“Too often people think art is decorative, that its purpose is embellishment or adornment, but the real truth is very, very complex.”
Ryan Zeller

For students in the College of Education Art Therapy and Education programs, art is more than a practice—it’s a tool used to affect change.

“Too often people think art is decorative, that its purpose is embellishment or adornment, but the real truth is very, very complex,” says Dr. James Brown, the coordinator of visual arts education.

Brown has been with the department for more than 15 years and says both programs challenge stereotypical perceptions of art.

“[The programs have] two goals: art therapy prepares students to go into the mental health field and requires psychology, therapeutic relation and art process, [while] art education is to certify students to teach art in a K-12 setting and prepare them to create lessons for students at all levels.”

Because these programs are so radically different from traditional education programs, the process in which students create is also very different.

“These programs aren’t about a grade,” he says. “For these students, their work transcends the notion of doing something because you have to for a grade into doing something because it has meaning to you.”

This theory is put into practice in the annual art education and art therapy exhibition, which recently had its closing night in the James Pearson Duffy Department of Art and Art History gallery.

The annual exhibition contains many works that were created experimentally and contain a significant amount of personal meaning and emotion behind them. The exhibition is also a way for students to get to see their work displayed in a professional gallery setting.

“The work I have done using art therapy techniques in the past have helped me to navigate through my own thoughts and feelings about various aspects of my life,” Art Therapy master’s candidate Corryn Jackson says. “I was in the show two years ago and did a piece for our multicultural class that was a response to micro-aggressions I was experiencing in my workplace.”

Jackson hopes to use her degree in art therapy to work with teens who suffer from various mental disorders.

“As an art therapist in training, I hope to work with adolescents with anxiety, depression or that have experienced some sort of trauma,” Jackson says.

Jackson adds that the program requires students to challenge themselves to look inward and use their own experiences to influence their work.

“This program is extremely self-reflective; we must be able to understand ourselves before we can fully help others,” she says. “Not only do we learn to embrace our own theoretical frameworks, study techniques in counseling, learn clinical treatments and have multicultural considerations, we also engage in service learning which puts us within community organizations that benefit from the arts.”

Art therapy master’s student Grant Prenzler echoes Jackson’s sentiment. Prenzler says his involvement in fine arts started as early as high school.

“In early high school, I wasn't in a good place in regards to my emotional well-being and overall outlook on life,” Prenzler says. “In fact, I almost dropped out of high-school because I didn’t care about anything.”

Thanks to Prenzler’s psychology and art teacher, he was able to discover his passion for art and went on to earn a degree in illustration from WSU. Following graduation, Prenzler wanted to explore how to use his art to help others, which led to him to the art therapy program at WSU.

Prenzler says he believes art therapy promotes interpersonal learning as well as emotional healing.

“Art therapy and art education can provoke deep questions about ourselves,” he says. “Being attuned to our creative side is a big part of what makes humans unique. All of us are creative or appreciate creativity in some way, even if we don't think we do.”

Prenzler adds that art can work as a form of communication as well.

“I believe there is art out there that can touch everyone in a certain way. Creating and appreciating art can teach us about understanding, as the visual arts are another form of communication that can inspire ideas.”

He says he thinks art therapy can create a positive change in people’s lives and hopes to reach men specifically.

“At the moment, I would like to work with people in a crisis intervention setting,” he says. “I also would like to encourage more males to participate in counseling and art therapy. A lot of men do not seek the help they need when concerning mental health. I believe this is due to stigma in society about men showing emotional vulnerability.”

The themes Jackson, Prenzler and other students are interested in often appear in their various works.

Brown says that both of the student’s representational and abstract works are thought provoking and encourage people to interact with the art in order to understand it.

“Art is essential to our humanity-without it we are not complete. It’s like another realm, it brings us together and connects with our deepest selves,” Brown says.

Though some of the works may be more abstract than that of traditional fine arts exhibitions, Brown argues that that is what makes it so important.

“The arts provide us with new experiences and it behooves us to engage with them even if they are widely unlike anything we have seen before,” he says.

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