Penetrating blue eyes framed by thick brows are trained directly on the viewer in a recent painting by a patient admitted to the psychiatric department at the University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson.

The powerful image, crafted with oil pastels on black paper, shows fragments of a person’s cracked skull flying in the air. The artist, who told a therapist she doesn’t like to draw hair, instead painted an exposed pink brain.

The painting, which the patient named “Scatterbrain,” seems to convey a sense of vulnerability and maybe even speaks to the artist’s concerns for her own brain as she addresses mental illness while hospitalized.

Rita Singer, a licensed clinical professional art therapist in the department of psychiatry at the University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center, said paintings and other forms of art are produced through art therapy sessions at the hospital to help treat patients dealing with a wide range of issues. That includes depression, suicidal thoughts, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and more.

Art has symbolic value, Singer said, and can help get at feelings and concerns that can’t always be expressed in words. Patients are sometimes asked to draw themselves in a symbolic way — as an amusement park ride, a landscape or a personal flag — during therapy sessions.

“The patient can then speak about the image — themselves — in a manner that feels safer, is more apparent to them as an observer and (in ways that) may not have occurred to them if using words alone,” Singer explained told the Catholic Review, news outlet of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

Art therapy has greatly expanded over the past few decades and is used in a wide variety of settings, including hospitals, clinical offices, schools and special education programs.

In Maryland, a clinical art therapy license or a graduate art therapy license is required to practice art therapy.

Notre Dame of Maryland University in Baltimore was the first school in the state to offer a master’s degree in art therapy when its program launched in 2018. Graduates become clinicians licensed by Maryland under the Board of Professional Counselors and Therapists.

Cathy Goucher, chairwoman of the art therapy department at Notre Dame and a former longtime educator at St. Elizabeth School in Baltimore, said 20 art therapists have graduated from Notre Dame’s program so far.

Singer supervises Notre Dame graduate students assigned to the University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center for internships.

“Through the process of engagement with art materials, we’re supporting the client toward greater self understanding, symptom management, wellness and wholeness,” Goucher explained. “So just as you would talk to a therapist in an office, instead of that talking, we’re asking them to envision things or to represent struggles or challenges they’re having and then to support them toward finding meaning in that artwork.”

Art therapy is especially effective in working with patients who have been so traumatized that they don’t have the words to express their concerns, Goucher said. It’s also effective for those who are autistic, those with developmental delays and those whose language may be limited by cognitive impairment.

Renee Vanderstelt, who graduated from Notre Dame’s art therapy program in August, interned at the University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center and The Arc of Baltimore, which supports people with developmental disabilities.

Vanderstelt led remote drawing sessions via Zoom for people at The Arc when many throughout society were suffering from feelings of isolation during the coronavirus pandemic.

“At the end of each session, each person would share what they drew,” she said. “It was really sustaining for them socially.”

It doesn’t matter whether those partaking in art therapy have any artistic ability, Vanderstelt said. What’s important is the process.

“Being someone who has focused on drawing my whole life, I can tell you that a drawing never lies,” said Vanderstelt, who also holds a master’s degree in art history and a master’s degree of fine arts in studio drawing. “It always tells the truth. Art therapy can be as revealing to the patient as it is to the therapist.”

— George P. Matysek Jr.