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The Real Art Therapists of New York

June 28, 2016

The adult coloring book phenomena is at an all-time high, as more people look to find ways to center themselves in a chaotic world. With this activity steadily gaining popularity and momentum, art therapists are more motivated than ever before to make the distinction between art therapy and a therapeutic activity such as coloring. Our own Nancy Gerber, PhD, director of the PhD Art Therapy Program shared her insights in a recent opinion piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

A group of 50 art therapists in New York, including Drexel Art Therapy and Counseling Program alum Julia Toal, MA, ATR-BC, LCAT’14, have joined together to raise awareness about the profession of art therapy and highlight the professional services that cannot be found in the pages of a coloring book. Their creative approach to this discussion is in the form of a coloring book of their own, entitled The Real Art Therapists of New York. Toal learned about the project through the New York Art Therapy Association, and happily answered the call to get involved.

A program coordinator at Ocean Front Social Day Care, an adult social enrichment program for sufferers of chronic mental illness and physical disabilities, Toal acknowledges the relaxing effects of coloring. “While coloring books can be meditative or relaxing, especially for New Yorkers who are overworked and constantly on the go, they lack key components of art therapy. Art therapy uses the art making process along with verbal therapy to aid people in understanding and processing their emotions, allows them to work through problems, encourages them to better their relationships and communication skills, and assists them in working toward life goals – that’s the main difference. Coloring can act as a coping skill for stress or anxiety, but it does not get to the root of a problem, or open someone’s eyes to maladaptive patterns of behavior. Only a trained art therapist can do that.”

Each page in The Real Art Therapists of New York coloring book includes a hand drawn image from an art therapist and a short interview about their work. The mission is to raise awareness about the profession of art therapy, and to help consumers make educated decisions about where to find professional services that will lead to greater improvement in mental health.

The group is reaching New Yorkers through public service and community-building “pop-up coloring bars.” The inaugural event, on March 26th at the Strand Bookstore in Manhattan, saw hundreds of people who came in to take a moment, relax, color, learn about self-care and the mental health benefits of art making and most importantly, get to know The Real Art Therapists of New York.

“People come in to the pop-up event and sign up to color a sheet of their choosing from the book. We had no idea it would be so popular, but there was actually about an hour and a half wait to color. It’s a great opportunity to take time to be introspective and check in about how you’re feeling that day,” said Toal. “While people are coloring we’re mingling and asking questions related to what’s going on in their lives. This really shows them what an art therapist does and how art therapy enhances a therapeutic activity, like coloring. We’re there to delve deeper into what’s going on with you personally.” Toal said their presence and support at the event gives attendees insight into what an art therapy session might feel like. “I try to ask people questions about why they picked that particular image to color. I remember I was talking to one woman who chose to color in an image of a woman crying. I asked her why that image spoke to her, and she told me about how she had recently just gone through a tough breakup, and identified with this image. Another woman chose to color in an image of a jar. She struggled with what to put inside, and eventually ended up coloring the whole jar in one color. I asked her why she hadn’t put anything inside, and she said there were too many possibilities, and that she didn’t know what she wanted. I asked her if that feeling of not knowing what she wanted extended to other areas of her life. She said yes, and we spoke about that. So the coloring part of the day might have been relaxing, but by talking about the process insight was happening.”

Since the launch event, there have been more than 10 pop-up coloring bars at a variety of venues, from art supply stores to Governor’s Island. “It just keeps growing! The movement has really expanded since we’ve started this,” said Toal. Anecdotal feedback from attendees has also shown that a new understanding has come from this work. “People’s eyes were open to the world of art therapy. It’s really nice to see people learning more about what we do and what our profession is like,” said Toal, who was surprised to learn that a lot of people already had a sound understanding of therapy.

Motivated by the change that is already so evident as a result of the book, Toal sees no end in sight. The pop-up bars will continue to spread throughout New York City as will a new-found awareness of the impact of art therapy.

By Margaret DeGennaro ‘12