'They Get Better': How Adding Art to Therapy Changes Lives

Jun 26, 2017

For people who are dealing with trauma, mental illness, or other challenging life circumstances, sometimes traditional talk therapy isn't the best - or only - way to start the process of healing.

Art therapy and other creative therapies are on the rise as primary methods of care for people with mental illnesses. Five Milwaukee art therapists work out of a recently renovated space on South Kinnickinnic Avenue in Bay View.

The Community Room at Bloom Center for Art and Integrated Therapies on South Kinnickinnic Ave.
Credit Mitch Teich

The Bloom Center for Art and Integrated Therapies is headed by Dr. Emily Nolan, who was in the first doctoral class to come out of Mount Mary’s art therapy graduate program. In addition to Nolan, art therapists Ashley Smallwood and Caitlin Walsh joined Lake Effect's Mitch Teich to discuss what they see as a way to "connect art-making with the ability to help people."

Their conversation took place in The Bloom Center's community room, where the art therapists and art interns invite members of the community to join them in informal sessions once per week. Nolan says that Bloom's mission is to reach beyond privilege and help those who cannot afford out-of-pocket costs for therapy.

The Community Room is open most Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. for sessions that aim to do just that, or to reach people who are interested in dipping their toes into the art therapy waters.

"It's an opportunity for the general public to engage in art therapy, and it goes beyond just that," says Nolan. "Treatment of any kind is very privileged, a lot of times, to people who have insurance." 

Bloom also offers private sessions for families and individuals. As the practice has grown, Nolan says referrals from the area have sent many people her way. She says there is a moment where she can tell people begin to understand the difference between art therapy and other forms of care.

"When we built a trusting relationship and I would ask them to do something creatively, they realized it got them out of their thinking brain and more into allowing things to happen and seeing things visually," says Nolan. "So it was a different way of thinking." 

Emily Nolan in her office at Bloom Center for Art and Integrated Therapies on South Kinnickinnic Ave.
Credit Mitch Teich

Nolan says the ability to visually interpret experiences is similar to the concept of mindfulness, which helps people concentrate on healing and understanding emotions. These ideas combine in the Bloom Center's motto Where Creativity and Wellness Thrive. 

"I think that from what I know of being a therapist and an art therapist, a lot of what we're doing is helping people create awareness, and it's the means or approach that you do that with changes."

In addition to being mindful, art therapist Ashley Smallwood also suggests that this form of creative healing requires abandonment, in a positive sense. The ability to leave expectations and defensive mechanisms at the door helps the therapists engage with people in a potentially vulnerable setting. 

"You have to be open, you know, a lot of people sometimes when they hear 'art therapy' have no idea what it is. So they're like thinking, either we're an art teacher or that you're going to draw a picture and we're going to tell you what's wrong with you, and that is absolutely not what it is," Smallwood says. 

As the therapists at Bloom prepare for clients, they say that assessing the needs of each person is most important. Private sessions begin with a discussion between therapist and client about life events and new developments, which eventually leads to art making.

Art therapist Caitlin Walsh says that sometimes she joins the client in creating, and other times her support and validation is what the client needs. 

"During that time, I'm assessing what's going on with the client and what might may be helpful to do in this moment," Walsh says. "And so then I'm also thinking about 'ok so what art task can I give this particular person that's going to help them right now', but then also thinking about what our long-term goals are."

Nolan and other academic leaders in art therapy are building the body of research surrounding the field, and also helping to train the growing number of art therapy practitioners.

In turn, the Bloom Center is a space where the art therapists are learn about their practice as they work with clients. 

"Overall, you feel that you're helping people and that they're making some progress in their life and that's incredibly rewarding for sure," Nolan says.