A registered clinical social worker, registered art therapist, philosopher of consciousness studies and author, Duanita G. Eleniak, Ph.D., is Program Director for the Adler School’s new Master of Counselling Psychology: Art Therapy program in Vancouver, British Columbia.
In the forthcoming issue of Gemeinschaftsgefühl, the Adler School’s annual magazine to publish in June, Dr. Eleniak discusses her work, the drivers of opportunity and need for art therapists, and the “Image of Ethics” assignment for which she is known.
Tell us a bit about your background.
I graduated as an art therapist from the British Columbia School of Art Therapy in Victoria, BC. I was already a clinical social worker at the time, and went into art therapy because I wanted to work more with children and youth. I knew I needed to develop meta-verbal skills—skills that can take therapy beyond words.
I did my post-graduate internship working with severely emotionally disturbed children and their families. I was extremely fortunate to have Dr. Marie-Jose Dhaese, one of Canada’s foremost pioneers in expressive therapy, as my art therapy supervisor. This allowed me to develop other expressive therapy skills, which are vital in my work with severely traumatized populations.
In private practice, I work with individuals, couples, families, and groups of all ages. I specialize in trauma, loss and transition, health issues including anxiety and addictions, and mentoring professionals as they develop private practices.
As an artist, I enjoy creating objects that are practical and that can be used—such as painting large canvasses that serve as floor rugs. Most of my images come from my dreams. My favorite form of expression is writing.
What is the need and opportunity for art therapists in British Columbia—and elsewhere?
Our new art therapy program comes at a time of growing recognition of the need for meta-verbal therapies, and for practitioners like art therapists who can work in an arena beyond words. Empirical evidence from the field of neuroscience is increasingly validating the need for meta-verbal therapy by showing, for example, that trauma is stored in non-language parts of the brain.
It validates the absolute need for anyone in the healing professions to develop knowledge and skills in the healing power of approaches beyond language: art, creativity, imagination and imagery. The need in counselling is increasingly recognized, and there is increasing demand for art therapists and the unique skills they bring.
What makes the Adler School’s art therapy program unique?
The program is unique because it’s delivered within the context of the School’s vision ‘to be the leading academic institution advancing socially responsible practice, healthy communities, and a more just society.’ This was one of Alfred Adler’s commitments, and it remains the context in which we train our art therapists as socially responsible practitioners.
This means that we provide specific training in art therapy as social action. Our students can work at both the individual and societal levels in the pursuit of justice. This is operationalized in the classroom and through practicums, when students go into communities to implement art projects that meet needs. It helps to solidify the attributes of a socially responsible practitioner: the abilities to embrace diversity; build bridges across social, economic, cultural, racial, and political systems; support people to be empowered to solve shared problems; and foster development of social equality and justice through compassionate action.
My personal vision is that our art therapy studio influences and impacts all of our programs, students, staff, and faculty. I hope that it brings a creative life that propels us to continue to explore new ways of promoting social change, serving clients, and learning in creative, cutting-edge ways.
At the Adler School, you are known for your ‘Images of Ethics’ assignment. Tell us about this.
I love to incorporate art-making assignments in all of the courses I teach, even if they are not specifically art therapy courses. Since the 1990s, I have worked with an assignment at the Adler School that I call ‘Image of Ethics.’ As the final assignment in their ‘Professional Development and Ethics’ course, students are asked to work with art materials and create a personal Image of Ethics to take into their offices after graduation—as a physical reminder to always practice at the highest level of integrity.
They can make whatever they want—masks, pictures, boxes, furniture, mobile, aquariums, collages—and they write a paper describing the process they went through making the object, and the connections they make from the image to ethics that they want to remember as a practitioner. They then present their image to the class and talk about the connections.
Over the years, I have bumped into many alumni, and they immediately begin talking to me about their ‘Image of Ethics.’ Often, they bring me into their offices to show me that they still have their images with them. Recently, I went to my doctor’s office. Just as my doctor was about to begin our appointment, an Adler alumna I hadn’t seen in 15 years rushed in. She gave me a big hug and told the doctor, “This is my most favorite teacher ever!” She took me by the hand into her office next to his—she now works in medical counselling—to show me that she had her ‘Image of Ethics’ still with her. Only later did I find out she was the specialist’s wife! This made me feel less bad about keeping the poor guy waiting for me.
After seeing hundreds of students’ ‘Images of Ethics,’ I continue to be surprised and delighted when something new presents itself, which happened again this year. For all of these students and those of us privileged to see their presentations, the visual impact remains with us long after the words spoken in the class dissolve into distant memory.