Art Therapy Outreach Center Gives Trauma Victims the Chance to Create and Heal

by | Oct 20, 2015 | Culture, Editor's Pick


Many Faces in the World by Nina Photo: Courtesy of Art Therapy Outreach Center

On 23rd Street between Second and Third Avenues, banners advertising the School of Visual Arts (SVA) line the street with bright pops of color. Years prior, these same banners caught the eye of David Wasserman, who had moved his office to the area and was in search of artwork to put on his new walls. Not a fan of commercial art or “fox-hunt pictures” that generally adorn corporate hallways and boardrooms, Wasserman contacted SVA with a proposal.

“He called and said, ‘I have an art budget. How about I make a donation to the school for scholarships and, in return, you give me some original student art? At the end of the school year the students can have it back and, if everyone’s happy, we’ll do it again next year,’” explains Martha Dorn, executive director of the Art Therapy Outreach Center.

SVA agreed to the deal and Wasserman began to receive his rounds of student artwork. At one point he received pieces from students in the master’s program for art therapy. After inquiring about what exactly art therapy was to the department, he learned that is was being used to help trauma survivors. He also learned that they were under budget on a project that would offer art therapy to female veterans. Wasserman underwrote the budget, saving the project and beginning the process that would eventually lead to the inception of the Art Therapy Outreach Center in 2010 when he retired.

“He knew he was going to be retiring soon and he wanted the next chapter to be about doing good and having fun while doing it,” recalls Dorn, who was hired as the center’s first employee in September, 2011.

Today, the Art Therapy Outreach Center (ATOC) provides free art therapy programs to qualifying individuals. Partnering with a long list of groups who help identify which clients would be ideal candidates for the therapy, the center provides licensed, board certified art therapists and all the supplies needed to conduct the programs. They even offer metro cards to ensure that clients can get the help they need, even if they can’t afford transportation costs. About a third of the art therapy programming takes place at ATOC’s primary location on SVA’s campus while the remaining programs happen off site at partnering locations.

Since opening its doors in 2011, the center has seen impressive growth, beginning with three groups and 48 clients in 2011 and ballooning to 26 groups with 800 clients last year.

“Part of the reason that we’ve had such explosive growth is that we are the only non profit in New York that is dedicated to providing free art therapy to trauma survivors, so there is a wait list,” Dorn enthuses.


Footprints by JL Photo: Courtesy of Art Therapy Outreach Center

Art therapy is a particularly beneficial to trauma survivors because creativity and trauma recollection happen in the same part of the brain.

Dorn explains, “The reason it has been shown to help trauma survivors is because we all store our traumatic memories as visuals. And the portion of your brain where you store those is also the part of the brain you use when you create art.”

When patients create art, they are able to access that part of the brain that recalls and recognizes trauma. With the guidance of an art therapist, patients can begin to process their traumatic events and communicate in a way that they may not be able to in traditional talk therapy sessions.

Patients are divided into therapy groups based around shared traumatic experiences so that they can create art in a safe, trustworthy environment. Each program is tailored specifically to the clients needs; even the artistic mediums are specific to each case. Depending on the clients’ scenarios, they will be given pencils/ paper, watercolors, clay, etc.

The care that the center offers is ongoing, meaning that they do not see clients based on a finite amount of sessions. Some of their original clients are still involved in programs and they are more than happy to welcome back clients who have moved on but would like to come back.

To honor their clients’ artwork and raise money for future programs, ATOC is hosting their annual Autumn Affair on November 5. The event will take place at the Helen Mills Event Space and will feature an exhibit of client artwork. There will also be cocktails, a silent auction and a “wine wall,” where guests can purchase corks and receive a corresponding bottle of wine, ranging from $20 to $150 in value. There will also be a limited number of photographs that have been donated by amateur photographers who use their photo-taking skills as therapeutic means. All proceeds from the event will go towards ATOC’s materials and resources that allow their many clients to heal.

Those who would like to inquire about partnering with ATOC can visit their website to reach out. They also give information on how to volunteer, donate or how to potentially become involved in a program.

-by Johanna Silver

Downtown Magazine