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Edith Kramer: Art (Therapy) Tells the Truth

An art therapy icon’s passage marks the end of an era.

Image from Edith Kramer: Art Tells the Truth

Edith Kramer, considered to be one of the early pioneers in the field of art therapy, died at the age of 98 in Austria this past weekend. Kramer was born in Vienna in 1916, arriving in the US as a political refugee in 1938. Before her immigration she studied art with Friedl Dicker who was associated with the Bauhaus. Kramer followed Dicker to Prague, working with Dicker to help children whose parents were political refugees. Dicker [who became Dicker-Brandeis] was deported to the Terezin “model ghetto” where she provided art lessons to children; some note that Dicker’s work reflected a form of “art therapy” in that she helped these children use art as a way to express emotions and cope with their internment at Terezin. There is some speculation that Dicker may have imparted some of this philosophy to a young Edith Kramer who escaped to America.

Kramer eventually taught art in the US, first at the Little Red School House in New York City and later at the Wiltwyck School for Boys, where she was given the title “art therapist.” At the Wiltwyck School, she worked with children who were labeled as “disturbed” and applied her interest and belief in psychoanalytic theory to her work. Out of her many contributions in the form of writings and presentations about art therapy as a result of her experiences, Kramer is probably best remembered for the connections between art making and the concept of sublimation. Freudian theory defines sublimation as a process in which urges arising from the id are transformed into socially productive and acceptable outcomes that gratify the original urge. In 1958, Kramer’s seminal work, Art Therapy in a Children’s Community, was published; in 1971, Art as Therapy with Children was published and became standard reading in art therapy graduate degree programs for many decades.

Edith Kramer is also credited with the notion that it is the art process that is, in fact, the “healing” factor in successful art therapy. However, this simple explanation does not adequately explain her contribution in this regard. Kramer also believed that the individual in art therapy benefited from gratification in the outcome of the final art product. This worldview about the importance of the art expression led her to more fully clarify a concept that came to be known as the "Art Therapist’s Third Hand.” The third hand can be summed up as the art therapist’s ability to facilitate a person’s artistic process [such as strategically helping the individual mix paints for a desired color or intervening at critical moments during art making]. To me, the “third hand” exemplifies our modern-day interpersonal neurobiology paradigms of attunement and empathy as well as Daniel Siegel’s over-arching concept of “mindsight” and Daniel Goleman’s ideas about “focus” and emotional intelligence.

What always impressed me about Edith Kramer is that she had a distinct point of view about why the artistic process helped people of all ages find reparation and achieve recovery. But it is important to understand that she was really an artist at heart, favoring the idea that being an art therapist paid the bills so that she could devote time to being an artist. Eventually, art is what she returned to in the latter decades of her life—because for Edith Kramer, ultimately “art tells the truth” and it is a truth worth exploring in every waking moment of one’s life.

Keep Calm and Let Your Art Tell Its Truth,

© 2014 Cathy Malchiodi, PhD, LPCC, LPAT, ATR-BC, REAT

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