Jenna Mann is an Art Therapist based in Barcelona. Her specialities are working with children and mentally ill patients. Here she talks to MumAbroad Life about her roots, relocating to Barcelona, what art therapy is and how children can benefit from it.
I am originally from Brooklyn, New York. I moved to Madrid in 2009 to teach English and learn Spanish. In 2011 I moved to Barcelona where I continued to teach young learners and returned to school to study art therapy at Metáfora and Pompeu Fabra University. I developed a keen interest in mental health and continued my studies at the University of Barcelona completing a masters in clinical psychoanalysis and psychopathology.
Upon my graduation in 2015 from the masters in the art therapy program I have worked in various contexts as an art therapist. Alongside my private practice, I have also worked in a range of educational settings and mental health institutions. Every summer I teach psychology to high school students who come to Barcelona from abroad.
Based on my studies in psychoanalysis and the importance of early childhood development I was inspired to study Montessori. Montessori is a child-centred methodology developed by Maria Montessori encouraging autonomy and independence from a very young age. There is a lot in common with art therapy – primarily that the teacher or guide (what we call teachers in Montessori) is meant to observe the child to understand his/her needs. A prepared environment is what will help meet the child’s needs, providing attractive materials, again just like in art therapy where it is important to provide an array of artistic materials. I worked as a Montessori guide in a nursery in 2018-19. I developed a project of art therapy in Montessori schools and this past school year was able to implement it in the nursery I had worked at the previous year.
I had been living in Madrid for a couple of years and decided I wanted to go back to school to study art therapy. I had been planning to go to Goldsmiths in London because they have a well-recognized art therapy program. I needed some time to get a portfolio together and write my application. I had decided to come to Barcelona for the year of preparation because I had always liked it and thought of it as a fun city so wanted to give it a shot for a year. When I discovered the art therapy program here I ended up staying and studying in Barcelona.
Art therapy is a therapeutic process that uses art as a tool for a means of expression. Often art therapy is helpful for people who have trouble expressing themselves verbally. Emphasis is placed on process rather than product so the goal is not to create a beautiful piece of art. The goal is to concentrate on how the art is made so that this can lead to self-discovery.
In a psychodynamic approach, the therapist and client use the artistic expression, principally created by the client, as a way of discovering and uncovering who the person truly is. This path to self-discovery is key to helping the individual deal and resolve inner conflicts with oneself and the world.
I have always been interested in psychology, beginning with courses that I took in high school and my artistic passion is in photography. I learned how to use a darkroom when I was 11 years old and ever since then have continued to utilize analogue photography. Art therapy was a way to bridge my two interests.
I believe that when someone makes something, anything, and they can see it and look at, such as a piece of artwork, it can make them feel good and productive about themselves. Sometimes people make a piece of artwork that they are not happy with or wish to get rid of. In art therapy, the person learns to accept these feelings of failure and embrace them. I think it’s a really good way to get unconscious thought processes out into the open and a way to discover ones internal reality.
During these very stressful times we are all so uncertain about the future and art therapy can really help with focusing on being present in the moment. Concentrating on making a piece of artwork can help someone ground themselves in an object outside of themselves rather than being overwhelmed by feelings of anxiety.
Both children and adults benefit from art therapy. For most children, art-making is a very natural process. We may start drawing before we even start talking. For children art-making is play and in observing their process many symbolic messages about what they are going through can be conveyed.
With adults, art-making can be an opportunity to return to this feeling of play by making art. We are educated to put a value on art and art therapy can help break this understanding of how art can really be used. As children, we are more comfortable with process-oriented actions. Art therapy for adults can help them to return to a process-oriented action rather than an emphasis put on the product.
I think all children could benefit really. I think change and learning can be quite difficult for kids. They go through so many growth phases that art therapy can help in so many ways.
It seems that nowadays children have such busy schedules with so many different after school activities that they don’t get any chance to relax and be at one with their emotional self. This constant over stimulation results in competitive behavior, bullying, self-demanding behaviors, and a lot of insecurity. I think art therapy provides a space of open exploration and discovery that can help in children developing their creative resources and is a source for understanding their emotions.
I once worked with a boy who was having behavioural issues in a school here. I think through his play and artwork I was able to understand him better. At the time that I arrived at the school, he seemed to be an outcast and his self-esteem was really low. I think because through art, I was there trying to understand him and give him some of the attention he needed, it really helped him to feel better about himself. He was having difficulty following the rules and he got used to being scolded which diminished the effects of disciplinary action. In the end, because I helped him with his self-esteem he started to want to do well rather than just “abiding by the rules”. He felt good about himself therefore he strived to do the right thing.
I think schools could definitely benefit from art therapy. The teachers in schools can sometimes get overwhelmed with their role as educators and are unable to control the social dynamic of their classes. They get focused on the skills that they need to teach their students and cannot manage with social education.
There are so many social dynamics between the children that art therapy can help with. I think especially with group art therapy it can really help children to learn to empathize with one another and deal with any conflicts that arise. This breaking down of the idea of a finished product and learning to openly express themselves in a group can help provide emotional support to be developed among them.
I have worked in several public schools here teaching English and also had the opportunity to work in a public mental health facility for adults. I have found in my experience that these facilities had a very rigid hierarchy. Even in the private school with the boy that I worked with, I observed this type of hierarchy as well. The rules are quite indoctrinated. I observed that the way in which the students were educated and the mental patients “controlled” was very systemized. As in many countries, this is the way for big institutions that serve many people but what I find here is that there is not any encouragement to “think outside the box”. For example, in the schools that I taught English, there were very young kids learning from books rather than making art or singing songs. In the private school, they were looking to expel the boy with behavioural problems as a solution (and he was only 4 years old). In the hospital, everything was done in groups. I was the only person conducting a regularly scheduled activity that is one on one. They are only provided with pharmaceutical treatment and don’t have access to any kind of talk therapy.
Here in Spain art therapy is not a recognised profession so I cannot apply for a job I have to create it. Since people are also not aware of what it is I have to spend a lot of time explaining to people and educating people about it. The other problem is that the economy is not so great here so many places do not want to risk funding a program they do not really know about. Despite the economic challenges that I face here I try my hardest to focus on how much I believe in the positive outcomes of art therapy.