Reinventing The Wheel

Seeing the comment posted made me think some about how so many art therapists work as “lone” or the sole art therapist in their setting. Very few places in my part of the country have more than one art therapist in their system or institution, and this can really lend a feeling of isolation and struggle to the work at times.  Always having to stake claim to our territory and competencies.  I wonder if our members might share here some of the ways they deal with that – for me, being active in my Chapter is one way. 

We are a small Chapter but the meetings we have are extremely valuable times of connection, re-creation, and renewal. It’s no accident that our Chapter meetings often include some form of art making as we all recognize that we need this renewal and connection through our art.  I look forward to hearing how other “lone” art therapists connect and ideas about how AATA can support connections. 

This blog is one start at that so post your ideas freely.



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16 responses to “Reinventing The Wheel

  1. It did feel like reinventing the wheel when I finished my studies and headed to join the work force…

    The institution I joined serves a large number of consumers of which I only see a fraction (yeap, I’m the only art therapist). They are also located about 1 hr from any city of good size. The town has 2 restaurants at any given time and 1 gas station.

    Have I had moments of despair, isolation, inner turmoil, etc… Heck YES! Being the only art therapist at this facility is daunting. I came-in with the idealistic mind of a fresh graduate 2 years ago. It wasn’t long before I saw the many ways in which I clashed and could potentially not-fit-in with the local ‘work’ culture. Juggling sanity, identity as therapist, wife, and friend was no easy feat. After months of questioning my purpose and future I found ways of coping or I wouldn’t still be here.

    I found that when I became stressed I needed to turn to an outlet before it got worse. Obtaining supervision from an art therapist and meeting with the group to process helped. It seems we were often all dealing with similar issues just wrapped differently. But, once I finished my supervision hours I was on my own.

    I was approached by a Music Therapist colleague who was seeking a new way to process the on the job stressors. We began creating art for arts-sake. My office served as the safe-zone for our weekly creative hour. Soon we approached mandalas and found them appropriate containers for the struggles we often had to work-through. In helping her use mandalas effectively I too began to create them myself. After 2 years we now create images on a monthly basis (or as needed). Our exchange has turned into a friendship and I have promised to try and delve into adding sounds/music to my mandalas. We have taken some of these concepts and created activities for our groups. Co-leading ‘creative expression’ groups has also helped define each others role.

    Finding time during our work day to create mandalas was crucial for self-care. This helped us process and document events (usually negative/upsetting). As I worked my images to my satisfaction I usually reached a conclusion in how to resolve or move-on. My mandalas easily took from 1 week to complete to 30 days (each) despite their small size (for portability).

    I was also very lucky and thankful to the local University for sending a few interns my-way. It is rejuvenating to have other art therapists around even if they are just fledgelings. And now I highly encourage them to use mandalas as a form of expression while they are on site as part of our supervision.

    As part of my ‘documentation’ process I photograph all my mandalas every few months and place them on my website/ share them with friends and other therapists. This is my way of reminding myself and others to keep in touch and not to neglect the SELF-CARE aspect of our profession.

    – We cannot expect to be effective therapists unless we have taken care of our needs first.

  2. Carol

    For the past 30 years, I have been working with troubled adolescents in a school setting, slowly working my way from art teacher to art therapist/school counselor/special education specialist for severely emotionally disturbed students. However, budget cuts axed all the counselor positions and got me transferred, so now I teach “resource”, which still keeps me in touch with students who need extra help, but takes away my role as therapist/school counselor.
    Talk about being isolated from those who understand art therapy!

    My district (rural and way off the beaten path), however dedicated to student excellence and updating technology, does not support arts in education. I work at an elementary school where most teachers have “SmartBoards” but where you never see student art work on the walls. In fact, when I first got here, I thought the entire school was somehow emotionally delayed, judging from the quality of the small amount of art work I saw or generated in my class. Eventually it hit me: these students never draw. They never paint. They never make collages or look at paintings or go to museums. So, they draw like infants, if they draw at all.

    Teachers are under a lot of stress to keep up with the changes in education. We’ve had No Child Left Behind, which cut the arts to bare bones, linked teacher pay to student achievement (even if one’s students were crack babies and unmotivated gang-bangers) and forced teachers to pare down their teaching to work with students on the skills necessary to pass The Test. The present federal administration has scrapped NCLB and replaced it with the same concept and a different set of innitials. Officially, the reason our kids aren’t learning is that our teachers aren’t trying hard enough, so the feds keep telling us to try harder, do more with less, and meet the standards or else. If that was true, judging from the tremendous efforts all teachers have had to make to revamp their teaching style over the last few years (or lose their jobs and have their schools taken over by federal mandate), all our students would be in the genius catagory. Unfortunately, the real reason students aren’t learning is more directly tied to brain development issues related to over-stimulus of visual media which prohibits the mind from forming the connections it needs to read and process PRINTED words, so no matter how creative teachers are at presenting information, the kiddos aren’t going to pass a PRINTED test. And if media challenges to mental growth aren’t the issue, pre-natal crack and alcohol abuse (along the the general disintegration of family values towards education) is. These are things teacher’s can’t fight alone.

    But my point is, art is leaving the schools along with band and drama, not just because budgets are being crunched due to the mess the econmy’s in, but because there is no time in the school day to get all the students on track to pass the state tests, based on standards which set the bar too high for the majority of our students to reach (due to a complex combination of physiological and environmental issues). Whenever I bring up the topic of doing art in class to my fellow elementary teachers, they give me a dull look and ask if it’s on the state test. All they have time for is getting students ready for that test which few of their students are mentally capable of passing.

    That’s the future of art in the schools, from the point of view of a teacher in a very small district with a very restricted budget!

    I wish I could leave some hopeful comments on a grass-roots effort to change things for the better, but it’s just not happening in my area. Now that I’m not the educational therapist at my school, I’m caught up in that push to “pass the test or else”.
    I can’t afford to lose pay over low test scores!

    Now, that’s professional isolation!

    (I do take time to work with photography and write, as a means of taking care of myself…and I am working on a fighting-fire-with-fire theory that art training will help developing brains overcome the media overload which inhibits learning to read, in case anyone’s intersted in funding the research… 🙂

    • lisa myers

      I would just like to express some gratitude that I am currently employed as the “school services clinician” in Vermont’s first Integrated Arts Academy (IAA) magnet school, K-5. I happened to fall into the position when I moved to VT from NY in 2007. My original plan when I moved to VT was to establish a private practice. I discovered however, that there is no reciprocity in VT for my NY LCAT licensure so I began taking graduate classes in pursuit of VT’s licensure as a clinical mental health counselor (LCMHC). While attending classes, I took a temporary position at the former HO Wheeler school in Burlington in October 2008 while the school services clinician was out on family leave. Despite 22 years of experience as an outpatient clinician and administrator, it was evident that I would need to establish myself in the VT community as a mental health professional to increase the liklihood of success in private practice. The temporary position seemed like a good way to begin that process. In Oct. 2009 I had completed the necessary graduate work and passed the licensing exams to become a LCMHC. Then, last October, 2009, after HO Wheeler school had completed the formal transition to the IAA magnet school, I was was asked to fulfill the school svs. clinician position on a permanant basis. I agreed to take the position as it seemed ideal for an art therapist, and private practice could wait. In a day and age when arts funding is being cut all around us, and the value and power of art diminished, the opportunity to uitilize my training and experience as an art therapist in a school setting where the arts are supported, promoted and celebrated, while also defining and guiding the vision of the school, was irresistable. I look foward to sharing my experience at the IAA in the future and remain hopeful that there will be more opportunities in the future like this, for other art therapists.

  3. A conversation earlier today–and some forced downtime due to illness– reminded me to sign in and post a comment on the blog! I think many of art therapists work in relative isolation, and that certainly has its challenges. But I also want to speak to the gift of being able to find one’s own way. My first two jobs out of my Master’s program were in mental health settings, and I was lucky enough to work with art and recreation therapists in large programs. I learned a lot and enjoyed the camaraderie.My next job was starting a program at a facility that had never had an art therapist before. I had to deal with a lot of anxiety about whether I was doing good art therapy, real art therapy, etc., and there was no one who could answer those questions for myself but me. I also had to do a lot of teaching and advocacy to help the hospital understand what I was trying to do. I found it a great opportunity think through what art therapy meant to me, and how it best helped the kids and families I worked with. It was hard, I won’t kid you, and I still have to advocate for the programs I have developed, but I am more knowledgeable and convinced of the value of art therapy because I have had to carry the ball myself.

    • Laura Salley

      Anyone have experience with the medically fragile? I am an art therapist working in Newark, NJ in a special education public school. My journey in Newark has been one of patience. This is my 11th year and despite my expertise and credentials, I have been an art teacher all this time. Only this year, have I landed in a school with the express purpose of doing art therapy. I have experience with most of the classifcations housed here with the exception of one, the medically fragile. Specifically, two of my classes contain children who are profoundly handicapped. They cannot use their hands, cannot speak, and are cognitively equivilent to infants. I have fabricated a “head pointer” that can be used to make marks by moving ones head, and it’s good for some children. However, others of them have no muscle control in their necks. I have been doing a lot of sensory experiences for them. I want to stay away from hand over hand cookie-cutter art. Other than using the wheelcahirs to paint on the canvas on the floor, what can I do with these children on a daily basis? Does anyone know? Or can refer me to someone? Or know of books or articles with info?

      • Joe Arts

        Art Therapy For Groups, by Marian Liebmann , and , The Art Therapy Source Book , may give you some ideas to try.

  4. Jacky Martin

    I would like to subscribe by e-mail to this site.

  5. Laura Salley

    Thank you, Carol, for your thoughtful reply. Your ideas are great! Of course, I have considered using the computer, and just need to find the money to order the equipment. I have been working on that. I LOVE the idea of the photos of school personnel and locations that can be used to create a “collage” of sorts. I look forward to trying some of these ideas. Of course, as art therapist, we know the power of creating and choice. I can’t wait to see the light bulb go on for my kids.

  6. Carol McLeod

    Glad to be of service, Laura. One more bit of advice: you do not need new computers to begin with. Somewhere in your school system is a tech department which probably upgrades computers on a yearly cycle. Most districts have a store room where the old computers go to sit and gather dust. You can get great results with a Windows 95 or above. So, if all they can give you is a dinosaur, go for it. Ebay is a good source for matching up old computers and accessories, like a graphics tablet. If you don’t have a school district tech who can build the kind of switches you need, try contacting you state-level SpEd department. I’ve worked in several states, and have had quite a bit of luck getting help from the state department of ed. And…art therapy on computers is a magnet for grants. Hits all the different “hot” items in the grant world: technology, disadvantaged kids, technology, innovative techniques, technology.. 🙂
    Good luck and let me know how it goes!

  7. This is a great topic to explore…

    I graduated last May with a masters in Art Therapy. I am currently working part time as an art therapist with men and women who are HIV+ and often struggling with mental illness and chemical addictions.

    I have been as proactive as possible in keeping in touch with fellow art therapy alumni, my professors, internship supervisors, as well as reaching out to mentors in the field. I also stay connected through the internet (art therapy blogs etc) and through attending workshops and seminars whenever possible. I began an art therapy blog as a way to share the field with others who may not be so familiar with it. I do not feel isolated as an art therapist in and of itself, however I definitely feel more isolated as a new art therapist to the field. I do not think that I am alone in this feeling after talking to many other new art therapists.

    I agree with Tracy and the idea that although it can be challenging, working in isolation can at times also force us to utilize our creativity in terms of creating programming where there is none, and helping to educate others about the value of art therapy. When my art therapy class graduated, many of our teachers encouraged us to “make jobs for ourselves” instead of only applying for jobs that already exist.

    For someone in my current professional stage (new in the field) there are certain added challenges. My job choices are more limited while I am working towards licensure (an LCAT since I am in NY) and my ATR. The organizations where I can work are limited since they must meet the prerequisites for an operating certificate which meets the requirements of the NY state office of the professions. Unfortunately, many non-profits where art therapists might practice do not currently meet this requirement. In addition, many sites that do qualify towards licensure hours do not already employ a licensed art therapist who can provide the necessary supervision. The rules keep changing about whether or not the organization can hire an outside supervisor – some say yes, and others no. Then there is the issue of whether the organization is willing to pay the supervisor and if they will allow the person access to patient records (a requirement).

    Factors like these significantly decrease the number of possible jobs available to someone looking to become licensed. I know from talking to fellow art therapists from my graduating class that this is what everyone is struggling with at the moment. It’s a double bind: We need to become licensed to continue practicing, but where can we get that experience if employers are looking for already licensed art therapists?

    Once I eventually do become licensed, I will definitely be looking for ways to spread art therapy and create new venues for it. However, until then I must find places to work where art therapy is already established.

    I believe that the new (and more strict) licensing laws are a very good thing in the sense that they will only strengthen the field and add validity to it. However, for those of us who were not grandfathered in to licensure, it presents unique problems that will ultimately need to be addressed for recent graduates and future ones. There has to be a balance between upholding the standards of the profession, while still making it possible for new graduates to find art therapy work and become licensed.

    I will be attending an upcoming workshop on the NY LCAT process, so perhaps that will be another forum for discussions and brainstorming.

    I’d love to hear thoughts and/or experiences from anyone else about this…

  8. Deena

    Like Occupy Wall Street, we ought to be Occupying AATA. I have yet to find a job after a year. Please allow this comment and do not censor. We need to have this dialogue.

  9. Nicole Porter Willcox

    Hello, everyone,

    On a quick response I advocate and encourage those seeking work as an art therapist to BE BOLD. Apply for traditional clinical positions and share your specified art therapy skills. I have had several jobs in which the employers were never looking for an art therapist, though they were thrilled to add me to the team the moment I shared my specialty with enthusiasm.

    I have always only been the lone Art Therapist in each setting and have thoroughly enjoyed educating each dynamic on our specialty. I have always been received with respect. Believe in what we do and work as an art therapist!!!

    To manage being the lone art therapist I have, also, always maintained a consistent effort in attending group supervisions with art therapy colleagues.

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  11. Patrick Varallo

    I have to agree and acknowledge Carol’s comment made some time ago. The situation has not changed in school settings as I found out researching school art therapy. The world of public education has become so bogged down with “tests and scores” they have lost focus.

    We are in a society which seems to have lost sight of the needs of the “whole” student. I experienced numerous times the “isolation” factor while working in a school system which didn’t recognize, let alone, understand the usefulness of art therapy. I was employed as an art educator and was lucky enough to find one or two people interested in how the art therapy field could help the at-risk students. I was given an opportunity to offer a program, on top of my full load, and found tremendous success in the art therapy program with the “forgotten students” in an alternative school. My progress with these students was overlooked and budget cuts would prevail. I do have the many comments and appreciative dialogue to remind me of how important art therapy was to these students and the work they produced to bring them out of the darkness they were in.

    So many people have said, “what is art therapy”? What makes it different from other mental health fields? We, as art therapists, have to answer this in order for the field to be recognized, funded, and accessible. The biggest variable in my study was lack of knowledge about art therapy. It was astounding.

    We must encourage each other and continue to promote art therapy in its purest form. Not sell out as an “add on” for another mental health field, but pursue systems and administrations to include this wonderful tool that truly helps our youth succeed.

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