Art Therapy Perspectives 

Interview with Jon Ehinger, ATR-BC, LCAT

Jon Ehinger is a licensed and board certified art therapist, multimedia artist, and educator who works in Brooklyn, NY.

Jon and I were introduced through a colleague last year, and he was kind enough to sit down with me one day and tell me about his process using digital media in art therapy. I am so excited to share this post on the blog so that more people can learn about his exciting new process.

What initially drew you to art therapy?
I was living in Los Feliz, California in 2003 when I read about Elliot Smith's suicide. He had a history of mental illness and substance abuse. I remember the LA Times newspaper article mentioning that his girlfriend was an art therapist and I found that a meaningful discovery amidst such tragedy. It ultimately drew me to this work from my career in magazine and broadcast design.

I remember feeling intrigued by the power that those two words [art and therapy] could bring a person in need. Smith’s music touched me so deeply- from his XO record onto the Good Will Hunting soundtrack - I wanted to help people living with similar struggles and acute distress. I wanted a career where I could be intimate with people who would ordinarily be thrown away by societal norm.

How, if at all, have you seen the use of digital technology change art therapy?
In my work, I am very comfortable exploring new things that often times my patients introduce me to.  We can use internet based videos, loopers and sound making software to allow the patient to feel empowered throughout our time together. It's important to meet the patient where they are, and if that means unconventionally creating a narrative from a video game with an autistic child in order to maintain a dialogue for example, then that’s where you'll find me. In my observations it's about a 50/50 split of clinicians who maintain more traditional roles in today's therapy practices, while others are making strides to respond to the growing masses of computer savvy patients.

Additionally, digital technology’s live video conferencing sites, such as Skype, allow the patient/therapist relationship to continue from long distances. While I have yet to initiate a therapy session on-line, I have participated in Google video chat for supervision; I identified the virtual experience as 1-step above a phone call and 1-step below human contact. Art therapy’s roots should always remain person-centered at its core regardless of its medium.

You have some unique approaches integrating green screens and a digital recording camera into art therapy sessions. Can you share how that came about, and about your process?
The light bulb went on when I worked as a video specialist at a special needs summer camp in Pennsylvania. I was given a sizable budget to spark interest with the children who suffered from ADHD, Conduct Disorders, Turrets, onto early onset of Schizophrenia, using our new production facility. These special needs kids really responded most to the green screen studio I created, and their performances in this virtual reality really resonated with me. In those summers I hold some of the most magical moments of my career using computers in the media arts.


In 2007, I began stressing out about my thesis, like so many grad students do, and I knew I wanted to integrate new media into my research study. I was fortunate enough to have a thesis adviser, Laurel Thompson,  who was extremely encouraging throughout this process. Laurel and I met at an AATA conference in Atlanta while I was working at CNN Headline News where I learned green screening for weather reports and over-the-shoulder graphics etc.

She was aware of my background in professional video production and then put me in contact with Mari Pizanis Grande, who supervised my phenomenological study using green screen special effects with at-risk youth in her school.

My process of using green screen technology for therapy is incredibly stimulating, yet remains a laborious endeavor. It usually requires assistance, such as an assistant or an intern with knowledge of studio set-ups. I've been lucky to find art therapy interns with video production backgrounds from NYU and SVA over the last few years. We almost always start with the basics: a pencil and a piece of paper for each patient to begin a storyboard. This is helpful for patients to formulate their ideas--much like in the ways motion picture companies create feature films. A storyboard is also a valuable tool for therapist and patients, as it encapsulates time at a glance and lends itself to art therapy's fundamental roots of pencil to paper.

This is where magic happens...once a patient has created a personal story board such as a dream, fantasy, or wish, then we begin creating it through video means. We can shoot individually or in a group setting, and the patients control their story's visuals and sound from beginning to end. As the therapist, I merely facilitate their visions by acting as their subordinate ego throughout these therapeutic production sessions. We can easily complete a patient's green screen therapy video in a 50 minute therapy hour using live video feeds within inpatient settings. This allows the patients to enact their movies in real-time, seeing themselves within a computerized virtual environment. Another possibility, best suited for outpatient care, is working with patients in post-production, where we can edit their videos on an ongoing basis.

Using the compositing capabilities offered through special effects green screening for therapy, I find that most all populations respond appropriately within their developmental stages. Children, as you would expect, can't get enoughseeing themselves in the green screen as they move through their virtual computer environments. Teens especially engage the green screen's possibilities for performances, but we must consider personal esteem issues, and also use it on occasion for problem solving.  Adults often times have a story to tell using the green screen, utilizing it more as a catalyst for the verbal processing components it offers when reviewing their movies. Older adults and geriatric populations use its capabilities for life-reviews and/or a beneficial safe-space to reflect, and sometimes even regress.

How did you come up with the idea to shift the approach to green screening ‘Media Arts Mandalas’?
Honestly, the idea of making the green screen into a circle shape spawned out of resistance I received from art therapists in the field. When I presented the traditional green rectangle screen for an experiential or in-service etc., they challenged its validity and tried to discredit it with claims that it was more of a platform for dance or drama therapy, rather than as a viable art therapy medium. Even though I disagreed with those art therapists who challenged video green screen in therapy, I valued their clinical stances and opinions. It dawned on me to try changing the format of the screen to something more relevant to art therapist’s therapeutic toolbox, such as a mandala. I think it worked--the interest in this technique has grown significantly since my last workshop Lights, Camera, Therapy

The best part about this evolution of transforming a traditional green screen backdrop to a mandala circle-shape has been repositioning of it from the wall to the floor. Several interns and I experimented using the green screen mandala on the wall, and it didn’t translate as well with patients than with the screen on the floor (with the camera mounted on the ceiling above). It’s confusing to imagine until you see it all set-up in person or shown in a video, so I’m attaching a link from a recent workshop where I collaborated with a drama therapist Shira Hon. In Multi-Media Mandalas we invited many expressive therapies participants to utilize the pseudo-infinite floor space we provided, and we received great response.


green screen mandala showing the live composite from the computer generated image

You recently presented at the annual Expressive Arts Therapy Summit and started a program at the hospital in which you work, how receptive has the art therapy community been of this new approach?
As I was saying in previous questions, it wasn't always easy working with the art therapy community at-large regarding using green screen technology for therapy. Many times people resist what they don't know, and it's understandable for those newly coming into these new media scenarios without a solid digital background. Video in therapy can be intimidating for all involved and should only be engaged in by those with an open mind and are comfortable with the many video-making processes.

The administration of my current mental health hospital setting embraces media arts therapy, but only after a series of pilot studies I performed with my own equipment. The results of my findings were so successful that I was awarded a grant within our psychiatric unit, that is now expanding to other units with other disciplines. Music therapist, Nir Sadovnik, is currently integrating some of my Macintosh purchases in his regular patient sessions. Creative Arts Therapy department director Frances Fawundu and Michael Chambers have continued interest in new media approaches under their roof.

How are you able to utilize the digital technology and green screening in your private practice?
It's something I'm pushing more for in private practice versus at my day job, as there is far less set-up and break-down time needed. My weekend private practice space is set-up and stationary, so all we have to do is "power-up" the cameras and computer. Keeping setup to a minimum is important--any more effort that can cause a lot of problems for the patient in terms of delayed group times or even cancellations due to time constraints.


Green screen video studio set-up in an inpatient art therapy room

Do you work from a similar approach in your private practice as you do at the hospital?
My private practice is geared towards children ages 7-17. The population I work with at the hospital is 18 and up. However, the therapeutic approach I take is often shared by these two populations. I find that I'm usually a lot more relaxed in my weekends, and that translates back to those patients I'm working with privately.  However, there is a common thread of a trusting and stimulating camaraderie, combined with a lasting rapport. I try to assist in identifying their internal struggle, and alleviate it through psychic awareness found in the art.

Do you think there are any negative aspects of using this new approach, and if so what are they?
Patients want to post their work on social networking sites and Youtube as soon as they've completed the first scene. They are usually very proud of the final product from working with me in digital ways, even after just a few weeks. I continually redirect their requests to publish patient videos simply because videos created in therapy cannot be shown for confidentiality reasons, with the exception of immediate family members. It's something that consistently creates conflict with my patients, and we must reach common ground throughout their therapeutic process.

One way I have been able to work around that is to reframe my title upon our first meeting. I identify myself as a mentor or media arts counselor, rather than a therapist, depending on the client's needs. In the psychiatric hospital setting where my title is fixed, I have been granted rights to give discharged patients a disk copy of their therapeutic Quicktime movies, as long as it does not show any other patients in the video. It is their art that they created, and I feel the patient has a right to own it for future reflection. In both private practice and inpatient psychiatric settings, I abide by HIPPA laws with strict compliance of patient privacy.

Are there any other new technologies that you think art therapists should be looking towards?
There are a few software programs that my intern and I have been exploring lately. We've been experimenting with PhotoBooth, a special effects software that's available for Windows and Mac, that records photo and video self-portraits in real-time. My current media arts therapy intern, Joe Kavitski, has been theorizing Photo Booth's therapeutic potential. He reviews the patients' reactions in terms of cognitive distortions within it's many mind states. Using media arts therapy in this way allows the clinician to take a patient on a virtual guided tour through a computer-generated house of mirrors. Its nice to have these kinds of opportunities at hand, should that be an appropriate intervention for your patient.

Also in PhotoBooth, there are many moving stock video backgrounds where a patient can quickly place themselves, including a beach sunsetand an exotic aquarium. It's similar to video green screening technique we are already using (only without the screen). I'm noticing a trend in simplifying and streamlining old technologies in order to develop new ones. That's what's next for us I think as consumers and clinicians alike: more accessibility, ease of use, and promotion of least resistance. Having said that, wouldn't it be ironic that a reader of this interview a year from now finds the green screen an innovative technique for therapy, only to discover through new technologies that we no longer even need that big green backdrop?!

Where would you like to see art therapy go in the future?
My hope is that art therapy continues to grow in scope regarding new media, while never forgetting its psychological roots. As 21st century clinicians, we are finding ourselves at a cross-roads with juxtaposing views of care, from old-school to new-school standpoints. It's Blogs like these that I feel are the most effective in promoting dialogues that will see the future of our work moving in the right directions. 

If readers have any questions for Jon or are interested in his private practice, they can check out his website

For those of you wanting more info, check out this video Jon put together after a presentation, which displays his process with a group 2009 American Art Therapy Association conference professionals:

Originally posted on March 26, 2013