Paying it Forward with Art Therapy: An Interview with Grace Noh (MA ’17)

Grace Noh was born in Seoul, Korea and moved to Toronto during high school. While studying fine arts at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, she became interested in working with underserved youth through the creative art-making process. As a student in NYU Steinhardt’s Art Therapy master’s program, she served as an intern in a public school with at-risk children, at mental health clinic with adults, and at a summer bereavement camp for youth. In the summer of 2016, she illustrated NYU-themed coloring pages to support an article about how adult coloring books can help diminish psychological stress and anxiety.

Grace currently works as an art therapist and mentoring program coordinator at Apex for Youth,  Her goal as an art therapist is to “provide opportunities for youth to safely express their worries and concerns, improve their coping skills, and learn to be resilient.” We asked her about the practice of art therapy.

Grace Noh

How did you get interested in art therapy?

My interest in art therapy arose from my own experience of being a newcomer in Toronto, Canada. When I first arrived in Canada, I had hard time making new friends and often felt isolated as one of two Asians students at school. Adapting to a new environment was challenging and I didn’t know how to ask for help because I did not know how to talk about my authentic feelings. I came from Korea, a homogeneous culture, where the community was very tight and connected, and it was not common for me to share my feelings. As a result,  I became highly self-conscious in social settings.

For me,  art-making was one of the best therapeutic outlets to release stress and share difficult feelings. I was also communicating with others when I shared my artwork at school. Since then, I have developed a passion to help people through art.  I want to share this amazing outlet and tool with others.

I learned what “art therapy” was when I took an undergraduate art therapy class in my junior year at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. It was so fascinating to discover how art could clinically help people express their feelings and enhance self-esteem. I was like, “this is exactly what I want to be!”

Through the class, I became involved in  several arts-related human service projects, such as family workshop at museums, art programs at non-profit organizations, and a kindergarten in Chicago.  My personal, academic, and work experiences came together and led me to my goal of becoming a professional art therapist.

Can you explain the difference between making art that is therapeutic and an artist who makes her own art?

I share these quotes:

“Art is restoration… the idea is to repair the damages that are inflicted in life,” Louise Bourgeois.

“By translating hallucinations and fear of hallucinations into paintings… I have been trying to cure my disease,” Yayoi Kusama.

It’s universally and historically known that creating art is therapeutic. Yayoi Kusama and Louise Bourgeois are two females artists who are well-known for using art to cope with their traumatic experiences and mental illness.

Art therapy is a type of psychotherapy that uses the art as a tool to help improve sensory-motor skills, enhance self-esteem and self-awareness, promote emotional resilience and insight, and mediate stress. Many studies have found that art-making increases emotional growth and boosts autonomy. People with mental illness or physical disabilities and people who are dealing with emotional difficulties and stress due to school work, peer pressure, parental divorce, domestic violence, isolation at school, of loss of a loved one, can all benefit from art therapy because it helps them release those feelings and unspoken words in less intimidating and stigmatizing ways.

An art therapist is able to help her or his clients to achieve a treatment goal.  An art therapist also serves a client by understanding  their cultural and social background.

Grace Noh leads an art therapy class with children at PS 001 in Chinatown.

What have you learned in your work with immigrant at-risk children?

In Asian and Asian immigrant culture, there is a stigma surrounding mental health treatment which can lead to a person avoiding or resisting therapy or counseling services.

During this past summer, I pioneered a summer group art therapy program for 25 elementary school students at PS. 001 in Chinatown. Throughout our work creating dreamcatchers, students were able to reflect on their anxiety and frustration and identify their feelings.  By creating a “calming box,” students were given a chance to share their stressors and work on their coping skills. The sessions generated a space to reflect on  past experiences and validate emotions.

I conducted a pre and post self-reported assessment, and the results indicated that the students I worked with were able to feel more comfortable sharing their feelings and asking for help when needed.

Since many students from Asian immigrant families often repress their feelings, art therapy is a unique and safe outlet for them to learn about the importance of social-emotional well-being and mental health without judgement.

What made you choose NYU Steinhardt’s art therapy program?

It’s because NYU Steinhardt’s art therapy program is the best program in the United States!

There were few other reasons I choose NYU.

I wanted to gain practical experiences, to have the opportunity to learn from people of different backgrounds, and to work with amazing and supportive professors.

I liked how Steinhardt’s art therapy program provides an extensive clinical internship experience for students. While other art therapy schools provides 6~700 hours of internship, NYU requires 1,000 hours.

Since the program has the longest educational history in the field of art therapy and is located in New York City, I was assured that I would get to work at diverse internship settings as well. And since I already had a solid art-based background from art middle school and high school, and art college, I felt it was important to be in an NYU art therapy program within in large university setting.

When I checked its curriculum on the website, I saw that the program requires art therapy students to take applied psychology classes with students from different majors and programs. I thought that studying with non-art background students in the first year could be an opportunity for me to expand my perspective.

And then I saw first hand how passionate and supportive NYU’s art therapy professors were when I emailed the director and professor of the art therapy  program.  She put me in touch with a first and second year student.

Hearing about current students’ valuable experiences and getting a prompt reply and support from a professor reassured me that I made the right choice.