Martha Dorn, Executive Director of The Art Therapy Project, on Art Making and Talk Therapy as Medicine

Name: Martha Dorn
Title: Executive Director, The Art Therapy Project 
Based in: New York City
Martha Dorn

With over 30 years serving in the nonprofit sector, Martha Dorn currently serves as the Executive Director of New York based mental health and art therapy services organization, The Art Therapy Project, having overseen its growth and impact since 2011.

1. In your own words, describe who you are. 

I’m a nonprofit administrator and development professional focused on improving the quality of life for others. 

2. Can you describe The Art Therapy Project and what types of clients you serve? 

The Art Therapy Project is the only nonprofit organization in New York City dedicated to providing free group art therapy to adults and youth affected by trauma. Using the art-making process and with support from our art therapists, clients learn how to explore feelings, increase self-awareness and cope with life’s challenges.

Our clients are veterans; survivors of sexual assault and intimate partner violence; individuals with substance use and addition challenges; 9/11 survivors; the LGBQTIA+ community and at-risk youth including those in foster care; homeless; court-involved; and many who are growing up with constant exposure to domestic violence, drug use and gang activity.

Remembrance of Peace, male veterans group

3. What are the benefits of art therapy? 

Art therapy uses the creative process in combination with talk therapy to address emotional, behavioral or situational issues. It offers a unique way to confront and manage challenges, oftentimes more easily than through traditional talk therapy. Traumatic memories are difficult to verbalize and, in fact, are stored in our brain as visuals, which is why art therapy can be a highly effective treatment for traumatized individuals.

There are numerous articles and publications that delve into the neuroscience behind art therapy, the American Art Therapy Association monthly journal is a great resource.

4. What initiatives are you observing right now that are popularizing art therapy? 

With the country in lockdown due to COVID-19, there has been an enormous increase in discussions around mental health, mindfulness and self-care. The coloring book phenomenon, while not art therapy, stems from people experiencing how using coloring books can be therapeutic in alleviating stress. The uptick in people embracing creative pastimes during this crisis, whether making art, cooking or knitting, is very encouraging as these activities help us manage our stress and improve our mood.

5. Would you be open to sharing a story about one of your clients who has made significant progress using art therapy? 

We have worked with more than 7,000 clients since opening our doors in 2011 and I am proud that there are many stories about clients who have made progress to move beyond the traumatic experiences that brought them to us originally. 

As a child, one of our clients had been on the receiving end of constant aggressive and abusive behaviors. She joined the military in an effort to escape with hopes that the military would also support her education and provide her with opportunities to improve her situation. Instead, she discovered that for women, the military could be an equally unsupportive and abusive environment.  She learned that within the service, women frequently endure sexism and abuse at the hands of male officers and superiors. 

After painting over 50 pieces of art, all with just hearts, she said the repetitive creation of hearts helped to relieve her anxiety, an anxiety driven by thoughts and feelings that she was not loved, didn’t know how to love and didn’t deserve to be loved. After she participated in a special photo art therapy module and was shown a new painting technique by her art therapist, the client created two pieces of art without hearts. She could not explain it herself, but it was an example of the progress she was making. The Art Therapy Project provided this client with a sense of community, a sense of security and the hope of improving her relationships with others in the future.

Our client told her art therapist that she hangs a new piece of her art in her hallway at home each month, a ritual that she has come to look forward to. Her choice to hang her art reflects both her pride in her work as well as an increasing sense of her own value.

6. As a leading therapy practice in NYC, The Art Therapy Project strives to be active as a thought leader. What would you like to have the community understand about art therapy? 

Art therapy is a master’s level mental health profession in which clients, facilitated by the art therapist, use art media, the creative process and the resulting artwork to improve or restore a client’s functioning and sense of personal well-being. Its unique combination of psychotherapy and art techniques can help clients: explore feelings, reconcile emotional conflicts, foster self-awareness, manage behavior and addictions, develop social skills, improve reality orientation, reduce anxiety and increase self-esteem. Art therapy is about the process of creating art, not the finished product. No artistic skills are necessary.

7. You’ve mentioned that the Art Therapy project is the only nonprofit organization in New York dedicated to using art therapy among marginalized groups. Why do you think there isn’t more art therapy?

Having an art therapist on staff is expensive and many organizations are unable to afford it. Our program model is designed to help fill the gap. We partner with other nonprofits who then identify which of their clients would most benefit from receiving art therapy. We provide licensed, board-certified art therapists and all of the art supplies.

8. During COVID-19, how successful has The Art Therapy Project been in offering digital mental health services such as conducting tele-health art therapy sessions? How do you think this will change the teletherapy landscape going forward? 

It’s a challenging time. Because of the crisis, and the social distancing guidelines for non-essential workers, so many mental health programs have been suspended, even though supporting mental health is more essential now than ever. The Art Therapy Project is now offering daily art therapy groups online and hope to increase our offerings in the coming weeks. These tele-art therapy sessions focus on fostering social support, developing new coping skills and providing a positive emotional outlet during these difficult times. Our individual, fee-for-service program, The Art Therapy Practice has also transitioned to providing tele-art therapy sessions for anyone seeking support.

9. Describe your wellness regimen. What are some steps you take for your mental, physical, and/or spiritual health?

I make a point of turning off all electronics at least an hour before getting into bed and I minimize checking emails and even answering the phone on weekends. I do Pilates a couple of times a week. I do make art and embroider, and also, when necessary, allow myself to do nothing.

10. Given that you’ve spent over 30 years in the nonprofit space, what advice would you give to other individuals working in the nonprofit or social impact space on how to avoid burnout? 

I am incredibly mission-driven and have chosen my positions carefully so that my motivation comes from deep within me. The fact that I love what I do helps tremendously. 

Knowing when to rest and finding ways to recharge is key. In general, I am pretty good about knowing when I need to take time for myself. I recharge by spending time with friends, visiting museums, cooking, reading and doing crossword puzzles.  

11. Letters to My Younger Self: If you had any advice to give your younger self, what would it be? 

Hang in there! There is an awful lot of work to be done.

Learn more about The Art Therapy Project here and here.

Interview by Susan Yoomin Im and Theophila Lee

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