By Jennifer Sadler
Art has the potential to transform lives in profound ways. The impact of the arts in all its diverse forms is especially apparent when used as a therapeutic tool for health and wellness, psychotherapy, community development, service to others and social transformation. The practice of art as therapy is very much alive in the Columbus community. Several local organizations and programs use art as a tool for healing and strive to make the arts more accessible to everyone including VSA Ohio—the state organization on arts and disability, Volunteers of America of Greater Ohio, Fresh A.I.R. Gallery. Columbus is also home to Don Jones—often called the “father of art therapy”—a founder, past president and Honorary Life member of both the American Art Therapy Association and the Buckeye Art Therapy Association.
According to the Art Therapy Association, art therapy is defined as a nonverbal and creative way to help develop coping skills, reduce anxiety or fear and articulate repressed feelings. It involves the therapeutic use of art making, within a professional relationship, and can be used by people who are struggling with illness, trauma or challenges in living and by people who seek personal development. Art therapists have studied art and mastered psychology and human development. Art therapists can work with people of all ages and can help an individual, a couple, a family or groups of people.
Whether a person seeks professional help with a certified art therapist or is simply interested in the therapeutic benefits of art in general, the arts are worth exploring as a creative outlet and a catalyst for healing.
LOCAL ARTIST, LENI ANDERSON, REFLECTS ON ART AS THERAPY
Acclaimed local outsider artist, Leni Anderson, is no stranger to the healing power of the arts. As an artist and a veteran himself, as well as one who suffers from a sometimes debilitating disease, Anderson developed an ability to relate to those in need with compassion, and to help people tap into emotions, abilities and self-discovery through the arts.
After returning from the Army in the late ‘80s, Anderson enrolled at Columbus State Community College, where he helped found the Columbus chapter of Alpha Phi Omega, a service fraternity. He got the group involved in the first Day Without Art, a national day of action and mourning in response to the AIDS crisis. At the event, Anderson had the fortunate experience of meeting Jackie Calderone, (currently the artistic director at TRANSIT ARTS) who told him about the Short Stop Teen Center. Anderson ended up working with Calderone for several years at this Center that offered teens arts and other programming in a safe environment.
Anderson said that many of the teens who hung out at Short Stop weren’t even expected to graduate from high school. Anderson says they were able to use visual, literary and the performing arts to “really reach these kids.”
“Back then Short Stop was a part of the National Performance Network and so we were able to bring in world famous artists,” said Anderson. “Exposing the kids to people who have been able to make a life for themselves in the arts really opened their eyes to a whole new world of possibilities for their own lives. At least one kid I remember who started out in classes with the Imani Dancers now dances for a nationally renowned professional dance company.”
“I remember another kid back then who was interested in the whole idea of DJing, so Jackie somehow got a hold of an old turntable and we gave it to him,” said Anderson. “Now he’s known as DJ Drastic, one of Ohio’s premier DJs!”
Anderson also has had the opportunity to work with fellow veterans through the Volunteers of America.
“I worked with veterans who had alcohol or mental health problems and, in a therapeutic way, I was able to help them use art to express themselves,” said Anderson.
Anderson, whose own work reflects an exploration of Mexican religious paintings called laminas or retablos, was able to take this concept and incorporate it into art projects with his veteran peers.
Laminas or retablos are small oil paintings on tin, wood or copper which were used in home altars to venerate the almost infinite number of Catholic saints. Symbolic, allegorical, historical, folkloric and spiritual are just a few of the words that best describe this unique art form.
Anderson says that traditionally, these paintings were a means to express a personal story, often tragic—but always extremely important. Stripping away the religious aspect, Anderson asked the participants in the project to paint a story about themselves. Then each was asked to write a short story explaining the painting.
“Some of the images these guys created were absolutely incredible. And once the images were created, the words to explain them usually came easily. Many found things out about themselves that they didn’t realize—that even the social workers and counselors weren’t able to draw out. The creative process really offered a unique insight into what these people had been through and a vehicle to express it.” Anderson, an accomplished, self-taught visual artist, also has been involved with VSA Ohio. As part of the 2010 International VSA Festival, Anderson's work was featured in a groundbreaking exhibition of contemporary art by Americans with disabilities at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D. C. The exhibition, Revealing Culture, featured more than 130 works of art in a broad range of media.
“I have Lupus,” said Anderson. “I don’t look like I’m sick. I don’t look disabled. But the physical challenges and emotional drain can be almost too much sometimes. I’ve found that creating my art is a way to channel the negative energy that comes with battling this disease.”
FRESH A.I.R. GALLERY SUPPORTS ARTISTS AFFECTED BY MENTAL ILLNESS AND SUBSTANCE ABUSE
Fresh A.I.R. Gallery (Artists In Recovery), located in downtown Columbus, exhibits the works of individuals affected by mental illness and/or substance abuse disorders. Through art, Fresh A.I.R. educates the community and works to break down the stigma of mental illness and substance abuse by bringing focus to the artistic vision. Open since 2004, the gallery has featured more than 37 exhibitions and is the only one of its kind in the city.
Fresh A.I.R. Gallery is a program of Southeast, Inc.—a non-profit, comprehensive provider of mental health, chemical dependency, healthcare and homeless services assisting diverse populations regardless of their economic status. The community treatment center has more than 80 programs and services with psychiatrists and counselors on staff who treat people of all ages, but mostly adults. Southeast, Inc. also runs Friends of the Homeless, a program that provides residential support to homeless men and women through shelters, transitional housing and permanent supportive housing.
Artists of all backgrounds—self-taught and professional—can apply to exhibit at Fresh A.I.R., as long as they have been affected by mental illness or substance abuse.
“A lot of the artists we work with create their work to help in their recovery process,” said Myken Pullins, executive assistant and public affairs coordinator for Southeast, Inc. “But we see them as artists first.”
Pullins reflects on one individual with whom she has worked who has made a particular impression on her—Malcolm J.
Malcolm J is a Columbus artist known throughout the city as a creator of memorable works based on his observations of his community and society at large. He often explores topics of social justice and equality through his artwork. Malcolm’s past, which has included periods of homelessness, give him a unique well of life experiences to draw from for his creative expressions.
“Malcolm J has had a difficult life. He started creating art as a child and always kept at it. It helped him through those tough times,” said Pullins. “He’s worked so hard to get his art out there, knocking on doors up and down the Short North. He’s doing so well now, has an apartment. We’re excited to have his first show at Fresh A.I.R. Gallery coming up this May.”
Fresh A.I.R. has an exciting exhibition schedule for this year that includes the work of Calen Pick, nephew of acclaimed stage and film actress, Glenn Close, in September.
According to Pullins, Pick is nationally known for his campaign Bring Change 2 Mind, an awareness campaign regarding the stigma surrounding mental illness. Pick, an artist who works mostly with oils on canvas, suffers from schizophrenia.
In addition to supporting artists by exhibiting their works, gallery director Kim Glover also runs a monthly gathering of artists called the Artists Circle. The gathering is open to anyone, not just artists who struggle with mental illness or substance abuse.
“The Artists Circle gives artists the opportunity to inspire one another, to create art and support each other,” said Pullins.
Expressive arts therapies include art making in all its forms; the visual arts, movement, drama, music, and writing and the benefits of making art extends to everyone—to those working with a certified art therapist, and those who create art for their own enjoyment and self-discovery.
Following is a list of resources for those interested in learning more about the therapeutic benefits of the arts:
Kya's Krusade - Art therapy program offered in partnership with Columbus Recreation & Parks
Art, Music & Movement therapy at OSU James Cancer Hospital
If you are interested in exploring and creating art, go to GCAC's ARTS CLASSifieds to find classes in a diverse array of arts disciplines offered near you.
Photo: By Melissa Riederer. Josh Riederer during one of his in-patient stays for chemotherapy treatment at Nationwide Children's Hospital, putting the final touches on his "art bus."' Read more about Josh and his passion for art in this month's Perspective.