December 17, 2012

Ikuko Acosta

Director of Art Therapy graduate program, Steinhardt

Art therapy has grown in legitimacy in the past five years with New York’s licensing of art therapists. Program director Ikuko Acosta explains why it has always been important.

By Jamie Menaker (GSAS ’12)

The classroom could be an art room in any elementary school in the country, with student artwork hanging on the walls, and two large square tables covered with paint-stained, white plastic drop cloths. Jennifer Breslow’s first student of the day pushes open the door, letting in a rush of hallway noise, and hands over a painting, blue swirls flecked with red and black swipes. “You can hang this now,” he says, looking sheepishly over black rimmed eyeglasses. “What does it represent?” asks Breslow. “Sadness, confusion,” answers the twenty-something, smooth, dark-skinned student, a small grin breaking, “But you can have it now, I’m not sad today.”

As students fill the room, Breslow asks, “Do you have an idea today for something?” and offers up suggestions of materials—fabric, glitter, ribbon, paper. These “students” are all clients and residents at the Help/PSI HIV-AIDS facility in the Bronx, required to participate in a weekly group art session with Breslow for the first three months of their stay. (Residents stay at Help/PSI an average of one year.) Breslow is a graduate of NYU’s Masters program in Art Therapy, which means that she studied under director Ikuko Acosta, in the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.

From her office in the Barney Building, within the NYU Department of Art and Art Professions, Ikuko Acosta is a small but powerful woman. She is tiny in a grey-and-black-plaid dress and mid-calf black leather boots, but her voice is one of authority and years of study, including a Ph.D. Her office is all clean lines: black filing cabinets with a light wood desktop, three wall-mounted shelves full with books, and a black leather chair for meetings like this.

According to Acosta, art therapy in combination with traditional psychotherapy reaches another level of one’s psyche. A good example, she says, is when you ask someone how they’re feeling, and they answer in a very pleasant and socially acceptable manner, “Fine, thank you.” Given the time, however, to really study their facial expression, body language, and mannerisms, you will have a much more genuine picture of how they are actually feeling inside. Art therapists believe that it is similar with artistic expression—that the art can convey a genuine understanding of one’s inner world, and tell a story that the client might not be able to, or might be reluctant to verbally express. “The visual expression often comes from both conscious and unconscious worlds,” says Acosta, “and in the conscious world, we often censor what we say.”

Her style as an art therapist is non-directive, allowing clients to choose their own art materials and themes. “I try to allow for as free an artistic expression as possible, using their own unique artistic style,” says Acosta. Most important is to provide the safe space where clients can create. Even though an art therapist may be sitting quietly with a client, they are observing and sharing the client’s art making process, gaining a great deal of information. If they are only assessing and evaluating the client’s mental state, they are short-changing the creative experience. “Art therapists have to put aside their own value judgment,” says Acosta. This translates to an open, flexible environment, where the therapist and the client are sharing a creative space, like at Help/PSI.

In addition to a Masters in Art Therapy, Breslow has since been certified as a Licensed Creative Arts Therapist (LCAT) by the New York State Education Department, and a Board Certified and Registered Art Therapist (ATR-BC) by the Art Therapy Credentials Board. These credentials are a big milestone because they have given the field of art therapy an unprecedented level of legitimacy. As the medical and health insurance communities have evolved over the last few decades, the psychotherapy field has followed. Where patients used to see one general doctor for different types of ailments, now there are a host of specialists to choose from. Where psychotherapy used to be more generalized, the specialized practice of art therapy has become increasingly popular.

“In the last 30 years we have really seen art therapy becoming an essential part of clinical practice,” says Acosta. “But licensing for art therapists has only existed in the past five years.” In the NYU program, students study both the theory and practice of art therapy, including diverse clinical experiences. Acosta explains that when considering applicants for the program, a candidate’s identity as an artist is just as important as their psychology background.

Ultimately, in art therapy, each client has to find his or her own path to recovery, whatever the psychological, emotional, or mental difficulty may be. “The novice students always want to save the world, but it’s wrong for us to believe that we have the power to fix people’s lives,” says Acosta. “We just help them find the arena to do so themselves.”