Dr. Shaun McNiff, Pioneer to Art Therapy and Expressive Art Therapies (Research)

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Shaun McNiff: Pioneer to Expressive Arts Therapy

Breanna Cox

Southwestern College

Shaun McNiff: Pioneer to Expressive Arts Therapy

Perhaps it is the appeal of helping clients do the art or dance or poetry that best resonates with themselves. Perhaps it is the idea of being flexible, adaptable, and open. My interest is piqued by the magic of creative flow. Last quarter, I researched Jungian and Person-Centered Art Therapies; so it is fitting that I continue expressive therapies research with Shaun McNiff.

From 1981 to 2009, and beyond

In 1981, McNiff published the book The Arts and Psychotherapy, which has been paramount to his career and many other leaders in the mental health field. In this book, he set the stage for his foundations of the shaman, expression, and several individual sections on types of art. At the beginning of his career, he wanted to make the bridge of the Arts and Psychotherapy; and show the power of their integration. As the expressive arts therapies are able to facilitate transcendence and expression; it is like the archetype of the shaman and healer. He makes the case for “a renewal of shamanic expression.” (McNiff, 1981, Pg 23)

A few years later, McNiff wrote of “intensives” training programs that he facilitated to help others in a prolonged shamanic ceremony or spiritual retreat. McNiff talks about participants’ reluctance to fully express themselves and share; and needing guidance. He describes that once each individual is able to spend time alone creating and thereby in their own self-discovery. Then, when it came time to share, it “results in a collective energy that supports continuous personal creation.” (McNiff, 1983, Pg. 51). Even though I am early in my graduate school career in art therapy, I have been able to experience the complementary process of energy and creation.

McNiff continued his quest of cross-cultural studies and application in his practice; and published Cross-Cultural Psychotherapy and Art in 1984. He was ten years into his career taught regularly in European countries, South Pacific, Far East, and various regions in the United States. He sad that he gets asked regularly how his work differs in one group to the next. “Of all expressive modes, language most clearly presents cultural differences whereas the visual arts, music and dance are more interchangeable and universal. (Pg 126).

It is worth noting that McNiff affirms of the “universal essence” (respect for differences); and he confesses that cross-cultural work is an opportunity for stimulation and learning.. As always, he goes back to the heart of art – “The absence of verbal language can actually have positive results, focusing even more energy on the significance of the art object.” (Pg 129)

A decade later, Dr. McNiff found a space to discuss Keeping the Studio, and it’s space. (McNiff, 1995). He discusses working in an art cottage setting while at a state hospital in early 1970. This old building served as an old TB cottage in post-Civil War era of the 1870s, so it seems fitting that he wanted to “breathe life” into the empty area. According to McNiff, he led many groups on the hospital wards but the community milieu was able to thrive only “in the sanctuary of soul medicine.” (McNiff, 1995, Pg 180). He emphasizes that we can look to the art therapy studio for agents of transformation that are held in the vibes and ambience. The art therapy studio is where each of us has our own creative process, then we can recharge from others’ creative processes around us; and “the studio is an ecology of mutual influences.” (Pg 181)

Out of his thirteen publications to his name, the one book that changed the projection of his career to today is Art-Based Research. (McNiff, 1998). In this book, he began the journey of partnership between scientific research and “distinguishing those creative objects and processes that require new ways of understanding.” (Pg 14) Dr. McNiff, university professor at Lesley University, wants to help his graduate students have as much freedom in their research while still staying truthful their own inquiry.

McNiff opens the first chapter introducing his research for his doctoral degree in the mid-1970s was on the motivation or reasons for making art. He admits that he published the findings and he even won an award for that particular research, but he seems troubled that his study has not had a lasting impact. Perhaps it is this realization that has made him a better supervisor to his students during their research, and tracking the students’ research impact on themselves and other artists. (Pg 23)

“As the field of creative arts therapy expands and matures, we will involve ourselves in deeper and more open-ended studies into ho the process ‘works.’ Liberated from having constantly to justify our practice to others and to ourselves, we will be able to understand it more intimately and thoroughly.” (McNiff, 1998, Pg 37)

In that same year, Dr. McNiff published a review of the book Jung on Active Imagination. (McNiff, 1998 – 2) I found this incredibly insightful in my own research since much of McNiff’s core philosophy is in Jungian thought. He even declared C.G. Jung to be the preeminent pioneer of creative arts therapy, noting that Jung was the first to “give shape to the images.” According to McNiff, Jung had introduced his method of flow of psychic energy and it had several terms like picture method or visioning, and even introspection – but not until 1935 that he coined the term “active imagination.”

Finally, it is in this review that we find out McNiff’s own approach to creative arts therapy stems from the tenets of the active imagination method. He says, “it is likely that the activation of creative energy will inspire a variety of different expressions which flow naturally from the process of reflection.” (McNiff, 1998-2, Pg 271)

At the turn of the century, Dr. Shaun McNiff emphasized art therapy as a “process”, and that “creative energy is activated through the art therapy experience.” (McNiff, 2000) He stressed the importance of the need for the profession of art therapy to enlarge its vision and “to continuously expand ideas about what it can be.” He talked about the field of art therapy consistently justifying itself according to the frameworks of other fields, when he hopes for all of us in the field to stay committed to the healing function of art. (McNiff, 2000, Pg 253)

Speaking of powers of art and healing, McNiff explores the healing natures of art in all aspects of life in his book Art Heals, published in 2004. “Art does not profess to rid the world of suffering and wounds. It does something with them, realizing that the soul is truly lost when afflictions can not be put to use.” (McNiff, 2004, Pg 32). He also continues to say that the source of art’s healing power is when the artist “embraces the full spectrum of the experience.” Dr. McNiff challenges artists, therapists, and clients to see their disturbing image as an ally, as well as seeing “the angels” of their artwork. Now combining both Jung’s active imagination with healing art he asks, “When will we see that healing through art is a discipline of imagination rather than exact science?” (McNiff, 2004, Pg 104)

Nearly forty years into his career, Shaun McNiff published the book Integrating the Arts in Therapy: History, Theory, and Practice in 2009. This publication is meant to be a new comprehensive volume of Expressive Arts Therapies to this point. He includes historical contexts such as the Prinzhorn collection; and this is the first text I have found of him admitting that this important collection influenced his mindset in his early career. Of course, he spends a great deal of time relating Jung’s archetypal theory and active imagination method into every section. It is in this book that he details of the formative experiences at every stage of his career.

McNiff informs the reader that in. his early work, he “was open, curious, receptive, and prone to experiment while striving to create an imaginative and expressive environment.” (McNiff, 2009, Pgs 148-9). He continues to talk about the playfulness that “permeates the atmosphere when engaging different art forms.” When working with adults, he expands on shifting media is based on the person’s spontaneity; and exploration of a problem or their condition. He goes on and says that he encourages clients to be immersed in their creative process, and to stay in the present moment with no plan.

Trust the Process

In all of his seminars and books, Shaun McNiff has been adamant to young therapists to avoid directives and interventions. It is the therapist’s #1 job to hold a space and alliance with the client of trust and safety. In this space, the client can feel welcome to explore and create within their own soul process. He says that the therapist can be a witness or guide, but the art is the source of the medicine. McNiff says his approach is spontaneous-based, as opposed to technique-oriented systems. “Our therapeutic values affirm diversity and the vitality and wisdom of spontaneous expression realized through freedom of movement and a moment-to-moment appreciation for what is taking place.” (McNiff, 1992, Pg 14). Furthermore, he encourages his students to introduce methods that support freedom of expression. (McNiff, 2009)

I would be remiss if I did not talk about one of McNiff’s techniques that is well shared, and we did this in my own Art Therapy Techniques class – dialoguing with the image. He first introduced this concept in his book Art as Medicine in 1992; since instead of speaking about the figures in imagination, then one is talking with them. According to McNiff, it is important to work with the client in their tone of voice as they are talking with the image. Most importantly, he works with the artist to put them at ease and they are encouraged to take their time as they are dialoguing. A common theme is that less is more or that “simpler, the deeper.” The power of dialoguing with an image brings forth the transformative “opportunities to perceive and shape our lives in ways that are informed by a creative intelligence.” (McNiff, 2009)

Finally, I want to end this section with an excerpt from Shaun McNiff’s most recent book Imagination in Action. To me, this is food for thought on how and when we are free to express.

“When you experience a freedom of soul, is this connected to being transported by an activity? Being one with it and transcending your self-consciousness? Are there connections to self-confidence when you are able to let go in play and action? Support you received from others? Or was it because you just enjoyed the activity?” (McNiff, 2015, Pg 209)


In summary, Dr. Shaun McNiff’s career over the last fifty years has spanned from theories to art-based research, to art as the source of healing, and to manifesting the magic of creative imagination. I am grateful I researched McNIff and I hope to “trust the process” in my own practice as well as helping clients explore the spontaneous expression of their soul.


McNiff, S. (1981). The Arts and Psychotherapy. Springfield, IL: Thomas.

McNiff, S. (1983). The Art Therapy Intensive. Art Therapy, 1 (1), 51-52. Doi:10.1080/07421656.1983.10758739

McNiff, S. (1984). Cross-Cultural Psychotherapy and Art. Art Therapy, 26 (3), 125-131. Doi:10.1080/07421656.2009.10129379

McNiff, S. (1992). Art as medicine: creating a therapy of the imagination. Boston: Shambhala.

McNiff, S. (1995). Keeping the Studio. Art Therapy, 12(3), 179-183. Doi:10.1080/07421656.1995.10759156

McNiff, S. (1998). Art-based Research. Jessica Kingsley.

McNiff, S. (1998b). Jung on Active Imagination. Art Therapy, 269-272.

McNiff, S. (2000). Art Therapy Is a Big Idea. Art Therapy, 17(4), 252-254. Doi:10.1080/07421656.2000.10120758

McNiff, S. 2004). Art heals: how creativity cures the soul. Boston: Shambhala.

McNiff, S. (2009). Integrating the arts in therapy: history, theory, and practice. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.

McNiff, S. (2015). Imagination in action: secrets for unleashing creative expression. Boston: Shambhala.

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