Over the past several years, I have been in the process of graduate school, working toward my Masters Degree in Art Therapy and Counseling. As of December 2019 I will be completing the program at School of the Art Institute in Chicago. I am proud to say that SAIC’s MAATC program is the best in the country today. It takes an amazing focus on social justice particularly in conjunction with race, ethnicity, and class. The proof is in the professors, many of which are graduates themselves. People return to this program and have done amazing work raising the standards and increasing the sustainability of the process for students. These professors are leaders in the field, founders of vital and vibrant community programs, and authors of considerable note; they are still here and they are still doing the work. The longevity of their advocacy says a lot about the quality of the program and the desire for change they are implementing every single year and every single semester. I’ve had the great privilege of working with them and advocating beside many of them.
It has been a long voyage in the literal sense of moving from the east coast to the midwest. I have moved further west still to the bounty and greenery of Wisconsin, now residing in a small village. The change came about for many reasons. Mostly, it’s been in relationship to focusing on my future and on my family. I took six ‘gap years’ between my graduation from undergrad to the time I applied to graduate school. During that time I learned much about myself including that what I loved most about theatrical design- sets and lighting- was the community voice and art. I can not maintain 80 hour weeks for below poverty pay and sustain my health and wellness while participating in community- all of which is a requirement of theatrical design and technical work. What I love about art is the way as it existed as a language, creating clarity and bridges between people. While I worked as a designer, educator, program assistant, office manager, and facilities manager… what I learned is that I love to tend worlds and create spaces where important work gets done. I love to be a part of change without being a figurehead of change. I’m a fierce advocate and collaborator but I have no designs on hierarchical change practices. It was with this in mind that I decided Art Therapy and Counseling was the ideal career for me.
In the past several years at SAIC I have found that to be true. While academia will never be the place I reside, the work of Art Therapy and Counseling feeds me in ways that go beyond a career. The immense amount of fieldwork I have done (totaling over 1000 hours before I graduate) has taught me that the strain of demanding academic rigors is a temporary state. The work is temporary between myself and participants, but the lessons and impact runs over the course of a lifetime. The clinical work is what I love, and what I’m drawn to. Publication is only as important to me as filling in the gaps of current publication, particularly in regards to disability, gender, sexuality, and public policy. To be a small part of important work is deeply fulfilling. No art therapist and counselor can do any of this alone; we rely on each other’s work, theories, and practices to move the field forward and to be innovative LEADERS in health-care practice.
I have grown up and out during the course of this training, even through a severe accident that had me at serious disadvantage for months. I bare a large a scar from 5″ above my wrist to five inches below my shoulder. I slipped and fell walking in the grass while it was raining, a complete accident with no fault in any way on any person. I twisted my joint completely out of location and broke my humerus into three pieces. I lost all control of my hand and fingers immediately. I was seen to by members of my community, and rushed to urgent care. It was at that facility they determined they could not serve me because they did not have a surgeon or the facilities for my level of injury. My closest friends cared for me and advocated for me while my partner flew out to relieve them. I was held in splint for twenty-four hours before I was operated on, including a two hour ambulance ride between Havre de Grace and Baltimore. They had to completely reconstruct my joint and bones, placing several screws, bolts, and plates I will carry with me for the rest of my life. My partner got me home during the longest and most painful road trip of my life. My wrist and fingers were still inoperable well into three months after my surgery. There was consideration and concern for radial nerve palsy, also known as ‘wrist drop’. Nerve recovery, particularly radial nerve recovery was a complete question mark. My family cared for my every need, above and beyond anything I could have asked for or had the ability to request.
Less than six months later I regained what is medically considered full function, I had radial nerve recover only four months out of surgery, a veritable medical miracle. Seven months after surgery, I have regained most function of my arm and though I still do not have sensation from my radial near in my middle, forefinger, and thumb, I have full control over all of my musculature. I want only for 10 degrees of flexion and the strength I once had. I owe this to the dedication and expertise of the surgeon, the consideration of the head nurse who stepped in to ensure that I was not continually traumatized by the process, my Occupational Therapists who oversaw my care, and to my family who urged me to push my career off the table, provided me with the ability to do so, and helped me focus on regaining my arm. The experience has been the opportunity of a lifetime.
My injury has taught me the importance of trust to a degree I had never learned before. It called into question my own internalized ableism, my own reticence to ask for help, my own desire to do things beyond my limitations, and my own rigidity in planning my life. It has gifted me with greater insights into my identity as a non-binary human. It has taught me the power of community. It has taught me to adapt, be flexible, push myself in ways that are healthy and do not impede further growth. It has taught me to lean on others. It has taught me to believe that I do have the ability to form community around me. I don’t believe that accidents exist to ‘teach us things’. I don’t believe that bad things happen because we are being tested, or because they must, or because they are divined or destined. I do believe in taking the lessons life affords me rather than constricting my lessons to what I want to learn.
I am continuing on with my program, and will be completing it shortly, though not as I originally planned. As such, this website will be growing and changing as well. It will serve as a bridge between my art practice, my social justice praxis, and my art therapy and counseling services.
The image with this post is a picture I took in the woods several years ago when I was first applying to graduate programs. I was drawn to the way the fallen tree became a vibrant home to flora and fauna. I loved the textures and the juxtaposition of life and loss, which resonated deeply in me as I was letting go of who I’d been before and looking toward who I wanted to be. Looking back on this image I see it in a different way now. I find the spiral nature of the twisted trunk reminds me of the spiral nature of self-discovery and of generational cycles of trauma I’ve been working through. I find it reminds me of a piece of art I created during my Cultural Dimensions course, which explored that learning was a spiraling process of delving deeper into oneself while also moving upward and outward. It sometimes feels as if we are in the same place we have been before, and yet we are never in the same place twice chronologically.
A professor, Jayshree, once told us that what’s important will come knocking over and over again. We need only to open the door. If we don’t open the door now, there will be another chance again. Learning and opportunity does not happen once, it comes to us again and again.
These are my thoughts and associations with this image, and one of the ways I work with clients to find reflections of their own experiences and ideas in the world around them. Cell-phone photography is just one medium I work in. I choose this medium often because it is an increasingly accessible way for individuals to narrate their own stories and make their own memories. It is often an opportunity to explore environments of any sort and to depressurize and de-stigmatize therapeutic participation. Narrative therapies can be important, but do not have to revolve around storytelling that requires a continual revisitation of traumatic events, which can be re-traumatizing.
I often review with participants the full extent of their work with me when things come to a close, so we can look back at what has been made or experienced from a different time even if not a different place. I create illustrative directives over the course of groups that last 4-8 weeks, documenting in personalized folders or envelopes all of our time and work together. I write thank you notes or create artworks to signify the end of our time together. I mark time and holding space for each individual in a tangible way, whether or not they miss a session or have the ability or capacity to follow through with schedules or plans. I create response art I share with them, and sincerely appreciate every moment of work they do with me. I cannot work harder than a participant works for themself; I advocate only in ways I have explicit permission to do so. I take their lead and follow their directions as they are the expert of their experience and the arbiter of their life.
I’m happy to offer you this image today, and this insight into my process of grad school, and my process as an art therapist.