The American Art Therapy Association represents a diversity of professionals, students, and organizations across the nation. We recognize and celebrate the work of our members at all levels through our Featured Member series.
Leonard Gerald Lambert, ATR-BC, LMSW
Known as the “King of Process” by his friends, Leonard Lambert’s career in art therapy has been quite the journey. Leonard was among the first black male art therapy students to graduate from Pratt Institute. In 1979, he completed his thesis, Stonecarving: A Projective and Creative Modality for the Drug User, working with groups at a Substance Abuse facility. After working as an art therapist for behavioral health at Harlem Hospital and receiving his ATR board certification, Leonard decided to switch career paths to practice social work. Ten years later, he was called back to art therapy. Now conducting art therapy through Zoom interactions, he is excited to connect with other male art therapists and explore the “percolating” ideas within him. In addition to his passion for art therapy, Leonard has been a proud member of the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity for 37 years and serves as his chapter’s scholarship coordinator.
We asked Leonard about his career as a black art therapist and to reflect on Black History Month. Our conversation has been shortened to fit the Featured Member format.
Your career is unique in that you have recently returned to the art therapy profession after serving several years as a social worker. What inspired you to return, and how has the experience been?
At the time I was getting started in the ’70s, art therapy was in a very different place, as it was just emerging as a profession. I loved working in the field, but there was little opportunity for financial and professional growth. I felt stuck, like I did not have a ladder to climb. I switched to social work and enjoyed advancing in that career, but I still utilized art therapy when the situation called for it. Recent correspondence with staff at AATA, ATCB, and NYATA, interactions with art therapy colleagues, and attending Zoom presentations sparked my return to art therapy. The new ideas presented on medical and social topics have inspired new hands-on art therapy activities. As I begin this new chapter as an art therapist, I feel much more comfortable and confident with myself.
Could you elaborate on your experiences as an art therapy student and how you persisted?
When I was a student, I had peers express their discomfort with me—a black man—being in the classroom. In response, I felt responsible to do the heavy lifting to make sure people were comfortable in my presence. My race also made it challenging to secure field placements. On the phone, everyone loved me, but it was a different story when I would show up to interviews. After they saw me in person, the job was suddenly filled. My experiences gravitated me towards working with foreign students, as they also had difficulty securing field placements based on their differences, whether it be their looks, language, or culture.
What do you hope to see as the practice of art therapy evolves?
I want to see more great opportunities and possibilities for art therapy professionals and students. For professionals, I hope to see more licensure legislation that increases employment options and improves pay scales. I don’t want other students to feel stuck when starting. I hope to see more of a ladder that leads to student internships and, eventually, worthwhile career experiences/options/salaries with health insurance, and retirement benefits. Finally, I want it to become easier for men, especially black men in the field, to make connections and form a sense of community.
As we honor Black history, we acknowledge the importance of amplifying and supporting Black art therapists and the invaluable contributions they have and continue to make to our field. Are there any specific ways you would say you celebrate your racial/ethnic/cultural identities?
During Black History month, I always reflect on the Black art therapists who inspired, influenced, and supported me as I entered the art therapy profession. One of my biggest mentors was Cliff Joseph, a black male professor, artist, and muralist. Meeting a black man while taking my first steps into art therapy showed me what I could achieve. I met very few other black art therapists throughout my career, so it became imperative that my contributions inspired fellow “thrill seekers”—black men and women blazing trails by using art-making as a treatment modality.
Are there ways in which you use art to honor your culture or heritage?
My artistic creations are almost always crafted to include my culture and heritage. During school, I created costumes for Shakespeare’s Macbeth that were Afro-centric. I especially enjoyed making Lady Macbeth’s costume, which included bracelets, head wraps, generous uses of fabrics and drapery, earrings, and lots of attention to detail on the finishings.