Updated on December 4, 2017
The Career of an Art Therapist
I have always identified as an artist, but art therapy was not my original career goal. I planned to follow in my uncle’s footsteps and work in the graphic design industry. As an undergraduate art student, I devoted a significant portion of my time to community service and derived immense fulfillment from serving the homeless population. When I found the field of art therapy, it felt like something clicked into place. Art therapy was a way to connect my lifelong passion for art with my interest in community service. I volunteered as an artist in residence with an art therapy youth violence prevention program, went on to get a master’s degree, and entered the field of art therapy.
My internship and early work experiences were varied: I wanted to explore a range of settings and populations to find the right fit. Looking back on my career trajectory, what remains constant is an emphasis on art therapy as a means to connect where other forms of communication are limited or not available.
Sometimes art was actually the only shared language. I worked in a day program for older adults in Queens, New York. The elder population spoke seven different languages, and we often functioned without a translator.
I also worked with hospitalized children. The art therapy sessions allowed children to connect in new ways; their medical and cognitive needs called out for the creativity and adaptive techniques of art therapy. I worked with a teen who painted using an adaptive brush held in his mouth and a motorized canvas he controlled through head movement sensors.
My most controversial job transition was from working with these children (a population likely to inspire “warm fuzzy” feelings) to working in a forensic state hospital with civilly committed men. I had never before encountered so many “Why are you working with them?” questions. Here too, art therapy provided a means for safe expression. So many of the individuals had had their words used against them in court or had used their words to deceive. The art they created in the therapy and leisure groups was a way for them to work on mental health and interpersonal concerns going back to their own childhoods and often over multiple generations.
I took a leap of faith by leaving that high-paying, stable government job to establish a new role for an art therapist in a nonprofit, elder-care organization. The new job represented a connection between the volunteer work I had done as an undergraduate and the formative experiences I had with older adults as an art therapy intern. My belief in the power of art therapy guided me as I expanded the breadth of my role—first working only in one community with one art class a week, to a full work week of art therapy groups for elders in four levels of care. My role expanded over the years, even during my studies in the Art Therapy Program at NDNU. I facilitated experiences for elders in all of the organization’s residential communities, and for the leadership. I also organized a large community art show around the theme of redefining stereotypes of age.
My experiences in the PhD program at NDNU reaffirmed my commitment to art therapy and art-based research as a viable and important way to understand and operate within the world around us. When I entered the doctoral program, I knew I would be transforming my professional practice and developing as a researcher. What I did not realize was how much I would grow as a human being.
One moment that stands out from my studies at NDNU was the individual practicum process. The class structured time to develop a plan. I created a series of workshops in my art studio geared toward supporting the educational and self-care needs of professionals. The professors and the class process also gave me confidence to imagine and propose a new role for myself at work. They continue to mentor me as I transition into work beyond the traditional clinical setting.
When I completed my research and earned my PhD, I moved into a new role at work. My current title is Experiential Researcher-In-Residence. I am continuing my inquiry process with the elders, supporting student researchers, and establishing a community of practice for our staff based on collaboration and creativity. It is so exciting to use my skills in art therapy and research to shape the work we do with older adults. Each day, I wake up excited to go to work, excited to engage in creative practice with my coworkers, the elders, and the community. I am so grateful to have found my perfect match in the field of art therapy.