SWR grad receives Fulbright award to study art therapy

Julia Volonts sits across from her new teenage client in a combination art studio and office in Brooklyn. A blank piece of paper sits on a table in front of him. She prompts the teen to use colored pencils to draw a shape representing himself.

She then asks him to illustrate how he’s feeling inside the shape. What surrounds the circle is his current environment. She believes such visuals can tell a story that talking might not reveal.

She takes note of certain parts of his work — the use of shape, lines, color — and asks why he chose them. But she allows him to draw his own conclusions from it.

After their session, Ms. Volonts creates her own artwork inspired by the teenager’s work — response art, or work created by art therapists to process their clinical work.

Ms. Volonts, 30, is a licensed, board-certified art therapist who grew up in Riverhead, attended Riverhead Middle School and graduated from Shoreham-Wading River High School in 2006. She’s been with New York Creative Arts Therapists in Brooklyn for about three years.

But come September, thanks to a Fulbright scholarship award, she’ll take her skill set to Riga Stradins University in Latvia, which is bordered by the Baltic Sea between Lithuania and Estonia.

Art therapy has been integrated into psychotherapy in the United States since the 1940s, Ms. Volonts said, but in Latvia, art therapy has been established only in the past 10 years. She plans to use the scholarship, which runs through May 2020, to research art therapy practices there. 

Her work will focus on response art, she said, which is not common in Latvia. She’ll work with graduate students and professors at Riga Stradins to examine how Latvian therapists can use response art to process transgenerational trauma, or trauma transferred from first-generation survivors to subsequent generations, she said.

“What I’d like to do is work with clinicians to introduce what response art is,” she said. “Then I can study how that helps, or informs, art therapists there.”

Julia Volonts

The country has a history of oppression, she said. It was occupied by the Soviet army during World War II and tension within the country still exists, she said.

“In Latvia, they are dealing with the effects of World War II with the Soviet occupation and exiting the Soviet Union in 1991,” she said.

She said the Fulbright is a two-way street: She’ll introduce something to her Latvian peers and they’ll teach her about the mental health profession in their country.

The Riverhead native, who received a Master of Professional Studies in art therapy in 2017 from the School of Visual Arts, has roots in Latvian culture. Her father was raised in a Latvian community in Brentwood and her grandfather and extended family are from Latvia, she said.

“I’m American, but I do know the culture to some extent,” she said. “I have a relationship with the country that is meaningful.”

Her parents are “creative in their own way,” she said. Now retired, both had worked as educators on Long Island. Her father, Janis, was a BOCES administrator and her mother, Marguerite, was a music teacher in the Riverhead Central School District.

“She’s worked so hard to get to where she is now,” her mother said. “I’m so glad she’s doing what she loves.”

Last week, Ms. Volonts traveled to the capital, Riga, to lecture and present on response art at the Latvian Art Therapy Association’s annual conference.

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