Art Therapy Perspectives 

An Interview Series with Natasha Shapiro, LCAT, ATR-BC: Part-One

Natasha Shapiro, LCAT, ATR-BC, is a professional artist, a Licensed Art Therapist and an Advanced Reiki Practitioner. She obtained her BA Cum Laude in Russian Literature at Harvard University and her MPS in Art Therapy and Creativity Development at Pratt Institute. She runs a private practice out of her studio office in downtown NYC, Tribeca Healing Arts, where she provides individual and group art therapy, couples therapy, individual and group supervision as well as Reiki, Sand Tray and Play Therapy, Creativity Development and Workshops. She has been exhibiting her work in galleries and alternative spaces for many years.

I met Natasha Shapiro through the Art Therapy Alliance, and had the pleasure of visiting her studio in New York City to see first hand where she creates her artwork and meets with her clients. She has worked with a number of populations throughout her many years in the field, and her experience is so vast that I decided to break her story into a two-part series. I hope you enjoy reading about her journey of becoming an art therapists, as well as her hopes for the future of art therapy.

What initially drew you to art therapy?
I would divide most therapists into two groups, the "Wounded Healer" and the “Caretaker”, though of course there are mixtures of the two. The "caretaker", as the opposite of the wounded healer may not have experienced therapy before and enters the profession wanting to help people, and later through the process find out about themselves. I see myself as a Wounded Healer. I experienced various serious issues in college and started my journey with therapy during college. My first experience of psychotherapy coincided with my taking an elective drawing class on a whim, which ended up changing my life.

In Alfred DecCredico's beginning Drawing class, I discovered my identity as an artist and learned that a career choice can be a "calling", not an intellectual choice. I feel the same about my identity as an art therapist/ healer. Even though I did not know about art therapy at the time, daily art making began and continues to be not just therapeutic but my number one choice for self-care .

My first exposure to art therapy was when I randomly found and read a basic book, Art As Therapy, by Tessa Dalley. I had been working in galleries and museums, and at that time (mid 90’s) the School of Visual Arts had an Art Therapy Continuing Ed Certificate Program. I enrolled with the goal to learn more about art therapy first hand. My first internship was at the Veterans Hospital with mentally ill vets. My second was at an SRO. From this experience at SVA, I realized art therapy was what I’d been looking for, another kind of "calling" that could combine my artist identity with my desire to help people suffering from mental illnesses.

At the SRO in Coney Island, my onsite supervisor, a social worker and great mentor, was excited about starting an art therapy program at the site. He encouraged and trusted me to start my first art therapy group and long-term individual art therapy sessions. I worked there with formerly homeless "MICA" patients.

By the time I got to grad school, I had thus already had some experience. The summer before I entered the program, I worked at an Upper West Side apartment complex at a program working with seniors doing a painting group and also having my first experience with home visits.

Throughout my grad school experience, I was vigilant about nurturing my artist identity by making art daily, continuing to have my art studio, and exhibit and sell my work on a regular basis. I also participated with other students in organizing the annual art therapy Department exhibitions of student artwork.

What populations do you/have you worked with?
I have worked with a lot of populations, varying in age from very young children to "geriatric", and in diverse settings, such as inpatient hospital, outpatient day treatment and residences, dealing mainly with mental illness, MICA and all kinds of trauma as well as some co-occurring serious medical issues.

That experience has informed my private practice, as I continue to work with children and adults with mental illness, children with social and behavioral issues, as well as divorce and attachment issues. Adults that I work with include people suffering from mood disorders, eating disorders, anxiety disorders, PTSD, OCD, career and relationship issues, and creative blocks. I also value and appreciate working with people of diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and the LGBTQ population. Almost all my patients have experienced serious trauma(s), whether in childhood or later.

I also facilitate what I call “Art Play Groups” of 2 to 5 children, age around 2-6, in my studio. That came out of having my own child and hosting a lot of her play dates in the studio. I also acquired a sand tray, and it’s interesting how it blended my personal and professional life as my first experience of it involved using it with my daughter, then age 4. Some children gravitate to the sand tray and the dollhouse and toys or sit at the table and do multimedia artwork. I have also facilitated the making of murals on paper using many fun media, collage, paint, stickers, and rhinestones.

What are other populations or areas you are interested in working with?
Sand Tray Therapy is a relatively new, challenging and exciting experience for me. I have found that some adults and kids enjoy just handling and playing with the sand (rather than the traditional idea of making a “scene” in the sand tray) to reduce anxiety.

I am just recently getting involved in an exciting project and opportunity to promote art therapy. It involves collaboration between the Japanese Government and Japanese Company with several Hospitals in the U.S. that specialize in Oncology. There is a relatively new kind of therapy for cancer called proton therapy, which can replace chemotherapy and does not cause some of the debilitating side effects associated with chemotherapy. The Japanese person in charge of this project recently contacted me to discuss making the environment, in which this therapy will be given, to be therapeutic and healing. I will be working with a Japanese artist named Hiroko Sai, who is very well known in Japan and has a lot of installations worldwide. Click here for her website.  It is a great opportunity to promote art therapy through the planning of a big exhibition fundraiser for the foundation that is being formed for this project. My idea for the exhibition is to collect art from children around the country in oncology units with art therapy departments to use their artwork and include their stories for the exhibition. Aside from children, there will also be a focus on breast cancer. This is a relatively new population for me; while I have had experience with patients suffering from cancer and currently have a patient who is a cancer survivor, most of my experience with the disease is personal.

The other project I am working on involves starting an art therapy group for women with anxiety and depression in my private practice. Last year I had an art therapy group for women with eating disorders and body image issues. Although there were only three group members, It was very exciting for me, as they got a so much out of the combination of art making and verbal processing. Nonetheless, it was hard to keep the group going and attract more members. I decided to shift the group to a more general type, for anxiety and depression but it never got off the ground. I have been trying to start this group again, looking to have at least 4 members to get it going. Another art therapy group I want to do in the future would be for adult adoptees, another area of interest for me now.

Also I am planning a workshop about the “Pregnant Art Therapist”. It would cover transference and counter transference, issues around the intrusion of the pregnancy in the therapeutic space. I did not get enough support when I went through the process, and there is very little literature out there. Pregnancy is a big identity crisis, and then you become a new mother, a whole new experience. Every patient has a personal reaction. Important topics would be, how does it change you as a therapist? How do you tell your patients? How can you use the pregnancy therapeutically? I have begun by exploring the topic in my art therapy blog.

What are challenges that you think art therapy faces?
It is frustrating that the media and the public still do not know enough about the benefits of art therapy and the skills involved in being an art therapist. Issues directly involving art therapy come up in the media and often the “expert” consulted may not even be an art therapist. We, as art therapists, really need to make people understand that the art therapy is a crucial part of treatment. I am trying to use blogging and social media to promote our field. Why must art therapists’ first job often involve being called a recreation therapist, or getting paid less than other therapists with a graduate degree? We need to do in-services with staff, and continue promoting art therapy and demand better pay. Since the events of 9/11/01, art therapy has become better known and respected but it still is not enough. My second job after grad school was an unusual experience because an art therapist there had paved the way, and they really valued the art therapists and art therapy interns.

So the profession is often misunderstood and devalued. I see this with the people I supervise. In summer 2008 I started two supervision groups for professionals newly out of graduate school. In a couple of cases those graduates were one of a few people who had a job from their graduating class.

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

Originally posted on December 3, 2012