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Graduate Student Jessica McGhee ’19 Finds Passion and Purpose in Creative Arts Therapy
Jessica McGhee is not a human being who is easily defined.
Her resume would reveal a 2019 B.F.A. recipient from the College of Visual and Performing Arts (VPA), a current graduate student in VPA’s art therapy program, an intern with a local hospital, an aspiring nonprofit leader, and a volunteer, instructor and arts programming coordinator with La Casita Cultural Center.
But she might describe herself in different terms—as a lifelong artist, a people watcher, a witness and observer of beauty, a survivor of intimate partner violence and sexual trauma, and an adamant believer in the power of art therapy.
“I love seeing the beauty in people, and oftentimes they cannot see it in themselves. I feel like being as I’m able to see it, it’s my job to communicate it,” McGhee says.
An artist from a young age, she is primarily a painter of surrealist landscapes, often created with mixed medias and on material that would otherwise be disposed of. Her work, with titles like “Roots,” “Mother Sun,” “Self-Actualization” and “On Coexistence,” evokes spirituality, connection to nature, self-expression, exploration of race and the prevalence of inner strength.
“My art has always tried to show people their value, the complexity of life, the complexity of existence in this physical place,” she says.
Art as a Therapeutic Intervention
Perhaps it was destiny that in 2019, the year McGhee graduated with a B.F.A., VPA announced the launch of its M.S. program in art therapy, housed in the Department of Creative Arts Therapy. She was intrigued by the program and eventually became part of its first cohort of students, beginning in the Fall 2021 semester.
McGhee says the program puts terminology and theory to what she felt she was already doing through her creative pursuits.
“Before I started the program, I feel I was doing art therapy with myself—but not fully understanding what was coming out,” she says. “I always learned a lot from my art and my creative investigation, but being in the program ties everything together and makes a lot of sense.”
Currently, McGhee puts theory into practice as an intern with a local hospital’s inpatient substance use disorder unit. She designed and facilitates a 28-day art therapy program that complements other treatment modalities for people with alcohol and substance use disorders.
Her clients receive support as they stabilize, build self-worth and find self-forgiveness, all critical to the recovery process, through principles of art therapy. “I teach about symbolism and metaphor, and it comes through in their artwork in ways that are so insightful,” McGhee says.
Based on her belief that substance use disorders are often a maladaptive response to trauma, McGhee emphasizes the importance of self-expression in healing and hopes to inspire others to find their purpose through art therapy.
“Once an individual can let go of all of the suffering and pain and actually start to investigate and get curious about their own interests, that’s when self-actualization comes to play,” she says.
Broadening her work beyond the hospital setting, McGhee holds multiple roles with La Casita Cultural Center, including volunteering with an Arts as Mindfulness group run by fellow art therapy student Bennie Guzman. The program is for adults to enjoy a space for creativity and self-reflection, build on community, manage stress and develop their creative expression.
“I teach different coping skills, meditation, strengths-based exercises and creative investigation into the self,” McGhee says. She is currently planning a community care workshop on April 3 at the Community Folk Art Center.
While art therapy is her main focus, McGhee incorporates other healing modalities into her work with clients and in the community.
Influenced by the principles of somatic therapy—which draws connections between emotions and where they are experienced in the physical body—she incorporates principles of vipassana (a Buddhist meditation technique), body scans, nature-based therapy and strengths assessments (she is fond of the VIA Survey of Character Strengths).
She explains that our emotional memories, particularly memories of traumatic origin, tend to be stored in the part of our brain that is non-verbal, or in the body, and surface later through these non-verbal realms—so practices that get us out of our brains and more connected to our bodies can help.
“All of those emotions and feelings, everything that’s going on inside of you, all of that nonverbal suffering… you can externalize it,” McGhee says. “In talk therapy, oftentimes you can re-experience the moment, and it can be re-traumatizing each time you bring it out of your mouth. But if you’re putting it on paper as it feels inside of you, then you’re actually exercising those emotions. You’re analyzing them, you’re investigating them, but you aren’t reprocessing that exact moment of trauma.”
Therapeutic Works on Display
Earlier this year, McGhee was invited to show her artwork at the University’s 38th Annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration as part of the inaugural art exhibition held in the Club 44 VIP lounge in the JMA Wireless Dome.
“Never had I imagined I would be a part of something so big and so amazing,” she says of the experience, noting how surreal it was for her to see her art displayed on the JMA Dome’s giant videoboards. McGhee curated nine original works for the celebration, which welcomed over 2,000 students, faculty, staff and community members on Jan. 22.
The event was envisioned as a way for participants to celebrate the richness of Syracuse’s culture and beauty, in reflection of the theme of this year’s MLK Celebration, “Civil Rights and the City of Syracuse.” McGhee exhibited alongside fellow artists David R. MacDonald, Jaleel Campbell and Vanessa Johnson. Two pieces exhibited—“Self Actualization” (mixed media on a wood triptych) and “Rebirth” (mask)—were created as response art to her therapeutic work.
“I was honored to be a part of the exhibition—it made me feel really wonderful,” McGhee says.
In the Works: Nonprofit Community Retreat Center
Upon graduating from the art therapy program next May, McGhee has aspirations to launch a Syracuse-based nonprofit offering alternative therapy services in a retreat-based setting to trauma survivors, regardless of their ability to pay. She and business partner Azra Gradincic have begun laying the groundwork to bring this dream to fruition.
The nonprofit, tentatively named SOAR, will offer inclusive access to integrative, holistic healing. Their ambition is to remove the financial barriers that often accompany retreat-style healing settings by offering a sliding-scale or free financial model, while also accepting Medicaid, Medicare and private insurance.
“I see a secure setting where people can heal and rebuild and have dedicated break time, when they aren’t trying to survive their day-to-day life, but can really focus on their personal needs and healing,” McGhee says.
To learn more about McGhee, visit divinewanderings.com. Her work is currently on display at Redhouse Arts Center (400 S. Salina St., Syracuse), Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., and she plans to exhibit at La Casita later this spring.