Friday, November 28, 2008

Reporting on the AATA Conference

I feel like I should do a post about the American Art Therapy Association conference, because it was the first time I was involved in art therapy on a professional level.

First, I do want to mention that the field is very new and it shows in many ways.  Art therapy has only been around as an organized "profession" for about 50- or 60-ish years, so we still don't know exactly what we want to "be."  Are we artists with training in therapy, or therapists who use art as a major part of their therapy?  Although the continuum is important, it's still telling to see some of the research that was presented at the conference.  Not only that, but it was interesting to see the way research and findings were presented.

For example, many of the presenters that I went to were showing the results of some research in the field.  One that I was particularly interested in was doing art with adolescent patients in a children's hospital.  I was interested in this because I had spent some time volunteering at Texas Children's Hospital and noticed that the teenagers were relatively uninvolved in their surroundings (even though Texas Children's does a good job of not infantalizing the surroundings for the most part, in my opinion).  The presentation was interesting, but focused more on the case studies than on practical applications of the findings.  This was similar to pretty much every other presenter I saw.  I went to one presentation on art books as a transitional object for patients with eating disorders, and the entire presentation was case studies.  Fascinating, yes!  Applicable ... not really, well, at least not for me as a student with no experience with people with eating disorders.  I wished that we had learned more about HOW TO USE art books as a transitional object, or HOW TO GET adolescents involved in art making in a children's hospital, but I didn't leave those presentations feeling like I had learned those concepts.

Also, many presentations felt the need to justify using art therapy - in general - with that particular population.  I think that this was simply preaching to the choir.  Yes, art therapy allows the client to feel more in control and have choices over their lives, builds self-esteem through skill acquisition, etc etc.  How about you skip over that and get to the good stuff?

One more less-than-positive ... this was just one presentation, but it makes me wonder about the quality of some of the research.  Someone presented a digital poster (not sure what that means, anyway) about an experiment that she ran, and the experiment was full of holes.  Way too many variables.  She didn't run it herself, as she only has a BA, she ran the experiment with the help of a working art therapist with all kinds of licensure and blahdieblah, and there were just so many variables she got no results at all.  It makes me wonder because a lot of people feel the need to justify art therapy to the mental health community (which was kind of what this experiment was about, in my opinion), but how can you justify us with bad experiments?


I went to Shaun McNiff's student session.  HOW AWESOME.  Basically, McNiff is quoted in all of the research I am doing for a presentation on the importance of art therapists participating in the art community.  I was so excited that I was able to sit in his session, and not only that, (I am telling everyone about this) I asked a question and he said GREAT QUESTION, THAT IS REALLY IMPORTANT.  He talked about negative view so many people have of art therapists, ie: "Anything you paint can and will be used against you," (this was not the first time someone has said this but it is still funny).  I asked him how do we make people NOT feel that way when we are with them.  It was great.  I took a lot of notes.  I will be using this in my paper and presentation on Tuesday.

The keynote speaker was of course hilarious and great.  He showed us a video of two neurons making a synaptic connection - like when you pair the visual image of a cow with the word "cow," how does that connection get made but through repetition.  He did a funny little "performance piece" about it, with his two hands wiggling fingers towards each other and finally connecting while repeating COW COW COW.

Also, there was this "open studio" available to everyone at the conference - at any time, you could go to the studio room and make art using the materials provided.  It was really great.  I managed to squeeze in there before Shabbat and made some monoprints.  I also talked to a lady who says she founded City ArtWorks in Houston, which was really interesting, I am glad that I met her!  I think I applied for a job there back in the day, if only I had known her then.

The open studio was especially great because I think it really sets the art therapy conference apart from other psychology/therapy conferences.  Yes, there were the art workshops that people could sign up for (for extra money, ahh), but there was also this studio space that anyone could go to at any time.  I don't know what the participation was like, as there were about a thousand people at the conference I highly doubt that even half that many went to the studio - but you never know!  I would be interested to find out if anyone had been keeping track.

Another great aspect of the conference was the bonding in our program.  So many people from our class went to the conference this year and I think it was a really great experience for us to have together.  I especially bonded with the five people who shared the hotel room with me, with our late night conversations sharing embarrassing stories, tarot readings, and group therapy.  It was really great and even though I got no sleep I felt really inspired by everyone.

So much happened last weekend and it is really hard to process!  Good thing there are pictures, hilarious pictures, like the ones of our department head and assistant department head boogeying on the dance floor.  AWESOME.

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