WHAT THEY LEARNED: Jessica Poling ’15

A New York Times article on art therapy in prison sparked her interest in the intersection of mental health and the arts, which led to her thesis comparing art therapy with the Outsider Art movement.

You never know where inspiration will strike. It was, for example, a casual reading of The New York Times that eventually led to sociology major Jessica Poling’s senior thesis. An article on art therapy in prison sparked Poling’s interest in the intersection of mental health and the arts. She then spent the summer before her senior year studying art therapy before returning to Haverford to work on “Pictures of Madness: Art Therapy and Outsider Art’s Struggle for Cultural Authority,” her capstone project.

Working on her thesis, which compared and contrasted art therapy with the Outsider Art movement that can often include the work of the mentally ill, Poling discovered how much she enjoyed conducting research. This, in turn, led to her decision to pursue graduate studies in sociology, and now Poling is headed to Rutgers University in the fall to attend their doctoral program.


How did your thesis advisor help you develop your topic, conduct your research, and/or interpret your results?

My advisor was [Associate Professor] Lisa McCormick, [and her] help was invaluable throughout the process of writing my thesis. As a leading figure in the sociology of art, Professor McCormick’s knowledge and expertise helped me develop my topic, find relevant literature, and develop my own argument. She also encouraged me to collect my own data and assisted me in finding funding to do so.

What did you learn from working on your thesis?

I learned an incredible amount of information about the profession of art therapy and the artistic movement “Outsider Art.” My thesis argues that although these two organizations are both founded on the argument that there is a connection between mental illness and creativity, they approach this connection in drastically different ways, consequently jeopardizing the professional authority of art therapists. I argue that art therapists contend with this threat in two ways: first, by medicalizing their patients’ artwork and restricting who is allowed to access these works of art, and secondly, by imposing their own professional values onto Outsider Art exhibitions. This conclusion taught me about the nature of art therapy and Outsider Art as well as the nature of social organizations. In addition to these findings, my thesis taught me about the research process and its trials and tribulations. Having completed my thesis, I now know how hard it can be to acquire interview participants or how agonizing it can be to make changes to an Institutional Review Board application. However, I also now know how rewarding research can be despite all of this.


“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.