In this Featured Member series, AATA celebrates the work of our members.
June 1, 2021
What does Pride Month mean to you?
Months like Pride Month offer up a symbolic demonstration of respect for specific groups or causes. Alone these symbolic offerings are of little meaning if they are not backed up by continuing human progress leading to mutual respect and understanding. My struggle is in solidarity with so many others who face discrimination, people of color, women and those targeted for their ethnic origin or religious beliefs.
I am of the Stonewall generation. I went to high school in the early 1960’s. It was a time when I knew and understood my sexual desire was out of the so-called normal range. As a teen there were no positive role models for how to maneuver life as a gay man. There were men who were attracted to other men for certain — I surely encountered them. But these men were labeled perverts. I tried with all my heart to fit into the heterosexual mode of masculinity that presented itself through my schools and family. Fortunately, despite my efforts, I was unable to comply with the masculine codes of my generation.
I was popular, smart and hard-working. I had many friends but also significant detractors and experienced bullying in high school. A group of my peers often followed me down the hall mocking the way I walked. Their term for me was “sissy”. Without the teachers and friends who cared about me I am not sure I could have negotiated the pain this caused.
At the time of the Stonewall March, in my early twenties, I was living in NYC and active in marches against the Viet Nam War and the reactionary policies of the Nixon Administration. I walked alongside the vibrant and inspiring ‘Drag Queens’ who were the heart of the Stonewall movement. I recall this so personally because it seemed that one day a gigantic door opened and nearly every person I knew came out of the closet. Everyone but me. I resisted, steeped in the fear I’d be rejected by my family. It took me several more years of emotional pain and upheaval before I had the courage to own my journey.
But once I moved into an honest place inside myself, an entire reckoning occurred. I did experience familial rejection, but I also found vast reserves of acceptance, that eventually extended to my family. I am now happily married to my partner Robert (husband is still a hard term to embrace) for 37 years. We are firmly ensconced in both of our families.
Is art therapy uniquely suited for working with LGBTQIA communities? Why?
Along the way there was a great deal of consternation, even suicidal thoughts and, yes, therapy really helped me through much of that. I did not seek art therapy as it was not an option back then. A good therapist, art or otherwise is a godsend. For me personally, I now firmly believe in art therapy. Verbal therapy was useful but ethereal and felt theoretical. Art therapy, to me, is practical and demonstrable. Art allowed me to see and apply clear pathways to healing.
I entered the graduate art therapy program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1987 and immediately identified myself as a gay man in my classes. That was essential in my mind, to becoming an ethical and honest therapist. I experienced unconditional acceptance from the faculty and my peers, and I was not alone as an LGBTQ+ individual. I felt I had found a home in the art therapy field.
I had a rather rude awakening when I attended my first national conference in Denver Colorado in the early 1990’s, shortly after graduation. That conference had the first focus group for gay and lesbian art therapists. It was sanctioned by the AATA Board and Randy Vick, a director, sent a basket of fruit welcoming the group. To many of us that was a humorous but welcoming gesture. However, I was astounded by what I heard at the meeting. My colleagues were frightened to even sign an attendance roster so we could communicate with each other after the conference. Women especially told stories of direct discrimination they experienced. That awakening came as a shock but AATA reflected society at that time. To AATA’s enormous credit so much has changed.
As a gay man and member of the Ethics Committee during the last US Presidential Administration, I was a part of a team that wrote a position paper on Conversion Therapy, a therapy, to radically change someone’s sexual orientation. Over thirty years I have witnessed that AATA has evolved. We were now openly confronting the treatment of LGBTQ+ individuals and all forms of discrimination.
I practiced art therapy as an artist who put the art central to treatment. After years of working in psychiatric institutions, including managing an Expressive Therapy Department, I opened my own art therapy private practice, eventually housed in a store front studio. That environment felt like taking therapy into an open, light filled arena. I created an environment that might not work for everyone but for me and the clients I served, it was optimal. Since the beginning of my career, I was out as a gay man, and I valued openness.
Much of your career was spent in an inpatient setting during the height of the HIV/AIDs epidemic. Can you share a bit about that experience?
I taught in the SAIC graduate art therapy program for nearly 10 years, and in my practice, had various contracts, children in domestic violence, adults with substance use issues, a rape crisis center, adults with developmental disabilities and loved every part of my work. But the work that was the closest to my heart was my work with the HIV/AIDS community.
My first major internship in graduate school was on a hospital AIDS unit. This was early in the AIDS epidemic and nearly all my patients died from the disease, as did two of my dearest friends and countless others, back then mostly gay men. The work was emotionally challenging on a personal and professional level. At times it was very hard to witness the many ways their young bodies were failing them. The one question I got most often about my work was, “Isn’t it depressing working with people who have a terminal illness?” First, HIV/AIDS was slowly becoming a manageable illness even though death still occasionally happened. And second, my response was “No, it was not depressing.” These men and women understood the preciousness of life. In the early days after diagnosis, they were asked to prepare their wills and funerals as they would only have months to live. When a human being is faced with the absolute end to life the best possible outcome comes when the person understands that all life is lived one breath at a time. If we all lived in that mindset, I suggest the world might be in a far better place.
It became a personal mission to work with the men and women who lived with this illness and who inspired me on a daily basis. Artists with HIV/AIDS came to my studio for two hours every week. The underlying basis of our association was their illness and the art we made in the studio. But over a twenty-year span, we created a community of artists who cared deeply for each other. Men and women came through the doors of my studio, sat around the tables and made their own inspired art. I facilitated the group. I did not direct their art making. All the while our hands were engaged with materials, we talked about everything and anything that was important to them. We laughed, cried and encouraged each other to explore our creative urges. We had art critiques and regular public exhibits, that both educated the public about HIV/AIDS and eventually offered income for the artists. Those exhibits also promoted an interesting increase in personal self-esteem for everyone who participated, including me.
This confluence of art, therapy and creative genius was the ultimate experience for me and fulfilled a life-long goal to be useful in a world that suffered from hate and misunderstanding. Art therapy was the vehicle for this confluence, and I will forever be grateful for my career.
Dan Anthon, MA, ATR-BC, LCPC
Mr. Anthon is an artist, art therapist and clinical counselor who worked in the field of art therapy for nearly 32 years. He developed a private practice that represented his core belief in the healing power of art making that was housed in a store-front art studio. He taught in the Graduate Art Therapy Department, at the School of Art Institute of Chicago and consulted at various agencies including: Better Existence with HIV; Center on Halsted; Test Positive Aware Network; Haymarket Center; Quetzal Rape Crisis Center; Safe Passage (Domestic Violence); and currently, Back to the Beat (art and music). Dan has curated many art exhibitions of his own and his clients and facilitated useful community interactions that expanded conversations related to mental illness, substance use disorders, trauma, domestic violence, and HIV/AIDS. The Magic Carpet Ride: Art Therapy in the Real World is a book he is soon to submit for publication. The book illustrates the efficacy of art therapy predominantly through his own artwork, often done beside his clients.
Mr. Anthon is an active member of AATA, the Illinois Art Therapy Association (IATA) and the Florida Art Therapy Association (FATA). He has served as the President, President-Elect, Treasurer, and Local Conference Chair of IATA. Nationally, he served on the committee to create the first BC exam, on the AATA Art Committee as chair and member, and on the Ethics Committee. He co-facilitated one of the first AATA national art exhibitions in the Chicago Loop at the Thompson Center and performed at an opening session of the national conference at the Chicago Palmer House Hotel. He has also participated in AATA conferences, as a proposal reviewer and presenter.