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Why I Chose My Initiative, Art Therapy: Healing with the HeART

I first became aware of art therapy in 2006 when my husband and I were invited to do a tour of Disneyland with Preston Padden, who at the time was a lobbyist for Disney. He took us around the park and I asked some of the illustrators, because I’m an art teacher, if I should still be teaching the fundamentals of drawing or should I be using more computer assisted art techniques.  Preston said, “Karen, I never knew you were an art teacher. You have got to get involved with Tracy’s Kids.”

Second Lady chooses her initiative, Art Therapy: Healing with the HeART
Second Lady Karen Pence compliments a child's art during an art therapy session.

At the time, I didn’t know anything about Tracy’s Kids, but It is an art therapy program for children with cancer in Washington, DC. Tracy’s Kids was started by Matt Gerson, who had leukemia as a child, and he went to a very sterile hospital. As an adult he said, “Surely, we can do more.” He partnered with Tracy Counsel and together they started Tracy’s Kids. Today, the art therapy program is in seven facilities in five states.

I observed an art therapy session at Tracy’s Kids for the first time in 2006 and I was amazed by it.  There were children who asked their parents, “When can I get my next infusion?” I thought there has to be something to this program and I wanted to get involved. I joined the board of Tracy’s Kids in 2011.

Second Lady chooses her initiative, Art Therapy: Healing with the HeART
Second Lady Karen Pence meets with medical professionals and volunteers as she prepares to launch her art therapy initiative.

By now, you may be wondering, “what is art therapy?” Believe me, I understand.  I knew nothing about art therapy when I first heard about it. Art therapy, according to the American Art Therapy Association, is a mental health profession that uses the creative process of art making to improve and enhance the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of individuals of all ages.  It is three pronged, involving the art, the therapist, and the client. When I sit in the kitchen, get my watercolors out, and turn on music, that is “therapeutic” art; it is not art therapy. Art therapy is when you’re actually working with a trained therapist. It is not arts and crafts. I have a master’s degree in art education and I can’t practice art therapy. I am not an art therapist.

Everywhere I go I see new uses for art therapy. From cancer, anxiety, PTSD, traumatic brain injuries, eating disorders, autism, end of life issues, abuse, and much more. In fact, anyone can benefit from art therapy.

Art therapists have a doctorate or master’s degree in art therapy. They are psychotherapists. Art is the medium they use. Their mission is to advocate the expansion of art therapy services to clients. We have about 5000 art therapists in the United States today.

Second Lady chooses her initiative, Art Therapy: Healing with the HeART
Second Lady Karen Pence observes as a patient creates a watercolor masterpiece.

I am honored to have this national and international platform to shine the light on art therapy. I hope you continue to follow along as I will share stories about my visits across the United States and around the world to elevate art therapy. 

Art Therapy: Healing with the HeART

Art therapy is near and dear to my heart. To learn more about my initiative, Art Therapy: Healing with the HeART, click here. To stay updated on our events in the Office of the Second Lady, follow us on Twitter at @SecondLady.