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Published: January 13, 2016

UT Students Find Ways to Communicate, Heal Through Art

One afternoon last semester, Michelle Torrech ’16 asked an art class full of pre-teen girls to imagine they were a famous artist. They discussed professionals like Picasso, van Gogh and Warhol, and then she set them creatively free to create their own masterpiece, which they had to present and explain to the class at the end of the session.

“The discussions were the best part,” said Torrech, an art therapy major who interned last semester at the centre4girls, a nonprofit center that utilizes art to empower girls. “The exercise creates self-confidence, which was evident in their faces. Others who were listening were asking meaningful questions. It definitely motivates me.”

Art therapy is “a vehicle for communications that uses art for its medium,” explained Merrilee Jorn, an instructor in the program who is past president of the Florida Art Therapy Association and executive director of Arts for Health Florida.

Jorn sees art therapy’s use in a variety of ways, from veterans with PTSD to children with autism. “We use art tools and symbolism to discover what may be going on internally with someone.”

Jenny Asaro ’16, an art therapy major from Huntington Station, NY, said, “The most important aspect of art therapy is it can be used as an alternative or supplement to pharmaceutical therapy, as a tool to encourage self-confidence and self-efficacy,” adding its versatility for populations and locations from schools and mental health programs to detention centers.
Torrech came to UT from Puerto Rico, which doesn’t offer the program in its schools. UT is the only school in Florida that offers the art therapy undergraduate major. Jorn explained there are online programs, but it can often be difficult to find supervisors for the required in-person experiences.

“All of my aunts are art teachers, and I like the psychology major,” said Torrech, who interviewed a practicing art therapist who worked with her father to see if she’d like the career. “I read about art therapy and researched it, and since I like helping people, it seemed like a good fit.”

The program at UT started around 1995 and lived under both psychology and the art therapy realms. As the field has transitioned from a mental health treatment to more preventative in nature, UT was ahead of the curve.

“What is remarkable are the relationships we have with the hospitals like Moffitt Cancer Center, and we’re already in the wellness paradigm,” said Professor Jack King, who has been a champion for the program since its inception. “We’re putting students in internships at excellent hospitals with great supervisors, and we have a 100 percent placement rate for undergraduate students in graduate programs.”

Torrech isn’t the only intern at the centre4girls. UT’s art therapy program has been partnering with the nonprofit since its director, Gabrielle Perham ’02, MBA ’11, took over in August 2014. In addition to art therapy interns, Perham has hosted both psychology and dance interns, too.

“Our interns have been very insightful and dedicated. They develop the lessons and pretty much run the show,” Perham said. “They add great value to the center.”

Asaro enjoys the UT art therapy program for the combination of courses from studio art techniques to psychology courses to art therapy-specific classes, which “allows the student to synthesize art methods and techniques with the philosophy of art therapy and psychology,” she said.

“Where other programs are more psychologically based, the program here integrates art therapy students with fine arts students,” Asaro said. “This program is ideal for students who identify as artists and want to use that skill in another way.”

Art therapy is offered at UT as the Bachelor of Arts in art with a pre-professional concentration in art therapy and also as a minor. King, Jorn and others are pursuing a master’s program and finding ways to constantly keep growing, King said.

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