Emily Ortiz: Graduate Student [ART THERAPY]
WFU Class of 2015
Double Major: Studio Art & Psychology
Emily Ortiz came across the 'hidden' profession of art therapy after completing a double major in Studio Art and Psychology at Wake Forest. Emily is currently completing her master's at The George Washington University's Art Therapy & Counseling program. We were lucky to steal Emily from her studies for a moment to discuss her path since WFU.
DeacLink: What did you study at Wake? What led you to pursue a degree in Art Therapy?
Emily Ortiz: I was a double major in Studio Art and Psychology. I didn’t go into Wake knowing I wanted to do art or psychology. With the liberal arts program, I had the chance to take lots of different classes, and fell in love with those two subjects. My dad is an artist, so I had that background, and I think I rejected it a little because he was one, too. I eventually got involved in both majors, but I wasn’t sure how to combine them. Then I interned for Arts for Life at Brenner Children’s Hospital, and there I learned about art therapy. It’s this wonderful mental health profession I had no idea about. It combines my love of psychology, the human mind, and the mental health benefits of working with art. I did research on a lot of Master’s programs, and found GW, which was one of the first art therapy programs to be established. I applied and went for an interview, and fell in love with the field and DC.
DL: Would you mind telling me more about your program?
EO: It is a 2 year program if you go full time, and I will graduate with my Master’s in August. You get a very thorough education and learn general therapy and counseling theories, techniques, and processes, while also learning how to incorporate creative processes, stages of artistic development, and so on. So it's a really an education that's quite unique to the field of art therapy. In order to do this, you need to have some undergraduate training in art and psychology, but not necessarily a major in those fields. A lot of people come from art or psychology backgrounds, but many of my classmates came from graphic design, teaching, interior design, and other backgrounds.
While in school at GW, you do two full-year internships. I interned at an inpatient psychiatric unit and a local county’s behavioral health department. So there’s a lot of hands-on learning that happens from your supervisors and directly from your clients. For instance, when working in this field with a client, you learn to stress the process and not the product. Not focus on what you are making or the end result, but how the process of creating and expressing oneself can be beneficial.
As another part of my program that really drew me is the abroad program that's tied into the cultural diversity course. I’ll be going to Abu Dhabi and India, and while there I will be learning about how art therapy is viewed outside of the US and how to work with diverse populations. There are a lot of considerations, for instance, how different colors or materials might have cultural implications and how your practice is dependent upon availability or acceptability of materials, which might vary from practice in the United States. Also, it will be really interesting to see the role the arts takes on because of the language barrier.
DL: What sort of work experience/exposure to the field have you gained? What’s your plan for after graduation?
EO: I recently finished year two of the 2 one-year internships. In our program, you work one year with adults and the second with children or adolescents. I did a bit more work with adults. My first one was inpatient psychiatric unit in DC. We did an art therapy group daily and worked with the patients there. It was an acute psychiatric unit, so the people were in crisis and only there for a short time. We used a variety of artistic media and processes to see how we help with people working towards stability. It was powerful to see how people can express themselves through artistic processes when they may not be able to speak about painful or traumatic experiences.
My second internship I just finished, and it was was with a local county’s behavioral health services. I started in Child and Family Services and then transitioned to Behavioral Health which was adult services. We did groups for outpatient clients, and I did groups with homeless outreach services. I had individual clients, and I co-lead a group for domestic and sexual violence services. It was a wide range of clients and it was really great to work with so many different people on any given day.
Our program also gives us the chance to work in an onsite community trauma clinic where we work as student therapists. As part of GW’s trauma training, each second or third year student works individually with a client in the George Washington Art Therapy Clinic. With client permission, our sessions are recorded so that we can bring the video to supervision and learn to critique ourselves and receive feedback. So that's something I found to be a really unique and important part of the learning process.
When using art as therapy, you are providing the materials or themes and letting people do what they feel they need to do in what might be a more open studio approach. You are there to support emotions that come out as people are creating, or help them process through the imagery or ideas that arise. Then there might be more directive art therapy, like some groups I do a more directive project and do projects that are related to their treatment goals, such as trauma processing or emotional regulation. There's a lot of learning to assess the client and what they need in that hour that you're with them.
DL: This is a field most alums don’t think about. How did you make the transition, and what is the hardest part about breaking into this field?
EO: Knowing that this field exists is the hardest part. People see coloring books that are labeled as “art therapy”, but that’s not really therapy. It can be so much more impactful for people. I think that’s a shame, and I wish I had known about the field sooner. It is such a powerful thing, and as an artist you know intrinsically that art is important and that the creative process can be healing, but most people don’t know the field is there and that there's an opportunity to bring that to more people.
DL: What will you be doing after graduation?
EO: After I graduate, I will be moving back to Winston-Salem and looking for a job. My goal is to work with the adult population. Ideally, I’d like to work part time with that population, and start something else on the side. There is such a vibrant and growing art culture in Winston-Salem, especially community art. I think there's a lot of potential there for some sort of community art therapy initiative and I'd love to work on that. I've become very passionate about preventative mental health care, and I really believe art can help people deal with stressors of their daily lives. I would like to start something along those lines. It’s also been exciting to see things like THRIVE at Wake which tackles some of this.
DL: How do you like living in DC? What’s the arts community like?
EO: I really enjoy DC. It’s so exciting when you have a free day and are able to just wander into the National Gallery and be around this incredible artwork. It is such an exciting place to be. There’s obviously a lot going on politically in the city, but there’s much more than that. It’s also been interesting to see how people express political ideas through art. It's also great to see the arts culture in the cities around D.C. I live in Arlington, and in Alexandria there’s the Torpedo Factory which has over 100 artist studios and gallery and is a really inspiring space.
DL: What do you think Wake arts could do to better prepare students for life after graduation?
EO: I was not prepared for life after graduation, in the way that I think some of my classmates in other majors were. Wake focuses so much on business, but some of that is missing with art. The OPCD is a generally a good resource, but I'm not sure they were really aware of some of the more non-traditional options that are out there and how students might prepare for those paths. But I think some of that is changing from within the department. My senior year, Leigh Ann Hallberg put together a video meeting with Wake art alums in different fields, including an art therapist. It was amazing to be in touch with a therapist who had gone to Wake and to learn about her path, so I really appreciated that opportunity. I think more of that would be helpful for the majors that don't get as much attention from the school, like art. Wake needs more “Lunch and Learns” and things like that video meeting to increase exposure to non-traditional career paths.
DL: What's the best kernel of advice you can think to pass on to current students and recent alums?
EO: It’s important to stay serious and do the research in terms of of what’s out there, so that you can find out about these more “hidden” career options. By doing your research, you are preparing yourself and opening yourself up to more experiences. Also, really getting to know yourself so you can figure out what you want to be doing and how that's going to match up to what you're passionate about. Grad school was definitely difficult, but what kept me going was a passion for what I was doing. I think if you find that passion it'll drive you towards where you need to be.