I took my first intro to Art Therapy Class and it was like such a great fit and kind of like a calling.
This week (March 13-19) is Creative Arts Therapies Week. To celebrate here is an interview with Board Certified US based art therapist Gretchen Miller about her career to date, specialising particularly in the use of art therapy in trauma informed care for children and young people. You can also find out more about art therapy and creative arts therapies at the Art Therapy Alliance- www.arttherapyalliance.org.
Why did you first decide to become an art therapist?
As a child I was always involved in the arts. I did art classes at school, musically I played the violin, I did a lot of drama and plays. I was always involved in some kind of creative activity but I really enjoyed making visual art. In high school I started to become a lot more interested in psychopathology and mental illness – it really intrigued me. I knew I wanted to do something to help people.
Initially I thought I’d go the psychology route – I started off as an undergraduate psychology major and that was very research focused and I’m very bad at math’s and the statistics class was like ‘ugh, too much’ and it wasn’t as direct service as I wanted… I was fortunate enough that the college I was attending had an undergraduate Art therapy program so I switched my major. My mum had always been encouraging of me to try art therapy. I was a little intimidated by the art aspect, the studio work, but I went to some information sessions and it seemed like it was worth trying it out. Then I took my first intro to Art Therapy Class and it was like such a great fit and kind of like a calling. It really resonated with me. Big time. So, that’s what led me. And having that undergraduate before I did the training to become an art therapist really helped me to know that that was what I wanted to do.
And did you go straight from the undergraduate to the Masters Program?
No I did not, I searched a lot of programs when I was a senior in college and I was kind of all over the map in terms of where I would like to go. I took a year off and tried to really thoughtfully figure out where to study. It worked out that the first job that I got out of college – I couldn’t do art therapy with just my undergraduate degree in art therapy – but I wanted to use my art making in some way to be art as therapy. I ended up working in a residential treatment¹ organisation with youth, all boys, and the agency saw that I had a background in art therapy and was very interested in developing that more.
So I stayed local and studied here in Ohio because I could develop the program that I was already working on, and they were very helpful and supportive in my process as a new professional entering the field. I ended up staying in that particular organization for over 8 years – 1995 to around 2002. It was a good chunk of time of growing and learning.
It began as art as therapy and the program became more clinical, to meet treatment goals and objectives, as I developed in school and became more confident.
So 8 1/2 years in that role, what came next?
I did some residential treatment work with adolescent girls, that was also a great experience. From there I started to really become interested in learning more about trauma, because I felt that was lacking in the education and training I received at graduate school. I started to reflect on how trauma and loss had a really big impact on the lives of a lot of the teens I had worked with. I just wanted to understand that a bit more. I started working with an agency that was dedicated to domestic violence and bereavement with adolescents, and began to undertake training at the National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children (TLC). At the time of my starting my training with TLC, I was working as an art therapist with two agencies: one that was dedicated to domestic violence and the other was a program for grieving children and adolescents. I stayed with that particular domestic violence agency for 10 years and still facilitate art therapy bereavement groups for teens when I am able to. A lot of the work I do now is from that trauma focused lens I learned from TLC.
And is that still a big part of your work now – working with teenagers and groups around trauma and loss?
A big part of my work now is working with teens. Group work is a huge piece of what I do. I love groups. It wasn’t something I started out loving, like back in the beginning. I feel like while I do some individual, its predominantly group based. I also do some group work with adults around homelessness or are survivors of human trafficking, or vulnerable and at risk youth. But primarily have always worked with youth in some kind of capacity.
Which is interesting because some people might be a bit scared of working with adolescents.
Yes my undergraduate self and what I thought I would end up doing – I kind of had a vision of working in hospitals or psychiatric.. or maybe in hospices on death and dying, I thought maybe I would end up doing something on that. It’s interesting that I ended up at that organization for my first job, which was really just to get experience, I never thought I would end up there as long as I was or that I would end up enjoying it as much as I did. You just never know…
I really enjoy being able to offer art making and the creative process to help people. Turning them on to the possibilities that their art can help them feel better.
So you’ve worked at a lot of different agencies, and you still do it, you speak passionately about it, so you must love it. What do you love most about your work?
I really enjoy being able to offer art making and the creative process to help people. Turning them on to the possibilities that their art can help them feel better. Back in early part of my career there was a strong focus on what was wrong with people and diagnosis, but my way of working has definitely shifted to be more strength based and using those strengths to help manage and cope with different emotions, feelings, experiences and trauma reactions. It’s a privilege to be able to help people learn more about that so they can keep on doing that as well…
Groups are definitely challenging with the different people and dynamics but it can be so empowering because they can see they are not alone and not the only one going through what they are going through – they support each other.
In working with people transitioning out of homelessness, just the gratitude and appreciation, and the growth is really inspiring. Taking the art and using it to develop themselves really more is really nice. When people really connect and you see how art therapy can be a safe place for people to really voice their feelings and experiences and thoughts.
You’re working with individuals and groups who’ve experienced trauma, I’m wondering what insights you’ve gained in your work and what kind of ideas you have for change in the bigger structures of society to support people in these situations.
I think about trauma informed care and how a lot of systems or organisations could definitely benefit from seeing services and navigating through the system in a much more trauma friendly way rather than people having to fit into what they already offer. Some adults who are working with multiple providers of community-based services, navigating their way around this system can be hard. Being more flexible and more tailored to the individual would be really beneficial.
I think self care is definitely such an important part of the work we do.
And what about the role of art therapy for the therapist, or of art and self care?
I’m not sure of you know the work of Laura van Dernoot Lipsky? She wrote the book ‘Trauma Stewardship’ – it’s all about self care for professionals who work in trauma. It’s a really good resource, and tips for what to look out for, and her experiences of being burnt out. I think self care is definitely such an important part of the work we do. Hearing everybody’s stories and not just hearing them but seeing them, and balancing that out. That’s why I have my own art making and balancing out what I do as an art therapist with other things I really enjoy doing as well.
Having rituals and things that you do can be helpful – embracing music or smells or visually, sound, nature – whatever works for you in creating that relaxing type space is really helpful. One of the things I’ve suggested in the past is having a comfort care box or bag that you can keep in your car or office space, or wherever you work as an art therapist, and be able to access that when you need it. Chill out and take a moment to decompress. Like I would have gel pens, collage items, glue stick, maybe something sweet like a little bit of chocolate, smells are really important like lavender or a peppermint oil roller that is super relaxing. Lotions, things that are really nurturing and make you feel good in that moment.
And does that inform how you structure your working week or mix of tasks? In terms of number of groups all in a row, or the mix of groups and teaching?
Yes when I started out I did a lot of full time roles, but the trauma work I’ve done part time and contract and I almost feel that doing it that way is a nice fit for me, because it does allow me to do other things. The heaviness and stress that this work can cause, it’s a nice kind of balance to not be doing that 40 hours a week, for your own mental health care. To mix it up with other things.
You mentioned Laura’s work on trauma, are there are other people who have really shaped your approach to the work over the years? I guess probably too many to even remember – but do any stand out?
I’m really a big fan of Bruce Perry and his work with children and youth and that sensory-based approach. What I really admire about Dr Perry’s work is the simplicity, even though it’s based on complex research, he talks about simple concepts like relational enrichment and working in parallel. Working alongside and being present and being relational, and how we don’t always have that in our lives, especially with youth, that can make such a great difference. ‘The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog’ is a great book if people are interested in learning more about his work or trauma in general.
And so looking back over your career is there any advice or reflections you would share with any art therapists just starting out in terms of what has helped you in professional development?
I think building a support network, especially locally with people you can connect to, who are also maybe in the same physical area that you’re working in. In terms of doing contract work, and art therapy is still small and word of mouth with agencies, and people who are looking for art therapy, so it’s great to share information and support each other.
Art therapy can be really isolating because you are often the only art therapist in an agency or on a contract. You don’t always have people around who ‘get’ what you’re doing. Where I live near Cleveland there are a lot of art therapists, so there are a lot of opportunities to go to workshops and events, but not everybody has those opportunities to connect in that way. So connecting online is a great way to do that as well.
And going forward what’s on the cards for you? What’s next?
Well working with adolescents is really humbling, they really keep you on your toes – it’s always changing. You have to have that energy and be on you’re a game all the time. So I hope being able to keep that balance and not become disenchanted by the work. I hope to continue to take care of myself and the balance that provides. I can’t imagine not doing art therapy. But who knows what form it might take down the line. I think that the work I do with graduate students as an Adjunct is always inspiring because it’s the future of art therapy and their energy and ideas are always inspiring as well. I always enjoy doing that in the mix.
I would also really like to continue doing online collaboration around art making – it really energises and inspires me, so I’d like that in the future too.
I think art therapy is core to what I do. It has been great to be able to do art therapy all this time with all the different populations I have got to work with, and I hope that continues.
And lucky last question: when might you come to Australia?
Oh yeah wow, I’d like to come – warmer weather!
I see a lot of energy and activity in Australia in art therapy, it seems like the community is really strong. I’m always really impressed with what I see, the sense of community and what I see going on. few years ago I co-organized a project called ‘Spaces and Places’ inviting art therapists from around the world to share pictures of the spaces that people work in and we got some great submissions from Australia. It’s very inspiring to see where people work.
¹ Children who were wards of the county through abandonment or childhood neglect, or from Foster Care or would go into the Foster care system after their stay at the agencies. They lived in the agency that I worked at.
About the interviewee: Gretchen M. Miller, MA, ATR-BC, ACTP is a Cleveland based Registered Board Certified Art Therapist, TLC Advanced Certified Trauma Practitioner, and Adjunct Faculty for Ursuline College’s Counseling and Art Therapy Program. Her clinical work includes working with at-risk children, adolescents, and adults. Gretchen enjoys finding inspiration, creating positive energy, and discovering transformation by working in mixed media, collage, altered art, art journaling, as well as organizing art exchanges and creative collaborations. Her online art making community, 6 Degrees of Creativity unites concepts of social networking, connecting, collaboration, and creativity into an engaged global community of artists spreading creative goodness. She also serves as Community Organizer for the Art Therapy Alliance, a network dedicated to promoting art therapy, the work of art therapists, and build community through social media. You can learn more about Gretchen’s art, projects, and creative interests on her blog Creativity in Motion.
About the interviewer: Jade Herriman, BSc, MSocSci, DipTAT is a Sydney-based transpersonal art therapist, Barbara Sher coach and facilitator. She works with clients to help bring more creativity into their lives, plan for their professional development, manage big life change and go after their dreams. She works with groups, individuals and online to deliver workshops and help support people work towards their dreams. She is pleased to be presenting a full program of art therapy, creativity and coaching workshops in 2016 including a series of Women’s Wellbeing groups and teaching art for self care at this year’s Art is You Mixed Media Road show in Sydney. She brings a playful, flexible and creative approach to serious issues, and draws on many years of experience working in organisations in project management, policy and research roles to bring practical solutions to her clients.