October 28, 2022 | Tomer Eldor and Mathilde Scarlata, former Penn State undergraduate students

Professor Erin Carter

Every year, Penn State Professor Erin Carter, ATR-BC, teaches the course Introduction to Art Therapy to introduce undergraduates to the philosophical, pragmatic and historical bases of the field of art therapy. During the semester, students engage in art experiences, class discussions, case studies, and the study of artistic productions—all to explore the relationship between art and healing. 

We (Tomer Eldor and Mathilde Scarlata) took Professor Carter’s class during our senior year—for very different reasons. But we both completed the course with a better understanding of the intersection of art, mental health and well-being, and the community around us. We recommend to undergraduate students, regardless of their planned career path, to consider taking an art therapy class, or seeking out an art therapy session or even a community art project.

“For me, art has managed to provide that much needed silence, where the only thing that matters is me, my music, and the pencil in my hand—a moment of pure freedom and creativity.”

Tomer: When I first signed up for the course, I knew very little about art therapy. As an engineer, I thought I did not have a strong connection with artistic creativity as math and science seemed the complete opposites of art. Where one uses logic and numbers to prove a point, the other uses creativity and expression to show it. However, through this course, I learned more about art therapy and art’s integral part in my life. 

Throughout my childhood, it was very important for my parents to expose my sisters and me to various experiences and skills such as playing different sports, playing an instrument, and art. While some stuck longer than others, art has always been a constant in my life: from comic drawing classes in elementary school to ceramics and mandala drawings in middle school and metal arts in high school. While I would not describe myself as a brilliant artist or pursue it as a career, this art therapy course made me realize how peaceful and stress-free art makes me feel. Although an hour of quiet might not seem like much of an impact, nowadays, with the continuous use of technology and the constant need for gratification in the form of texts, likes, and notifications, an hour of quietness is rare. For me, art has managed to provide that much needed silence, where the only thing that matters is me, my music, and the pencil in my hand—a moment of pure freedom and creativity. I will continually utilize what I learned from this course and use art for self expression and stress relief. 

Photo of a nature mandala created using items found in nature. Students used the art-making process weekly to reflect upon coursework and life in general.

Mathilde: As an aspiring clinical psychologist, I enrolled in Introduction to Art Therapy out of an interest in exploring alternative therapeutic techniques beyond traditional methods of psychotherapy. I enjoyed the opportunity to learn the value of introducing the creative process into therapy, especially as a means of enabling individuals of varying levels of cognitive, verbal, and physical ability to engage in therapy. In addition, this class gave me the unique opportunity to interview a board-certified art therapist about their work and career paths, which was equally inspiring. 

I had the pleasure of speaking with Michaela Herr, a board-certified art therapist and licensed professional counselor in Philadelphia, PA. “I appreciate the work I am doing because it is so versatile and I can find joy in so many different things,” Michaela told me. “There are so many different things you can do under the umbrella of being an art therapist.” 

Michaela specializes in working with women and families and takes a holistic approach to therapy. “I have a different way of working with people… with the whole person. I integrate internal family systems work… and use cognitive behavioral therapy, yoga, and meditation. My practice is called Mindfully Rooted and I really do look for the root. Our society treats the symptom, it doesn’t look at the root. I try to listen to what people are saying and what is causing their issues.”

“The art in art therapy is about discovering the self and finding forms through which to bring out who you are with the goal of healing.”

Tomer: I had the opportunity of interviewing Rhonda Stern, a registered, board-certified art therapist and licensed professional counselor in State College, PA. Rhonda works largely with adults, mostly women, and some children and/or teens and their families, and a few college students as well. “I am inspired by seeing people recovering from difficult things in their lives—finding ways to recover their abilities for joy and healthy emotional expression and relationships,” Rhonda shared with me.

When working with children, Rhonda takes a family systems perspective and has a therapy session with the child and their family. By doing so, she can see the child’s interactions with their family members during the art-making process.

Rhonda also told me about the misconceptions about art therapy. “People sometimes think that I interpret everything the patients draw. The field has really shifted and it is not about analyzing every bit of the art and the image created, but rather about discovery, communication, and the processing of thoughts and emotions.” The reality is that people do not need to be artists in order to benefit from art therapy. “The art in art therapy is about discovering the self and finding forms through which to bring out who you are with the goal of healing.”

Mathilde: Michaela also identified some challenges and opportunities for growth for the profession. She believes more state schools should offer art therapy master’s programs (a requirement to practice), making the career more accessible and affordable. “It’s a huge disservice to have people come out of graduate school with large student loans and not make enough money to pay them off,” Michaela said. 

In addition, she stated that the field is currently predominantly comprised of white women. “We need to diversify so that minority groups, trans people, queer people, and people that identify as male are represented and integrated [into the profession]. People deserve to seek an art therapist and see themselves represented.”

Tomer: Rhonda also had good advice about the profession of art therapy, especially for students just starting out on the career path. “Allow yourself to experience a variety of jobs or volunteer opportunities which involve helping fields and interactions with people to see if you really like it.  Continue to be creative and explore what creativity means to you.”

“Working as an art therapist has been so rewarding for me, but it does require a kind of dream and belief in both the healing power of art and in one’s place in the field, in order to get through the challenges.” 

When considering an art therapy career, Rhonda also said to include the practical aspects, such as income and job opportunities, but also “look into your heart.” “Working as an art therapist has been so rewarding for me, but it does require a kind of dream and belief in both the healing power of art and in one’s place in the field, in order to get through the challenges.” 

Interestingly, both Michaela and Rhonda were never initially hired as art therapists. For Michaela, none of her jobs were posted. She just “showed up and created positions.” Similarly, Rhonda was hired as a family therapist, and later in her own private practice, began blending art therapy and counseling in a fluid creative way.

If you are interested in learning more about the profession, visit AATA’s Becoming an Art Therapist webpage. A master’s degree is necessary for entry-level practice in art therapy before attaining national credentialing and licensure (depending on the state of practice).

Learn more about Rhonda Stern, ATR-BC, LPC

Rhonda Stern is a registered, board-certified art therapist and licensed professional counselor in State College, PA. She works with all age groups, including children, teens, families and adults. For example, Rhonda works with college students to deal with trauma and identity issues. She also works with adults dealing with work stress and/or loss, children with anxiety. In addition, she is also an artist outside of her practice and especially loves sculpting with clay to express herself.  

Learn more about Michaela Herr, ATR-BC, LPC

Michaela Herr is a board-certified art therapist and licensed professional counselor in Philadelphia, PA. Through her business, Mindfully Rooted, she specializes in working with women and families and takes a holistic approach to therapy. Michaela has earned her B.A. in art therapy from Marywood University, and her M.A. in art therapy from Lesley University. On Instagram: @mindfully.rooted

About the Authors

Mathilde Scarlata is a recent graduate of the Schreyer Honors College of Penn State, where she earned her Bachelor of Science in Psychology. At Penn State, she enrolled in Introduction to Art Therapy out of an interest in expanding her knowledge of available therapeutic techniques. Mathilde will be continuing her education as a student in The University of Vermont’s Clinical Psychology Ph.D. Program. 

Tomer Eldor is a recent Penn State graduate (Class of 2021) with a bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering and a minor in Biomedical Engineering, as well as a Schreyer Honors College scholar. With extensive experience in the science and engineering fields through research, internships, and being a teaching assistant, she wanted to fulfill her Schreyer Honors College requirements in various fields and came across art therapy. By interviewing Art Therapist Rhonda Stern, she was able to glimpse into the world of art therapy and its impact within a professional and day-to-day setting.