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Art can shatter boundaries, ignorance, Buffalo State professor shows

Lucy Andrus has learned during the last two decades art can do a lot of things, including change attitudes.

“I started the Art Partners program because I thought people of color were being misunderstood, misassessed, misdiagnosed,” she told me last week. “There were a disproportionate number being referred to special ed and I thought, ‘What’s with this?’

“A huge reason is that teachers weren’t understanding where these kids were culturally. They had a different cultural background than their students and didn’t get it. They were seeing things through their own lens.”

Art Partners started in 1994, about a dozen years after Andrus started teaching at SUNY Buffalo State. It mixes some of the school’s art education program majors with Buffalo Public Schools students in grades 2 to 12 who have special needs. Most of the college students are white middle class women, Andrus said. Most of the city school students are young people of color.

All have benefited the program.

Andrus – subject of this weekend’s In the Field feature in WNY Refresh – grew up outside Newark, N.J., and came to Western New York after getting a bachelor’s degree in art education at Kean University in New Jersey. She holds a master’s degree in art education from Buffalo State, with a focus on therapeutic art education, and has clinical credentials as an art therapist.

She described Art Partners as “a volunteer, service-learning program that gets our students – our art education majors and art therapy minors – out into the schools working with kids in urban settings, kids who have special learning needs due to either disability or living with an adverse life circumstance; for example, poverty.

Below are excerpts from my interview with Andrus that didn't make the print editon:

Q. Can you talk about art therapy?

Art therapy implies a clinical use of art, to address the needs of people whether they’re social, emotional, to help resolve conflicts, to give people another voice so they can express what’s going on with them. The difference between a verbal and an art therapist is we have the same background but we also ask clients to make images about their issues, concerns, feelings, whatever is going on. There’s a phenomenon that occurs in art-making where your unconscious gets projected into your images, whether you like it or not. The therapist and client can take a look at this ‘symbolic speech,’ if you will, and look at it together to see what might give the client insight into their problems. Art therapists are trained to use art-making as a treatment modality. Not only can we express what’s going on but we can prescribe art activity. ... That concrete image gives you a little psychological distance, so it’s easier to look at the image and talk about it with your therapist than to sit there and talk about it verbally.

For kids who’ve been sexually abused, what child do you know that can easily talk about that? ... If they have this opportunity to have this other voice through art making, it’s a safer way to find out what’s going on.

Art therapy can be used with any person with any kind of issue in any setting.

Q. What does having an art therapy minor mean?

Entrance into the profession of art therapy starts with a master’s in art therapy, like any other therapy profession, so the purpose of the minor is to expose undergrad students to this profession. If they want to pursue it, we can help them prepare for graduate school. After you graduate (with the master’s), you have to put in 1,000 paid hours of supervised art therapy before you can apply for your clinical credential. It’s a pretty serious credential. (Andrus directed the Buffalo State art therapy clinical program before an early 1990s state budget crisis put an end to it.)

There are 50-plus students in the minor and the interest is increasing. You don’t need any prior art experience to participate.

Q. Where do many of the students end up going to graduate school?

I have to refer them elsewhere. When we had the program, SUNY tuition was very affordable. Now, the closest program distance-wise is a private school, Nazareth College in Rochester. Others of our undergraduates live in and around New York City, so they can find a program back home. They might go to Pratt or NYU.

Q. So after the changes in your program in 1994, you turned your attention to art education programs and the minor?

I thought, ‘We need to give our students earlier and more up-close and personal field experience with kids who are different. Most of our students are white, middle-class students. Not many students of color are going into art education.

Having taught for so many years, I began to see this gray area where teachers who aren’t clinicians were doing something special. We had a whole middle ground here and needed to develop that. So I went that down that path.

Q. When a teacher may notice something of concern in a student’s artwork, it isn’t always a call for lots of help necessarily, right?

Sure. When a child or teen does that, it could be a request for some attention. They need a caring adult to notice what they’re struggling with. Depending on their support system, just getting something out on paper is enough.

Believe me, nobody sits down and says, ‘I’m going to make a picture of these thoughts I’m having.’ It can be preconceived or spontaneous and, when kids do it, they need a caring adult to notice.

Q. So this is one of the ways kids can express themselves?

Yes, and what’s cool about it – or really therapeutic – is that when you make an image, it doesn’t depend on words. Have you ever felt tongue-tied or telling yourself, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to explain this?’ Sometimes making a picture of it is a lot easier. Another aspect is the treatment aspect. Art can be prescriptive, and you can benefit from that, too. You can ask, ‘What does that artwork say?’

… We don’t want people doing this by the seat of their pants. We want them to know what the boundaries are and we want to support them with some knowledge that would be appropriate in an educational setting.

Q. What has been the reaction of the kids in the Art Partners program?

The kids write us notes and they’re thrilled. Here’s one. This kid, a second-grader, couldn’t spell my name: ‘I love you Miss Lusy.’

At least he didn’t say, ‘Lousy.’

email: refresh@buffstate.com

Twitter: @BNrefresh

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