The previous post, "In Defense but Not Defensive Part 1: Art-based Assessments in a Murder Trial", provided an overview of projective assessments, the arguments for and against them and my personal perspectives on their use. That post provided the preamble for this one; an examination of how and why the formal elements of the art of Kevin Ward, a person on trial for murder, were used as evidence in his defense. Once again, many sections of this post have been adapted from the book Art on Trial: Art Therapy in Capital Murder Cases with permission from Columbia University Press.

Over 100 art pieces completed by Ward over many years were evaluated for the murder trial introduced in the first blog post; eventually, I arrived at the conclusion that he did indeed suffer from a mental illness [please refer to "The Trials of Art Therapy: An Introduction" for an overview of the case]. In addition to these images, I also asked the defendant to complete an art-based assessment protocol that included the Person Picking an Apple from a Tree drawing that was subsequently rated with the Formal Elements Art Therapy Scale (Gantt & Tabone, 1998).  After reviewing all of these images, I ascertained that the patterns that emerged from the formal elements of all of the art pieces reflected a type of Schizophrenia with a possible mood disorder, likely Depression; in the final court hearing I was more specific, indicating that he suffered from a Schizoaffective Disorder. [The majority of these images were systematically evaluated throughout the book, which provides the details that support this conclusion].

Why was the focus on the drawings’ formal elements rather than their symbolic content, which the images certainly contained? Perhaps this story will help clarify.

One of Ward's drawings

One of Ward's drawings

After I presented this case at a recent American Art Therapy Association conference, a colleague asked me if the murder was conducted “by [the defendant’s] hand.” Due to the horror of the crime, I usually refrained from conveying to audiences the details of the murder. However, I told her that the defendant did physically restrain and kill the child in close quarters. She then showed me a little sketch of one of the small figures that was a tiny part of one of the drawings, one in which the head seemed hollowed out, and it had three arms. She told me she determined from this image and its symbolic meaning that he had murdered his child in a physical and “personal” manner (please see the 2 accompanying images).

Close up of the figure in the previous composition

Close up of the figure in the previous composition

Many art therapists will infer meaning from the art’s symbolic content, most quite accurately. From my perspective, people’s personal art pieces are rife with symbolic imagery that can be quite revealing. During our discussion, my colleague made a strong case on how the symbol revealed the murder. However, while this was fascinating, one has to ask, “So what?” With all due respect for my colleague, it was clear how the victim died, and it was accepted that the defendant did it; this was nothing new.

Granted, many of his images could point to his personal issues, symbols that included fire, bloody hatchets, and tears. Even the defendant claimed that the drawings held symbolic meanings. From a therapeutic perspective, working with a client to recognize his or her own visual library can be advantageous and provide support to promote therapeutic gain. However, when it is not necessary to bring about a therapeutic gain—such as when testifying- declaring symbolic meaning may not be enough; on the contrary, it may be detrimental.

Consider the situation. My job was to demonstrate to a jury or judge that the evidence presented maintained enough scientific support to be deemed viable. Throughout this process the opposing legal counsel’s job was to question the feasibility of my statements, preferably calling into question the empirical and objective support--or lack thereof-- for these conclusions.

Providing anecdotal explanations on the symbolic art and literal content of the imagery may be more appropriate in some cases. Using the content of the compositions may be indicative and may even be essential depending on the type of case. For example, it may be necessary to use the art to tell a story of one who has difficulty communicating, such as a child in a family court or who has suffered abuse (Cohen-Liebman, 2003). However, there is empirical support that a drawing’s formal elements may reveal specific types of mental illness, providing credibility to my conclusions.

The type of approach is chosen based on the type of conclusions needed. Whereas, symbolic imagery, when ‘unpacked’ by either the therapist or the artist, may reveal personal issues and emotional tendencies, and might, in fact, reveal the presence of a mental illness, it is unlikely that the content of an image would reveal the type of mental illness. It is just not that precise, and there have not been enough experimental/control studies developed to determine if this is accurate. However, the formal elements of the compositions can be deconstructed enough to demonstrate particularly accurate conclusions.

The value of formal elements over content is also supported when considering the many years since the images were completed. To make an accurate conclusion, it is important to witness the art making. I confess, this did not happen in this instance; it was simply not possible. Yet, while it is not clear what the symbols meant to the artist at the time they were created, the formal elements remained consistent years after the images were drawn. Unless the artist is present to explain the meaning of the art within a relatively short period of time after completing them, the potential symbolic meaning is filtered through the therapist; beliefs and context may ultimately influence the interpretation. And the client may not provide an accurate summary; the descriptions may be biased by his or her current state; and time may confound the artist’s conclusions. Ward was not even a useful historian, impeded by his ever-present mental illness. Therefore, while a true assessor will not rely on imagery not completed in person, enough empirical support was available solely for a fairly accurate benchmark on which to build an objective and potentially unbiased argument. In a sense, the formal elements may provide a more accurate “snapshot” of the state of mind of the artist when he or she completed it.

Regardless of the perspectives for or against assessments, when all is said and done, the final analysis was supported by the outcome of this testimony:  the other two expert witnesses, the psychiatrist and psychologist validated the conclusions through independent corroboration. Both had testified earlier in the week, without me ever meeting or talking with them, that Ward suffered from a Schizoaffective Disorder. Thus, in a sense, this process went through its own blind-review and outcome evaluation, demonstrating its effectiveness.

Even the prosecutor—who had the job of negating my testimony in court— indicated in a follow-up interview:

“The way you described the pieces, watching the creation of the assessment pieces, you persuaded me….[Y]ou convinced me in the process, that there is some legitimacy of using that as a diagnostic tool for that point in time…”



I am very pleased that as I was completing this post, the online journal Critical Margins, which provides “perspectives on book culture, technology and reading in the digital age”, uploaded an interview they conducted with me the previous month about Art on Trial. I had a lot of fun responding to the various questions the interviewer, Hope Leman, asked, as she was a wonderfully delightful and warm person to work with.  I hope you get a chance to check it out; it can be found at:


Cohen-Liebman, M.S. (2003) Using drawings in forensic investigations of child sexual abuse. In C. Malchiodi’s (Ed.) Handbook of clinical art therapy. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Gantt, L., & Tabone, C. (1998). The formal elements art therapy scale: The rating manual. Morgantown, WV: Gargoyle Press.

Gussak, D. (2013). Art on trial: Art therapy in capital murder cases. New York, NY: Columbia University Press

Art on Trial

Confessions of a serial art therapist
David Gussak, Ph.D.

David Gussak, PhD, ATR-BC, is a professor and chair-person for the Florida State University Department of Art Education, and a clinical coordinator of its Graduate Art Therapy Program.

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