Ellen Wright, ’14, has always been interested in forging her own path. She grew up the daughter of a psychotherapist, and she says, “while I was always fascinated by the stuff my mom does, I just never thought it was the right choice for me.” Instead she pursued her own passions, as varied as horseback riding and painting, which she calls, “my own form of therapy.”
She arrived at Richmond looking for ways to combine her varied interests into a career path that made sense. After taking an introductory psychology course, she was surprised to discover an interest in her mother’s profession after all, particularly the idea of art as a form of therapy. “Once I learned what art therapy was, and that you could use art as a therapeutic expressive tool in healing, I knew I had found a practical way to pursue my passions,” she says.
Richmond doesn’t offer an art therapy major, so Wright opted for the interdisciplinary studies program, which allowed her to design a personalized curriculum focused on integrating psychology and art, with assistance from two faculty mentors. She appreciates the flexibility the program affords her. “As my interests have changed and developed, I’ve been able to change my coursework to meet those interests,” she says.
It seemed only fitting that Wright would design her own summer internship experience as well. “I knew I wanted to do a summer fellowship, but as I contacted hospitals, I found that patient confidentiality laws would prevent me from doing the sort of work I was interested in,” she says.
Undeterred, she turned to Googling art therapy programs and discovered the BiNA Farm, which offers equine therapy and enrichment activities for special needs populations. Wright, who has ridden horses for much of her life, reached out to the program director to see if she was interested in having an extra pair of hands for the summer, and if they might consider incorporating her interests in art therapy.
The director was open to the idea and, with support from the UR Summer Fellowships’ Chaplaincy Internship program, Wright was able to spend 10 weeks in Massachusetts working on the BiNA Farm. Some of her projects included creating finger paintings of the horses, using horse brushes and other tactile materials to create a painted mural, and making sun catchers out of flower petals and transparent paper.
As Wright’s first opportunity to put coursework into action, she found the experience rewarding. “What was most amazing was that some of the kids that you would consider the most low functioning — the kids who were not verbal — were the ones that were most excited to show you what they had made,” she says. “Most of the time, I forgot that these were children with disabilities; it was so easy to see how they were just regular kids who wanted to play and create.”
Wright returned to campus energized and ready to begin her senior thesis. “I had all these free floating ideas of what I wanted to do but didn’t have any grounding. Having the hands-on experience at the BiNA Farm really helped me focus.”
Even her thesis will be atypical; rather than write a paper, Wright plans to create an art exhibit of her own paintings, focused on the stigmatization of mental illness. “I want to start a conversation about how we can look at mental illness by putting the person at the core, rather than just giving someone a label based on a set of symptoms,” she says. “Now that I’ve had the chance to engage with the kids, I have a completely new perspective on that, and see how important it is.”