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Art Therapy 

And its progression from the Holocaust camps to Loyola Marymount and beyond

Thursday, Apr 3 2003

"We've been seeing slides of the art and seeing the power in it, but it's still surprising when you see that it really works. The things that come up are, to me, a little bit magical and shocking." I caught Lisa Kemble and another first-year graduate student just as they had finished up a studio art assignment, creating an image that represented one of the mentally ill patients with whom they make art twice a week. Lisa's piece depicts a woman in what looks like an isolated passageway surrounded by a rather busily cheerful abstract border. "[My patient] is elderly and depressed, and I thought I'd just like to bring some joy and color into her daily life," Lisa explains. Theresa Quinn's 16-hour-a-week practicum is at a school for emotionally disturbed children who can't attend public school; her client poses the opposite challenge. "He tries to run the group. I'm just the ringmaster." Theresa's painting uses a bed as a symbol of both soft comfort and firm support, and weaves strips of fabric into a border to invoke a less oppositional relationship.

With all the relative hoopla surrounding L.A.'s profusion of graduate schools supposedly preparing scholars for a professional career in The Art World, a different kind of graduate art training at Loyola Marymount University has been overlooked. Technically referred to as the Department of Marital and Family Therapy, Loyola's clinical art-therapy program has, over nearly 30 years, quietly established itself as one of the foremost American institutions equipping its students with the tools and know-how to harness the awesome potential of visual art to ease the suffering of traumatized humans, communicate on a deep psychological level with people whose verbal skills are undeveloped or crippled, and guide them forward in the healing process.

In contemporary culture, the idea that the practice of art making is inherently beneficial to the human psyche is a surprisingly controversial one. It is only slightly less verboten in the mental-health professions, where it is grudgingly accorded a support role to more serious verbal or pharmaceutical therapies, with the caveat that if things get too touchy-feely, it's back to kindergarten with the finger paints and the modeling clay. Nevertheless, due to its repeatedly demonstrated effectiveness, art therapy has managed to adapt itself to every corner of the mental-health profession.

"Homeless, family counseling, chronically mentally ill, domestic violence, alcohol and substance abuse — they're all dimensions of some kind of human struggle," says Dr. Debra Linesch, director of the LMU program. "There are treatment strategies developed for each in the literature and clinical practice, but it can always be enriched, supported and contained within this notion of including imagery and image-making."

Paradoxically, art therapy's very efficaciousness has contributed to its shaky rep. There's no end to lay practitioners offering their strategies of collage making and body-image mandalas in workshops, books and private practice, regardless of accreditation. The most successful of these must be Martin Scorsese's ex, Julia Cameron, whose 1992 book, The Artist's Way, has become a perennial self-help best-seller. Indeed, the pioneers of art-therapy practice came from a fine-art rather than medical or psychological background.

"Our field was really begun by people who had this core belief in the therapeutic potential of art through their own art making," says Linesch. "A very talented artist named Edith Kramer, who escaped the Nazi persecutions and came to the U.S. in the late 1930s, started working as an art therapist at the Wiltwyck School for boys in New York and articulated the modern-day understanding of art therapy with her books and teaching. Helen Landgarten, who founded our program, was completely self-taught. She was just an artist who went to Cedars-Sinai and proposed to the psychiatrists that using art could be useful to people who came seeking counseling or mental-health interventions. They gave her a tiny little cupboard and told her, 'Six months; show us what you can do.' Out of that, Helen ultimately started a master's-degree program at Immaculate Heart College, and when they closed down, it moved to LMU."

In spite of the skepticism inspired by its more populist incarnations, art therapy has played an intrinsic role in the history of psychoanalysis — from the cliché of the lab-coated clinical psychologists administering Rorschach inkblots and the Thematic Apperception Test to the chronicles of nurse-turned-painter (by way of fecal smearing) Mary Barnes, the most celebrated and controversial participant in R.D. Laing's '60s experiments in radical psychiatry. Jungian analysts pioneered many of the techniques that have found their way into clinical art therapy. But Jung's transpersonal spiritual bent doesn't sit well with most HMO executives, and art's capacity for psychological healing has had to find inroads more acceptable to the medical-scientific establishment.

Much of the success of the LMU program — graduates typically have several job offers awaiting them upon graduation — is attributable to its efforts to establish itself as a state-licensed program, aligning its curriculum to the requirements of the Marriage and Family Therapy degree, the minimum educational prerequisite to practice as a psychotherapist in the state of California. This is itself typical of a widespread move to legitimize and codify art-therapy practice, in order to circumvent the resistance of the psychological-medical establishment that controls access to patients and funds. "In our charting for Medicare," notes one student, "we are not allowed to talk about the art, because they don't pay for art therapy. I can't talk about the art at all."

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