June 27, 2023

The American Art Therapy Association represents a diversity of professionals, students, and organizations across the nation. We recognize and celebrate the work of our members at all levels through our Featured Member series.

How did you get involved with AATA? What keeps you excited about the AATA community?

I got involved with the American Art Therapy Association (AATA) because I recognized the importance of being part of a community that shares my passion for art therapy. I attended AATA conferences, which provided me with opportunities to connect with other art therapists, exchange ideas, and learn from experts in the field. Through these interactions, I felt a sense of belonging and camaraderie that inspired me to become more actively involved.

What keeps me excited about the AATA community is the continuous inspiration and motivation I gain from the exchange of ideas and the learning opportunities it provides. Staying updated on the latest news and developments in our field through AATA events keeps me informed and helps me enhance my professional knowledge and skills. The collective effort of art therapists working together to promote the field, advocate for its recognition, and enhance its effectiveness keeps me excited and motivated to continue my involvement with the American Art Therapy Association.

“I decided to volunteer as a conference local arrangement chair because I wanted to give back to the art therapy community and contribute to the growth and advancement of our field. Being part of the AATA community allows me to connect with like-minded individuals, engage in meaningful discussions, and collaborate on initiatives that aim to move the art therapy field forward.”

What excites (or inspires) you most about your job right now?

What excites and inspires me most about my job right now is the profound impact I can have on the lives of my clients. Being able to witness their growth and transformation is incredibly fulfilling and motivating. I find inspiration in celebrating their unique qualities, helping them tap into their innate strengths, and guiding them to connect with their authentic selves. Seeing clients take small but significant steps towards change and witnessing the positive ripple effect it has on their lives is truly rewarding. I am inspired by their courage as they bravely face their deepest wounds and vulnerabilities. having the honor to be on the journey of their self-discovery, growth, and renewed inner peace is truly meaningful to me. The opportunity to changing the world, one person at a time is what excites and inspires me the most in my career.

Has working with a particular client group shaped your professional focus or specialty? What have you learned from working with these clients?

Working with the Hong Kong community during a period of political turmoil as a participatory action researcher has profoundly shaped my professional focus and specialty. The collaborations I engaged with different communities and multi-disciplinary teams during that time have had a lasting impact on my responsiveness, relating, and reflexivity abilities. I now consider these three traits as the essential trio for a socially responsible art therapist.

Through this experience, I have learned to recognize the intricate influence of culture, which is deeply rooted in the social, economic, political, and structural institutions of the society individuals interact with. It has taught me the importance of understanding and acknowledging these influences when providing therapy, and how they shape the experiences and struggles of individuals within their larger social context.

It also taught me the significance of advocating for change in a non-colonizing, caring, and compassionate manner. I have witnessed the power of therapy in empowering individuals to find their voices, challenge systemic barriers, and work towards positive transformations. This has highlighted the need for therapists to constantly reflect on their own social backgrounds, assumptions, positioning behavior, and power dynamics within the therapeutic relationship. Additionally, this experience has deepened my understanding of the importance of knowing whom I am serving and who benefits from the directives I undertake. It has reinforced the notion that therapy should be centered around the needs and goals of the community and individuals, and that it should aim to address social injustices and promote healing on multiple levels. this experience has significantly shaped my professional focus and specialty as an art therapist. It has instilled in me a deep commitment to being socially responsible, culturally sensitive, and actively engaged in creating positive change within the communities I serve.

Painted gold leaves on individuals who have survived abuse, symbolizing their resilience and transformation. A socially engaged art project, inspired by Kintsugi.

How has social justice impacted your work as an art therapist?

Social justice is a big part of my work as a socially responsible art therapist. Recognizing the systemic inequalities and injustices that exist in our society has driven me to incorporate a social justice framework into my practice. Early on in my practice, I realized that my interventions were inadvertently perpetuating a cycle of coping rather than empowering individuals to advocate for themselves. I was merely providing temporary relief, like putting bandages on institutional wounds. This realization was a wake-up call for me. It prompted me to critically examine my therapeutic approach and confront the ways in which I may have unintentionally reinforced systemic injustice. Since then, I have made a conscious effort to center my work on empowerment, liberation, and advocacy.

In my art therapy groups, I create a safe and inclusive space where clients can explore their identities, experiences, and the social contexts in which they exist. I encourage them to use art as a means of self-expression and social commentary. Through this process, I aim to amplify their voices and perspectives, promoting self-advocacy, healing and lasting change. Furthermore, I am committed to collaborating with community organizations and engaging in social action initiatives. I seek opportunities to raise awareness about systemic issues, challenge oppressive structures, and advocate for the importance of peacebuilding.

Race, diversity, and social justice continue to shape and inform my work as an art therapist. They remind me of the importance of addressing not only individual well-being but also the larger social and structural factors that contribute to inequity. By integrating a social justice lens into my practice, I strive to create meaningful change, empower individuals, and work towards a more just and inclusive society.

What are your hopes for the future of the art therapy profession?

I hope to see a significant expansion of our impact at the macro level of change. Art therapy has incredible potential to contributes to collective healing, promote social justice, and address complex systemic issues. I hope to see a greater emphasis on scientific research within the field of art therapy. While anecdotal evidence and personal testimonies are valuable, rigorous research can provide the necessary evidence base to further validate the effectiveness of art therapy interventions. This will strengthen our professional standing and contribute to the integration of art therapy into mainstream healthcare systems. I envision more funding and support for research initiatives, collaborative studies, and evidence-based practices that can enhance the credibility and impact of art therapy.

What advice would you give someone pursuing a career in art therapy? 

At times being an art therapist we may have to advocate for the recognition and integration of art therapy in various settings and educate others about the benefits and potential of art therapy as a valuable and effective form of therapy. Instead of trying to fit into the traditional mental health approaches, be proud of your role as an art therapist and the specialized knowledge and skills you bring to the table. Ground yourself in to the distinct and powerful skills that combines the arts and the science. Trust in the art and trust in the process. Trust that the art will guide you and your clients towards deeper understanding, healing and growth.
Our field is constantly evolving, and as art therapists, we can shape and expand the boundaries of therapeutic practice. By celebrating our unique identity, we contribute to the growth and advancement of art therapy as a respected and integral discipline within the mental health field. Art therapy is a deeply rewarding career. Embrace the challenges, the successes, and the learning opportunities that come with the profession. Stay curious, keep learning, and be open to the profound impact you can have in the lives of others through the power of the arts, and proudly pave your own path as an art therapist.

Polarisation, 2019

About Helena Ma, DSW, MA

I am a licensed marriage and family therapist, clinically trained art therapist, and certified Christ-centered counselor. With a Doctorate of Social Work in social innovation and social entrepreneurship and an M.A. in Marital and Family Therapy specializing in Clinical Art Therapy, I bring a unique blend of expertise to my work. My approach combines the arts, social change, and therapeutic techniques to promote personal growth, healing, and a sense of purpose in individuals. I believe in the transformative power of art and its ability to unlock emotions, foster self-expression, and facilitate healing processes.

Additionally, I am a dedicated social entrepreneur focused on peace-building and conflict transformation at a macro level, seeking to address systemic issues and make a positive impact on society through innovative approaches. I have the honour to serve as a board member with the United Nations Women which allowed me to contribute to my passion for keeping peace and making positive changes on a global scale.

Through my various roles, I strive to create meaningful impacts, bridge local and global contexts, and contribute to a more just and peaceful society. I am deeply passionate about being a therapist, an advocate, and an agent of social change, and I excited about my continue journey of growth, learning, advocacy, and building meaningful connections with others.