For Katherine Malensek, art is a calling and a family affair
For now, Yale clinical faculty member Katherine Malensek isn’t bothered by the fact that the living room in her home is more art studio than sitting space.
More often than not, the room is littered with an easel, paints, crayons, and other supplies, as art plays a big part in the lives of everyone in her family.
Malensek is a clinician and art therapist for the Yale Child Study Center’s Intensive In-home Children and Adolescent Psychiatric Services (IICAPS), providing in-home psychiatric care and art therapy for children and adolescents with a range of mental health issues. She also leads group art therapy sessions at the Yale School of Medicine’s York Street Clinic, which provides family-based mental health treatment services.
In her free time, Malensek is also a photographer, and is one of dozens of Yale affiliates who will take part in Artspace’s City-wide Open Studios (CWOS) this month. She will exhibit some of her own photographs during CWOS’s Armory Weekend (Oct. 14 & 15) alongside metal sculptures and other works by her husband, Rafael Cornier, who works by day as a graphic artist. In their Armory space, the couple will also showcase a few paintings and drawings made by their seven-year-old daughter, Ana Cornier, to make the event a family affair.
“After taking Ana to last year’s CWOS, she really rekindled our interest in participating in the event,” says Malensek, who hasn’t shown her work in CWOS for some 15 years. “She’s really interested in art and is an emerging artist in her own right. She really is the one who inspired us to take part in CWOS this year.”
Malensek and her husband have been taking Ana to CWOS since she was still in a stroller to see the work of friends and others who participate in the month-long arts festival. The Yale clinical faculty member says that she is excited by the opportunity to show their work collectively, since the family members are the most supportive and encouraging fans of each other’s artistry.
Like Ana, Malensek had a passion for creating art as a child, but it wasn’t until she was in high school that she developed an interest in photography. “I took some courses and fell in love with the darkroom,” she says. Her interest grew while she was an undergraduate at Southern Connecticut State University, where she majored in political science with a minor in women’s studies.
“I spent a lot of time in the darkroom when I probably should have been studying more,” she says. “I actually thought about a career as a photographer, but decided that it was probably not that practical.”
After college, Malensek worked for a series of nonprofit agencies, serving as an advocate for women and children with the homeless shelter New Haven Home Recovery; as a contributions coordinator for AIDS Project New Haven; and as a program assistant for Interfaith Refugee Ministry (now called Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services). Her work for the latter organization began during the Bosnian war. Malensek, whose mother is Croatian and father is Slovenian, was able use her knowledge of the Croatian language to help refugees as they adjusted to life in New Haven.
Later, while working as a contributions coordinator for the Anti-Defamation League, a civil rights organization, Malensek would spend her evenings painting or making photographic prints. “It was my way of coping after exhausting days in the office,” she recalls. She also enrolled in photography courses at New Haven’s Creative Arts Workshop, studying with professional photographer Harold Shapiro.
At this same time, Malensek decided she wanted to pursue graduate work, but wasn’t sure which direction to take.
“I hadn’t heard about art therapy at that point,” she says. “I basically did a career search of my interests, which were always social justice, nonprofits, and photography. In my search, the career of art therapy came up. I thought, ‘Wow, this is perfect!’’’ That career choice, she adds, allows her to combine her own passions for social justice and working to end child abuse.
While working full time, Malensek earned her master’s degree in art therapy at Albertus Magnus College, becoming licensed through the program as a professional counselor in the state of Connecticut as well. After earning her degree, she worked for nearly a year as a psychiatric technician, art therapist, and health educator at Yale-New Haven Hospital, serving children and adolescents in both inpatient and outpatient settings. She joined the staff of the Yale Child Study Center in 2007.
For children and teens with psychiatric disorders, art allows a form of expression that can allow fragile young people to more easily communicate their thoughts and feelings, Malensek says.
“The creative process helps them to sit and focus and not think about other things,” she says. “It can be particularly helpful for kids with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, who often are able to be still and focused when making art.” In group therapy sessions with adolescent girls, many struggling with issues of self-esteem, Malensek uses art to help them develop their own identities and identify their strengths.
“By using art as a therapeutic technique, I can gain insight into what’s going on in their inner worlds. I ask them to interpret their art for me, and they sometimes engage more readily in this way than they might in conventional talk-therapy sessions.”
While Malensek continued to make her own pictures as she settled into her new career, she began photographing even more earnestly after the birth of her daughter, capturing moments of Ana’s life with her Canon EOS digital camera or on her cell phone. “She really became my model,” the Yale clinical faculty member says.
Malensek mostly creates images in black and white, and is fond of taking photographic portraits of people in a manner that captures their personalities. She is especially inspired by the work of American painter Margaret Keane and the photographs of Cindy Sherman.
“Keane’s paintings were mostly of children and she created them with mesmerizing, big sad eyes,” says Malensek. “The eyes told a story. Sherman used herself as the model in her photographs, and I find her work interesting and creative. Her artwork challenged cultural and gender stereotypes.”
“I find my own artwork to have childhood — or child-like — as a theme,” says Malensek.
When she participated in CWOS years ago, Malensek says, she enjoyed the sense of community created by the gathering of artists and art-lovers, as well as the collaborations among them. Her husband, a cyclist whose sculptures are often made of used bicycle parts, said he is excited to be showing his work alongside that of family.
The last exhibition of Malensek’s work was in 2006 for the annual juried photography exhibition IMAGES in Guilford, Connecticut, which celebrates exceptional work by regional photographers. She admits that she is a somewhat nervous about a public showing of her photographs after so long a break.
“When I first participated in CWOS, I was an aspiring art therapist, and now I am a practicing art therapist,” she says. “The gap was a measure of achieving my goal. As some of the kids I work with say to describe their feelings, I’m ‘nervousited’ — nervous and excited at the same time. I’m excited about participating again, and now I’m sharing the experience with my family, inspired by my daughter’s own love of art.”