The George Washington University (GW) Art Therapy Clinic was launched 14 years ago by Tally Tripp as an extension of the 50-year-old graduate level GW Art Therapy program. Later aligned with the program’s newly established trauma track, the clinic evolved in response to a growing desire for art therapy-oriented services in the community.
Services are provided by grad students, who apply what they’ve learned in the classroom to outpatient treatment of trauma, mood issues and more. The current iteration of the clinic now serves more than 40 client outpatients every year.
District Fray sat down with visiting clinical coordinator, assistant professor and current clinic director Arika VanBrunt to learn more about the clinic’s work and explore ways Washingtonians can apply the clinic’s principles and practices in their everyday lives as a means of personal and communal healing.
District Fray: What makes art therapy an effective way to treat trauma?
Arika VanBrunt: Trauma is a whole body experience; it’s a physiological experience. Art therapy helps us engage the whole body and expression going past words. Art making helps us tap into that less conscious material and create something tangible. In therapy, trauma or not, it’s hard to talk about self. If we can put out there what we’re experiencing, then we have this tangible other to really sit with and process and see what’s coming up for us in a nonthreatening way — and follow that lead.
What makes D.C. such a unique place for this work to grow and evolve?
It’s an East Coast central city; the pace is fast and the expectations are high. Having the space to slow down, take a pulse and connect with others is really important. It’s also an expensive place to live and that makes things unaffordable, like mental health [care]. We have folks who are refugees; we have government folks coming in and out, impacted by political trauma and warfare overseas. Then we have issues coming up on the home front with feelings of racial unsafety. How do we create space to connect, grow and heal?
How can people apply the principles of art therapy to their everyday lives?
The big thing is setting aside the time to check in and take a pulse on our needs and thinking about what’s working for you and what’s not. What community resources are there if you’re feeling alone, disconnected from your body, or like you don’t have a place to release your feelings or identify what’s coming up for you. Artmaking can be a really grounding process. Let’s normalize that we all need creativity and self-care, whether that’s breath tracing or creating and destroying. And if people can tap into some of the artmaking in the community — if there are affordable opportunities for people to gather, connect and create a safe space to have a shared experience, it’s so powerful.
How can someone impart these approaches to others, like family, friends or strangers?
I think about modeling and taking the time to slow down together. What are those moments of taking a breath, stretching, moving in space? [There’s also] playful, joyous dancing — not all expression has to be visual. [There’s] storytelling within spaces and carrying on traditions and cherished tales. I think about creating traditional meals together or tapping into the neighbor next door who you know is alone — coming over with a plate of food, or just to saying hi or [bringing] flowers from outside. It’s about moving, being present and aware, and doing that in a space in a shared world.