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Art Therapy

"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."

The program at LMU is heavy on the scholarship, with a course load full of family-systems theory, developmental psychology, psychopathology, research methodology and professional ethics, and a master's thesis based on original research. In spite of the rigor, art therapists still seem to emerge with one foot in the paint bucket. "My sense is that art therapists — because of the power of art as sustenance and revitalization — have less of the experience of burnout," says Linesch. "There's something happening in their interactions with clients that is creative and productive and life-enhancing. Even when the material is about depression and anger, and has a lot of negative language that you might apply to it, there's something in the process that is humanizing and vital. And many of our graduates are involved in their own art-making endeavors, which is a sustenance or self-nourishment that supports the clinical work."

Hoping to compile a body of tangible evidence demonstrating this continued engagement with art practice, LMU graduate Marcy Stafsky sent out a call for submissions to more than 100 alumni. With the help of freelance writer Shirle Gottlieb as juror, and the cooperation of LMU's Laband Gallery, Stafsky culled the exhibition "Art Therapists as Artists," now on view through April 12.

The work is varied and colorful, and tends toward traditional media. Many of the best works in the exhibit are collages — Robin Bush-Vance's spooky but unclichéd dreamscapes; Roberta Lengua's roughly torn color grids; Christa Occhiogrosso's limpidly stacked chains made up of excised bulbs of abstract brushwork — but strong work ranges from Sharon D. Ross' cool, painterly abstraction to Joyce Wexler-Ballard's Laundry on the Lawn, an uncomfortably intimate shaggy-dog conceptualist piece that obliges the viewer to crouch and root through a pile of laundry to piece together a quizzical domestic narrative.

This isn't an exhibit to convince anyone from The Art World of the legitimacy of the therapeutic model, and, indeed, the work on display may seem unsophisticated to those who have fully absorbed TAW lessons that craftsmanship and subjective emotional experiences are irrelevant to contemporary art history. But after contemplating these works for a short time, one begins to discern the contours of a parallel art world, whose goals and criteria are entirely foreign to the cyclical fashion mongering of the marketplace. Perhaps the final frontier for the insinuation of the therapeutic model of art making is the cloistered world of high art.

One step in this direction may be taking place over the next few months at the Museum of Tolerance, where Debra Linesch has proposed a series of weekend and summer-camp workshops employing art-therapy strategies to expand viewers' experiences of a remarkable historical exhibit that has finally opened here. "Friedl Dicker-Brandeis and the Children of Terezin: An Exhibition of Art and Hope" has already been on view in Paris, Berlin, Stockholm, Vienna, Atlanta and seven venues in Japan. But in spite of its being co-curated by Regina Seidman Miller of the Museum of Tolerance, it was only a last-minute infusion of funds from Westfield Shoppingtown that assured its appearance here.

It is a remarkable exhibit, in some ways a dark twin to the Norton Simon's "Galka Scheyer and the Blue Four" exhibit, employing many of the same cast of characters to tell a story that is the flip side to Scheyer's comfortable expat life in the Hollywood Hills. Friedl Dicker was a star pupil at the Bauhaus, following refugee Swiss artist Johannes Itten from her native Vienna to the teeming modernist melting pot in Weimar. Paul Klee became a mentor, and Friedl tried her hand at a wide range of media and became the first student chosen to teach beginning students. As the utopianism of the Bauhaus began to wear thin, Friedl and her architect lover Franz Singer moved on, setting up shop in Berlin and Vienna, designing sets for Bertolt Brecht, anti-capitalist photo-collage posters, a wealth of applied-arts projects from wooden toys to bookbindings to entire apartments, and a model Montessori kindergarten for the social experiment known as Red Vienna. Friedl began exploring early childhood education, teaching a course in Bauhaus concepts to kindergarten teachers in 1931. When the tide turned to the extreme right in 1934, Friedl was arrested for her political work and imprisoned for several months. On her release, she moved to Prague, where she married her cousin Pavel Brandeis, continued her exploration of teaching and expanded her own art practice, inspired by a newfound fascination with figurative representation.

The show offers ample evidence lending support to Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius' assertion that, had she lived, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis would have been the most important female artist of the 20th century. Her early ink and charcoal sketches show a tremendous facility and economy of line; her posters and typographical experiments stand up to the highest Bauhaus standards; her furniture, weavings, lamps and costume designs are consistently innovative and accomplished; and her paintings are progressively more idiosyncratic and self-assured. But Friedl's claim to fame wasn't to come from her accomplishments in the conventional art world.

After the Nazi annexation of Czechoslovakia in 1938, Friedl and Pavel managed to remain at large for four years. But late in 1942 they were transported to the strange showcase camp of Terezin, a way station to Auschwitz made to appear like a new model community for deported Jews. Though more than 30,000 prisoners succumbed to starvation and disease there — and almost 90,000 died in various camps — Nazi propaganda described Terezin as "a pleasant Jewish settlement" and "a gift from the Führer to the Jews." To support this picture, the camp's inmates were allowed — obliged — to carry on cultural activities. On her arrival, Friedl immediately began offering art lessons to the camp children, applying a series of techniques she had developed over previous years involving rhythmic freehand drawing, improvisational composition, yogic breathing and positive emotional visualization. On September 28, 1944, Pavel was relocated to Auschwitz. Friedl insisted on following on the next transport. But instead of being reunited with their men, the trainful of more than 1,500 women and children proceeded to Birkenau. Friedl was killed there on October 9.

Following the war, a cache of the drawings made by the children under Friedl's tutelage was discovered, and eventually became the subject of its own powerful museum exhibit and book. It was widely understood as a symbol of the strength of the human spirit during times of unimaginable repression. (In an unlikely and extremely ironic footnote, a replica of one drawing from that collection — an imaginary moonscape by Petr Ginz, one of Friedl's students — was in the possession of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon when the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated in February.) What wasn't made clear by that version of the story was the essential continuity between the children's reclamation of their creative power and the idealist dreams of the prewar Modernists — a continuity personified by Friedl Dicker-Brandeis.

Friedl's journey can be seen as a series of broken artistic utopias — from the lofty Modernist aesthetic revolution of the Bauhaus to Communist Berlin and Red Vienna to the bustling refugee community of Prague to the Nazis' duplicitous "ideal city of the Jews" at Terezin. But underlying the stripping away of ideological prescription that accompanied each successive disillusionment was a groundswell of confidence in the power of art to transform and heal our relationship to the world — not through the programmatic imposition of our aesthetic will, but by awakening our senses to the beauty and sanctity of the world as it is, here and now, even under the most adverse circumstances.

"It takes on particular significance today, when we're feeling so nervous and there's such a high level of anxiety in what everybody's doing," says curator Seidman Miller. "You read Friedl's quotes from 1942 where she said, 'If you have one day, then you have to live it, because the only way to escape death is by living. So I choose to and if I fight by picking up a pencil and drawing a picture, so be it.' And you see she believed in creative resistance — and it empowered her and empowered the children. It's not a romantic story — the truth is that all the survivors that we interviewed who worked with Friedl said they don't think they would have survived without her classes."

One of Friedl's students — not from Terezin, but from the period just before, in Prague — was young Edith Kramer, the same Edith Kramer who brought Friedl's teachings to America and laid the foundations for the contemporary practice of clinical art therapy.

ART THERAPISTS AS ARTISTS | Loyola Marymount University, Laband Art Gallery, One LMU Drive, Westchester | Through April 12

FRIEDL DICKER-BRANDEIS AND THE CHILDREN OF TEREZIN: An Exhibition of Art and Hope | Museum of Tolerance, Simon Wiesenthal Plaza, 9786 W. Pico Blvd. Through September 1


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