Since 2010, SVA has housed the Art Therapy Outreach Center (ATOC), New York City’s first organization dedicated to providing art therapy to underserved trauma survivors, especially youth and adolescents from low-income families and homeless veterans. ATOC grew out of a program in the MPS Art Therapy Department and, currently, all of its therapists are alumni or faculty in the art therapy program.
As ATOC prepares to celebrate its second full year of operations, SVA Close Up caught up with Lisa Furman, MA, ATR-BC, LCAT, LPC, clinical director at ATOC since 2012 and a faculty member in the MPS Art Therapy Department since 2003. She is the author of Ethics in Art Therapy: Challenging Topics for a Complex Modality (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2013).
Why did you want this job?
LF: I have experience in starting clinical programs, and really like it. I’m a very hands-on art therapist. And I really loved the connection with the MPS Art Therapy Department, I have a good relationship with the students.
How did you go into art therapy?
LF: I graduated with a degree in painting and came to New York to find my way as a fine artist. I started giving art lessons to a little girl who lived in a penthouse apartment on Park Avenue, and her parents were going through a horrific divorce. I started to see how she, very naturally, used art as an escape and as a way to process things. So I did a little research, got my masters degree in art therapy and said, “This is it. This combines everything that I love: my love of art, my own personal understanding of the healing qualities of art, psychology and connecting with people.”
ATOC has over 20 active groups, partnering with more than a dozen organizations in the city, including Bellevue Hospital, the Children’s Aid Society and Graham Windham. Who calls on your services?
LF: It’s a wide range. We just got a call from the Legal Aid Society from a woman who was representing two children that had a long history of sexual abuse, and she read on our website that we provide program services for that. We get calls from parents who say, “I have a kid who’s struggling.” If we don’t have a community group, we have to refer them to the programs that we’re servicing.
LF: I think our programming reflects it. At-risk youth, because there are so many kids that are living with trauma every day, just trying to survive in an urban setting. And veterans. I think that’s a societal sort of block, in that no one wants to believe that these people experienced the things that they did, because then that would mean we’d have to really look at war and have to really look at what we’re doing.
What are some of the ways in which people are helped?
LF: When you bring together people in a group that have experienced something that has a lot of shame or a lot of guilt around it, to suddenly be in a group with others and simply create your art and have others understand it, there’s this connection that’s very powerful. There’s something cathartic in just being together. We see that a lot with the veterans groups and sexual abuse survivors. Also, when we work with a client for a long period of time they begin to see their artwork in a different way, not just, “I made this. This is something that I did.” But also, “This says something about me. And so if my artwork changes in a given period of time that must mean there’s a change going on inside of me.” And they begin to be able to identify it.
What is the importance of art therapy to trauma survivors like veterans? What benefit does it offer that other forms of therapy can’t?
LF: Recent research is telling us more and more about the way trauma is processed in the brain. It’s often processed in an area that’s not related to our language centers. So traditional verbal therapies, which rely heavily on expressive language, often can’t tap into some of those non-language-based expressions. But art therapy, like a lot of other creative arts therapies, does. Also, with art therapy you always have this chronicle—you can say, “Let’s look at this sequence, this progression of artwork, and let’s look at how the artwork has changed, which is in essence a projection of how the client has changed.” That’s not always possible through verbal and other creative arts therapy forms. But in art, it is.
I’m guessing a lot of people may be apprehensive about art therapy because they don’t consider themselves artists.
LF: It doesn’t really matter if you have talent or not. It doesn’t really matter that much to us as therapists what the product looks like. What’s more important is how the person got there. In order for someone to plan and execute a piece of art requires some very high level psychomotor and neurological functions, things that are actually really applicable in your day-to-day life: planning and judgment, high tolerance for chaos and an ability to anticipate consequences, sequencing of directions. All of these are things that we use in our day-to-day lives.
So for children or for adults that have experienced trauma or chaos, or are having trouble functioning, to go through this process and use these skills and enhance them in a setting that’s safe and comfortable and nonjudgmental, these are all skills that then can be transferred to daily living outside of the session.
Are we now as a society diagnosing trauma more often, or is there more trauma in the world?
LF: I don’t think there’s more of it. I just think we’re looking at it through a different lens, and I think that we’re recognizing more now the effect of trauma intergenerationally. Different from say, even 30 or 40 years ago, when trauma happened and you didn’t talk about it, we’ve found that if we do talk about it and process it and find a way to express it, then the legacy of trauma stops, or it’s greatly reduced. We know this for a fact, say, with survivors of sexual abuse, and in particular incest survivors.
Why do you think trauma isn’t better understood?
LF: Well, I think it’s self-protective. Humans are hard-wired to survive, especially children. We have defenses in place to keep us from being overloaded by trauma. So society inherently distances itself.
The number of program partners has nearly doubled since you arrived. What are some of your goals for ATOC, clinically?
LF: We want to be seen as the most well-established resource for providing free art therapy services in the city and in the neighboring areas. We want to have a nice diversity of client populations. The common theme with them all is that there’s some level of trauma. So the goal is not just expanding in quantity, but in the types and the diversity of trauma that we see.
Image: Painting by a female veteran in an art therapy group at ATOC, which describes her fears about encountering landmines while on active duty. Published with permission, courtesy ATOC.