Destination: Art Therapy

I am getting a lot of hits to this blog about “a day in the life of an art therapist” and “what does an art therapist do?” so I am going to go into those topics in more detail.  First, let me tell you how I arrived at this destination.

When I was in high school, one of my art teachers suggested art therapy to me as a career. I had no idea what it was, but I knew it was my destiny. I mailed  off for the course of study for every graduate art therapy program in the U.S. As an undergraduate I took every possible prerequisite in the areas of fine art and psychology. I found an art therapist in the area and did a mini-internship with her to see what it was all about. After getting my BFA, I worked for a year at a state hospital to make sure I had what it took to work in the field of mental health. At the ripe old age of 24, I packed up my pickup truck and moved halfway across the country to attend the graduate program at Lesley University. I did an internship at an elementary school and at a psychiatric day program for elders. My first job out of school was….as a restaurant manager. It took a while for me to find a job in the field. I went ahead and took the licensing exam and found a job with a mental health agency. For two years I  worked in nursing homes and rehab centers while accruing my hours for licensure and registration as an art therapist. I then moved to a pediatric inpatient psychiatric unit. My next job was….as a bookstore manager. I tell you this because the path to our desired goals often involves some detours. Next I worked at an adult day treatment program and after that landed at my current job of 7.5  years. I started out working with the medical patients at the hospital and now work on the psychiatric units. I teach at Lesley University and have a private practice offering supervision to recent graduates.

So what exactly do I do all day? Some of the basic elements are the same from job to job: paperwork, meetings, training students, supervising staff, basically keeping all the plates spinning. Depending on the population I am working with, the actual work of art therapy can vary widely. Some groups and some settings demand a great deal of structure. Directives and a tight group process may be called for to contain the group. For example, while working on the  pediatric unit I had the kids build a 3D bridge as a group using masking tape, straws and popsicle sticks. They had to communicate with each other, problem-solve and cooperatively find a solution. With my current population, I work from an open studio model so I work with each person individually to select an activity that is meaningful to them. While doing this I am also facilitating a group conversation and process. This empowers them to make their own decisions and regard the studio as a sanctuary from an often stressful hospital experience. The studio is filled with professional grade materials and shelves of art books to encourage a full engagement with the art making experience.

I constantly tell my students that I will not teach them how to “do art therapy.” But I will teach them how to BE art therapists. These are two very different things. Doing art therapy means mastering a certain set of skills and applying them in a prescribed way. The cookbook method, if you will. But Being an art therapist means embodying the mindset and heart of a therapist, modeling empathy, being willing to use yourself as a tool and all that implies, and being willing to have your heart broken by the sadnesses in this world. Parts of this job are very fun, but parts of it are downright hard. If your heart is not getting broken doing this work, you are not paying attention.

Well, that’s enough for today. I will talk more in the future about finding a good job fit, knowing when you are with the right population for you, and managing the heartbreak that comes with this work. Traveling mercies on your art therapy journey.



3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Cathy Malchiodi, PhD
    Mar 01, 2011 @ 05:55:53

    I am writing the “tale of two art therapists” for Psychology Today and will try to link up with this page. My thought is that there are in general, two outcomes for those who graduate from art therapy master’s degree programs: 1) the success and fulfillment that come from really being able to be an art therapist and 2) ending up being a counselor with little art therapy in your work life, or worse, not even being able to land any job in some parts of the US right now.

    You remind me that I have deep gratitude in being able to do what I do and make money at it, too.


  2. Phoenix Peacock
    Mar 05, 2011 @ 14:45:53

    asI prepare to graduate from my art therapy program it is nice to read these gentle reminders that you will get there… even if there are detours. It helps take the crazy pressure of “but what if I can’t find an art therapy job” off. I will, eventually!


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