Art Therapist

What was your background before you began practicing art therapy?

I went to undergraduate school as a psychology major and fine arts minor. I have a B.A. in Psychology and Fine Art. I’ve truly always been an artist at heart, but my family insisted I get a degree that wouldn’t cause me to be a “starving artist.”

How did you first become involved in art therapy? My best friend was a year ahead of me in college and she went to Eastern Virginia Medical School’s graduate Art Therapy program. She talked about it all the time and once I went to visit her I was hooked. So I followed in her footsteps.

Was there a point where you knew that was the career path you wanted to take? After my first year of grad school, I was pretty certain I wanted to help people through art therapy. I’d always played the role of “therapist” to my friends, but never could really buy into “psychobabble bull$&t” of conventional psychotherapy. Through art therapy, I found something real, tangible and useful that actually benefited others.

Describe some of the settings that you work in. How does art therapy impact the lives of your clients?

I have a private practice; I see individual clients and run groups with mostly eating disordered patients 15-30 yrs old. Art serves as a great outlet for these women who usually stuff their feelings, “eat” their feelings or restrict their feelings. Making art can become a great coping strategy and a way for them to communicate with others/family members about what they are really feeling.

I also work with kids and teens that have trouble controlling their emotions such as anger. Making art is much less threatening then sitting on a couch and spilling your innermost secrets, while someone takes notes. Many people have shame about being in “therapy” or feels there’s a stigma attached to it. With art therapy it’s more relaxed, fun atmosphere. When my clients are making art their defenses come down, and they feel more at ease to speak freely about their problems. It’s also therapeutic to pound clay, scribble furiously or paint aggressively. I don’t give advice or interpret their artwork for them, rather I create a safe space for them to discover solutions and coping strategies for themselves. I believe that’s the best way for them to learn and retain information. The work is hands on and they get what they put in.

What are some of the aspects of being an art therapist that someone who doesn’t understand the profession would never think of?

Often there is a misperception that I interpret drawings like an inkblot test. I don’t do that, while it is a fun game to play. I am trained in art assessments, but I don’t project my opinions on my clients. I let them tell me about their art. I do have a wealth of knowledge art therapy research and studies that point to some patterns or abuse indicators in drawings, but I have the clients tell me about the art and if something matches up with art therapy literature, I’ll talk to them about it.

Also art therapy may look utterly simple and from an outsiders view I look a like a special art teacher. There is a considerable amount of preparation and careful thought that goes into my job. With a “talk therapist” basically they meet with clients, they may have some reading information for them, and maybe some worksheets, but it’s pretty much a conversation. As an art therapist I’m anticipating what materials to use, how should they be presented and arranged. Depending on the client and what problems need to be addressed, I have to match it with art materials or an art task. Usually I have plan A, B, C, and D as backup and ready to switch gears as needed. As an art therapist, there is constant observation going on, everything the client does gives me information and insight into how to guide them.

Talk a little bit about your schooling/training. How did your training/education prepare you for your real world experiences?

I had 3 internships in the field while going to grad school art Eastern Virginia Medical School. I worked in 3 different settings: school, residential treatment center and navel hospital. I saw 3 different populations for 3 months at a time. For my child internship I worked at a preschool for poverty-stricken and risk children. For my adolescent internship I worked at residential treatment center for sexually abused and behaviorally disturbed teens. For my adult internship I worked in the psych ward of a naval hospital. I experienced just about every type of disorder or problem. I had supportive supervision from my professors and on site supervisors. The grad program was great at preparing me for real world experiences, we had skills classes, process and material classes, and case study classes, where we had to present cases in an auditorium. Our classes were small and the professors were all well seasoned art therapists.

How much of your learning/training was hands on, once you started your career?

Most all of it was hands on. Straight out of grad school I worked as an in-home counselor, and went to families homes to do art therapy with their kids. I traveled around with art supplies in my car and worked did therapy just about anywhere with a sink. I had sessions in libraries, parks, kitchens or back yards. During this time I really was as they say “in the trenches” stepping into people’s homes, seeing and experiencing the dysfunction. I learned so so much.

What are some of the challenges you face on a daily basis?

Challenges on a daily basis are keeping from burning out or getting too involved with a client’s problem. Was it hard at first? It was hard at first, but I discovered my boundaries, and set firm limits. Is it still hard? Sometimes, a client’s story of abuse or trauma will get to me, but I’ve got my self-care routine handled. What are some of the “truths” a person considering an art therapy career does not want to hear? Well some “truths” that I have run into is that not everyone “gets” art therapy. Not everyone values it as much as you may. It doesn’t work for everyone. Also without a license in counseling or social work in the state you live in, it may be difficult to get a job from an agency. Insurance companies rarely cover art therapy.

How is art therapeutic?

Art is therapeutic in the physical process of making the art and also looking at the art product. Whether it be relaxing slow brush strokes of watercolor or pounding out clay. The process of making art can be healing and transformative, such as making recycled paper out of old term papers or transforming your “fat jeans” into a collage. Looking at the end product and talking about the art can also be therapeutic. The art can act as a container to hold an emotion or an experience. It allows for a tangible thing to talk about and describe. Looking at the product can offer reflective distance and enables new possibilities and perspectives to be explored. How do you promote positive change with your clients? I encourage them to fully participate and discover it for themselves. What is the end goal when you begin therapy sessions? Probably for most people it’s to feel better. I feel successful if the clients can see new possibilities and be inspired to make a contribution the human race.

How has art therapy impacted your life?

As an artist, painting has always been my outlet for self-expression. Are there any experiences that have transformed you as a person that you can share? I grew up as a very shy, sheltered individual, who easily could get lost in the mix. I had a fear of public speaking; I had social anxiety, the works. Through art I could say what words couldn’t. I could speak about my art and be heard. Though my art people saw me, and I felt accepted. Through being an art therapist, I have touched and inspired other people. Help them see water they were swimming in and help live a more fulfilling life.

Tweet with Cara at @DrawItOut1 and follow her on Facebook. Check out Cara Emily artwork on Facebook as well.