Colwood-based art therapist Alison MacPhail has a varied background in education, social work and addictions counselling.

Colwood-based art therapist Alison MacPhail has a varied background in education, social work and addictions counselling.

WEST SHORE ARTS COUNCIL: In conversation with art therapist Alannah MacPhail

Art therapy an art that matters

On a foggy October afternoon, I met with art therapist Alannah MacPhail in her home studio in Colwood. She welcomed me into her space, a small room carefully filled with art supplies, books, and her own artwork.

Similar to her therapy sessions, she marked the beginning of our conversation with a cup of tea. She explained, “For a private clinic, I would start out with tea. With something that requires mindfulness, it is really about the here and now. So I believe that the first part of a session is about coming to a safe place, to settle.

I settled into my chair as she began to describe her career before entering the art therapy field. She started with a degree in psychology and worked as a social worker and addictions counsellor in the Yukon before she became an educator. Eventually becoming a principal in North Vancouver, Alannah was introduced to art therapy. “I was fascinated by what they did, because I was creating my own art at the time as a way to relax,” she said.

Only a week after retiring, Alannah began the post-graduate program at the Vancouver Art Therapy Institute. Seeking practical work experience, Alannah approached the North Shore Stroke Recovery Centre in North Vancouver about developing an art therapy program. Her father had passed away from a stroke years earlier, so she felt a connection.

After completing the course, Alannah started up her private practice. “I wanted to focus on wellness through art, health, change, and transformation,” she said. Using her connections in the yoga community, she created a number of day-long workshops, a celebration of expression, with art-making framed by yogic practice.

Alannah recently moved to Vancouver Island, where the rest of her family lives. “People are interested in Colwood. When people ask me what I do, I am always very pleased and surprised by their reactions.”

Since moving to the Island, her adult colouring books have been gaining national attention. She was even asked by a Sidney seniors home to create an intergenerational art program for its residents. Last month she presented a talk on art journaling at the Coast Collective, an activity she uses as a therapeutic process.

While Alannah is open to conducting sessions out of people’s homes, she prefers working from her own studio. “I especially love it when it is in my studio,” she said. “I try to create a place that is very safe and warm, and every nook and cranny is full of art supplies. I learned that I need to have a variety of supplies. Sometimes my role as an art therapist is simply to present a material that works.”

As an art therapist her ideas are simply an invitation. “There is a huge difference between the classroom and a therapeutic model.”

When I asked her about a typical session, she paused. “Each session is so unique.”

She continued, “We have a lovely term in art therapy, called witnessing, so my role is to witness the art making. There is a difference between making art alone and making it in front of someone. In those sessions I feel very privileged. And I might see something in my clients’ artwork, but it is not my role to say what I see. I have to be careful not to project what I see, but let my clients come to their own realizations.”

“As part of my training, the image speaks. I might have questions to help with the conversation, or I might observe something, but I don’t say, ‘Your image says this.’ So we call the image the third party and the image has a seat at the table in our discussions. I am continually blown away by the art-making process and the power of the image.”

For more information on MacPhail’s work or for contact details, visit

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Goldstream News Gazette