A conversation with Tracey Elizabeth Downing about her Journey as and Artist and Art Therapist


How would you like me to introduce you?

I would like to be introduced as an Artist with a background in Art Psychotherapy who has learnt to navigate a chronic health condition through art making.


Tell me about the work you do as an artist and art therapist

I no longer work as an Art Therapist but did so for 10 years both voluntarily with The Place 3 Be and running a group with Adults and then in an NHS CAMHS setting (child and adolescent mental health and in special alternative education)


How would you describe art therapy?

I describe Art Therapy as the meeting between Therapist, Client and the images created within a contained, confidential space. In making visual imagery we use a different part of our brain and unconscious material can emerge making it easier for us to understand the psychological difficulties we may be experiencing such as anxiety, depression, trauma or bereavement.


Art Therapy is a way of allowing ourselves to face ourselves and these difficulties in a safe way with a trained expert. To some extent the work we do on ourselves during our training makes us into the therapists we become, it takes time. Like any therapeutic or clinical training.


How do you think making art benefits your mental and emotional health

Personally, making art and being an artist has been enormously positive. I had a long break from my own creative practice, it was like I was ‘asleep’ creatively speaking for a long time. I dabbled over the years but never to a serious degree, other things felt more important such as family, work and to be honest I lost my impetus for serious art making for a few years, I think maybe due to a lack of confidence and not being clear about which direction I wanted to take.


I had to retire from my Art Therapy job due to my health as I have a rare disease called Tarlov Cyst disease, It affects my lower spine so moving about it the best option for me on a good day, I’m best either moving about or prone! Sitting is hard to tolerate as I constantly feel as though I’m sitting on a rock due to nerve damage. I’ve always been very active and healthy, so it’s been a real adjustment, but art has really helped me to navigate this and maintain a mostly optimistic attitude. There’s a balance between acknowledging one has a chronic incurable condition and managing it and allowing it to define your life. I don’t want to identify as a sick person as for me it’s not helpful. But there’s a balance, I am part of an amazing group called the Tarlov cyst disease support group which is a very helpful space.


How do you separate your commercial artwork to exhibit from your personal process work?

In terms of separating the commercial side of my art-making to my personal process work, there isn’t really a distinction as I share my processes and don’t have much that I keep to myself, maybe my writing which is a more recent activity. I sometimes make responsive art work in Therapy sessions which is more about the client and my impression of them than me, that’s confidential, I have a small book of art work called ‘The things I do when I think of you’ which are like doodles in paint that help me separate my therapy self from my own painting practice though.


I started writing down poetry a year ago in lockdown 1 which was a response to what was going on…I shared them with other Artists who encouraged me to make a book of them, so I did… I write more most days with The London Writers Salon during Morning writer’s Hour. I call my poems Moems because for me they are a moment of time captured or on a bad day the cross between a Moan and a Poem, I like playing with words, I’m not sure I would class them as serious poetry, but other writers tell me that most writers ignore convention anyway…and to just go for it!


Does a piece of personal artwork make its way to exhibition or commercial artwork? How would you describe that process?

I have painted commission pieces which were based on existing work I had. People don’t really contact me to do commission such as portraits etc as I don’t paint those in my normal practice. My work tends to be more abstract or rather semi-abstract as certain motifs, totems and objects crop up often which I go with.


I’ve attended courses and am currently on the Turps Banana Correspondence course programme which is really good. It’s challenging and inspiring and is helping me to develop me think more deeply about my painting, intentions and how I want my work to develop.

I’m always keen to share what helps me develop on my Artist path as other people can consider what might help them too.


I exhibit my work when I can, the pandemic had a big effect on that as I was just emerging as an exhibiting artist when it began so all my opportunities have been online.


When you are working with your patients how do think they benefit from art therapy?

When I was working as an Art Therapist it wasn’t always obvious at the time exactly how I was helping but I’ve rarely experienced client disengagement. Having a one-to-one space to explore one’s inner world using creativity is very powerful. The therapeutic relationship is really important and as so many people experience early attachments difficulties or losses, therapy is a space to consider some of that and over time to heal it. Sometimes understanding difficulty and its source is halfway to overcoming it. Of course, sometimes mental and emotional health issues are more physiological and need medication and physical therapy. It has to be the right time for a client to be ready to do the work of Psychotherapy, when there is a degree of support and stability around them as it can be unsettling.

The benefits of Art Therapy are far reaching, I think clients can discover themselves anew and move on from past hurt and trauma and find a new voice that they can use to communicate with and understand in a different way. Art Therapy is really good for clients who find one to one face to face talking therapy too hard, it is a gentle way of showing what needs to be thought about as the images we produce and the way we produce them embody what we need to work on to effect the changes we want in our lives.


Although I’m no longer in therapy myself I was throughout my training and after wards for a period of time) The art that I make speaks to me over time. I think Painting is fascinating as it enables us to have a conversation with ourselves and hopefully communicates to others too, well it always does in some way. Even if someone hates a piece of work or has another strong reaction, there’s a reason for that. I am constantly interested in the art that draws me and what I produce and what exactly it is that resonates. It’s like a kind of magic that can’t be quite unpicked, I love the mystery of it.


To learn more about Tracey and her poems and artwork you can visit her website at