Art & Horticulture Therapy

SVA alumni, Lena De Leo, ATR-BC, LCAT, presented to SVA MPS Art Therapy department a lecture about the intersectionality of art and horticulture therapy. She is a supervising art therapist at Green Chimney’s Residential Treatment Center in Brewster, NY, where she works with children and adolescents with a range of emotional challenges in group and individual settings.

Art Show in the Garden


The residents who struggle with a variety of behavioral, social, and emotional challenges worked for months with Lena and a horticulture therapist to create a beautiful and expressive outdoor art gallery. The goals of the project were to improve socialization, increase frustration tolerance while working with natural materials, instill hope as some art provided containment for growing things, and offer a sense of control over their environment and their effective role in their community.

Interactive Weaving Artwork in the Garden


The residential participants gained from the experience by building a connection through nature and exploring new ways of expression in a safe and controlled setting.

As an alumni, Lena was nice enough to answer a few questions about her experience at the SVA MPS Art Therapy department and how it helped prepare her for the creative arts therapy field.

What lead you to work with this population?
At SVA, I worked with adults in a psychiatric setting in my first year internship and then children at an elementary school in my second year internship and I really enjoyed both settings. My population now is conveniently a mix of the two. I also had the opportunity to be part of the 2nd year counseling team and my client had a very similar childhood to the kids I now work with, which has been immensely helpful to think back on from time to time, especially when thinking of treatment plans for some of my current individual clients. When looking for my current placement, I was interested in continuing working in the mental health field, but I was also drawn to the multi-disciplinary approach that is offered at my placement.

What specifically did your experience at SVA help prepare you for in your current position and professional experience?
The special projects at SVA really helped broaden my knowledge and way of thinking for approaching art therapy across varied populations. With my population now, I work with many different subsets- sensory processing disorder, pre-verbal traumatic experiences, death of a parent, learning disabilities, reactive attachment disorder, LGBTQ youth, among others. I often approach groups similarly to how we planned for special projects; the only difference being that our group will run for a longer period time than just once or twice.

What was your biggest obstacle in graduate school and how did that work towards your growth as a professional?
In graduate school, I struggled with my confidence as an effective art therapist. “Trusting the process” was sometimes difficult for me when I thought of all the ways I could’ve done things differently, said something differently, or used a different material. Trusting my supervisors and going to my own personal therapy sessions really helped me gain insight into my own process and counter-transference, which allowed me to then gain confidence. I had to really address my desire to “see results” and redefine what “results” even were, and if they were benefiting me versus benefiting my client. In the end, working with so many amazing colleagues and pushing myself to try new things (2nd year counseling team, as many special projects and lectures as possible) really helped bolster my confidence in my own technique.

Do you have any advice for students graduating in today’s art therapy world?
When I was in school, I kept hearing “you’ll have to pave the way for yourself” and I’m not sure I really believed it until I entered the professional world. My advice for students is to focus on why they do what they do and have a clearly defined vision of why art therapy might be the best practice for any certain population. In the working world, you will constantly have to answer these questions for your colleagues and friends who have a limited or absent understanding of the field of art therapy. If you can advocate for yourself and for the field, you will be able to find art therapy positions where there seemingly weren’t any. Keep an eye out for recreation therapist jobs, social worker jobs, and art educator jobs in various placements. These positions all have the opportunity to be filled by art therapists.
I also think that self-reflection is SO important as a therapist! Be open to supervision, explore counter-transference, and practice self-care! And don’t forget to make your own art!

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Text and images compiled by Dana Hillebrand (MPS Class of 2017).

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