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Exploring The Healing Power of Art

By John Coyne
ART TIMES December, 2004

"The reason I can be a good art therapist," says Bonny Willett of Greenwich Connecticut, "is because art is good therapy for me."

Bonny, who earned her masters in art therapy at The College of New Rochelle, is in private practice at Nectr (Northeast Center for Trauma) in Greenwich, Connecticut. As an art therapist, she sees clients ranging in age from young children to senior citizens, treating patients with trauma and loss related issues, patients with chronic illness such as Lyme disease and Alzheimer's, as well as with depression, anxiety, phobias, and eating disorders.

According to Bonny, "what art therapy is all about: helping people to feel better about themselves. Since each of us has some creative potential, making art can be a wonderful help in the healing process."

Bonny Willett is not the first to come to this realization.

Over a hundred years ago, writers in Europe marveled at the fact that patients in mental hospitals had a "seemingly irrepressible urge to make art," using any material that they could find to be spontaneously creative. Psychiatrists, too, took notice of this creative work and realized that there was a link between the art and the illness of their patients.

By the early 1940s in the United States, Margaret Naumburg, an educator and psychotherapist who had started the Walden School in New York City and who is considered the founder of art therapy in America, began to write about art and its application with psychiatric patients. At the same time, her sister, Florence Cane, modified principles from art education to use with children.

These two poles-psychoanalysis and art education-became the foundations of this field of healing, art therapy. While the debate continues on whether therapeutic process is inherent in talking about a work of art, or in expressing oneself, or in the specific act of creation, according to the American Art Therapy Association, "Most art therapists find that they draw from both approaches, modifying what they do or emphasizing according to the population with which they are working.

One of the early academic institutions to see art therapy as a valid and valuable academic discipline is The Collect of new Rochelle, in New Rochelle.  It is one of just 31 AATA Approved graduate art therapy degree programs in the United States.

According to noted artist and the first permanent full-time art therapy faculty member at CNR Professor Robert Wolf, "Art therapy differs from traditional art in the sense that it is the process of crating rather than the creation that is most important. The art therapist is able to provide a non-threatening space where clients may use creative art materials, such as paper, clay, or stone, to express what they are feeling and increase self awareness.

While art has been used as a visual means of communication and expression since prehistoric times, often artists abandon their society to be "alone with their art." This is certainly not true of professional art therapists who are actively engaged in the work and lives of their clients.

It is rewarding to see an elderly individual gain pleasure from expressing oneself with art," says Celeste Walls, Creative Arts Coordinator at Hebrew Hospital Home, Inc. in the Bronx. "Even the smallest brush strokes or the finest pencil lines can represent a momentous time in a client's life. As an art therapist, I honestly value each work like it is another masterpiece in my collection."

Today the professional field of art therapy continues to expand with graduates finding careers in psychiatric units of hospitals, outpatient treatment of the chronically mentally ill, rehabilitation, nursing homes, and schools, working with cancer patients treating the developmentally delayed, traumatic brain injured patients, abused children and adolescents, and victims of trauma, and in many other venues. With additional experience and training, graduates counsel drug addicts and alcoholics, act as family therapists, and serve as supervisors and art therapy educators. According to Heather Genovese, who works with the Astor Family Services in the Bronx, "Sometimes I am the art therapy consultant to one of my colleagues, and other times a colleague is a consultant to me. I guess what this really means is that I have a unique set of skills to offer, a set of skills that I can contribute to my team for the good of everyone, clients and colleagues. And that makes me feel good. I believe that is what art therapy is all about. Helping people through the creative process feel good about themselves."

(John Coyne is Manager of Communications at The College of New Rochelle, New York.)

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