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South Carolina School of the Arts

Cantrell helps patients through the healing power of art

Sara Cantrell has always loved art and wanted to help others. At one point she considered becoming an art professor. Sometime after graduating from Anderson University, Cantrell was having a change of heart about teaching and was seeking direction. After losing a job due to the COVID-19 pandemic a friend told her about the field of art therapy. Cantrell was unfamiliar with art therapy, but something clicked, so she set out on a course she continues to follow today, combining her love for art and caring for people. Cantrell was recently recognized by the American Academy of Pediatrics and invited to share her story with them. She daily sees in her patients the value of art therapy and other creative therapies within a medical setting. She is a Board-Certified Art Therapist (ATR-BC) and is in the process of obtaining her counseling license in the state of Maryland.

How did you choose Anderson University?

I grew up around the Charlotte North Carolina area; never left, so I was comfortable there. Honestly, I was shy about going to college, to possibly leave my home state and so my requirements were that I had to go to a public school because I went to a public high school, and I had to stay in state, and I wanted to do an art program. And I got one of those. My dad had a colleague whose child went to Anderson and they loved the experience, so he threw that name into the hat last minute when we were scheduling tours, and I was like, “Dad, you know I don't want to go out of state. It makes me nervous,” and he's like, “let's just drive through a tour and just see how it is.” And it was one of the last tours I did. 

I had already been kind of intimidated by the large campus feel. I didn't know how I was going to feel being there, and when we got onto Anderson's campus, everybody was just so welcoming. The tour guides and everybody in the art department that I met made me feel very comfortable with being there... When I came to Anderson, I didn't know anybody, but I quickly was welcomed in and made a lot of friends there. 

What are some things you enjoyed about your time at Anderson? 

I'm going to tell you about 95 percent of them are going to be within the art studio. I had so much fun in the art department. A lot of our Saturdays were spent in the studio painting or crafting at two or three in the morning, just delirious off little sleep, doing our art projects and singing songs in the printmaking studio with my roommate and my friends. Besides that, taking trips into Greenville, going on hikes around the area—it was all very fun. 

Are there any professors who stand out?

I would be safe to say all of them. I learned a lot of things from many different professors. Most particularly was Professor Kanairis; I was a work study for him, and I even did work study for him for the summer after I graduated and I was still living around the AU area. He just taught me so much about art and life and learning how to grow into myself as an adult and learn what my faith is as an adult—choosing that for myself. Professor Marks, Professor Speaker, Dr. Livingston and Professor Chobani. They all taught me just a lot. And Dr. Dash (Jo Carol Mitchell-Rogers) I can't forget. 

Let’s talk about your journey into art therapy.

I knew I wanted to major in some form of art when I went into school and I had taken some art education classes, trying to explore if I wanted to be an art teacher. I did take some psychology classes and I loved them, but I didn't feel like I had the confidence to switch and go be a counselor. I had no idea what art therapy was when I was an undergrad. I formed some good relationships with the professors there in the art department and just kind of felt how amazing that mentorship was and how those relationships were throughout my college experience. I wanted to give that same experience to others. 

So, my plan upon graduating was to build a portfolio to apply to get my MFA and to become a professor of art so that I could mentor students in the same frame of mind. But having that couple of years off, I obviously needed to work so I explored some design work. I taught homeschool art classes to a community back in Charlotte, and taught painting classes to adults. And I think throughout those couple of years, my mindset started to shift, and I realized I no longer felt that becoming a professor was right for me. 

Realizing that, I hit some rough spots, not really knowing what I wanted to do with my future. And so, I decided to move away again and get a new frame of mind. I worked at a Baptist retreat center for a short while on the East Coast, and then landed a job working at an elementary school as a parent facilitator. Throughout this job I was reaffirmed in my knowledge that my heart lies in the realm of helping professions, but I knew that I hadn’t yet found what I was looking for. Continuing to search for what was right for me, I learned through my connections, who had a friend of a friend, about what art therapy was. 

This was around the time that COVID hit, so I was released from my duties at the school. And I started to research the art therapy field. I was put in contact, and had a conversation with an art therapist who had studied at George Washington University. Throughout the entire phone call, I just kept thinking, “this is it; this is all I’ve wanted to do.” I could explore a job with art, be able to have a close personal relationship with people and assist them in their life, helping them with whatever they need. 

So, I took the jump, applied, got accepted, I got some funding, and in the midst of COVID I moved to the D.C. area. It was a big, big change. It was isolating at first, but I really grew into it and just loved the program. 

COVID was a challenging time, wasn’t it?

It really changed a lot of people's perspective on their future, I think. It opened a lot of new opportunities, especially for myself. 

What does that relationship with your faith and art look like for you?

I love viewing it as what I hold true to myself, my beliefs and my values and exploring that within the artistic realm, because I think it really aligns well with what art therapy is. One goal of that is to just find what's important to people and allow them to express that through art and what they hold true and what they want to explore. Art serves as another vehicle and aid of communication when words don’t suffice, and sometimes only you know what that means.

Art was always something that allowed me to express and understand myself. Coming to Anderson University and exploring my faith as a Christian who had always grown up in the church and had accepted the Lord… I don't think I truly knew how to be on my own as a Christian until I came to Anderson. You know, I've always been with my family and held my family's values. And I still do, but I think I had to take that time to really understand what accepting this as a young adult for myself means—about to go out into the world and make something of myself apart from my family and using art to explore that—it's kind of unexplainable. 

It's such a personal experience, but I did have a few times when I was in the studio and I was alone painting and experimenting with materials, listening to music—mostly instrumental music—and I really was exploring just an abstract path of emotion. And it's almost like I was in a spiritual place. And, again, the words to describe it are so hard unless you've experienced it. But I think in those moments, I truly felt that God was with me, and that this is the faith that I have chosen for myself. And it allowed me to be reaffirmed that this is the correct path for me, to go down this path of artistic venture, that some people will tell you that you're never going to make money, you're never going to achieve anything with it. God was just holding me and reaffirming me, “I've always planted the seed in your head that the arts and the artistic tendencies that you have are true,” and they are correct. 

And so, I've just reaffirmed in my faith that I can trust Him with the path of my life. And being able to continue with that thread personally is very valuable to me. 

Describe for me a typical day to day as an art therapist. You’re at Walter Reed, which is a household name really that most everybody has heard of. What is that like? 

That one thing that I love about working at Walter Reed and specifically with the Peds Hem/Onc clinic is that every single day is different. You never really know what you're getting. Every day I start my morning in huddle with the social worker, doctors, nurses, all the clinic team, and we go over our schedule for the day, who's coming in and what procedures are being done. I'm looking at the patients, what have we been working on and planning out my day to meet them in the best way possible. I try to work my schedule around if they have an appointment for a lumbar puncture, or if they're getting chemo or an infusion. Where/when can I go to see them? What art intervention will help them best?

I really try to show up for those patients to offer them the space to engage within art therapy and the art materials, and it's totally up to the patient, whether they want to participate or not. I'm really trying to hold space for those pediatric patients who don't often have much control over their lives, going through cancer treatment, and I want art therapy to be a space that is cherished for them, that they can decide what they want to do and I'm going to assist them with that. And there's so much that comes up in our therapy for each child. Like if we're exploring losing our hair, how are we exploring that through art? 

We might create self-portraits or even take hair that we’ve lost and incorporate it into an art piece. Are we understanding what cancer is, what’s going on in our body? I’ve had a patient act out her pain crisis through a doll that she made to help process what it is that she went through. Others have assigned their cancer a color and named it. In any situation there are emotions known and unknown and I do my best to assist the exploration and understanding of situations with patients using art so that they may feel more comfortable and safer in their environment. 

So, every day I'm just trying to work with the patients that are there and assist the families as well using the tools of art.

Sounds like you're meeting patients during a very challenging time in their life—for them and their families. Do you work mostly with children or are there different age ranges?

We see patients in art therapy as young as two years old; that's when they can start to hold some kind of paintbrush or some material. And we actually have gone up to the ages of I think 27 or 28. And that's with our active-duty military patients. Those patients may have been diagnosed with a childhood cancer while they were active duty overseas and relocated to us to receive services. If their cancer is of the pediatric nature, we specialize in that and we're going to give them the best treatment possible. That opens the door for really wonderful relationships between our patients. You have such a large age range and depending on who we have been treated at the same time, we can have amazing group art therapy sessions.

In the past, we've had a four-year-old and a 26-year-old Marine who formed a wonderful friendship and they aligned their schedules to do treatment at the same time so that they could do art together. And it was just amazing growth seen by both individuals being able to do this and how they helped each other during treatment. 

Wow! That's amazing in itself. 

Let me paint you a picture. We have a small table in the middle of the clinic where I do art therapy with individuals and groups. So, envision a four-year-old in a princess dress sitting at one side of the table and a big buff bodybuilding Marine on the other side of the table holding these tiny little paint brushes and tiny little paint tubes and they're working together and she's instructing him on how to paint and he was just following her every lead. Very sweet picture. 

At the end of the day, what gives you a feeling of accomplishment? 

Knowing that the work I’m doing is beneficial. In this line of work there’s a lot of self-care mentally that I have to do and reflecting on the relationships I've built not only with the patients and the families, but the staff gives me an encouragement to know that even when we're not there, the work that we have done is still running through the threads of these families and through each other's lives. 

We're all supporting each other in the work that we do in this clinic and so that always makes me feel like I'm working towards something that provides me with a sense of hope—to go in every day and do work that I know is valuable; I cherish that very much. 

And I also think that having that system of support between the wonderful staff that I'm with just enables us to carry one another through those hard times and that also gives me encouragement. 

Is the art therapy field growing? What are some places where art therapists can be found?

That is a great question. I definitely think that art therapy is growing. It has a lot of room for growth and not many people have heard of it; I'd never heard of it. Art therapy can be pretty much found anywhere that traditional psychotherapy happens. It's found in the school systems. It's found in the hospitals. It's found in private practice. It's found in homeless shelters, community centers, retirement homes—just all over the place. We can work with all populations, and we are working to spread art therapy into different avenues. 

There is a nationally recognized license for art therapists called the ATR (registered art therapist) and some states have their own art therapy license as well. For those states that don't have art therapy licenses (yet), other counseling jobs are open to us as well thanks to programs (which are CAAHEP accredited). This means that we have all the necessary education to become licensed counselors post-graduation. So, once licensed we can work in the counseling field and use art as a modality alongside our counseling license. 

We have the American Art Therapy Association annual conference where art therapists from all over the country are welcome to attend. They have annual conferences for art therapists to attend, great resources and forums for art therapy members to connect with each other. They also have a blog where the general public can learn more about art therapy specific art therapists experiences. There are other art therapy conferences that happen outside of the U.S. as well. 

Somebody reading this might be thinking, “I’m creative and think this may be a way to channel my creativity.” What kind of advice would you give to somebody considering art therapy as a career possibility? 

There are many ways that they can explore to see if art therapy is right for them. First, I would say get a hand at just doing art. If you're already in the higher education realm, take a few art classes, take a few psychology classes, see if they feel correct for you, because you're going to need that in your toolbox to go on and be an art therapist. If they feel right for you then check out art therapy graduate program course requirements and make sure you’re working towards them.

It doesn't necessarily have to be art therapy work, but try to volunteer at a school system, a homeless shelter, or retirement communities. You'll really get a feel for how you work with a population in general. And I think that you need to be comfortable working with various diverse realms of individuals. You're going to meet anyone and everyone through a therapy practice. And especially when you're going into a graduate program for therapy, they do require you to work with different populations, and so you will be exposed to things that you never thought that you would be involved in. And I think that's important—to have an open mind and to go in and work with different populations. 

Living in the D.C. area, what are some of your favorite things to do? 

I love all the museums in DC and the National Mall. There are so many free things to do, great biking trails, seasonal events, cherry blossom season etc. The metro system is great, I've learned to work that, and I really enjoy the public transportation that we have. Just being in the DMV (D.C., Maryland, Virginia) area. You can explore so many different things throughout all the states and Shenandoah National Park is not too far from us. And the food options are never ending, so many different options to explore, I keep collecting more favorite Ethiopian, sushi and KBBQ spots. 


Art Therapy Resources:

The Tracy's Kids organization places art therapists in hospitals. 

The American Art Therapy Association Blog offers a glimpse into the field.

Sara Cantrell
Sara Cantrell
Graduated from Anderson University: 2018
Degree: Bachelor of Fine Arts in Art with Painting and Drawing Concentration
Title: Art Therapist at The Henry M. Jackson Foundation for the Advancement of Military Medicine, Walter Reed Hospital, Bethesda, Maryland