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Link between art, psychology explained

Link between art, psychology explained

Alex Hammerschmidt

Dave Gussak, Emporia State alumnus and art therapist, talks about his experience serving as an art therapist expert witness in a criminal court case, March 3 in Webb Hall. Gussak has published extensively on the use of art therapy, including in his latest book, “Art on Trial: Art Therapy in Capital Murder Cases.”

How does one evaluate the paintings of a person on trial for murder?

This question was addressed by Dave Gussak, a professional art therapist and Emporia State alumnus, during a presentation called “Art On Trial,” on March 3 in Webb Hall.

Gussak talked about the various methods for evaluating art that do not involve interpretation, but pointing out themes that are common among groups of people. He made a distinction between looking at the artwork for its formal aspects rather than symbolic content.

“We know how this murder was committed, this wasn’t a detective game,” Gussak said. “We need to be able to look at the drawings as a whole and symbolically determine if (the accused) has a mental illness.”

In the lecture, Gussak explained how he came to work on a case involving a death row client. He received the client’s art for analysis, and eventually testified in court about his conclusions. Gussak originally only received a CD containing pictures of the art work. He received no information on the client, nor was he informed of previous conclusions about that person’s mental state.

“I knew that this person had murdered somebody, but I didn’t know much more than that,” Gussak said.

Gussak repeatedly said during the lecture that his job hadn’t been to interpret the art so much as to evaluate the formal elements. That theme struck home with Brandon Schrader, freshman psychology major.

“I found out that art therapy is significantly more of a science than I had once really thought it was, and that it’s based on evidence more so than just the perception of the art,” Schrader said.

What stood out to Ashlea Chapman, senior biology major, during the presentation was how Gussak had tried not to evaluate the person, but the art itself.

“(Gussak) still promoted this guy as a fabulous artist,” Chapman said. “He didn’t ever demean his artwork in any way, because it was still all, you know, artwork in every sense.”

Gussak called his presenting at ESU “fortuitous.” He said Ken Weaver, dean of the Teachers College, had asked the School of Library and Information Management to consider him for the Teachers College Lecture Series.

Gussak is chair of the department of art education at Florida State and the clinical coordinator of its art therapy program. His master’s degree is in art therapy, and he obtained his doctorate from ESU.

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