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Heidi Bardot’s passion for art and its healing ability has taken her around the world as director of Columbian College’s Art Therapy Graduate Program. Having been born and lived in Lebanon for 18 years, her cultural sensitivity on issues involving resiliency, post-traumatic stress, grief, self-care, and battlefield exposure has helped bring new awareness to her students, many of whom have traveled with Bardot to places like India and South Africa to work collaboratively with peer groups in the field of art therapy. Closer to home, Bardot provides therapy to women, children, and adolescents through Capital Hospice and her private practice, Creative Counseling, LLC. This month, we caught up with Bardot to learn more about art therapy, the graduate program she directs, and what drives Bardot’s interest in the field.
Describe the field of art therapy and how the use of drawing, painting, and sculpture can help heal the mind.
Art Therapy is a form of therapy and counseling that allows for verbal and nonverbal expression of thoughts and emotions. When patients transform their thoughts and feelings into tangible images, they can explore them from a different perspective and in a non-threatening manner, which they may not find through traditional talk therapy. For example, when I work with a child, the art provides a method to communicate feelings that he or she may not have the words to express. The child can talk about the metaphor in the image rather than speaking to me about their own deep pain. The creation of art can be healing in and of itself, and can create a therapeutic alliance and connection between client, therapist, and artwork.
Because the media can directly influence the course of the session—i.e., finger paints and soft clay might be too loose and cause the person to regress; chalk pastels might be too messy; pencils might be too restrictive—there needs to be a strong foundational understanding of art materials, their uses and their limitations.
Art therapy also requires a thorough understanding of psychology. Art can reach deep-seated issues and emotionally affect a client; therefore, art therapists are clinically prepared to deal with issues that are brought up in sessions and are trained to provide methods that explore those issues and heal the emotions. Art therapy has been shown to be beneficial with any age and most diagnoses and populations.
What makes your program unique?
The main aspect of our program that sets us apart is that we are student-focused. Our professors get to know each student individually and support them throughout the program as students and future colleagues.
At our state-of-the art space in Alexandria, VA, we provide a 61-credit program that integrates training in trauma, research, diversity, clinical theories, and identity as an artist and art therapist.
We require trauma training—essential training for any future art therapist—in the second year of graduate study. It includes individual work with clients in our on-site community clinic and case consultation with experienced therapists. This allows students to utilize the trauma theories and techniques they are currently learning in their work with clients.
In addition to our clinical training, our students exhibit their artwork in our Art Therapy Gallery. The gallery also has juried exhibits that host local art therapists, promoting the fact that our program is both clinically and artistically based.
Every summer, you’ve taken a group of students to a foreign country to broaden the educational experience. What are your students learning from this exposure to other cultures?
It has always been a goal of mine to broaden our students' perspectives so they recognize that there is a world out there that is open and excited about art therapy and desperately needing support. Through our summer abroad program, we have taken students to France, India, and South Africa over the course of the past six years. The main focus of this social and cultural diversity experience is to learn how to work with people from other countries, and also learn how to create new, culturally sensitive forms of art therapy that take into account the heritage, history, beliefs, and attitudes of the native population. We focus a lot on self-awareness, biases, stereotypes, and personal cultural history to recognize what is influencing each student in their interactions with others. The trip is always life changing for each student, as well as myself. There is always more to learn.
Art is your passion. How are you staying connected with the field on both a professional and personal level?
Art has always been in my life and, realistically, art therapy has been as well. I have an undergraduate degree from the Rhode Island School of Design and continue to paint, photograph, collage, and sculpt as a means to express my unconscious, explore my emotions, and heal my soul. If you ask any artist this question, you will probably hear the same response: art is something we need to do, it is a part of us, it is our form of therapy.
I tell my students, ‘you need to be in therapy to be a therapist and you need to do art to be an art therapist.’ All of the faculty in our program practice what we preach. We have faculty art days, workshops, and retreats where we create art. We exhibit in our gallery and recognize that creating art keeps us connected to our field and to ourselves.
What advice do you have for students interested in pursuing art therapy as a career?
So many times when I meet with potential students there is this light in their eyes, this "ah-ha" moment when all of their interests have come together—their love of art, their interest in psychology, their wish to help people—and they discover that art therapy allows them to combine them all. Art therapy is still a calling, you will most likely not get rich and famous in this field; however, you will wake up every morning excited to go to work, excited to do what you were meant to do. I have mentors in the field who are in their 70s and 80s and still practicing art therapy—still doing what they love and still making a difference.