Second Lady’s Comments on Art Therapy

Second Lady’s Comments on Art Therapy

With ASV’s Response

Army Staff Sgt. Jonathan Meadows and Jackie Biggs discuss a painting during an art therapy session at Fort Belvoir Community Hospital’s traumatic brain injury clinic at Fort Belvoir, Va., Dec. 19, 2014. Photo by Marc Barnes. Courtesy the United States Department of Defense and Artsy.com

On October 18 Second Lady Karen Pence formally announced her “Art Therapy: Healing with the HeART” policy platform.  She was speaking in Tallahassee Florida at Florida State University, which offers a Master of Science degree in Art Therapy.  Our own Vincennes Sun-Commercial covered this story.

In her talk Pence stated: “[For] children with cancer to struggling teens to grieving families to people with autism to military service members experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder, to those with eating disorders, art therapy is changing lives, and it is saving lives.”  Her goals are to increase awareness and advocate for more research in art therapy by traveling across the US and abroad to meet with those involved in the field.

Pence’ interest in art therapy grew out of her longtime career as an art educator and water-color painter.  She became aware of art therapy when visiting a program for pediatric cancer patients about a decade ago.  Since then, she has met with many art therapists and has observed their work in the US and abroad.

Pence and art therapy practitioners draw a clear distinction between “therapeutic art” and “art therapy”.  Art therapy is not “arts and crafts”, says Pence. “When I get out my watercolors and I turn on some music, that makes me feel better.  That is not art therapy. “  Pence is seeking to “elevate the profession so that people understand that art therapy is a mental health profession.”

A starting point for this understanding might be taking a look at what’s involved in becoming an art therapist.

In the US, to become a registered art therapist one must complete an undergraduate degree that includes study of both psychology and studio art.  This is followed by pursuing a Masters Degree in art therapy, which requires further coursework in studio art and psychological theory and technique, along with 700 clinical supervised hours in internships.   After graduation, credentials are earned through the Art Therapy Credential Board, which requires another 1000 hours of clinical work.  Once on the job, art therapists must earn continuing education credits to retain their status.

The Vincennes University Art Department offers a two-year A.S. Degree Pre-Art Therapy program in which students take studio art, psychology and general education courses that prepare them for transfer to a four-year school.

Currently, there are seven schools that offer undergraduate degrees in art therapy in Indiana.  Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College near Terre Haute and Herron School of Art, IUPUI in Indianapolis are the only two Indiana schools to offer the Master of Arts (MA) degree in Art Therapy.  Once these at minimum six years of education are completed, what do art therapists actually do?

The American Art Therapy Association defines art therapy in this way:

“Art Therapy is an integrative mental health and human services profession that enriches the lives of individuals, families, and communities through active art-making, creative process, applied psychological theory, and human experience within a psychotherapeutic relationship.”

For art therapists, this translates into planning and/or conducting art therapy sessions or programs that improve their clients’ physical, cognitive or emotional well-being.  The therapist develops individualized treatment plans that incorporate art-making and counseling processes.  Instruction in using art materials can be involved, and the therapist’s interpretations of that which is created can help assess the functioning, needs, and progress of the patient or client.

The Association’s website offers specific descriptions of how art therapy has helped people with varying challenges.  Included are studies on how art therapy has assisted veterans suffering from PTSD, seniors afflicted with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia, and children with special needs

An editorial by Casey Lesser published October 20 offers this description of the many ways art therapy can be useful:

“An inclusive and expansive field, art therapy has been used in diverse settings to help individuals and groups work towards greater emotional, physical, and mental wellness. In the US, according to AATA (American Art Therapy Association), art therapists work at hospitals, schools, veterans’ clinics, psychiatric and rehabilitation facilities, community clinics, crisis centers, forensic institutions, senior communities, museums, and in private practices. It’s proven useful for communities in the aftermath of devastating natural disasters or terrorism, as well as prison inmates and those suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s, to name a few.”

With her focus on the healing power of art, Karen Pence helps us realize that as a culture we need to encourage, support and enjoy the many forms of art practice that are truly an essential aspect of what makes us human, and help us positively connect with each other.

Art Space Vincennes has previously written in this newsletter about how art promotes healing, especially on the hospital ward. And we have described many organizations in Indiana that use art for various practical purposes in helping people.

While Pence’ distinction between “Art Therapy and Therapeutic Art” is valid, saying she wishes to elevate the profession of art therapy using that distinction should not diminish the value of therapeutic art.   It would be more accurate to say that art is generally therapeutic on many different levels and can include all ways people are involved with art.

As an observer, going to a music or dance concert, a play, or other crafted performance, or seeing art in a museum or gallery, or experiencing fine architecture or a beautiful garden can provide restorative aesthetic experiences. Such activities can open our imaginations, connecting us to wider worlds wherein we can consider a variety of ideas or be simply entertained.   Art can enrich the spectator aesthetically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually and as new research has shown, physically.

Also, the practice of art can be therapeutic, whether you work on your dining room table, in a classroom or in a studio. As when in the museum, gallery or performance venue, you are responding to color, form, and space or sounds, words, and movements in a way not ordinarily experienced.  What’s more, in the actual practice of art you are organizing such elements, balancing them, harmonizing them into some shape or meaning. The process is constructive, destructive, synthetic, elaborative, combining, refining and sometimes collaborating to create something meaningful.  These activities involve the higher processes of the brain and lead to satisfaction involved with finding solutions to problems, accomplishing something difficult (emotionally, mechanically, intellectually) whether over long periods of time or in a few minutes. This can be true for the beginner or the amateur, as well as for serious artists.

These activities can offer benefit through your interaction with the art and you can derive the benefits without the guidance or analysis of an art therapist.   These methods, media, and forms of expression can also be powerful tools when used by a trained “expressive art therapist” to open up people who have difficulty coping with trauma, or determine if a child has been abused and who the abuser might be.

There are two forms of Art Therapy, one based on combining creative expression with psychotherapy, the other based more on analysis of symbols and psychotherapy.  Both forms are valid and valuable, depending on the kind of care a patient might need.

Certainly, our culture will benefit by the “elevation” of the entire profession of art therapy, but there also needs to be recognition of the important value of art in general to a culture and a society.


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