Art Therapy Education: ‘Winter White’ at Adler University

MCP: Art Therapy Students Bring Peace to Community

By Dr. Duanita G. Eleniak, Program Director MCP: Art Therapy Program, Adler University (Vancouver BC)

For MCP: Art Therapy Students at Adler University in Vancouver, Canada, training begins "at home" in Studio One, the classroom that became an art studio for the new degree program in counseling and art therapy.

As part of their initial training, students in the program learn to serve the community by doing a Social Justice Practicum (SJP), where they go into agencies and countries in need and provide whatever help is necessary.

When the MCP: Art Therapy program began, the Dean, Dr. Larry Axelrod, thought it would be a good idea to offer a SJP and service to our very own school community by opening Studio One to our staff, faculty, alumni and students from all of the programs. With Meg Pinfield, MA, RCC (Adler Alumni) as site supervisor, the MCP: Art Therapy students began providing Open Studios for the school community. Little did they know when they began what absolute wonders this idea would bring to the school and to the field of art therapy education.

"Winter White" Semester Wrap-Up Open Studio

Studio One was dark, lit only by candlelight when I entered to attend the final Open Studio of the year. It was a Saturday afternoon in December; a rainy day in Vancouver, Canada. The sunlight coming through the wall of floor-to-ceiling windows was minimal at best.

The mood and atmosphere created was subdued. Moments before, I had been giving an introduction of the new MCP: Art Therapy program to the public that attended the Open House which our Admissions Team so wonderfully prepared. Part of me was still in "promo" mood, wanting to spark liveliness and excitement at this wrap-up party. I wanted more light yet I knew that the overhead lights were our only other option and if I were to turn them on it would change everything.

As I relaxed into the vibration that the students and their brilliant site supervisor had set, I realized that I was getting the same feeling that I got when I walked in the moonlight in fresh-fallen snow. There was a pregnant hush in the air. There was a softening and stillness in the world they had created which gave me the feeling of pure peace.

My heart overflowed with joy when I realized that these incredible students had worked with aesthetics — line, shape and colour — in order to create an environment which induced a feeling of peace that was palpable to all who entered the space.

One of the teachings in our program comes from my art therapy mentor and current Adjunct Faculty Dr. Marie-Josť Dhaese who said, “Our space can do 90% of the work for us in the therapeutic setting”. I have often pondered how to teach such a sublime concept. And yet, as I settled into the experience that the students had created in their final Open Studio of their first semester I could see that these students ‘got it’ and were able to actualize this concept that we had studied during the semester.

They had set up a common table in the middle of Studio One where people were gathered making art in a relaxed way. Along one wall was a buffet of entirely white-coloured treats, which aligned with the white theme of the party. Next to the treats were pots of tea on their warmers and the beautiful china teacups which have been bringing comfort to our community throughout the semester; these china teacups have become a signature of Studio One. They are often commented upon and their beauty marveled at by those who took time to come and create and have a cup of tea in one of our Open Studios during the semester.

It was so fulfilling as a teacher to watch the MCP: Art Therapy students fresh out of their first semester of training move with increased confidence as they welcomed and met the needs of all who entered this final Open Studio of 2014.

First came the Admissions staff with a group of prospective students and their families who were on a tour of the school after attending the Open House. I watched as the MCP: Art Therapy students (who had been made aware that such a tour was going to happen) worked as a team to make these people feel welcome. The MCP: Art Therapy student who had been elected prior to the tour coming in to act as leader for the experience got up out of her seat and encouraged the group forward, to have all of them totally enter the space. Very often people will simply stand at the door or come in only a little way and gentle encouragement is needed to bring them forward into the experience.

In her “Winter White” fur hat (and with the large gestures that only a counselor interested in movement and art therapy can do), Leanne Bird directed the groups attention to the 2014 Cohort Mandala which the students created on the very first day of their program only months earlier. With ease and in the spirit of fun, the MCP: Art Therapy students shared their experience of the program with these newcomers who were peeking into this world of Adler University and art therapy. The prospective students gained valuable answers to their questions of what life was like as a student in the MCP: Art Therapy program. Even more important, just by being in that Open Studio environment they gained a full body experience of what our students are capable of doing and what our Adler community in the school is all about!

The second miracle I saw during those magical hours at Winter White happened when a student who had just experienced a powerful event in her personal life wandered into the Open Studio in shock. It was as if she had been hit by a truck, and just before she had written all of her final exams. I watched as the MCP: Art Therapy students flew into action. I sat and wished that I could record what I saw for YouTube since it was so beautiful. They sat the student down and began a dance behind and to the side of her. As the student sat and spoke of her woes, the MCP: Art Therapy students placed by her hand a cup of tea, in front of her some paper, by the other side of her some pens and paints. They placed her in a healing bubble with everything that she needed to calm and ground herself literally at her fingertips. I watched the MCP: Art Therapy students move in silence, knowing they were providing the tools of relief. I saw the colour come back into the student’s face as she talked and created, and allowed the healing energy of Winter White to soothe her very being.

Conversation turned to wondering about the new students who would arrive in the program in September, 2015. Discussion began about creating a Mentorship Program in which the 2014 Cohort students would mentor the new people coming in. As the ideas flowed, two students doing their doctoral work in the school’s Psychology program poked their heads in the door. I watched as the MCP: Art Therapy students moved into action; working with their well-honed Adlerian skills of encouragement, I watched as they drew the two students into the space.

The PsyD students had been burning the midnight oil for days as they did their studying for semester’s end. They began as most people do, by saying why they could not come into the studio for even a moment. They had studying to do. They had too much work. They were too stressed out.

As they resisted I watched the MCP: Art Therapy students work their magic. They listened to them and their anxious thoughts while at the same time moving with intentionality and sureness. It was their job in the Open Studio to provide a moment’s relief for these students and to assist them in self-care, knowing how hard it is to remember to take care of oneself especially in crunch times like semester’s end in a doctoral program.

It brought a tear to my eye to see these MCP: Art Therapy students take such gentle care of their colleagues in the PsyD program. I thought, “It is at school where we must learn to take care of each other. It is at school where we must remember to teach ourselves and our colleagues to take care of ourselves. It is at school where we must have an experience of being reminded to take a moment for self-care.”

I listened to the PsyD students’ words and could hear them as mine especially at times when I have a mountain of work to accomplish. I heard them give all the good reasons why they had no time. No time for fun; for interesting conversation; for a cup of tea; to take care of themselves; to relax; to enjoy; to love life; to regenerate; to imagine; to be peaceful. Just no time.

I watched and participated as several of us stood up to match the busy students in their standing posture just inside the door of Studio One. They told us how their life was as doctoral students and how they needed to just work and focus on getting back to their studies. We listened while we moved with our knowing that their studies were about to go so much better for them because they actually were taking five minutes to stand in the atmosphere created in Studio One. They were at that very moment standing in, breathing in, relaxing in, and absorbing the peace of Winter White.

We gave oranges and our “free range eggs” to them as they went to the student lounge to study. We listened as they debriefed about the lack of sleep they were getting and the level of pressure they were feeling as they moved through academia. As counselors we listened deeply. In a most natural way, the MCP: Art Therapy students practiced the microskills of counseling and the doctoral students returned to their work refreshed.

Days later I bumped into these same two PsyD students by the elevators. I had just interviewed a prospective 2015 MCP: Art Therapy student so I introduced them to her. I cannot even describe in words the love that welled up in my heart as these same two students told the prospective student how wonderful the MCP: Art Therapy program is and how much the Open Studios do for them and for their fellow students in their program. Then one of the students turned to look directly at me in the eye and she said with the utmost of conviction, “Those Open Studios are a life-saver!” I was moved beyond words! How I appreciated that encounter. It affirmed all we were doing as faculty, staff and students in the brand new program. Who could ask any better of a program evaluation?! (Now how do you capture that quantitatively?)

A Social Justice Practicum Experience

How does providing Open Studios like this relate to social justice? How does it relate to therapy and healing?

Einstein once said, “No problem can be solved by staying at the same level of consciousness as created it.” In current-day academia, one of the biggest problems is the stress and pressure felt by the community as we learn, grow, and change through sharing and integrating new ideas. Instead of ‘fighting stress’, Open Studios move those who enter to a whole new level of thought by creating an experience of peace. It is crucial that our students know how to create an experience of peace and well-being since these are the actual endpoint of most efforts at social action.

Within such an atmosphere of peace I experienced the wonderful conversations that can be born in a realm where imagination can take foot. They are art therapy conversations at their best with groups of like-minded people sitting (or spontaneously dancing, since I have personally witnessed an art therapy student bounce up from the table and take a twirl around the room when inspired by an idea), and coming up with wonderful ideas. At Winter White, conversation turned to ways we could fundraise for money for SJP sites that had great need yet no money for art supplies. An idea was born to hold “Adler in Wonderland,” a mad-hatter tea party with an Adlerian theme where we would auction teacups and the funds raised would go for art supplies for those in need.

Connecting to Theory, Research and Microskills

It is sometimes difficult to pull back from such wonderful experiences and make the connections to the theory, the learning and the research in the field. This is especially so when therapy is done to such a sublime level of expertise that it just seems so simple, as if anyone can do it.

It takes focus and discernment to remember to see the elements of what goes into the smooth flow of sublime creative energy which develops such an environmental vessel of inspiration. Yet as a teacher and particularly as a Program Director it is crucial for me to hold such a perspective. It is crucial to remain conscious of the elements that the students pulled together so that they can be taught as best as possible. I need to be able to teach the elements so that the MCP: Art Therapy students become aware of what they are doing, why they are doing it, what their goals are, what skills they are employing, the impact it has on people, how healing happens, how an environment impacts, how relationships impact, how focus on the higher frequency emotions (love, peace and joy) brings balance and healing to the world that we live in.

After the Winter White Open Studio I was having a conversation with the Adjunct Faculty that had helped to open Studio One just months earlier, Dr. Evangeline Rand. She was enquiring as to how the students were doing. When I described what I had seen and experienced at Winter White she wisely noted, “They are becoming healers.”


Peace. What a wonderful feeling to bring to an academic community precisely at the end of term; the time of the semester which is inherently the most stressful for everyone in the community. I liken it to harvest time on the prairies; there is a LOT of work that absolutely has to get done. The crops we have been tending to all year, that we seeded at the beginning of the semester, have ripened and now we need to carefully gather and store all we learned for use at a later date when we are out of this magnificent learning environment and out there in the trenches — often alone — doing the work we were trained to do.

I like to imagine the peace that the MCP: Art Therapy students created through the Winter White Open Studio as a vibrational heart, gently pumping peace throughout the world and beyond. I like to imagine the peace of Winter White flooding our wonderful school, the energy and vibration moving into all of the classrooms, the community room, offices, student lounge, bathrooms, reception areas, taping rooms and, of course, our wonderful library. I love to imagine the vibrations emanating from our school into the building, flooding downtown Vancouver with peace – soothing all those in the downtown eastside at the practicum sites that so kindly create space to train our students. And then I love to imagine it moving beyond, into the world, to soothe all those in need of a moment of peace.

When I imagine in this way, I wonder to myself how anyone could question how this Open Studio has anything to do with bringing Social Justice to the world? How can anyone not see how powerful it is to train students to be able to bring peace to the world by beginning at home? To first create peace in the very community in which they are learning and growing, to use all the verbal and meta-verbal skills they are developing to help themselves and their colleagues to enter their own Winter White peace spaces in order that they know the state of feeling that they want to be able to bring others to with extreme skill.

We can only take our clients as far as we ourselves go. We are the tools. We are able to create peace in the anxious, pressure-filled, end-of-term-time in academia. If we can do this, well ... imagine what we can do outside of the ivory tower!

Dedicated to the brilliant students in the Cohort of 2014, the very first cohort of the MCP: Art Therapy Program at Adler University (Vancouver, BC).

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