WLU working towards art therapy program

By Anna Patrick, Editor

West Liberty University’s College of Arts and Communication is currently in the process of adding a new degree to its curriculum, a Bachelor of Science in Creative Art Therapy. Upon approval, West Liberty University will become the first university in the state to offer the program.

The Department Chair of Visual Art, Brian Fencl, said “We just submitted the Intent to Plan to the Higher Education Policy Commission (HEPC) in Charleston. This document explains our intent and asks for permission from the state to move forward.”

The program is currently in the proposed stage, but Fencl said the University is working hard to organize its information “so that when the Intent is approved we will be able to submit the full program proposal to the Higher Education Policy Commission before summer starts.”

Although the program has yet to be finalized classes are already being offered on the subject. The spring 2012 semester is the first semester for the University to offer classes for the Art Therapy program. Currently being taught by the Director of Art Therapy, Michele Ellis-Thomas is Introduction to Art Therapy, Studio Art Therapy and Art for the special child.

The new degree will be a blend of Art Therapy and Art studio courses and will require a minor in Psychology, Gerontology or Special Education. Fencl said, “It becomes another ‘professional’ degree option for the art majors. It is a different type of career than art education or graphic design.”

Ellis-Thomas, in her first year at West Liberty, brings a great amount of experience to help design the program’s curriculum.

“I’ve been an art therapist since 1983 with a Master’s in Creative Arts and Therapy from Drexel Hahnemann Medical and Graduate University in Philadelphia. I’m a certified art therapist by the credentialing board of Art Therapy,” Ellis-Thomas said.

Not only does Ellis-Thomas have experience working in the field, she also knows her way around designing a program for the subject. “I designed and began the first program in Art Therapy at the University Of Texas Medical School,” Ellis-Thomas said.

She described the field as “a beautiful marriage of art and psychotherapy. What distinguishes it from other therapies is the use of (all forms of) art and art media. It’s any creative art that can help reconcile any of your concerns, traumas and grief. It’s used with geriatrics, adolescents, children, adults, groups, families, and individuals. It gives them a channel in order to reach some kind of reconciliation.”

“The ability to use art in a therapeutic setting really speaks to the power of art. Art at its most fundamental level is about empathy,” Fencl said, “Through art we share our experiences or can share the experiences of other people, cultures or times. Using art in a clinical setting to help individuals of all ages or backgrounds to improve their lives is a great thing.”

In most cases students who receive a bachelor’s degree in Art Therapy will use it as a stepping stone toward a professional degree. After receiving a master’s degree in the subject, individuals can then practice as a clinician.

At the undergraduate level, West Liberty’s Art Therapy program “will be able to offer students an exposure and exploration of what art therapy is about. Students will understand the process, the product and how Art Therapy can help clients, patients and students for reconciliation of any type of conflicts, concerns or traumas,” Ellis-Thomas said.

Through the program students will also come to understand how Art Therapy can help to improve cognitive awareness and psychological awareness with regard to the environment, the world and themselves.  “We will be able to train students to go out and help people change their lives for the better,” Fencl said.

Learning Art Therapy techniques could also be very beneficial to students studying Education, Nursing and Psychology at West Liberty University as well. “It’s a helping profession,” Ellis-Thomas said.

Work has been underway for two years already on the program, according to Fencl. “Angie Zambito in the Development Office really started the ball rolling by identifying external financial support for the proposed program. This is an initiative that would not have gotten off the ground without Angie and the Schenck Foundation of Wheeling stepping up and offering to help with their time and dollars.”

Creating a new program is very costly and labor intensive and “WLU is lucky to have people within the administration and community that see this as important and have been there to help,” Fencl said.

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