By Anna Lumsden
“Art therapy in Australia now, is only at the point New York was 20 years ago!”
For many years I have had particular interest in humanities use of symbolic communication through art. The field of art therapy uses art practices as a tool to understand internal confusions. The United States has well-established philosophies and practice, with superior training and many more opportunities for employment. Art Therapy evolved from the pursuits of psychologists Margaret Naumberg and Edith Kramer in the US. Naumberg “was forever pointing out that art therapy, with its use of symbolic language and imagery, was often a more effective road to the unconscious than the usual verbal approach of psychoanalysis and dynamic psychotherapy” (Frank, T. 1983.) Unfortunately Australia does not have adequate education and practices in the field.
I sat down with Leonie Reisberg, “probably Australia’s most qualified Art Therapist” (Reisberg, 2011. Personal communication) to discuss the field. Reisberg has with 25 years experience, practicing for a significant period in Brooklyn, New York before returning to Australia. Reisberg enlightened me to her philosophies and experiences in the different countries.
Reisberg completed a bachelor if Fine Arts in Photography from RMIT, Melbourne. Reisberg’s work is held in collection at the Art Gallery of South Australia, The Polaroid collection in Amsterdam, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Visual Arts Board. After success as a visual artist “working solidly in the industry producing works, creating shows,” the grind of the solo path “lead to an eventual desire to give back at 28 years old.”
Some 25 years ago, Reisberg “met Marja Boddeus teaching the only art therapy course in Australia… at COFA. I asked if I could sit in on the course and she said ‘Yes’ cause people let you do that sort of thing 25 years ago. (Laughs) Boddeus was in fact a school psychologist at Summer Hill Primary School. Boddeus and Reisberg ‘hit it off …and she said do you want to come along and be my assistant so then for a year we tried out all these different things, it was very experimental, but at the end of the year I realised I needed a proper education, so I thought, I have to go back to America… so I went to New York.”
Resiberg applied to the Pratt Institute and New York University. She was accepted at both but chose the Pratt Institute because it “gave the best feeling. The education was very focused. The people who were teaching had been working in the field for 30 – 40 years experience, so, I was being taught by really experienced people. I was lucky to have that type of education.”
“I just had such a nice feeling from the guy who ran it. He was in his 60’s and very warm and he basically said, ‘Yes, yes you can do what ever you want’, which are my favourite words. So I signed up.”
Reisberg mentioned that NYU “just didn’t feel right. NYU was less hands on, analytical and in a university, where as the Pratt was more hands on and involved and in and taught in an art school.”
According to Reisberg, Pratt Institute students were encouraged to pursue their own therapy. As a result Reisberg was in analysis 3 times a week for 4 years. This facilitated the opportunity for personal growth and educational development, which Leonie believes contributes to a therapist’s success.
Reisberg believes the most effective way of learning is through experiential process, “without experience its just in your head.” It’s not enforced.
We digressed about the therapy scene in New York, which leads me to wonder if the art therapy scene is so much more advanced there because New Yorkers honestly believe that everybody needs to be in therapy?!
The role of a therapist is not to tell you what to do, “that’s a bad therapist.” Instead the therapist is there “to help you come to your own realisations through your own process. My way is through using art.”
“If something is happening. If you don’t have a priest, a rabbi, a confidante, if that’s not what you have in your life to access, you can go and see someone professionally who can help you navigate that path.” Reisberg uses art, as pictures go beyond words and clients are able to use art to “totally pictorially say it how it is.”
Art therapy is not about process or product, one or the other, independent of each other. Art therapy is not about producing a fine art product. An art therapist is not an art teacher. The therapist is not interested in improving a person’s art. The process of creation is what is important to art therapy. The creative process “expressed how I felt about…”
During therapy sessions a client is asked to look at their creations. “They created it. I didn’t create it. They created it so they have to own it.” Through therapist guided analysis the client is able to communicate that “something getting in their way… what they can’t see immediately, what they don’t want to acknowledge.”
Reisberg works primarily with children, 95% of her clients are children. The other 5% are “your normal neurotics, women like us”. She acknowledges the particular benefit of art therapy with children as if “most children don’t want to talk about something they simply won’t, but art goes beyond that. It doesn’t lie. And it’s fun!”
As a successful therapist Reisberg recognises that in regard to well being the mind cannot be separated from the body. “As Freud said: if you don’t have a body, you’re a nobody.”
Reisberg provides an example of the intertwined nature of mind and body describing the challenges experienced by children on the ADHA and Autism spectrum. These children often require more than one modality of therapy, struggling with physical difficulties.
“If a kid can’t be understood how can they communicate? How can they be understood? How can they integrate?”
“If a kid slumps in a chair, with no physical integrity, a clumsy child, they won’t be thanked and their feelings of being an outsider will be enforced.”
Art therapy works on the inside while other therapies, like Occupational Therapy (OT) works on the outside, with body boundaries. Complimenting art therapy with OT will assist a child to integrate with society and importantly their peers.
Another group that has benefited from Reisberg’s qualification were children in hospital. For 15 years, in 2 different hospitals in NY, Leonie ran an art therapy program for the paediatric unit, “Programs for Bedside kids. Aids kids. Crack kids. Chronic illness, like Crones disease, asthma, diabetes, as well as the Acute kids who fell out of tress and broke their legs and were in traction for 6 weeks.”
Resiberg conducted group and bedside programs, wheeling her supplies around to conduct session providing some respite from their confinement. The usual activities included art making sessions and sand tray play. However, the capacity of each of the children was varied and therefore “to be a good art therapist one needs to be extremely flexible. For example, if the child were incapacitated” – their arms and legs bound or broken or riddled with iv’s – the plan for the session would have to be modified. Therefore the therapist would approach the session asking the child to ‘be the brains and I’ll draw. I’m going to ask you a lot of questions and you have to tell me exactly what you want you want me to do for you. The kids would respond with huge grins, they were so happy. They were given an opportunity to have some control of their world when they usually feel they have no control. The kids would ask me to draw their family or dog because they missed them.’
In response to the events of 9/11 in the US, art therapy programs were introduced to assist with rehabilitation. At the time of the attacks Reisberg was residing and practicing in Brooklyn NY. Resiberg and a friend of hers, who is a music therapist, ran a 6-week program on a completely voluntary basis, for the children of the fire fighters in the neighborhood. Some of the children had completely shut down, all were extremely emotionally distressed, however through the program the children were able to express artistically and musically their inner state. Importantly the group programs showed the children “they had each other and in a group they could share their grief and loss.”
With more than 10 years lecturing experience in NY – Pratt Institute, Long Island University and College of New Rochelle – and more recently at La Trobe in Melbourne Australia, in addition to decades of private practice, Reisberg is an ideal professional to provide advice for pursuing a career in the. If location is of little consequence Reisberg’s first recommendation is the Pratt. “The US has well established intern programs. Fabulous mentoring and supervisions to provide enriched, well rounded and guided education for practice.”
The professional horizon of a budding art therapist does not look good. Reisberg stresses there are simply no jobs in Australia and this is a big problem. Resiberg has observed that students sign up and graduate with “No full time employment opportunities. That’s a problem to go into a field where you come out, and even though you might have loved your education, there aren’t enough employment opportunities.”
In spite of doing a lot of student supervision she has only known 2 people to secure paid employment. Reisberg does admit that she is not completely patched into the art therapy scene in Australia. Perhaps it’s not all that bad…
Perhaps, but Reisberg believes in light of the current economic climate in the US, “no doubt jobs are being cut left right and centre there are still plenty more jobs in US than Australia.” However, for some reason Australian institutes churn out 10 – 15 graduates per year in spite of little to no prospect of employment.
“There is no vigorous momentum here in Australia. There’s not enough momentum, a lack of cohesion to provide a firm direction. There’s never been a core that’s been organised in of itself with a leader that’s recognised.”
If the luxury of studying abroad is not an option Leonie believes La Trobe University, Melbourne offers the best tertiary art therapy program in Australia.
After speaking with Reisberg the field of art therapy maintained its potential, but the state of art therapy in Australia is disheartening. Art therapy in Australia is a long way behind the United States. Leonie believes that Australia “is only at the point NY was 20 years ago!” I wonder if Australia is only 20 years behind… Australia has a lot of catching up to do. The quality of available education is lagging and employment opportunities are nominal.
Ideally Australia will recognize the benefits of art therapy without adopting the New York philosophy that “everybody needs to be in therapy.”
Art Therapy provides the opportunity to make sense of internal conflicts experienced by the creator. Through the process of creating and consequent therapist guided reflection, artistic creations can provide insight and clarity for the creator.
The benefits of art therapy, in conjunction with Australian publications that detail the benefits of creativity on overall well-being, in addition to creativity stimulating intellectual development, makes an undeniable argument for art therapy.
There are opportunities to incorporated art therapy into public programs in hospitals, clinics, community centres, schools and drug and alcohol facilities to name a few. Each and every one of these demographics has the potential to gain a lot from art therapy programs. However, until educational facilities and employment opportunities are at a more than satisfactory standard in Australia, the true benefit of art therapy may be missed down under.
My parting words to Reisberg remain optimistic “…Perhaps in 20 years time, when you’re relying on your motorised Zimmer frame with Pegasus deign – I will be able to call you the matriarch, the grandmother, of Australian art therapy.”