Art Therapy Perspectives 

An Interview Series with Expressive Arts Therapist Nicki Koethner, MA, MFT: Part-One

Nicki Koethner, MA, MFT is the founder of Express-Explore-Expand.  She is licensed Expressive Arts Psychotherapist, Multimedia-artist, Expressive Arts consultant and a mystic who guides people through transitions and transforming trauma into empowerment.  She has a private practice in Oakland for individuals, couples, children and families in English and German, and facilitates rituals and ceremonies. She is a community organizer for the Northern California Dance Collective and Terra’s Temple. In addition, Nicki is on the Board of Body Tales.

I met Nicki through a group for expressive arts therapists on Linkedin. I was pleased when she agreed to be interviewed, as I thought it would be great to have a perspective on the related, but different, field of expressive arts therapy. Nicki works from a multi-modal approach, and uses the whole body through dance, drama, etc. Later in the series Nicki will discuss more about her approach, various challenges she has faced in the field, and inspiration.

How does the work that you do differ from other creative arts therapies?
The specialty of expressive arts is that it is intermodal and/or multi-modal, interweaving various creative expressions for deepening a process thereby engaging different senses and capacities.  It speaks to the different forms and ways of learning which supports us to respond to the diverse needs of clients from moment and moment.  As expressive arts therapists, we might not be trained in the same depth in one modality that a music therapist, drama therapist, art therapist or dance therapist is but we are highly sensitive to each modality and know how the different qualities of those modalities interact, bring forth different processes and can be used in combination to deepen a process or create more balance within a client.  I also sense that expressive art therapy, at least in my training and practice of it, emphasizes the cultivation of the client finding their own meaning and crystallizing their essence rather than external analysis, diagnosis or interpretation.  Of course, this varies from therapist to therapist.

What initially drew you to expressive arts therapy?
I was drawn to Expressive Arts Therapy for its intermodal/multi-modal approach since I liked visual arts, poetry, music, theater, photography, dance and movement. I was expressing myself in these ways from a young age on.   At the time, when I was looking for a graduate degree program, I had already been working with expressive arts, using it with children in a high-school, on the streets and in an after-school program in New York.  I wanted to learn more since most of what I did with the kids and teens was self-taught.  During that time, I mainly used visual arts and crafts, mask-making and papier-mâché to support the kids and teens to find a voice, encourage them to trust themselves, and have a container to express what is important to them.  I would sometimes demonstrate ways of creating something but always stressed that there are different ways to make it and that mistakes are not mistakes but opportunities to create something different.  It was a therapeutic way of using creative expression to enhance their self-esteem, confidence and access their natural creative abilities.

Coming from Germany originally, I looked for various graduate programs in Europe that would include the arts since I wanted to go back to Europe. I found the European Graduate School (EGS) in Switzerland, which linked me to the Expressive Arts Program at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS) in San Francisco. When I read about the various programs at CIIS, a school that integrates Western psychology with Eastern philosophy, I had a hard time choosing which program yet the Expressive Arts Program was the one that resonated most deeply, especially because of its international link.  My plan was to go there first since I had a BA in Psychology from this country already and then transfer to EGS and eventually go to Germany.  However, I stayed at CIIS and went for an intensive summer course to EGS as part of my MA program in Counseling Psychology with a Concentration in Expressive Arts Therapy.  I valued having the experience of participating in both programs giving me a balance of two slightly different approaches.  EGS felt to me more like Arts using Psychology, coming from a phenomenological perspective, while CIIS was more about Psychology using the Arts. What I valued in both programs was the experiential way of learning and the quality of the teachers.

What populations do you/have you worked with?
I have worked with all kinds of populations.  Starting with inner city kids in New York City in a high-school, on the streets, and in an after-school program as well as a therapy aide at college and volunteer in a hospital setting.  I facilitated Theater for Change classes for men who committed violence in the Resolve to Stop Violence Project in the San Francisco County Jail through Community Works and worked with teens-at risk in East Oakland.  I used to work with clients with triple and dual diagnosis in a residential recovery program and in a rehabilitation program for men and women coming out of prison.  I have also worked with self-growth clients, children, adults and families in private practice and in workshops.

In addition, I have provided psycho-educational workshops for families going through divorce and separation for Kids Turn. I also work with the LGBTQ community.  I have given trainings to Interns on how to include Expressive Arts in therapy to deepen client processes and currently co-facilitate a professional development group for interns in Berkeley at the Pacific Center for Human Growth in which we use expressive arts as well as somatic processes.

How did you get to where you are today?
A good question, which I find hard to answer. I deeply believe in the mystery of life. I can pinpoint some aspects of my journey yet there will always be parts that are unexplainable. I have been a seeker throughout my life. I love to learn through experience and have been highly curious about life and all its manifestations. I love people, nature, art, dreams, stories and thrive on connections.  I left Germany right after graduating from high-school to be an au-pair in a program called Experiment –“Learning to Live together by Living together” because I wanted to experience another culture and learn another language fluently before going to university to study psychology.  I was supposed to stay only a year and go back but stayed in the US and started studying in New York City. During my undergraduate studies in Psychology, where I was enrolled in a MA/BA program, I realized that I wanted to become a therapist, which wasn’t initially my reason for studying Psychology. Originally, I wanted to combine my interest in environmental protection with my interest in psychology and looked into studying environmental psychology. However, I realized that my personality was more suited for working with people directly and that my art classes were some of the most inspiring classes I had.

Even before college, I had drawn a vision board that showed three elements that mattered the most to me and I wanted to include in my life: art, children and nature.  Now, I combine all those elements working with people of all ages connecting them with their inner children and their essence through expressive arts and nature.

One of the most important aspects in my work is to keep people’s curiosity and engagement with themselves and their encounter with life active and alive rather than just functioning within a given societal frame.  Expressive arts represent that for me: they allow me to stay young, curious and listen to my own experiences, tune in to my senses and access a deeper level of being. I can follow the inspirations of the moment and follow where my heart leads.  When I get stuck in my patterns or ways of thinking and perspectives, the arts transport me to the imaginal realm, opening up new possibilities and fresh movement so that creativity (the life-force that is inherent in all of us) can be expressed more freely through me.  The arts also allow me to be with all the emotions that run through me without those emotions paralyzing me.  We are part of creation and all of us are a unique expression of it yet our conditioning and socialization can block us from the direct access to this truth.  The continued engagement with the arts allows me to stay open and curious and bring forth that is within me and digest what I encounter in my engagement with the world.

In terms of working as an expressive arts therapist, I would say that life experiences, my diverse work experiences, my own healing work, energetic healing practices, authentic movement, somatic inquiry, Body Tales, spiritual practices, meditation, shamanic and energy healing, dancing, drumming, poetry, music and encounters/relationships with people and my expressive arts training have shaped and informed my work with clients.

For more of my interview with Nicki, check back later in the week for part-two in the series.

Originally posted on December 10, 2012