We continue our series of conversations with a look at art therapy in our NYC therapy practice. Rather than a collective conversation like several of our previous posts, this conversation focuses on Heather Mayone Kiely who has expanded the practice with her experience and passion as both an art therapist and artist.
Matt: We met close to five years ago when I was looking to expand our NYC therapy practice. I was so impressed with you that it wasn’t until much later that I realized I didn’t know what to do with you as an art therapist. It’s remarkable to look at how much has changed in our relationship, how much I’ve learned about art therapy and how much of an impact you’ve made on our patients.
At one point, you told me that practicing therapy without art would feel like operating in the world without one of your arms–not impossible but awfully constrained.
What do you think we’ve learned about art therapy and its role in our work?
Heather: We’ve learned and are continuing to learn a lot about art therapy. It’s been an interesting and growthful experience working with an array of patients. They range from folks who do not consider themselves creative and who want to primarily talk during sessions to people who know what art therapy is and want to utilize both talking and art in sessions. There have been some amazing opportunities to help people in the former category discover their creative side and learn what a powerful, healing force it can be. But even if I never make artwork with a patient, being a creative person and an artist myself always feels present.
Our therapy practice–and New York City in general–is an amazing magnet for interesting, smart creative people. Another exciting part of my work that I could not have predicted when we first started is what I like to think of as “creative therapy”–therapy for people who are feeling stuck or are experiencing a block in their art, writing, music or filmmaking. We do this through talking and art-making, but sometimes there is an opportunity for them to bring in their own work. We can also come up with “creative homework” assignments to help them resolve whatever is getting them stuck in their work.
It makes me curious, how has it been for you to have an art therapist in the practice? How has it been different than you initially imagined?
Matt: Your question is an interesting one. I get very nervous about tools. When it comes to literal tools (like tools that one might use on a home improvement project), there’s a temptation to substitute a cool tool for craft and skill. It’s much easier to buy a fancy sander attachment for a 3-horsepower shop-vac than it is to master a good skim coat. I’ve long been concerned about that in therapy. I get nervous about the tendency in therapy to put the method first and the co-creative process second. In most of my experience, it’s usually with a particular technique or brand of therapy.
We’ve all been in a class in graduate school, for example, where there’s a sort of matching game: What therapeutic technique is right for which category of person or dysfunction. It’s a ridiculous activity. For example, therapists learn CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy, an approach that focus on coaching a therapy patient to restructure thoughts and behaviors) in school or at a therapy training-institute and then they “use CBT” in their practice to “treat anxiety disorders“. I don’t have a problem with CBT but it seems that talking about it this way (and I believe that how we talk about it very much translates to what actually happens in the therapy office) puts the method first and the patient, the therapist and the relationship (and the creative process of discovering how all of those tools can be put to use) second.
This is why I’ve always been nervous about art therapy. I don’t have a problem with art at all. Art is wonderful and it’s not hard to imagine it having a wonderful place in healing and growth. So what’s changed? In a word, you. It changed quickly, in fact. My fears were not realized. And if I’m being honest, I suspect that your training as both an artist and an art therapist has something to do with that. You approach your work and your time with patients as an artist and creative person. Painters covet good paints, brushes and canvases, but the sin qua non of an artist is discovering something beautiful that gets expressed in whatever medium is available or preferred. I’ve never known you to substitute art (as a tool) for the creative process.
What’s taken more time to develop is my increasingly deepening admiration of how you use art in therapy. It is skillful and clever. It is, at times, wonderfully over-the-top and, at other times, understated.
Has your use of art as a creative offering rather than a method changed? Or have I simply just caught on?
Heather: Oh gosh. Likely both. I think you know my work and me better, but I also think I’ve improved in regards to knowing when and how to use art with my therapy patients.
Something I was very concerned about initially when working with patients who did not see themselves as creative was how and when to introduce art as something on the menu. There were times in a therapy session where I would have a sudden burst of inspiration and I would share an idea. Yet if the patient and I had never made artwork before, there would likely be discomfort, questions and a good amount of talking needed before we transitioned into art-making. This process–though necessary–could sometimes feel inorganic. It could move us away from the initial moment and source of inspiration.
I learned that in these moments, I need to sit on my inspiration to stay present with my patient. However, there are always opportunities in therapy to name that inspiration later on. I also try to establish initially when we begin work that I am an art therapist and explain what that means.
At first, I was too fearful of being pushy. I was concerned that someone might make art just to please me and would not be open about their discomfort. However as I have grown as a therapist, I have become more confident about two things: First, I build relationships with people where they know they can speak up. Secondly, if someone did do something just to please me, this is a dynamic we would eventually be able to name and reflect on.
Matt: There’s a lot to be said for inspiring someone to add art to the work solely based on the relationship you’ve built. I think that’s true for so many things we do as therapists. An example that comes to mind is someone who is not initially open to talking about their marriage, sharing a particular secret, or talking about sex. Over time–as you respect that limit–they come to trust and be curious about you.
One of the fascinating things for me about your work is that art and art materials are on display and always changing in your office. The makers’ identities are obscured, of course, but each week there are these tempting little displays of what you’ve created with other patients. And as an artist and art therapist yourself, I imagine people want to know more.
I think about the extra chairs in my therapy office that I use primarily for group therapy. Often people ask or I’ll mention I have a weekly therapy group. Patients whom I’m certain would NEVER think about joining a group start to mention that maybe they’d be interested. Of course that has a lot to do with me–the idea of the therapy group goes from an abstraction to something they could imagine doing with me. That’s part of what’s so important to me about leading with the relationship over method. Whatever we do in therapy–whatever activity or modality of treatment, we’ll be doing it together.
Am I overstating the impact of the art and materials on display? What is your experience with tempting people, so to speak?
Heather: I don’t think you are overstating the impact at all. The two most common reactions that I get are super interesting to me. First, people are incredibly complimentary of the art and the artists’ work. It is such a testament to the art-makers that come through the space–both to their talent and how much they are giving me by allowing me to display it.
The second most common reaction is “Wow, that’s so good. I could never do that!” I find that the art materials or artworks can be intimidating to folks who feel self-conscious about their skill level. It might even put them off from engaging in art-making. I try to use this as an opportunity to show them that art-making can look like anything and a lot of these materials or projects are accessible to them.
Matt: It seems meaningful that we are so much on the same page–my experiences match yours in regards to how you’ve grown and what art looks like in your practice. When I talk to prospective patients who are thinking through who in our practice might be a good fit, I often say that as a collection of therapists we share a good deal of values yet we all have differences in our training and life experiences. We’re different people. What I like about our practice–and talking about your work in art therapy brings this into focus–is how we all create emotional help differently, yet we are all helpful in ways that resonate with one another.