San Francisco Art Enthusiast visited artist and art therapist Kristina Bell DiTullo in her art studio to discuss her multifaceted arts career. She works in several mediums and has exhibited throughout the United States. An art therapist for as long as she has been an artist, Kristina explains the history of art therapy and how her art therapist career informs and influences her art practice.
How did you become interested in art therapy? What interested you about this field?
The two things you could always find me doing when I was little were drawing and exploring nature, endlessly wandering the woods that surrounded my childhood home. I first learned about art therapy in high school, but I was very focused on combining my passion for drawing with my love of science and nature to become a medical/scientific illustrator. At the same time, I was going through a very tumultuous adolescence and making art was my way of dealing with the things I was going through. It was an outlet that kept me going.
I left my childhood home in upstate New York to go to the Rhode Island School of Design and pursue illustration. At RISD, students can cross enroll at Brown University. It was in psychology classes at Brown where I rediscovered art therapy. By my junior year I knew I wanted to become an art therapist and I spent that summer volunteering with an art therapist on a psychiatric unit. That was my first exposure to working with individuals with severe psychiatric disorders and experiencing how art therapy is able to help people express complex emotional issues that defy language. I did not need to hear any lectures about how art can be healing. I knew first hand how it had helped me with my adolescent years and it continues to be a very personal expression of my experience.
Is this a relatively new field in medicine? How is art therapy placed within the larger healthcare system?
Art therapy has been around since the 1940’s when the beneficial effects of creating art began to be observed in hospitals and other settings. The term art therapy was coined at this time and began to be written about by psychologists, artists and art educators. The field developed simultaneously in England and the United States by several individuals now known as the founders of the field. Here in the U.S. the American Art Therapy Association was formed in 1969 and the first journal for the field of art therapy was started in 1961. The first graduate degrees were awarded in the 1970’s.
Art therapists work in an incredible range of settings such as prisons, nursing homes, domestic violence shelters, VA hospitals, cancer centers, substance abuse centers, schools, in private practice and many more.
Artist Kristina Bell DiTullo
How difficult of a process is it to get an art therapist’s degree?
To become an art therapist you must pursue a Master’s degree in art therapy. Generally speaking within a degree program you learn counseling skills, diagnosis, assessment, research, and theoretical histories and applications. You also must complete a required number of practicum hours and a thesis. Most students drawn to art therapy programs have an undergraduate degree in either art or psychology.
What are your specific expertises in art therapy?
I have worked in a range of different settings as an art therapist since I began my career in 2000. My last two positions gave me the most specialized experience. One was working at an eating disorder clinic with clients ranging in age from 7-21. The other was working at a children’s hospital providing bedside art therapy and art therapy with patients undergoing rehabilitation. I developed expertise in eating disorders, medical issues and trauma within these two positions.
How does your knowledge and art therapy practice inform and influence your own art practice?
My art practice is informed 100% by my education in art therapy along with my experiences working as an art therapist. As many artists throughout history have been interested in portraying the human condition through their work, I use my psychology background to inspire the way I depict this theme. This inquisitiveness into and knowledge of the human condition I learned while earning my masters at The School of The Art Institute of Chicago, combined with the formal training I received in painting, drawing, printmaking, and art history at the Rhode Island School of Design forms the foundation of how I explore and express ideas.
Could you talk a little bit about your implementation of band-aids as an artistic medium?
My background in psychology always forms a base layer for my work. I gravitate toward using familiar objects to convey complex concepts. I am always careful to select ubiquitous objects that seem innocuous at first glance, yet are highly culturally charged and provoke a deep response in us, especially when used en mass. The use of bandages came out of my desire to express my experience of listening to so many people’s stories of the wounding and healing effects of relationships and the way their lives interweave with the lives of so many others.
I had remembered seeing a single bandage on paper years ago. I had also been researching geometric quilts. Simultaneously, I was getting deeper into the aesthetics of minimalism. These very disparate inspirations combined together to develop my first series using bandages that I named Constant Mend. My idea centered around creating a block of woven bandages to reflect how we try to create psychological defenses to prevent being harmed, but that they are always compromised at some point within our relationships. In this first series I also experimented with embroidering red thread on a few of the bandages in each piece.
Embrace Reject IV
With each new series of bandage works I create the concept shifts and evolves slightly. In 2010-2011 I began a series called Embrace/Reject in which I mutated the previously intact solid pattern blocks into patterns that break down, devolve, and pixelate. This series reflects our shifting in and out of communities, groups and cliques. It also represents how an individual can feel isolated at the same time as being in a group of others, like independent cells in the same organism. It makes me think of how our relationships shift through the different stages of our lives and how that can provoke feelings of rejection and/or nurturance.
You are also working on a new project of DSM codes typed out and put on hospital wrist bracelets.
An art therapist friend who figured I could find a use for them gave me a case of them. For many years I had tucked away in my mind the idea of creating a piece using the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 4th Edition (DSM-IV), which is the manual used to diagnose psychiatric conditions. Just flipping through the DSM and reading the different types of classifications of disorders is intriguing. After the wristbands arrived I knew that they would serve as my vehicle to use the DSM-IV. I typed out each single diagnosis with its code on an old electric typewriter I bought for the project. I placed each one into a single wristband. The finished total came to 391 wristbands. It was a fascinating process to so methodically transcribe each diagnosis. I am currently looking for a location to create an installation of all 391 wristbands in a gallery space. This installation titled Cerebral Entities explores the language of psychiatry, our collective understanding of mental illness, labeling, shame, secrecy and the desire to create order out of chaos. I’d like to have a performance or educational aspect to the installation as well.
Your husband works in the design field, and you both remain engaged in architecture and design. Is your artwork influenced or informed to your husband’s design practice? Is this from whence your interest in architectural works, such as those you paint, is derived?
I have always been interested in design and architecture, but it wasn’t until I met Michael that I became educated about it and my interest became more dimensional. I was very fortunate to grow up near New Canaan, CT where the Harvard Five of architects all had homes. I can remember peering out the window of my mom’s car on the drive to New Canaan and seeing all these amazing modern homes peeking out through the trees. My parents also had quite a few modern furniture pieces, flatware, Braun appliances from the Dieter Rams period and other objects that I grew up appreciating for their forms. The beauty of the curves of a classic car, the breadth of the view of the landscape you see as you stand in the Phillip Johnson Glass House or the forms on an object as simple as a coffeemaker are all inspiring to me as they are all the embodiment of the creative act, just like a painting. The paintings I created for many years after college were influenced by the Precisionists, specifically Charles Sheeler. Through these paintings that I’ve called the Industrial-Achitectural series I was interested in celebrating the forms we pass by everyday in our environment, but so often don’t fully register they are there. Several of the structures that inspired me were public sculptures, such as the Calder sculpture in Federal Plaza in downtown Chicago. Saturation of color and geometric forms were my main language to explore these varied structures.
I could not imagine being partnered with someone who is not creative. Michael and I are each other’s biggest fans and biggest critics. We support and push each other as well as expose the other to new things. I’m always getting him out to galleries, museums, concerts and performances, while he is always having me experience architectural masterpieces, auto races, and vintage car shows. One of the many things we love to do together is picking through old junk shops. Hunting through the ephemera of yesterday, we often imagine the stories that the objects would tell of their former owners. An old toaster, a doll, or an old brass fan up on a shelf, they were once part of someone’s day-to-day life. I think we both share a fascination with the physical by-products of human relationships.
Often, there are two distinct separate schools of thought regarding art: it can be somewhat of an ‘’escape,’’ or fantastical narrative, and yet also often implemented as a tool to engage with life. Would it be a fair assessment to say that your art above all engages with current issues? Do you see any element of it as a diversion or otherwise?
The concepts behind my recent work are about current issues and also general human experiences. With all of my work I seek to take a viewers perspective and shift it. I work with what I have personally experienced combined with what are common themes running through other people’s experiences. I am intrigued by topics that appear frequently in the media and in our consciousness, but continue to be secretive and shameful when a person is struggling with a loaded societal issue. This is what has drawn me to explore issues such as domestic violence, eating disorders, isolation, obsession, denial, and trauma. I have been witness to and in a relationship with many individuals who are grappling with what life has presented them. I feel the need to transcribe this into visual language and bring it out into the world in a new way.
I began sketching out pieces addressing the issue of domestic violence. To address this often hidden abuse issue I have a range of ideas and materials I want to use to create an installation. It has initially begun with creating paintings of bruises. It is very important for me to create work that draws the viewer in due to the aesthetic quality of the pieces upon first inspection. I then hope that it translates to a second level where the psychological aspect of the work comes forth. My process is not to make overtly shocking work, but I do want to address issues that our culture can be uncomfortable to openly talk about.
Tell us about the artwork you have on view at the Shine exhibit at Berkeley art center, “Bike Memory, Age 7.”
The piece I created for the Berkeley Art Center’s Artists Annual came from an idea I squirreled away in my idea book about how we conjure our childhood memories. The theme of the show, Shine, was the perfect outlet for the idea. Our experience of memories can be fragmented, but also so vivid. I wanted to work with the idea of a person beaming with happiness. These fragmented moments of joy can be particularly powerful, pure, and simple when looking at a moment from our childhood. For the first piece I asked my husband to tell me a memory from his childhood when he had this feeling of beaming with happiness. For my substrate I got an old, weathered mirror and applied chalkboard paint to part of the mirror’s surface. His memory is then written in chalk on the surface. A mirror was selected to represent the self and the universally familiar materials of chalk on a chalkboard to speak about childhood and also reflect the vulnerability of memories, how they can suddenly become hazy or wiped away. This is a series I plan to continue with through collecting more individual’s childhood memories.
Bike Memory, Age 7
What would you like to pursue in your art making? If any, in which ways would you like to see your artwork change?
There are many, many things I would like to pursue in my art making! I generally have more ideas than I have time for. I catalog them in an idea journal and I doubt I’ll have time to explore them all. I select what to work on based on what I am feeling passionate about at the moment or what medium I desire to work with. I focus on pushing my work conceptually with the issues I want to address along with the way in which I use materials. This year I plan to work in some completely new ways and also return to my roots in oil painting. The one way I am working to further my work is to make it more expansive. I want to take a concept and push it in many different directions through materials. My desire is to create an immersive experience for the viewer. I don’t just want them to see the work, I want them to be in it. This year I would like to continue to get to know and show in Bay Area art venues. My main goal is to have my first solo show.