A churning river of turquoise and indigo flows along the far wall of UT alumna Deanna Miesch’s office, linking together an elaborate scene of trees and wild animals. The felt tapestry, which Miesch created over the course of several years, sets the scene for the work she does here as a licensed art therapist.
Miesch spends her days helping clients improve their emotional and physical well-being by creating art. During sessions at Art Therapy Austin, the private practice she founded in 2003, Miesch plays the part of both facilitator and observer. Miesch allows her clients to choose any medium and subject matter, offering personalized support along the way.
“My role is sort of a guide,” Miesch said. “I’m reintroducing a whole world in many cases for people, so we’re building a relationship and building trust. I’m really helping the client discover their own way of expressing themselves.”
Art therapy has its roots in psychoanalysis, the practice of delving into the unconscious that was created by Austrian physician Sigmund Freud. Art therapists help their clients use art to access those areas of the unconscious that were previously unacknowledged. According to licensed art therapist DeAnn Acton, recent advances in neuroscience have drawn increased attention to the field of art therapy, especially in cases of trauma.
“In most talk therapy, we’re trying to access information in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain,” Acton said. “But the way trauma works, it’s not necessarily stored in the same area. So when I have someone working with a piece of clay while we’re talking, it actually accesses more information in the brain. We’re more likely to get to some of those feelings and some of that unconscious material that they can’t get to through talking.”
Miesch said she was drawn to her East Side office because of the community of artists that resided there at the time. As her practice grew, Miesch eventually reached out to fellow UT alumni Acton and licensed art therapist Shannon Mekuly to join her.
“It’s nice to have a community,” Acton said. “I’ll pick Shannon’s brain and I’ll be like, ‘Shannon, what do you think about this?’ So we do some consultation together.”
As the field’s profile has risen, Miesch said she has seen more people turn to art therapy to bypass the challenges of more traditional talk therapy. Miesch said she works with clients of all ages, from children to senior citizens.
“Maybe they are more introverted and maybe talking is more of a struggle,” Miesch said. “I think most people understand art therapy most easily when they think about children, but it’s really wonderful for anyone, any age. It doesn’t really matter who you are.”
Working as an art therapist requires a master’s degree, which potential therapists must seek outside of Texas due to the lack of an art therapy program within the state. Miesch said she would like to see a program at UT.
“We’re ripe because there’s a lot of art therapists here in Austin,” Miesch said. “I started offering art therapy profession workshops because I have people contact me all the time because they want to become art therapists and there are no resources here.”
For Mekuly, part of the appeal of working as an art therapist lies in fostering previously untapped talent.
“I have been blown away by the art sometimes,” Mekuly said. “Like just breathless. And then you listen to somebody process the art that they made therapeutically, with insight and authentic emotions, and it’s just a magical experience. Even an image that represents ugly feelings can still be beautiful if it’s real.”