• June 2012

How Art Therapist Sara Roizen Uses Paint to Heal

An artist and licensed creative arts therapist, Sara Roizen received her BFA in Painting from the Rhode Island School of Design, and her Masters in Art Therapy from Pratt Institute.

Such a prestigious pedigree suggests success, and indeed, the NYC-based artist says that making art is a way of life: “Art imbues my days with a sense of purpose and joy. In addition, art functions as a critical source of emotional release at the end of the day.”

Her approach as an artist has always centered around the process rather than the finished product. “I work spontaneously and intuitively in the studio in a form of dialogue between myself and the materials,” she explains.

“This process is a constant self-exploration, often revealing feelings of which I was previously unaware. I feel that this method of artistic expression parallels the way that art therapists work with clients. This therapeutic dialogue requires an open mind and a high level of empathy.”

Roizen says she is inspired by the rhythms of nature, as well as by the energy of the different individuals she meets on a daily basis. This is evident in her artwork, which combines materials such as acrylic paint, pastes, sand, tissue paper, and found objects, to create a unique synthesis of texture, form, and color.

When it comes to using art as a guide to healing, below Roizen shares her thoughts on her path, the process, and the power of art therapy.

How Art Becomes Therapy

By Sara Roizen
Fine Artist & Art Therapist

Inside you there’s an artist
you don’t know about…
Say yes quickly, if you know,
if you’ve known it from before the
beginning of the universe. — Rumi

The process of becoming an art therapist was an organic and naturally unfolding path that took place over a number of years. I have always been aware of the role that art plays in my personal life as a healing force. I love creating art and the entire creative process, and I also have a deep desire to help other people in their healing journey. Art therapy was the natural integration of these two passions.

First, a little bit about the field.

An art therapist is a master’s level (or higher) trained psychotherapist who specializes in the use of art-making and the creative process within the therapeutic relationship. Art therapists can be found working in multiple settings, including community programs, clinics, hospitals, day-treatment centers, substance abuse facilities, shelters, retirement and nursing homes, schools, and businesses, as well as in psychotherapy private practice.

The therapeutic use of art-making can be a powerful and life-changing experience. Many feelings and issues may surface as art is created, which is specifically what an art therapist is trained to understand and work with.

Many people are familiar with the use of art therapy when working with children. Children are usually very receptive to art therapy because it appeals to their innate curiosity and desire to create. In addition, art therapy is useful for children who have not yet developed the ability to verbally express themselves in the same way that adults have.

Art therapy can be beneficial to adults of all ages.

Actually, the majority of the work I do is with adults. Art has the ability to express what (even adults) do not always have the words for. Art has the ability to bypass the purely intellectual side of the brain and shed light onto the unconscious.

The goal of art therapy is not to “teach” art skills, but rather to use art in a therapeutic capacity. Art therapists may instruct clients how to use various art materials so that clients have the freedom to then create whatever they desire. It is natural that many clients become familiar with and adept at using art materials and different methods, but that is not the primary goal.

Once a client engages in the art-making process, it often takes very little prodding for emotions, thoughts, and memories to surface. The art therapist is trained to help the client process these. Part of the uniqueness of art therapy is the way the client is able to dialogue with his or her art and create a personal lexicon of symbols and meaning.

I am frequently asked if I can “interpret” a person’s artwork.

New art therapy clients sometimes express anxiety about what I can glean from their art. This is a common misconception about the role of the art therapist. Although all art therapists are trained in different ways to look at and process artwork, the focus during an art therapy session is usually on the client’s creative and emotional experience while making art.

The meaning of the artwork should be derived directly from the client, and his or her own personal associations and feelings about the artwork. Just as each art piece is one of a kind, the attached meanings are highly individual and may even shift over time.

My Personal Path

Art has been my constant companion over the years; a primary way for me to process experiences, express feelings, explore my evolving self-identity, and make meaning in my life. I am inspired by the rhythms of nature as well as by the energy of the different individuals I meet on a daily basis. My artwork over the past few years has combined materials such as acrylic paint, pastes, sand, tissue paper, and found objects, to create a synthesis of texture, form, and color.

During high school, I struggled agonizingly through math classes, while fully embracing and soaking up art and music classes. I went to college and studied Painting at The Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). During those four years I had many adventures, grew alongside my classmates and friends, and developed my art techniques.

I wouldn’t trade that education for any other; however, throughout college I struggled to meld my personal process-oriented approach to art-making with the pressure I felt at RISD to create “gallery-ready” cohesive bodies of work. I couldn’t help but paint from my feelings and direct experiences, which often resulted in what appeared to be a rather eclectic body of work. My professors often remarked that my art looked like it could have been painted by several different artists—not a positive thing in their minds, though something I now relish.

I struggled through many emotional highs and lows in the years during and after college.

Art, writing, and music were the primary ways that I made sense of difficulties in my life. Shortly after college I moved to NYC where my (now) husband had started a job at Sony Music. An important element of our first apartment together was that it had a second bedroom that I could make into a studio. My wish came true, and I still live and paint in the same apartment, with a view of the Queensboro Bridge and the Manhattan skyline.

I continued to make my own art and explored alternative venues for sharing it with others, such as outdoor art festivals and on the walls of coffee shops and restaurants. I spent a number of years hopping between random jobs that helped pay the bills, but did not provide me with any real sense of fulfillment. My desire to engage in more meaningful projects eventually led me to begin doing arts-based volunteering with a few different organizations in the city.

One day while volunteering at Bellevue hospital in the psychiatric unit, the art project was facilitated by an art therapist. In less than an hour I saw how quickly and noticeably the patients engaged in the art-making. They were relaxing, sharing, and communicating more clearly than they had been outside of the art therapy group. That was one of numerous inspirational experiences that brought me to art therapy as a career.

Before taking out loans and committing to a graduate program, I decided to enroll in the New School’s Creative Arts Therapy Certificate Program in Manhattan.

For the next few years I continued to work full-time and take evening classes to complete the certificate program. Although it was not a licensure-credentialing program, it provided me with an excellent foundation in art therapy, in addition to a solid introduction to music, dance, and drama therapy. The program culminated in an internship where I worked alongside and was supervised by a music therapist at Mt. Sinai Hospital’s acute psychiatric unit.

I then pursued my master’s in Art Therapy at Pratt Institute. It was an intense two years of creativity and personal growth as I learned to integrate my identity as an artist with my new role as an art therapy student and then art therapist.

In the two years since graduating I have been working at a number of incredible organizations in the city and focusing my art therapy work with adults struggling with mental health issues, substance abuse, histories of trauma, homelessness, and HIV/AIDS. I am currently working as a consultant art therapist at two organizations, most recently with formerly homeless parents and children. Working as a freelance consultant allows me to piece together many different opportunities, and I truly enjoy having a different schedule and destination each day of the week.

One of my ongoing passions is utilizing social media to help spread the word about art therapy.

I also love to collaborate with other art therapists and those interested in our field. In addition, I am looking forward to being one of six art therapist instructors to participate in an upcoming online workshop called 6 Degrees of Creativity. This workshop—which is open to all, not just art therapists—explores creativity and art-making through a unique social network and community approach.

The Art Therapy Alliance is also doing an amazing job of helping to inspire and strengthen the art therapy community.

In my near future, I hope to become an art therapy supervisor so that I can help to encourage and nurture art therapy students in the way that I was mentored during my internships.

I would eventually love to contribute to art therapy research and writing in the form of articles and perhaps books. In the meantime, I will continue to blog and contribute to the ongoing conversation.

I feel very fortunate to have found a career that combines my passion for art-making with my desire to accompany and support others on their healing paths. There is never a dull day in my work, and I find myself continually amazed and inspired by the depth of my clients’ creativity and openness to the therapeutic process.

For more information about Roizen and her work:
Visit her website: www.sararoizen.com.
Check our her blog: www.ArtTherapySpot.com..
Friend Sara on Facebook: www.facebook.com/ArtTherapySpot
Follow her on Twitter: @ArtTherapySpot

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