In 1990 I was teaching “art on a cart” to over 700 elementary students in the Jersey City school district. My supervisor told me that the district wanted to start an art therapy program for the students with special needs, I applied for the position. To qualify, I promised to get an ATR within three years. The art therapy credential would be crucial to keeping the job.
I already held a master’s degree in art education but would need 32 credits beyond the master’s to qualify. I interviewed for the position and got the job. It was a huge undertaking for me, in effect, a brand new career at age 52, but with my husband’s enthusiastic support, I applied and was accepted to Pratt Institute for the summer intensive program in art therapy.
Since the state of New Jersey had no designation for the position of art therapist, I was able to begin developing the program while on the job. The district recognized the need for a new intervention; they agreed that having an art teacher gain credentials in art therapy would give me, and the program, standing and validity. As the program developed, I went on to earn my board certification (BC), further strengthening my credentials. I had found my “dream job” … I was meant to be an art therapist.
Attending Pratt Institute was a wonderful, but mind bending experience. The courses did not teach ABOUT art therapy, they put students INTO art therapy directly, so we would have firsthand experience of its power. My first course was taught by master professor, Arthur Robbins. At our first meeting, Art asked us to come back the next day with an “art piece” … no specifications of media or subject. We all came back the next morning with our work. We sat in chairs in a circle, putting our work in front of us on the floor. I had created a simple black ink drawing of a tree with a stone wall. Arthur began going around to each student, “processing” their work, asking them questions, drawing them out, and making observations.
When Art got to me, he was able to tell me, by looking at my artwork, many things about me. This man had never met me until that day, but somehow he knew things about me and my life experience that he could not possibly know otherwise, simply by examining my art piece. In that moment, I became a true believer in the power of art therapy. I had found a new mission in life. I literally dove into my course work with enthusiasm and excitement.
Over the next three years, I attended three four-week summer courses, while during the school year I developed the art therapy program in Jersey City, working with students with special needs in several schools and hospital school programs in the city.
I continued to work in Jersey City until 2007, building and expanding the art therapy program. I presented our pilot program at many art education and art therapy conferences, and the excitement over art therapy in the public schools began to grow. Eventually, the district began to hire more art therapists, who joined me in the program and formed a creative arts therapy team. By the time I retired in 2007, there were 12 art therapists and four music therapists in our Creative Art Therapies Program. Art therapy put Jersey City on the map in the world of art and music therapy.
Although I was not really ready to retire, health problems forced me to retire from the Jersey City Schools in 2007. Naturally, I missed my work, and my students, and I yearned for something to do that would fill that void. One day I visited an assisted living facility and the activity director asked if I would like to volunteer there, I have been volunteering ever since. I work with the seniors in art therapy one day a week; it is the highlight of my week. These wonderful people have given my life meaning in my retirement. Although I no longer “work” for a living, I am still AT work, and will continue to do so until I cannot work anymore.
I look back on my years as an art therapist with contentment and a real feeling of accomplishment. I am proud of being an art therapist. Becoming an art therapist, I believe, was my destiny in life, because it fulfilled my deepest need to be able to change the world, one precious person at a time. Although I enjoyed my years as an art teacher, I always cared more about the happiness that I brought to my students when they made artwork than I did about the finished product. I LOVED THE PROCESS. I never felt happier than when I was able to address the whole person through creative expression.
This article was originally published in the ATCB Review Spring 2018, Volume 25, Issue 1
Ali Karamanol, ATR-BC Retired