Becoming the “Art Lady”

People ask me all the time how I became an art therapist. Most of the time they have never heard of art therapy, but they can tell I have a lot of fun and, frankly, are a little jealous that I get to make art with kids all day. Of course, there’s a lot more to art therapy than just making art with kids all day, but I do completely enjoy being with people in the art-making process. I get to do something I really enjoy for a living, something that comes very naturally to me, and for that I know I am lucky. But, to all those jealous people – I will never make a million dollars doing this. Keep that in mind before you quit your stockbroker job.

I have always been an artist. As a child, it was hands-down my favorite thing to do. Playing with Barbies was, admittedly, a really close second. I’m pretty sure I ruined a trip to Florida for my best friend when I was 8-years-old because I was more interested in drawing imaginary rock stars with my smelly markers than swimming in the pool or going to Disney World. Did I mention I was a strange child?

It was only natural, then, that I auditioned for an arts magnet program for both middle school and high school. It was never a question, really. I was always compelled to make art and I was good at it. I was also really, really bad at all sports, cheerleading, and most normal extracurricular activities. When I look back, though, I never thought I would be an artist as a career. I wasn’t necessarily prolific or driven to be an artist as a trade. I never imagined I would make anything that anyone would buy. I was very confused when I started college because while all of my artist friends were trying to get into art institutes, I was not really sure how to channel this ability. As if by fate, I came across a book at my public library – Approaches to Art Therapy by Judy Rubin, and I felt like I had found the perfect fit. I loved art and I was always interested in helping people and understanding human behavior. Also, Judy Rubin is awesome. Just a little bit of trivia – she was the “art lady” on Mister Roger’s Neighborhood.

Of course, like most people in their late teens and twenties, I meandered to my goal with a few detours. I was a psychology major in college and an almost art minor, because my last semester I spontaneously decided to do a politics program in Washington, DC and did not finish my art credits. One semester in DC and I knew I had zero political aspirations, but I’m glad I explored that avenue and got to know the city. After graduation, I still had art therapy on my mind, but just wasn’t quite ready for graduate school. I was a preschool teacher and then a middle school teaching assistant. I loved working with kids, but these were tough, thankless, money-less jobs. I’m not going to lie, this kind of work got me interested in going back to school VERY QUICKLY. I did some research and became interested in the George Washington University in Washington, DC. I already knew the city and the program has a rich history, founded by some of the most influential art therapists in the field.

How did I join up with Tracy’s Kids? Most art therapy graduate programs have at least two separate, year-long, intensive practicum components. My second year, I worked under Tracy’s supervision at Georgetown, though I was actually working with adult oncology patients. I loved my internship there, but more importantly I became familiar with Tracy’s work with pediatric cancer patients and I really connected with her style. Toward the end of my time there, Tracy’s Kids was on the cusp of expansion to Children’s National Medical Center. They would need an art therapist to lead that expansion, and I wanted that job. BAD. There was about a year between my graduation and when this job would be up for grabs, so I worked with a wonderful family as their nanny and hounded Tracy for information on a monthly basis until the job was posted. Luckily, the team at Children’s thought I was a good fit. In 2006, I embarked on the most challenging, rewarding job I have ever had, and I’m so thankful to still be part of the team today.

What I love about being part of this field is that people really believe in the work they do. I have met some very colorful characters over the years through school, conferences, and workshops and I don’t always understand everyone’s style, but I have never met an art therapist who didn’t truly care about the work they do and the people they serve. Art therapists are hard-working people who often spend a lot of time justifying their jobs to budget-cutters, explaining the importance of the work to people who don’t know the field, and fighting for licensure and equality with other mental health fields. And yet, almost every art therapist I know is energized by the art-making they see every day and the positive changes they see in the people they help. I am proud to be a part of this profession.

And for any men who might be interested in art therapy, there really are some guys in the field. At least one or two, I promise.

Gretchen’s Story

 

As I sit at the art table with children and their parents, they often ask how i came about this work. Initially the questions will center around art therapy; its role, purpose, and education. After those questions the parents often want to know my personal story. Why did I choose to work in this profession? One where the outcome can be heartbreaking.

The truth is, i did not initially want to work with children. I wanted to work with adults, to help them regain the joy of childhood. 20 years ago in undergrad as a anthropology/sociology student i took an expressive therapies class. While the music and the dance were not enjoyable to me, the art was. I realized i was using art as an emotional release for myself most of my life. I even chose not to take art classes because my creations were too close to my heart and my feelings.

After graduation i traveled the country with a friend and met a woman in California studying art therapy. As we lay in our tent on the side of the road talking about our futures i had an epiphany. I wanted to become an art therapist and work with adults who were HIV positive and/or suffering from AIDS. I had a purpose and a plan. I rounded up a few friends to move out to California so i could get residency and go back to school. Ah the best laid plans…

Ten years later I find myself as a single mother in Maryland with the chance to go back to school. As The George Washington University was right in D.C. and had the oldest Art Therapy program in the U.S., I knew the time was right. I had talked with Tracy at Georgetown to get a feel for the program and the profession and decided to take the plunge. I still wanted to work with adults, until my internships exposed me to the joys of working with children. By the time the Children’s clinic in Falls Church had an opening I had gotten my Masters in Art Therapy and my Graduate Counseling Licensure. I was ready for Tracy’s Kids. What i love best about this program is the whole family work I am able to do. Helping adults and children brings me joy at the end of each day.

A Bear & A Healing Garden

Over the past two years, the Tracy’s Kids art therapists in the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders have collaborated with other art therapists at Children’s National Medical Center to create two large murals which now hang prominently in our hallways – bringing the children and teenagers who worked on the murals a great sense of pride and accomplishment.

The art therapists first pieced together blank canvases of various sizes and drew the basic outline of the mural image. The canvases were then taken apart again, so that patients and siblings all over the hospital were each given their own piece of the mural. Without knowing what the final image would be, children of all ages (and with all different kinds of diagnoses) painted, glued and collaged the canvases.

Collaborative Mural of A Healing Garden

Each canvas stands alone as a beautiful artwork, but once the individual pieces were put back together, the results were even more amazing. Our first mural depicts Dr. Bear, the mascot of Children’s National Medical Center, and the most recent mural shows our “Healing Garden.” Once each mural was displayed, patients and siblings marveled at how their small piece of artwork contributed to the larger mural. The murals created a great sense of community – even though many of the patient-artists had never met, they became more aware of other children who share their experience in the hospital by collaborating in this project.