SVA alumnus Brian Tepper (BFA 1992 Fine Arts) was recently appointed clinical director of the not-for-profit Art Therapy Outreach Center, New York City’s first and only organization dedicated to providing free art therapy. Founded in 2010 at SVA, where it is still housed, ATOC partners with hospitals, shelters and other nonprofit organizations to serve a growing clientele, including veterans dealing with re-entry to civilian life, post-traumatic stress, military sexual trauma, substance abuse and/or homelessness. (Female veterans make up the fastest growing segment of the nation’s homeless.) Tepper has been a practicing art therapist since 1997, holding positions at the Bellevue Hospital adolescent psychiatric unit, Jersey City Public Schools and the MPS Art Therapy program at SVA, where he is a faculty supervisor. Tepper also piloted ATOC’s first art therapy group for male veterans.
How does art therapy help people?
Going through trauma is an intense experience. Sometimes it’s so intense that it’s hard to put into words. But as artists and most people know, the image is a much more powerful way of expressing oneself. If you allow that trauma to be expressed through the creative process and in the image, you’re going to feel better in the end. When you’re able to actually then look at that image, process it, and understand it in a different way, one can move past the trauma while never leaving it and in turn improve their life.
Who are your clients?
We have a great partner at the Veterans Affairs Hospital on 23rd Street, and several partners are different kinds of community agencies that provide after-school programming for students, as well as various health care services and other therapeutic services. Over the summer we got a call to do an emergency group for children at a public housing project in West Harlem that was raided by police officers. We just started a group up in New York Presbyterian working with burn victims, and we have groups at Bellevue where we’re working with 9/11 victims.
How is ATOC connected to SVA?
We have a very close relationship with SVA. They house us and provide administrative and in-kind support. All our therapists, except for one, are SVA grads. [SVA President] David Rhodes and [MPS Art Therapy Chair] Debi Farber are both on our board.
Four years on, what does ATOC need most?
Funding. We’re doing a lot with little, but we need more people to understand what art therapy is and to support it as art therapy. You hear “art therapy” in TV shows these days, and after 9/11, there was a lot of art therapy going on here. It’s much better known than it used to be, but we still have to educate.
What’s your role on the faculty at SVA?
As a faculty supervisor it’s quite different than, say, a traditional classroom setting. It’s really a place for all students [who have internships off campus] to come together and to share their experiences. I have all my students do art in the beginning of class. We do this thing called a single-canvas process painting. They work on one canvas for 30 minutes at a time for the entire year. During the class we also talk, and we have presentations. At the end of the year they have a final project where they have to actually go back and look at the course of the year. It’s amazing how the changes in the painting coincide with the changes in themselves and the changes in their population.
You studied painting at SVA. How did you come to art therapy?
In my sophomore year, I didn’t know anything about art therapy myself. I met someone who showed me the images of the work he was doing with these psychotic patients. I thought, this is really fascinating, and this is something I’d like to learn about. I knew nothing about mental illness. So I interviewed with [MPS Art Therapy Chair] Debi Farber for the certificate program SVA had at that time and got in.
Why did you want this job?
When I was working in the [Jersey City] school system, I went in to push the field, make it more known. Unfortunately the program was cut, so we didn’t get to finish everything that we wanted to do. ATOC is a place where I can actually get art therapy more out into the world. We’re working with so many different populations, and we have such great therapists—it’s a fantastic opportunity.
Images from top down: “Reclining Woman” by JS; artwork produced as a group piece by male veterans, photo Robert Bruschini Images, LLC; “Inviting Orange Glow” by ST; all courtesy of ATOC.