KCAD Alum Launches Art Therapy Program at West Virginia University

Posted February 21, 2022

Is art about the process or the product? For KCAD alum Annie McFarland (’07, BFA Photography), a journey from art student to art therapist has shown her the value of both perspectives.

A woman with brown hair tied back in a pony tail, a gray shirt, and black rimmed glasses, smiles into the camera
Annie McFarland (image courtesy of West Virginia University)

McFarland’s path to her current career began pre-KCAD, while she was a sophomore at Michigan State University. “I had an opportunity to take a photojournalism class abroad, and I just fell in love with photography,” she says. The week after she returned, she made an appointment with an academic advisor at KCAD, and within a week and a half, she had transferred.

“I really loved the small size and the personalized attention, and just walking through the building, the quality of the artwork from the students on every floor was amazing. It was a cool experience for me to be surrounded by people who were like-minded and into the arts,” McFarland says.

Her studies at KCAD exposed her to both fine art and commercial applications for her photography practice. “I remember taking field trips to studios where they were doing product photography. Then we would go to a studio where someone was more of a fine art photographer. It was a really good balance,” she says.

After graduating, she found a job at a web and graphic design company in Grand Rapids, but when it closed its doors due to the recession, she found herself searching for a next step. “I still wanted to work with people and be involved in art, but I wanted it to be meaningful, too,” she says. An internet search led her to the field of art therapy, which was conveniently offered at Florida State University (FSU) in her parents’ hometown.

McFarland moved to Florida and enrolled in a graduate program at FSU, where she became involved with the Peace Paper Project, an organization that uses papermaking as a form of trauma therapy, social engagement, and community activism. As part of her PhD project, she helped the organization run a workshop with older veterans. Their goal was to help people process trauma by turning items of military clothing, such as their own uniforms, donated unforms, or even t-shirts with military slogans, into pulp to make paper.

Two women seated at a table working on an art project together
McFarland working with a collaborator during her involvement with the Peace Paper Project (image courtesy of Annie McFarland)

She explains, “Some people say, ‘How dare you cut up something so sacred?’ Others say, ‘I’m ready to let go of that.’ The cool thing about the process is that it allows them to observe and be present with other people as they process experiences. Practicing the craft together is what brings people together.”

Upon earning her PhD and becoming a practicing art therapist, McFarland continued to work with clients experiencing trauma and PTSD. “When the parts of the brain dealing with visual/spatial memory and verbalization get disconnected, people literally do not have the words to explain what happened to them,” she says. “Creating a piece of visual art can act as a space holder to start that dialogue of processing experiences.”

In 2019, McFarland began working with West Virginia University’s School of Art & Design to develop a new undergraduate degree in art therapy. The curriculum mirrors her own background, combining studio art training with psychology and counseling skills, preparing graduates to pursue careers in art therapy. “I realize how much I still rely on my foundational skills at KCAD, my knowledge of art materials and medium,” she says. “But art therapy is less focused on materials, and more about using what you have to create and express yourself.”

A woman wearing a surgical mask and a blue jean jacket reaches up to put a container back into a cabinet

(above): McFarland readies supplies in preperation for a lesson with students in the West Virginia University Art Therapy program; (below): McFarland and her students consider a project tha utlizes shapes and colors to convey meaning (images courtesy of West Virginia University) 

A woman in a surgical mask laying on the floor propped up on her elbows to look at an artwork on a piece of paper

The new degree prepares students to either pursue a graduate degree in art therapy, or to become community arts facilitators who can lead people in community centers, nursing homes, and other spaces through activities focused on art-making and communications. The university also offers an online therapeutic art certificate that’s focused on education and the K-12 classroom—an area where McFarland sees many children dealing with stresses and trauma.

“I see this as a good way to give back,” she says. “It’s art for healing, and how that can be used for personal reflection, transformation, and personal growth. Having a program where we can connect professionals with art and healing approaches is where I see the need, and how we can serve.”

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