Karen Pence has made the promotion and advancement of art therapy one of her signature initiatives.
By Ruth Steinhardt
Second Lady Karen Pence visited the George Washington University’s Art Therapy Graduate Program Thursday. A former art teacher with a master’s degree in arts education, Mrs. Pence unveiled her “Healing with the HeART” policy platform in October to raise the profile of the art therapy field.
“Art therapy isn’t just changing lives, it’s saving lives, and we see that all the time,” Mrs. Pence told students at GW’s Alexandria Graduate Education Center in Alexandria, Va.
Founded in 1971, the GW Art Therapy Program, which is part of the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, was one of the first of its kind in the country and one of the first to receive approval from the American Art Therapy Association. It offers three degree options: a master’s in art therapy, a master’s in art therapy practice and a combined bachelor’s and master’s in art therapy.
Mrs. Pence said she has been an advocate of art therapy since her time as first lady of Indiana, when she saw its therapeutic efficacy in action among pediatric cancer patients and, later, veterans. She is now honorary chair of the art therapy program at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health in Indianapolis and also serves as a board member for Tracy’s Kids, an art therapy program for young cancer patients.
Mrs. Pence said her initiative has three goals: To elevate the profession so that people understand that art therapy is mental health work, to raise awareness of art therapy as a treatment option for various conditions and experiences and to encourage young people to enter the field.
The first step is to educate the public on the expertise required of art therapists, she said.
“People don’t understand your work. They think it’s arts and crafts,” Mrs. Pence said. “I’m an art teacher—I do arts and crafts. You guys are therapists, and there’s a big difference.”
Mrs. Pence took part in a 30-minute informal discussion with a small group of first- and second-year students, a group that included several former teachers, the daughter of a Palestinian refugee and a mentor to LGBTQ teens.
“I hope access to art therapy will be more widespread—reaching disenfranchised populations and not just focusing on their differences but also on how similar they are as people in this country,” said Iman Khatib, a second-year student, after Mrs. Pence’s visit.
First-year student Ellen Smithey grew up in Indiana and said she witnessed what Mrs. Pence has done to elevate awareness of art therapy. “Growing up in Indianapolis, seeing what she’s done for Riley Children’s Hospital and other programs there, it’s just exciting to help in the process of [raising] her awareness of art therapy and what that might mean for our nation,” Ms. Smithey said.
Ben Vinson III, dean of the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, said Mrs. Pence’s visit signaled the high quality of the program.
“Second Lady Karen Pence’s visit to our campus underscores the national and international importance of art therapy,” Dr. Vinson said. “As a leader in the field and a proven training ground for future art therapists, GW is at the very center of that conversation. We are proud to have our students and faculty share their experiences with her, and to learn of her own passion and perspectives on this vital field.”
Indeed, Ms. Pence said she has observed a common thread in her visits to art therapists and therapy programs around the world.
“A lot of places we go, we hear that the art therapists were trained at GW,” Mrs. Pence told students. “So you have chosen well.”