Emporia State University is home to the longest-running continuously functioning masters degree granting art therapy program in the world, according to Jessica Stallings, interim chair of counselor education and art therapy professor. The program was established in 1973, four years after the national organization was founded.
“Art therapy to me is the use of art to help us express and process our thoughts and feelings,” said Wendy Lynch, first-year dual-curriculum student in art therapy and clinical counseling. “We can use art to de escalate after a stressful situation -- or before if you know something stressful is coming-- we can use art to process the loss of loved ones or to try to understand trauma that we experience, and we can use art to tell our stories and relate to one another. Art is so versatile and more important than a lot of people recognize. ”
The program is a 60 credit hour graduate program with about a total of 40 students enrolled, according to Stallings.
“Art therapy is currently not a licensed field in most states,” Stallings said. “Part of that is from being the youngest of the mental health fields...but that’s quickly changing.”
Students learn about what art therapy looks like in groups, with families, with individuals and research concerns, according to Stallings. They also do research related to the field along with internships, either with an art therapist as a direct supervisor at places like Valeo Behavioral Health in Topkea or with related professionals and supervisors.
“The art therapy program has a rich foundation of high impact learning experiences, including internships, international programming, professional development opportunities, service learning experiences and social action or social justice initiatives,” said Gaelynn Wolf Bordonaro, art therapy counseling program director.
ESU’s art therapy program deals with the visual arts, such as painting, drawing and clay, as opposed to arts like music and theater, which have their own distinctions of therapy, according to Stallings.
“(The type of art is) actually most influenced by our clients and what their needs are,” Stallings said. “There are some clients who don’t respond well to what we would refer to as fluid media, like paint or clay. For somebody who needs a certain amount of control or is out of control, it can actually be a bad fit, while having more controlled mediums with them would work better. ”
Art therapy can be applied to all ages and has been used to help veterans with PTSD and individuals on the autism spectrum, Stallings sad.
“Art therapists are often using the art to allow the externalization of a traumatic experience,” Stallings said. “If you’ve ever been in a car accident, if you think of the moment when the accident is actually happening, you’re not really putting words to it other than expletives, and you’re not really processing ‘oh I see a car there, I see this, this is going on,’ but you do have memory of it and you remember it in your muscles and visually. Art allows the opportunity to be able to translate that experiences into words.”
The classes provide the students with a wide range of knowledge on the theories and types of arts, while also allowing students the opportunity to practice them or put them to use.
“The most difficult part of being in the profession is the political advocacy work that needs to be done to have art therapists be licensed,” said Kimberly Nguyen, a second year art therapy and clinical counseling student. “Furthermore, well-meaning people who appreciate the healing aspects of art may not understand the importance of getting an art therapy degree to prevent from harming others in therapy—so, educating others that art therapy does require proper training and experience can be difficult. Otherwise, the profession is very rewarding and the therapeutic outcomes are apparent.”
Any students who want to learn more about the program are welcome to attend any Student Art Therapy Organization meetings, Lynch said. They currently meet every week, one week on Tuesday from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m., then the following week on Wednesday from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. Anyone with questions can contact SATO@emporia.edu.
“I’ve never felt so at home in a program of study in my life,” Lynch said. “I went to a lot of schools during my undergrad and I have never had a faculty so dedicated to my success and the success of my peers as my professors here at the ESU Art Therapy program.”