My Personal Journey with Traditional, Digital, and Virtual Reality Art Therapy

Growing up in the 80’s, some of my earliest memories were fondly connecting with my family around the Intellivision playing early video games. I remember almost passing out from pure joy and excitement upon receiving a Nintendo for my seventh birthday. Before digital ubiquity, these devices were a balanced part of childhood activities. 

I was also fortunate that my family was interested in personal computing. Our household always had the latest interesting peripherals and software to explore and often bonded through these experiences.

When I was 13 one of my schoolmates passed away in a bike accident. I had slept over his house the night before and had felt a long lasting relationship forming. My interests began to change as I looked for deeper meaning in life and began to explore spiritual paths and art making. In the art room I could express emotions, feelings, and the many parts of myself. 

I began to explore making art with the computer. It was very tedious and slow, using a mouse was like trying to paint with a bar of soap. In college a friend of mine showed me a multimedia game by musician Peter Gabriel called Eve. It was the first time I saw the potential for using computers to deliver a spiritual, world healing message. 

After College I enjoyed running an after school art program serving children and teens. The art studio was a tool to provide a safe place for kids to express themselves, build self esteem, and form a consistent reliable relationship. As I had also experienced in High School, being in the studio was a dynamically healing and nurturing environment. 

I started to experiment with using a digital pen and tablet to paint and draw on the computer which was much more intuitive. I saw a fully computer animated film in the theater called Final Fantasy Spirits Within. It was a tribute to the Director’s mother who had died in an accident and dealt with themes around healing the spirit of the earth (it was originally titled Gaia). I knew one day when tools were accessible and affordable individuals would be able to use computer animation to express inner states, feelings, and emotions. 

Since my teenage years I had been tracking the field of art therapy which completely appealed to me as a profession that understood the inherent power of art-making. During my undergraduate studies I was fortunate to take some art therapy courses with David Henley. He had a deep connection to Edith Kramer and her concepts of art as therapy. I was inspired by the combination of spiritual inquiry / practice and art therapy Graduate program that Naropa University offered and made my way from New York to Colorado.

I wanted to bring the new tools of digital media into the art studio (outside of the exclusive realms of game and film studios). My art therapy internship through Naropa offered me an opportunity to integrate digital art tools into the existing program framework which was a juvenile diversion program offering teens an alternate to going to court. I used a digital tablet, painting and photo software, and biofeedback games. 

What I foresaw in regards to using computer animation for personal expression came to fruition when I viewed the work of Chris Landreth. His concept of psychorealism expressed inner states through outer computer animated metaphors. With my thesis project, I began to see the therapeutic potential of taking an art therapy consumer from initial 2D art creation (via an initial Kramer art assessment) to a short psychorealistic final computer animation. 

The sessions progressed using the model of a computer animation pipeline. Beginning with the preliminary stages of storyboards and building clay models, the client was able to expand upon the initial imagery of the Kramer evaluation and enter into a deeper relationship with the content. Next, audio was recorded of the client narrating their feelings about different elements of Self and their relationship to these parts. 

Unfortunately at this point of the journey the client was dismissed from the program and needed to enter rehab. We were beginning to bring the traditional images and characters into the computer to build models to be animated. I realized at this point we would have needed a significantly greater amount of time to complete this part of the animated pipeline. 

Despite not yielding a final product, the process proved to be transformative for the client. There was a creative continuum from initial concepts / symbolic equivalents to realizing those expressions in fully formed animations. You could stop anywhere along the way and the process itself was effective in promoting healing, transformation, and self growth.

After graduating I ran a studio to help other art therapy consumers experience the healing potential of the creative continuum. Clients found digital art and computer animation compelling parts of the journey, however, I was still struggling to reach outcomes due to time constraints and technical complexity. Virtual Reality was the key that would finally unlock technology’s potential for expression.

Not only does VR make computer painting, sculpting, and animation significantly more intuitive and accessible, it adds new dimensions of realtime interactivity and presence. I am just beginning the journey of integrating these new tools into the art therapy framework. Engaging with the technologies of my childhood, I could only dream of a day where we could step inside the imagination and be present within a work of art. Now its a reality and VR’s potential for healing, connection, and self expression is only limited by what we can imagine.