees to work effectively as community art counsellors within the complex psychosocial situation in South Africa, but applicable over the world. Central to all learning is the importance of image-making and the value of objects. Images and objects can hold meaning and healing potential which will be explored in depth in the training. 

Art transcends language and cultural barriers. It has proven to be a powerful and effective way of promoting positive change in diverse countries such as South Africa. Lefika La Phodiso’s intention is to enable community art counsellors to work in a wide variety of contexts and set up sustainable projects. The types of places that are worked in include community organisations, schools, clinics, hospitals, correctional institutions and tertiary facilities where mental health services are not readily accessible. 

It is a practice effective for both children and adults in a group setting. It is a material exploration and expression that uses a variety of media and image-making processes such as drawing, painting, clay work and collage. Each material and process may evoke different feeling states and the work created often reflects the unconscious forces that shape a person’s life. Images may elicit associations, desires, fantasies, hopes, dreams and memories and are held within a therapeutic relationship between the community art counsellors and the group. The role of the community art counsellor is to help create a safe space in which the meaning of the image can be explored.

The starting point as a trainee community art counsellor is to:

  • Make images and work with the emotions that come up
  • This process allows the trainee to journey into their inner world, to memories, thoughts and ideas that may not yet be conscious
  • This material can be evoked, sometimes gently sometimes not, using conventional and non-conventional art materials
  • The end product may be two or three dimensional, but the main focus is the process of art making and the reflection on this in the group.

For example: 

  • Paint, particularly in its more liquid form may elicit “messy” feelings and consequently return us to early developmental times. 
  • Pencils and crayons with their sharp points and potentially precise lines may bring up issues around control  
  • Materials and the way they are used tend to mirror and articulate different layers and aspects of an individual and their lives. For example, an object may break while it is being created, and this may mirror an internal state of being.

It is not necessary for group members to have experience in art-making. However, it is essential for you as a trainee to have had many image-making experiences by the time you facilitate groups. This will heighten your sensitivity and awareness of the potential emotions that can be evoked while making images and therefore enable you to respond appropriately to group members.


The founder of Lefika La Phodiso and community art counselling in South AfricaDr Hayley Berman is an art psychotherapist, social activist, practicing artist and the founding director of Lefika La Phodiso, an NGO in the inner city of Johannesburg, which trains community art counsellors. In addition, she has a private practice working with individuals and couples. Hayley completed her BAFA (Hons) at Wits University in 1990 and trained in the UK at St Albans in 1991 as an Art Therapist. In 2012 she completed her PhD degree in psycho-social studies at The University of Western England, Bristol.  

She is affiliated to the South African Psychoanalytic Confederation and the Institute of Child Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy in South Africa. She has presented at several local and international conferences and published articles in both the UK and South Africa. She is a registered member of the Health Professions Council of South Africa and of the British Association of Art Therapists.  

Hayley is currently a senior lecturer of the MA in art therapy programme at the University of Hertfordshire and a visiting lecturer at the University of Johannesburg’s art therapy honours and MA programmes.


4.2 Motivation for becoming a community art counsellor 

What is a community art counsellor?

A community art counsellor is a mental health professional trained to use art in a therapeutic manner within a group setting. Their scope of practice includes short-term community art counselling groups created around a specific theme. A community art counsellor cannot diagnose or treat mental illness, but can offer support in the management of clinical outcomes in a multimodal team. Community art counselling a supervised practice ideally with a registered arts therapist. Lefika La Phodiso offers group supervision on a weekly basis. 

Why are we here? 

When you become a community art counsellor it is important to investigate your motivation for entering into this profession. One helpful way to look at it is to explore Carl Jung’s concept of the Wounded Healer. He suggests that a psychoanalyst is compelled to work in this profession, treating clients and patients because the psychoanalyst is “wounded”. That is to say that perhaps as a community art counsellor you consciously or unconsciously understand the predicament of your client because you too have experienced some kind of similar emotional experience. 


4.3 Elements of community art counselling 

The key elements of community art counselling include the following:

  • Community art counselling is a material process. This means that using art materials is a core value of the process.
  • Different art media and processes evoke different feeling states.
  • The use of materials and the making processes hold the potential for the client to slip beneath the threshold of conscious thought. This allows them to access unconscious material and to give it a palpable form or shape outside of the self. Conflicts can be made concrete and this may in turn facilitate resolution. 
  • The image can be looked at, thought about and worked through within the therapeutic/holding frame with a trained community art counsellor. 
  • The community art counsellor will work with the transference (albeit differently at times) and this may well be located in the image.
  • Play allows the client to experience themselves from the inside and outside. The community art counsellor is the thinking ‘other’ and allows for the client to experience witnessing. 
  • The discipline of community art counselling gives image-making and creativity a positive value and emphasis.
  • There is a deep belief and often personal experience on the part of the community art counsellor, in the healing value of art making.
  • Facilitating image-making for others is deeply embedded in one’s own capacity for self-expression through a variety of materials and techniques.
  • Image-making can tap preverbal feelings and experiences.
  • No previous art experience is necessary to enter into community art counselling.


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