Erin Reams has long taken great delight in being an artist.
“I like to color things out of the ordinary,” she says. “Like coloring elephants and flower stems blue.”
Her contribution to a group art exhibit now hanging at the Art Therapy Institute of North Carolina in Carr Mill Mall in Carrboro, is a collage of three flowers she recently made during an art-therapy session at her school, Just Right Academy. The stems are indeed blue, pulling the viewer right in to the more subtle flowers, which are made of cut-up pieces of construction paper. It is a striking piece.
The exhibit, which features artwork by students from the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school district and Durham’s Just Right Academy, is about to end, but will be available for viewing during the 2nd Friday Artwalk, from 6-9 p.m. Friday.
The nonprofit institute works with exceptional-needs students in classrooms throughout the Chapel Hill/Carrboro school district. An institute intern, Tammy Smith, has been working with students at Just Right Academy for several months.
Art therapy has existed for over 60 years. The process of therapy-guided art making can help participants communicate when their words might otherwise be stuck in their heart or head. It can also help clients achieve more independence, learn and hone social skills, and physically engage parts of their bodies and minds that might otherwise be unengaged.
“The art therapists are there to support each student in his or her own process of creation, and with a therapeutic background, we are able to intervene at appropriate times to help stimulate growth in each individual we work with,” says Kristin Linton, the institute’s executive director.
“Creating the artwork in the exhibit has been fun and empowering for the students as well.” ‘More peaceful’
“By being involved in these art-therapy sessions, Erin is calmer and more peaceful,” says Erin’s mom, Michele Reams.
The students’ creations in the exhibit are diverse and inspiring and include sculptures made from non-toxic medical gauze, mandalas fashioned from recycled paper, an “Our Feelings Book,” wall hangings using found tree branches and hand-made beads, and collages using buttons, and drawings.
One of the institute’s therapists, Liz Aldag, says there are more than aesthetic reasons for offering a wide variety of materials.
“There are a few things I am thinking about when selecting materials,” she explains. “First, from a sensory-integration perspective, I want to give the students new experiences and opportunities to engage their senses. Some really struggle with sensory-motor stimuli, and art therapy provides a structured, safe space to introduce sensory challenges and work to overcome them. Hopefully, letting them see how a positive outcome – the creation of artwork – can come from this interaction.”
Aldag adds that children with autism, for example, often have aversions or sensitivities to certain textures, smells, tastes and sounds so the smell of clay or the sensation of touching sticky tape or glue may cause some students great anxiety. “From a creativity standpoint, I try to find engaging, open-ended materials so the students can really create their own unique works of art and find success in non-traditional ways,” she saysSad feelings
Like her eighth-grade classmate Erin at Just Right Academy, Brianna McDonough has been entranced with creating art since she could hold a crayon. She drew a self-portrait for the exhibit that shows a girl sitting under a tree.
“I had some sad feelings that day. We had gone outside to draw something. I was crying since I was sad,” Brianna says. “Then I saw a spider on a tree and decided to draw that.”
This revealing self-portrait was something fairly adventurous for the student.
“I do draw animals and people often, but I don’t draw my feelings most of the time since that is something I like to talk about,” she says.
It is a powerful piece that will evoke empathy in anyone who steps into the scene.
Some of the students the art therapists work with can’t speak or use their hands, so the therapists will help guide the students’ hands. Ilene Sperling is the institute’s clinical director and for a year worked in a classroom with students, one of who was in a wheelchair and had very little muscle tone.
“We felt like we were drawing for him,” Sperling says. She and her intern would ask what color he wanted to use and he would repeat the choices. He eventually began to guide the art therapists’ hands.
“Before we finished, he was telling us what color he wanted before we gave him choices and he started holding his body up more,” Sperling says. “The other kids drew him out as well. They wanted to help him choose colors, help him learn, and they were amazing at being inclusive with him.”
For the casual observer, this may not seem significant. “For a teacher who works with special needs kids, they understand how huge this is,” Sperling says.
In addition to art therapy services, the institute trains people interested in learning about art therapy.
Seeing this show is a great testament to the powers of this methodology and is the next best thing to seeing the students and their therapists in action.
“What touches me the most about putting together a show is seeing the pride the students take in their artwork,” says Aldag. “Many of these creations represent huge accomplishments in terms of attention span and focus, motor skill development, and self-regulation, in addition to self-expression, creativity, and communication. I am so impressed and honored to be a part of that.” The Art Therapy Institute will soon offer weekly art nights where anyone can come make art. Starting in February, the institute will open from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesdays for all to come and make art. A fee will cover materials. For more information see ncati.org/