Lisa Furman and Ragaa Mazen at Albertus Magnus College

Art Work

Are you a colored pencils kind of person? Maybe paint is more your thing, or clay, something that requires you to get your hands dirty.

Figuring out how their clients react to different materials is just one of the tasks of an art therapist, says Lisa Furman, director of the Master of Arts in Art Therapy and Counseling Program at Albertus Magnus College, the only graduate-level art therapy program in Connecticut. The program, founded in 1997, has been celebrating its 20th anniversary this academic year.

Furman describes art therapy as a combination of art and psychology. “It’s really similar to traditional verbal therapy,” she explains, “but along with using words to talk about things that might be bothering you or concerning you, you also use artwork.” An art therapist will work with a client to “support enhance” their creation of art and then “help that person reflect back” their experience, Furman says. “We’re not focused on the product so much as the process.”

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For an illustration of those principles at work, third-year students Stephanie Fazekas and Nicole Morra showed me to a small gallery on campus where alumni and faculty of the program had exhibited their own work as part of the anniversary celebration. Like their clients, the art therapists used a range of materials and explored a spectrum of emotions. A serene ink print in red and gray was mounted near a whimsical series of small painted canvases decorated with photographs, feathers, baubles and shells. A turbulent painting of blue skeletal forms incorporated lengths of string. A collection of small brown figures made of paper was arranged on a square pedestal and accompanied by a sign: Feel Free To Touch & Move Around.

Though many of the pieces were beautiful or striking, their visual appeal was almost beside the point. “The wonderful thing about art therapy is it doesn’t have to be technically correct,” Fazekas explained. “It’s all about self-expression and really exploring what’s underneath the surface through the artwork.”

Art therapy is a relatively new field of study, now in its “early adolescence,” Furman says. In the 1950s, when the founder of Albertus Magnus’s program, Ragaa Mazen, was a student in Egypt, there was no such thing as “art therapy.” Instead, Mazen combined studies in both psychology and sculpture, until the workload of following two parallel academic paths became too heavy. She focused on psychology, but she never forgot her love of art. After winning a fellowship to study at Yale in 1961, Mazen completed her master’s and doctoral work in psychology here and launched into a long teaching career at Southern Connecticut State University and Albertus Magnus.

“Because art therapy is such a young discipline, I wanted to do something different,” Mazen says. In addition to becoming art therapists, she wanted students to become licensed professional counselors, a combined course of study that was “absolutely unknown in 1997.” This makes Albertus graduates more well-rounded, Mazen says. No matter what job they’re hired for, “they use all their skills.”

In a speech at the 20th anniversary celebration, Furman hailed Mazen for her extraordinary enthusiasm for the program she created and nurtured. “She would be sitting at lunch in a random restaurant,” Furman recounted, “and end up somehow getting the waiter to apply to the program.” Today 42 “full-timeish” students are enrolled, Furman says. The class schedule of mostly late afternoons and evenings helps returning students earn their degree.

Soon Fazekas and Morra and a dozen of their classmates will be heading out into the profession that Mazen helped to establish. They’ll work with school children, psychiatric patients, cancer patients, veterans, populations exposed to trauma, employees in on-the-job training courses and more. They’ll work with the young and the old, in groups and one-on-one. They’ll work with “normative” populations, too, because everyone can use a little art in their lives. “The art process itself, for most people, is inherently relaxing,” Furman says.

The art materials you want to work with might tell an art therapist something more specific about you. “Pencils and markers, which are dryer materials, kind of lend themselves more to narrative and more cognitive or intellectual sorts of expressions,” Furman explains, “whereas clay, which is very tactile—you touch it a lot, you manipulate it a lot, you use your body a lot more with that. That appeals more to people who are very, kind of, motoric and kinesthetic. Paint is very fluid and blends… and also relates a lot to emotions and feelings, so people that often are very affective and sensitive will be more drawn to paint.” Even digital art, one of Furman’s areas of expertise, can be explored in art therapy.

Regardless of whether you pick up a paintbrush or sit down at a keyboard, art therapy understands that art is powerful, and sometimes a picture really can be worth a thousand words.

Albertus Magnus Art Therapy and Counseling Program
Albertus Magnus College – 700 Prospect St, New Haven (map)
Information session: May 2, 5:30pm
(203) 773-6998

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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