Art Therapy Celebrates 40 Years

Photo Credit: Chris Garlock
July 18, 2011

In 1970, Linda Gantt, M.A. ’74, was taking art therapy courses at the local Washington School of Psychiatry under the guidance of professors Elinor Ulman and Hanna Yaxa Kwiatkowska. Dr. Gantt had been exposed to the idea of combining art and psychiatry as an undergraduate at the North Texas State University, but at the time, there were few people who considered themselves art therapists. There were also no formal degree programs in the field.

Then, one evening, GW Professor of Psychology Bernard Levy walked in Dr. Gantt’s class and asked if the students would be interested in pursuing a master’s degree in art therapy at GW, which he was attempting to establish at the university.

Merely a year later, Dr. Gantt was a member of the first class of GW’s Art Therapy Program in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences. Founded by Dr. Levy, Ms. Ulman, Ms. Kwiatkowska and Edith Kramer in 1971, the program now boasts a student-run art therapy clinic for the community, internship placements in local educational, psychiatric and medical settings and a choice of pursuing degrees in art therapy, counseling, trauma training or a combined bachelor’s and master’s degree in art therapy.

“At the time the program was founded, only four other universities were considering establishing an art therapy program, so GW was really at the forefront,” said Dr. Gantt. “The fact that we are now celebrating its 40th year really shows the strength of the program.”

On July 8, Dr. Gantt joined Columbian College Executive Associate Dean Roy Guenther and Carol Cox, professorial lecturer and former program assistant director, to celebrate the program’s anniversary with more than 200 current and former art therapy faculty and students at its facilities in Alexandria, Va.

At the event, Dr. Gantt spoke about her positive experience in the program and her career as an art therapist. She currently runs a clinic called Intensive Trauma Therapy in Morgantown, W.Va.

“I’ve been so pleased with what the field of art therapy has done for me,” she said. “I made friends at GW who have been with me my entire life, and I was intellectually stimulated by the challenges of a brand new program. I felt it was a wonderful fit for me and quite serendipitous Dr. Levy came in that class when he did.”

Assistant Professor and Clinical Placement Coordinator Lisa Garlock said the celebration coincided with the American Art Therapy Association conference that was held in the District last week and in which many GW art therapy faculty participated. The association’s current president, Mercedes ter Maat, graduated from the art therapy program in 1986.

“One of the remarkable things about GW art therapy alumni is that many of them have gone on to be strong leaders in the field, teaching at various universities, presenting and working internationally and serving at all levels of the American Art Therapy Association,” said Ms. Garlock.

Since the program’s founding, Assistant Professor and Art Therapy Clinic Director Tally Tripp, M.A.’81, said both its enrollment and curriculum have grown considerably. GW’s program, which has graduated more than 500 students, now has a strong emphasis on research, and she said students and faculty are consistently producing “fascinating and innovative projects.” The program also offers summer study abroad programs in France, India and South Africa, all with a focus on social and cultural diversity.

“We are a unique program now because of these many exciting innovations that have occurred in recent years,” said Ms. Tripp.

She said art therapy is now used in a variety of settings, including schools, hospitals, geriatric centers and mental health facilities, and is way for patients to communicate what they often cannot verbalize.

“Art therapy is well suited to relieve psychological trauma and emotional suffering as it allows the individual to express in art or through visual imagery what may be difficult or even impossible to express in words,” said Ms. Tripp. “We know from research that the logical, left brain tends to shut down under extreme stress, so using right brain therapies (art, movement and music) facilitates the expression and communication of feelings and helps a person begin the healing process.”

Anna Ford, M.A.’09, an art therapist at Iona Senior Services in Washington, D.C., said she attended the celebration because she had always felt “supported” by GW’s faculty.

“I was a part-time student working full time, and they were flexible with me and always very supportive,” she said. “I still keep in touch with the faculty there because I'm now a supervisor for GW art therapy students at Iona.”

Ms. Ford, who will begin a new art therapy position later this month at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt University, said the general population is increasingly embracing art therapy as an important outlet.

“The level of stress that we have in our society is continuing to grow, and so the importance of expressing ourselves is becoming more significant,” she said.

Dr. Gantt said the program’s new facilities in Alexandria—which include state-of-the-art studio classrooms, a gallery, library, open art studio space and the art therapy clinic— show how far the program has come since 1971. Parts of the program still remain at its original headquarters at 2129 G Street.

“The GW Art Therapy Program is very strong now,” said Dr. Gantt, “so I’m extremely pleased to say I graduated from it.”

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