INTERVIEW WITH DR. PENELOPE ORR
As simply as you can for the wider audience out there who do not have knowledge of arts therapy, please explain what it is and what it means to you.
As an art therapist from the USA, I tend to lean towards the official American Art Therapy Association definition of art therapy. I have re-written it in simpler language.
Art therapy is a mental health and human services profession that improves the lives of individuals, families, and communities through art-making, creative process, applied mental health theory, and human experience within a therapeutic relationship.
Art therapists use a creative process to support an individual’s personal and relational goals as well as community concerns. Art therapy is used to improve cognitive functions, sensorimotor functions, self-esteem, self-awareness, emotional resilience, insight, social skills, and reduce and resolve conflicts and distress. It is also a social action and advocacy tool that can be used to advance societal and ecological change.
As an art therapist I believe that the creative process is healing and brings balance into our lives.
How did you first discover arts therapy as a practice?
My journey to becoming an artist was a little convoluted. I came from a family that was creative but did not focus on the arts. I also went to a private middle and high school that did not offer visual arts but did offer creative writing. So, I used creative writing during my high school years to help me through my parent’s divorce and some personal trauma. It wasn’t until university where I took an art studio course for fun that I found my home. I always loved and still love creative writing but felt that words were too constrictive a tool to express what I was feeling. I started using creative means for my own mental health as a teenager and transferred that practice to the visual arts as a young adult.
When did you first realise that you wanted to be an arts therapist? Was being an arts therapist your first career choice?
Back in 1989, I was just finishing my undergraduate degree in art and was looking to use it in an intellectually stimulating way and to give back, but not as an art teacher. I was looking at graduate programs in art education when I stumbled across art therapy in the USA graduate programs catalog. As soon as I read the description I knew this is what I was intended to do. I have been doing art therapy now in many different forms over the last 25 years and still love what I do.
What is the greatest joy, to you, about being an arts therapist?
I love working with people and I love being creative. I think that being able to do both together is a true blessing for me. Many of my clients are very hurt and struggling emotionally and to be able to bring relief and even happiness to them is an amazing thing to witness.
What are some of the challenges you have experienced as an arts therapist?
Of course, the biggest challenge has always been public perception of what art therapy is and what we do. I feel that a good portion of my career has been advocating for the field and educating related fields about what we do and its value.
“I love working with people and I love being creative “
“I feel like art therapy is not a job for me, but rather is a lifestyle."
What are some common misconceptions about art therapy you have come across?
I think that the most common misconception is that art activities are art therapy, that you do not have to have a training in art and psychology to be able to do art therapy successfully. There is a depth of knowledge that comes from working intimately with art materials that cannot be understood by someone who is has not worked much with making art. That depth of knowledge I think is just as important as understanding counseling techniques and practices and really shapes what we do as art therapists. When you meet someone and ask “how are you doing” most people just answer “fine”. If you talk with that person about how they are feeling for an hour, you are able to go deeper into what they mean by “fine”. If you create art about it and allow the client that time to contemplate what they mean by “fine” before talking to you about it you gain an even deeper understanding. Doing an art worksheet provides a very surface understanding of the client and is not, in my opinion, art therapy.
How has being an art therapist affected other aspects of your life?
I make art all the time for myself, to help me process, reflect and grow as a person. I feel like art therapy is not a job for me, but rather is a lifestyle. I used it raising my children, I used it to help me through cancer treatment, I use it when I am just having a bad day or a joyous day. I am a teacher by nature as well and love being able to teach others about art therapy and exponentially expand the effect I can have with art therapy on the world.
How did you find out about The Red Pencil?
In the graduate program that I run at Edinboro University, one of the courses I teach is on international art therapy. I came across The Red Pencil as part of my preparation for developing the course and knew as soon as I read about it, that I wanted to help with The Red Pencil once my children were old enough that I could travel freely. I kept in touch and watched what The Red Pencil was doing for about four years, before going on this first mission to Cambodia.
Can you share with us more about the greatest moment or most unforgettable experience you have had thus far working with The Red Pencil?
With The Red Pencil, I had the privilege to go to Cambodia and work with Hagar Cambodia. Just the experience of learning about another culture and working collaboratively with the counsellors to bring art therapy to children who are either at risk for trafficking or who have been trafficked was difficult and simultaneously amazing. Seeing the progression and changes in the counsellors through learning about art therapy, bringing relief to the staff through self-care, and working with the children brought me simultaneous joy and sadness. I love being able to share creative ways to help with trauma and, at the same time, I am so sad that the help is needed.
When in Cambodia, we worked with the counsellors on how to integrate trauma informed art therapy into their trauma training and work with the children. When doing international work like this, we do not want to just go in make art with the children for a week and leave. This has no lasting effect. The Red Pencil Train-the-Trainer model allowed us to make a long-lasting impact through art therapy. In this model, we taught about art therapy, trauma informed art therapy and had the counsellors participate in making art themselves. We then worked with the children using these methods and the counsellors observed and supported the sessions. Then we worked with the counsellors to develop their own trauma informed art therapy curriculum that was culturally based and supported them in implementing the curriculum with the children. Then we were able to provide processing and feedback to the counsellors to help them think through what they accomplished. Being able to watch the trajectory from knowing very little about art therapy, to seeing the light bulbs go off in their thinking when they connected a new idea to what they have done in the past, and then translating that knowledge into new ideas and connections on working with their children was amazing. The depth and quality of the counsellor’s understanding of art therapy gives me great hope that our work in Cambodia was not just for the four weeks that we were there, but that it will continue on long after our mission and help many, many children.
“it is the most rewarding thing I have ever done."
“My motivation throughout my career has been to increase access to art therapy for clients and for students of art therapy."
Do you have any advice for budding art therapists out there who want to start this profession?
You have to do art therapy because you really want to help people and really understand the healing nature of making art. It is not an easy profession. There is a lot of secondary trauma that we are exposed to that tears at our hearts and you often do not make a lot of money doing it. However, it is the most rewarding thing I have ever done. You need to make sure you take care of yourself mentally and physically first so that you can be strong for your clients. You need to practice what you preach and make art on a regular basis to keep yourself whole.
What is the greatest lesson you have learnt from working with The Red Pencil Humanitarian Mission?
I think working with The Red Pencil and Hagar really opened my eyes to the level of world-wide trafficking that exists. I knew it was an issue before the mission but did not realise how prevalent it was and how it preyed on the poor. I knew going into this, that I enjoy working with people from all walks of life, but working with the Cambodian counsellors and children was truly a pleasure. The warmth of welcome, the patience with my understanding, the joy even in difficult situations, and their resiliency was amazing to witness.
You have written a few publications on the effects of technology on art therapy. What is the main takeaway you would want the public to be aware of from your publications?
Over the years I have worked and written about technology in art therapy. On the surface that sounds like a pretty cold or distant approach to art therapy. My motivation throughout my career has been to increase access to art therapy for clients and for students of art therapy. I focused on using technology in art therapy to be able to increase access for clients. For adolescents with emotional and behavioral issues and children with autism, making films and doing digital art making is a natural way to communicate and build a connection with a difficult population. Creating the online graduate program at Edinboro in art therapy was a way to reduce costs, increase access for people in remote areas or busy lives, and diversify the field of art therapy. Doing online counseling and art therapy with transgender populations is a way to bring art therapy to persons who otherwise might not get help due to anxiety and isolation. Each step in my career has been about increasing access in an ethical manner. I feel like teaching about art therapy and working with Red Pencil is just an extension of drive to increase access.