5 Questions for Dr. Elizabeth Hlavek BFA ’04

Posted on March 19, 2021

Dr. Elizabeth Hlavek is an art therapist specializing in the treatment of eating disorders, especially in adolescents. After her undergraduate studies at CMU, Dr. Hlavek received a master’s degree in Creative Art Therapy from Pratt Institute and a doctoral degree in Art Therapy from Mt. Mary University. She is a board member of the American Art Therapy Association.

Dr. Hlavek’s doctoral researched focused on art made by victims of the Holocaust in ghettos, concentration camps, and in hiding. She is currently working on a book titled A meaning based approach to art therapy: From the Holocaust to contemporary practices.

“5 Questions” is an ongoing series by the School of Art that asks alumni who are transforming art, culture, and technology about their current work and time at Carnegie Mellon.

What does a typical art therapy session with you look like?
During a typical session, we start by chit chatting about what’s been going on in the client’s life lately, and then I ask them if they want to create artwork based on what they’ve shared or if there’s something else they’d like to focus on. Sometimes I give them a suggestion like, “should we focus on family today or should we focus on body image?” Some people come in with a set idea of what they want to do and might not need a lot of prompts, but others might feel less confident and want more direction.

The bulk of the session is making the artwork and clients can use any materials they want. Sometimes there’s conversation during artmaking, but afterward we always talk about what they’ve made. I ask them to describe it to me, I may ask some questions, and they reflect on their piece. We talk about how it relates to them and what’s going on in their life, and we try to draw parallels between what they’re experiencing and what the artwork is showing.

You hear the phrase, “a picture is worth a thousand words,” and in therapy, you have a very limited amount of time, so why not get the most you can out of that time? So, if a picture is worth a thousand words and you only have 45 to 55 minutes in a session, then you may as well get as many words as you can! I think for a lot of people artmaking can feel safer than just talking. Some people might have difficulty articulating what they’re feeling. Perhaps a person has a cognitive disability or is dealing with something trauma-related or has a general lack of self-awareness. Sometimes creating artwork about a feeling or what’s going on can help bring clarity to the situation. Oftentimes people will work within the metaphor of an artwork to identify what’s going on in their life.

Artwork by Elizabeth Hlavek

Your specialty is working with adolescents and young adults struggling with eating disorders, body image issues, and self-esteem concerns. How does art help with healing?
For anyone, but especially for adolescents, artmaking can be very affirming—it’s a great form of expression. A lot of the time, adolescents may be concerned with how their parents will react or they don’t always know if what they’re saying is appropriate or not, so artmaking can be useful in helping them develop self-insight. Adolescence is a time of figuring out who you are and differentiating yourself from your family, so creating artwork can be a great opportunity for self-discovery.

I’m currently working on a book based on my research so have been reflecting on this a lot. My research is focused on existential psychology and Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor who is well-known for his auto-ethnological writings about his experiences that informed his psychotherapy practice. He identified a theory called logotherapy, which translates to meaning therapy. One of the components of logotherapy is that all individuals have a physical dimension, a psychological dimension, and a spiritual dimension. What’s unique to humans is the spiritual dimension, essentially what makes you, you. One of the theories I’m working with is that artmaking contributes to the spiritual dimension, so creating artwork can be really affirming and can give people a tool for transcendence, creativity, and meaningful expression. In working with people with eating disorders, or people who are just uncomfortable with their bodies, I’ve found there’s often so much focus on the physical dimension that they’re not giving enough emphasis to the spiritual dimension. In other words, there’s so much emphasis on how they look, what they’re putting into their body, or how their body feels, that they’re not focusing on who they are as a person.

Tell us a bit about your research into art created by Holocaust victims.
Before I started graduate school for art therapy, I had an opportunity to go to Prague, and while I was there, I visited a Terezin ghetto. I learned about this woman, Friedl Dicker Brandeis, who had created artwork with children in the ghetto. When I saw the artwork on display, I instantly thought that it seemed relevant to art therapy. I ended up researching her and her art for my master’s thesis, and as I was exploring her history, I learned about other artists who created clandestinely throughout the Holocaust. My concept of Holocaust artwork grew at the same time as my interest in art therapy.

When I started my doctoral degree, I wanted to continue exploring artwork created during the Holocaust, because it’s not a very well-known area and especially unknown within art therapy. I think this artwork really supports the validity of art therapy! There are about 40,000 documented works of art that were made by people in ghettos, concentration camps, or in hiding, and it’s estimated that this represents only 10 percent of all the artwork created. It’s so amazing that these people who had no control over their lives and who had no sense of what their future held still maintained this creative impulse! In an environment where people were fighting every day for their lives, they were taking risks to create art.

For my research, I interviewed five surviving artists, and I looked at the concept of creating artwork in the Holocaust as a phenomenon. From these interviews, I came up with six themes of what people got out of making art or why they made art: hope, comfort, affirmation of existence, witnessing, identity, and autonomy.

As part of my dissertation, I really wanted to show some of the artwork from the Holocaust to a broader audience. So, I got around 25 reproductive prints from various museums, each one of which related to one of those six themes, for an exhibition at Notre Dame of Maryland University. I also included one or two images from my current clients that related to the themes, along with a statement about what they had made. Although artwork that was created during the Holocaust was specific to that experience—an unparalleled experience—I wanted to highlight that clients in contemporary art therapy can also benefit from using art to explore these six themes. This relates to existential theory—when you strip everything down, there are core concerns of existence that everyone struggles with. I had been worried about diluting or creating a false equivalence between artwork made during a genocide and artwork made in central Maryland, but I think we gain more meaning by using the artwork of the Holocaust to inform our current art therapy practices.

Are there any experiences you had as a student at CMU that stand out?
I really liked my classes with Clayton Merrell and Jon Beckley, and I also really appreciated my anatomy drawing class with Mary Weidner. I went into art school wanting to focus on technique to improve myself as an artist, but had I known I was going into art therapy or if I could go back with my current perspective, I would have had more appreciation for Concept Studio.

Do you have any advice to share with students?
I went back to CMU a few years ago, went into the CFA building, and was so mad at myself because for four years, all I had to do was show up here and make art. I found myself wishing I had appreciated my time in CFA more than I did. So, my advice for current students is to appreciate your time in college! It’s so easy to get caught up in interpersonal stuff or to worry about grades—there’s so much going on developmentally when you’re a college student. In adulthood, it’s really hard to have time or space to devote specifically to art, so I encourage students to truly appreciate this time and enjoy making art because that’s why you’re there!