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Breaking through communication barriers with art

Micah Goguen, ’02, ’18, knows art can break through communication barriers. As an artist and an instructor, he sees the power art has on his students every day. 

Whether it’s the feeling of shyness, hopelessness, happiness, excitement or success, individuals can turn to art to communicate their thoughts.

Micah Goguen (right) observes his student painting.

“Art is a powerful way of expressing or putting ideas out there that maybe people don’t feel comfortable communicating,” said Goguen. “There are people who struggle with verbal communication and putting words or thoughts together. Sometimes they can put them down in a visual form, while still expressing their thoughts completely.”

Goguen believes he was applying the principles of art therapy before he pursued his master’s degree in the discipline.

“I discovered I was putting art into practical application in the real world,” he said. “It was the public who identified it as art therapy, and I didn’t have any knowledge of what art therapy was. I was just living it before I understood what it was.”

When Goguen taught workshops and classes, a common characteristic about some of his clients became apparent to him.

“I noticed that a lot of people, who were seeking art, typically were a bit more socially withdrawn or empathetic. “So, art was more of a safe place for them,” he said. “Over time, I started to realize they were getting a sense of connection by coming to the art classes and also from drawing or painting in groups.”

Goguen used art for his own self discovery and was inspired by his life experiences. At an early age he encountered an accident that left him completely blind in one eye. This condition caused a lot of feelings of indifference and created a sensitivity stigma around him at school. He turned to art as a coping mechanism.

“An artist once said to me that it’s impossible to separate your life from your art,” Goguen said. “I’m learning that to be true. When I first started pursuing art, I was in that space where I really didn’t know who I was. But, as I continued my journey, I had more definitive experiences that helped shape me.”

Goguen also uses art as an outlet to help others who are going through difficult times.

Micah Goguen holds one of his paintings, which was on display at Blackbird Coffee
in Milledgeville, Georgia.

“In my art therapy classes at Georgia College, I learned about the treatment side of art,” said Goguen. “I form treatment plans after the patients’ diagnoses. I learned about goal setting, working individually with clients, as well as the formation of treatment plans.”

When teaching drawing and painting, he applies some of the same exercises that he learned at Georgia College.

“The fundamental skills I learned when pursuing my bachelor’s degree set the tone for my workshops,” said Goguen. “So, a lot of them are really direct replications of what my professors taught me. Although, a lot of what I teach is a bit more elevated than what the traditional person is seeking.”

Although many of Goguen’s students start their classes with a sip-and-paint experience, he noticed afterwards many participants had several questions about color and brushstrokes.

“And, that got me thinking,” he said. “Why don’t I just teach a basics class that goes over color theory and drawing? So, I pulled what would’ve taken a whole semester or three-week project at Georgia College, and I condensed it to give people a strong foundation.”

Prior to graduate school, Goguen was working with people who had disabilities.

“I would use my own experience to the best of my ability to try and soothe them or walk them through or try to encourage it,” he said. “But I didn’t feel like I had the professional tools in my tool belt to deal with some of the responses that were emerging.”

“That urged me to get my master’s degree, so I could have not just my own experience, but some really effective tools. And I feel like that’s been true. Now that I’m back from graduation, I’m already thinking about things in a different capacity.”

Learning about art therapy at Georgia College deepened Goguen’s confidence.

“I’m not approaching things in the same way that I would’ve before,” he said. “I have more of an understanding. Even simple things like termination of a client, when you know that a deadline’s approaching. Just knowing how to set them up for success, so abandonment issues aren’t triggered and, so they feel supported. It’s helped out a great deal.”

Goguen teaches about 45 students in workshops and demos weekly. His artwork and workshops are in Florida, Georgia, North and South Carolina and Tennessee. Together, he and his students in the Teen Development and Artist Mentorship programs will be featured at the Georgia National Fair in October.

“It’s so empowering,” he said. “The students work in front of everybody during the fair. After the session, there’s so much validation. Because these people who were so scared to draw have public approach them and ask, ‘Wow, you’ve only been painting a year, and you did all of this?’ The students feel really good. There’s a lot of value in that interaction.”

One of Goguen’s larger success stories involves a boy with Asperger syndrome, who he’s worked with since age 12. Goguen entered the boy into the Artist with Disabilities exhibit in Atlanta. They worked together on the exhibit throughout the month. Although it is difficult for individuals with this condition to be social and in crowded situations, Goguen—the keynote speaker at the Arts with Disabilities Conference—called the boy to the front of the room to provide statements about his artwork to nearly 200 people. The young man was able to communicate with the crowd clearly and confidently.

“He’s been able to use his artwork as a platform,” said Goguen. “He wants to pursue art therapy, because it has made such an impact on him.”

When it comes to painting or drawing, Goguen has heard the excuses, “I’m not good enough,” “I can’t paint” or “I don’t know how to draw.” His favorite payback is proving them wrong.

“I just love watching their perception of a false truth change,” he said. “I think of the moment where they came in telling me they couldn't do it, that they weren't any good. Then, later, to witness that moment where they start testifying to other people that they can do it. When I see them encourage somebody else, I know my work is done."

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