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Creative expression at center of art therapy

Shirley McMarlin
| Saturday, Feb. 25, 2017, 9:00 p.m.
Dani Moss is an art therapy instructor at Seton Hill University.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
Dani Moss is an art therapy instructor at Seton Hill University.
Dani Moss is an art therapy instructor at Seton Hill University.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
Dani Moss is an art therapy instructor at Seton Hill University.

Dani Moss blends her interest in art with her desire to help others as a board certified art therapist and licensed professional counselor. She has a master's degree in art therapy with a specialization in counseling from Seton Hill University, where she now works as an art therapy instructor and internship program coordinator.

She lives in Greensburg with her husband Shawn Mannas, whom she calls “an awesome stay-at-home dad” to their sons Nolan, 2, and Devon, 1. Mannas, she says, has earned an honorary degree in art therapy as they discuss ideas for her work on a doctorate in the field from Mount Mary University in Milwaukee.

Question: What's the position of art therapy in the counseling field?

Answer: We have our certifications in our profession, but art therapy is currently not a reimbursable license for insurances. It's kind of like it was for chiropractic care in the medical profession, how it gained momentum and is now built into insurance plans.

There's a national initiative in the art therapy profession to be able to secure licensure in every state. Our equal peers are licensed professional counselors, licensed social workers, licensed marriage and family counselors. So we're looking for each state to recognize that we are professional, qualified practitioners in this field.

Q: How big is the Seton Hill program?

A: We have two full-time faculty, and we'll be expanding to a third faculty member. I don't know the undergrad numbers, but I think we have 60 students in the graduate program. That's a good size in a counseling program, to give the individual attention that is needed.

Q: What does making art bring to the therapy process?

A: Even art therapists grapple with that question. We have a natural tendency to want to create and have mastery over the things that are happening in our lives. Art therapy is a place where ultimate freedom can exist. It transcends words; it's pre-verbal. The art itself is a fundamental process.

Q: Who chooses the medium – therapist or client?

A: It's individualized based on context. If you have a studio with a variety of materials available, somebody might say, you know what, I just want to pound on wood today, or I want to smash clay over and over again, or I want to wander around feeling different materials until something speaks to me.

Art therapists work in so many different places that might have different levels of restriction. What's the room you're working in – is it a kitchen, or a conference room where you can't get too messy? Is the therapist traveling to different places with a base kit? Sometimes you're in a psychiatric hospital where supplies are limited due to safety concerns. Sometimes it's overwhelming to offer a choice of too many materials.

Q: How are individual mediums employed?

A: The medium can reflect the cognitive and emotional process taking place. Think about your emotions — they're fluid, sometimes ambiguous, sometimes blended. How do you articulate, or even pin down, what is the exact thing you're feeling? (Using) a fluid medium like chalk or paint might turn off the need to intellectualize an experience and just let you experience it. Maybe it can bring catharsis to the profound feelings that you can't really put into words.

Q: For your students, which comes first — interest in art or therapy?

A: It can be one or the other. Sometimes they've gone through something themselves and say, art is what saved me, so I want to share that.

Q: What is most challenging for your students?

A: It's difficult to become a therapist. It's challenging to work with trauma and loss and pain and suffering and violence and hate. In becoming therapists we also have to face ourselves and our own stuff, so we can be present objectively for someone else. We work on practical, clinical stuff but also process personal growth. Art therapists can encounter aggression, or having someone project their dysfunctional relationships onto the therapist. That can be surprising to students. They'll say, I thought we were going to make art, and they're sharing their real stuff with me!

Q: Can you describe yourself as an artist?

A: I think I was always creative, always exploring different media. I've never really committed to one medium. I think I was always a found object artist even as a child. I still constantly collect things that can be repurposed.

Shirley McMarlin is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-836-5750 or

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