Students see the power of art therapy during visit to OSH
The instructions were simple, but the possible outcomes were limitless. Without using words, make a picture that finishes this sentence: "This is me; I am ..."
For five minutes, 20 students from the Pacific Northwest College of Art worked in hurried silence on drawings that would be as unique as the artist creating them during a recent class visit to the Oregon State Hospital's Salem campus.
"It's personal, and I wanted them to experience what it might be like for somebody in an art therapy session," Pat Fording, the hospital's director of creative arts therapies, said of the exercise. "Patients begin to realize that they're not just making a product; they're communicating something about themselves."
Fording's lecture and "directive" exercise came after PNCA art instructor Hayley Barker reached out to the hospital to arrange the field trip. Barker's class combines key elements of psychology with the creation of artwork, and the idea of visiting the state hospital to further explore these topics seemed natural to her.
"Cultural myths about mental illness"
"We've been studying art therapy, and I thought what a great place to explore those themes," Barker explained. "I think there are a lot of cultural myths about mental illness and institutionalization, and my hope was that coming here my students would not only learn more about art therapy, but would also come away seeing this place as it is: a place where people are working with really wonderful, skilled, professional people to help them recover."
An art therapist such as Fording uses art media as part of the treatment process to make positive changes to an individual's behavior and thought processes. Watercolors, pastels, colored pencils, markers and other media can be used during therapy, depending on the patient's needs and diagnosis.
Art therapy can address issues such as behavioral change, insight and self-awareness, coping and social skills, and a sense of safety and emotional containment.
Fording told the students that art therapy's primary focus is on the artist's thought processes, not the final product. She looks at signs such as shapes and color choice when examining a patient's work.
More than colors on paper
She showed examples of art created by one patient over a 10-week treatment period. The patient, who had a history of violence and had been resistant to other types of therapy, responded very well to the art, Fording explained. The patient's initial paintings were disjointed with little color, and images appeared to be scattered randomly around the page. By the end of the therapy session, the patient was creating well-planned, colorful paintings that had obvious themes, and the patient's violent incidents had decreased dramatically.
Fording said she wanted to stress that art therapy is more than putting colors on paper. She said she hoped if the students took away just one thing from her lecture it would be a respect for the power art can have on an individual.
Barker said she thinks her students will keep that message in mind when creating their own work.
"There's no way any of us can go back and paint this weekend without thinking, 'why am I only using black,' or 'why am I not using color,' those sorts of things," Barker said. "It was a fabulous experience, and I think the information Pat shared with us is something my students will definitely reflect back on in their own studio practices."