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Spotlight on: Art Therapy

A conversation with alumna Karen Chyzhyk-Bleich, LAS ‘15

January 29, 2016

Hi, Karen. When did you first get interested in art therapy?

Ever since I was a child, my mom would find me drawing, coloring, and painting all the time on a level that was very advanced. I still remember the first time I drew a turtle. I was probably about seven years old, going into the first grade. My mom showed my dad the picture, and my dad thought my mom drew it!

As a teenager, I tried applying to an art-focused elementary school, but I had no prior professional art training. At the exam, they gave me a piece of clay and asked me to shape it into a cube, but I couldn't do it the proper way—there was a proper way. So I didn't get accepted, and I realized I needed more training. That’s when I knew I wanted to study art in college.

How did you shape your art therapy major at LAS?

When I first came to Touro, it was very challenging. I was still developing English as my second language, and Dean Horowitz and Renee Blinder helped guide Russian students like me by selecting the right courses that would help in perfecting our English. The most exciting courses to me were those in psychology and visual arts, like Art Therapy I with Professor Atara Grenadir and Art Therapy with Children and Adolescents with Professor Daniel Summer. Professor Atara Grenadir was one of my favorite professors, and she was the one who introduced me to art therapy. It was in those classes where I discovered that therapeutic art results in both a final piece, called the “product,” and a healing path for the psyche, which is called the “process.” I was amazed at how producing art not only allows for emotional expression, but also has such a powerful impact on an individual's psychological health.

You’re currently enrolled in Hofstra University’s Creative Arts Therapy program. Can you share with us some of the things you’ve learnt so far?

I love what they’ve been teaching us about energy. When you're a therapist, in order to maintain a therapeutic environment, you need to shift between primary and secondary processes. In primary process, the client would be given an art assignment, and he or she would participate in the play without thinking so much. In secondary process, the therapist asks the client to analyze the product, and/or asks them questions that inspire self-reflection.  As a therapist, you need to drift your client from primary to secondary process, back and forth, which is called tertiary process. That's how you keep energy flowing in a room.

Can you give me an example of this?

Sure. Let’s say you come to me as a client, and I ask you why you’re here. When you answer the question, that’s already you engaging in secondary process. Then, in order to keep the energy flow moving, I would ask you to use the puppets on the table to act out a scene (primary process). Then, I’d ask you to analyze your own skit, which is secondary process. It’s the therapist’s job to sense the energy flow…When the communication flow stops or get stiff, that’s when you want to shift, say, from primary to secondary, or vice versa.

It’s interesting to note that puppets serve as a form of art therapy.

Of course. Lots of people mistake art therapy for putting someone in a room and telling them to draw something. We are therapists, and art is just a tool in the therapeutic process. We can ask clients to participate in any art form that might be therapeutic—puppets, art, dance, etc.

Art therapy is often referred to as “breaking the silence.” Can you explain how that’s so?

Sure. The right side of our brains produce creativity, art, music, etc. The left (analytical) side are the centers for science, math, speech, etc. Usually, a trauma blocks those speech facilities in the brain, so many clients aren’t able, or don’t want to, talk about their trauma. That’s why we don’t believe it’s useful to come straight out and ask a client—“Tell me about the trauma you experienced.” Instead, we’d ask them to draw a house. What they draw, and how they draw it, is important. Kids, especially, usually draw x-ray houses, which is very useful, because it allows us to get a peek into the dynamics of the family. This is when the magic happens. You point to the artwork, the product, and say “who’s this person here? Can you tell me about him?” and the kid might say “that’s my father.” And that’s when conversation kicks in. This is when the client starts talking… And that’s how art therapy “breaks the silence”. The right side of the brain, which is free and unblocked, is able to draw, or play out, what the left side of the brain can’t articulate.  

Very fascinating. Has university changed your outlook on your career? How do you imagine yourself in ten years from now?

You know how some people go to grad school and realize, this isn’t for me? Or, it’s less magical than they imagined? That wasn’t what happened. When I first took my classes last semester, I was like, Wow, I know I made the right choice; I know this is for me. All the classes inspire so much passion. Although it’s challenging, it’s a private school, like Touro, so classes are small and the professors are always there for me and everyone else. I’m so grateful that I’m here, and I enjoy the lectures immensely.

In the future, I’m hoping to work in hospitals and clinics with adults who have mental-health issues. It would be an honor for me to help people reconnect with themselves and discover, or even work through, their psychological problems. At the moment, I also lead art and therapy groups with autistic children at Imagine Academy, and I teach fine art at a Bais Yaakov in Boro Park. I look forward to continue my teaching in the future, as a teacher and/or professor of art and art therapy in colleges and universities.