Department Dossier: Deborah Farber

March 5, 2010

The third in a series of one-on-one conversations with SVA’s department chairs.

Deborah Farber chairs the MPS Art Therapy Department, a two-year program that combines clinical experience with training in studio art and contemporary theories of psychological development and creativity. In addition to an annual conference and public lectures, the department hosts an annual exhibition highlighting students’ internships. Farber talked to the Briefs as the department was about to open “Counterbalance,” which is on view through March 20.

Tell me about the exhibition.
It’s called “Counterbalance” because the premise of the exhibition is how the therapist responds to the client’s needs by providing the resources and creative environment so that the client can find his or her own curative path. The relationship is very fluid, and it’s always changing based on the needs of the client. The show supports the notion of humanistic art therapy, that both the therapist and the client learn from each other and grow as a result of the relationship.

Your students are artists who have decided to pursue another avenue of creative expression. How does that come into play?
Being an artist, you understand innately that the creative process is healing, and you’ve developed a kind of vocabulary, a personal hieroglyphics. When you experience something that’s beyond words, and you can deal with it through art, there’s something cathartic about that. After you put it down on paper it doesn’t feel the same as before, because you understand it in your own personal artistic language. So students are learning about the creative process and how to harness it in other people. And they’re learning patience. They might understand where a client is at, because they have the diagnosis, but they might have to wait for clients to tell the story of what happened to them—either through art, or through words, or both. They have to know how to support and not judge it.

How has the field changed since you started the program?
There’s a lot of focus now on neuroscience and how trauma is processed, and it turns out that trauma memories are stored in the right cerebral hemisphere, in a part of the brain that is nonverbal, so nonverbal methods such as art therapy are an excellent way to access and process trauma. We’ve had lecturers like Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk, a leader in neuroscience, and we have a physician on the faculty, whose specialty is addiction and neuropsychiatry, who teaches the physiology of addiction. So students come away with an understanding of the brain that art therapists who were trained 10 years ago did not.

You not only chair the department and teach, you also practice art therapy.
I worked for the past year with women soldiers in transition. They were taken out of the field because of physical injuries, or psychological injuries, or both. I met women who, in Iraq, for example, went out with a partner to search for weapons, and then a bomb hits their vehicle, and the person they were talking to five minutes ago is dead. So they suffered multiple traumas. They weren’t sure if they were going back to war. But through art therapy they got to examine different sides of themselves, different masks they would wear in combat and in other aspects of their personal and professional lives.

Image: Katherine Hinson, untitled, 2010, mixed media; from “Counterbalance”

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