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The Art Inside: Art Therapy and Thrive DC

Thrive DC supports Art Therapy of all kinds. Please join us on Tuesday, July 26th for a special photography exhibit of work by men and women experiencing homelessness.  

Laura worked at Thrive DC as our Art Therapist during the 2011 / 2012 academic year and facilitated individual and group art therapy sessions with our clients.

By: Laura Miles, Masters of Art Therapy Candidate at The George Washington University

Last August, I entered George Washington University as a first-year student in the Masters of Art Therapy program. Through a long interview process I chose Thrive DC as my internship placement for the school year. Having previously worked with a women’s addiction recovery group during my undergraduate career, I expected to encounter similar stories working with the homeless population in DC. I wasn’t expecting to find a home among those who didn’t have one.

For those of you unfamiliar with the art therapy world, it is an expressive field that uses the creative process of art making to improve and enhance the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of our clients. We integrate the studies of human development, visual art, and creative exploration with models of counseling and psychotherapy. The creative process involved in artistic self-expression helps people resolve conflicts and problems, develop interpersonal skills, manage behavior, reduce stress, increase self-esteem and self-awareness, and achieve insight. Artmaking is beneficial on a neurological level by increasing brain function and regulating thoughts.

Art therapy is used with children, adolescents, adults of all ages, groups, and families to assess and treat mental and emotional problems such as anxiety, depression, substance abuse and addiction, domestic violence and abuse, trauma, and issues related to disabilities and illness. Art therapy programs are found in a number of settings, including hospitals, clinics, public and community agencies, wellness centers, educational institutions, businesses, and private practices. Art is a helpful diagnostic tool in that it can give great insight to a person’s inner world. This isn’t to say that I look at a drawing and interpret its meaning, but by looking at the imagery of a drawing, listening to what the client has to say about it, and observing their behavior during and after artmaking, it can provide a more well-rounded picture of that person’s experience.

My expectation coming into my internship at Thrive DC was to create a welcoming, safe environment where clients and community members would feel free to use the art materials in any way they wanted. This is what we call the open studio approach, where clients are invited to paint, draw, use mixed media, or even clay to express themselves in a way that would fit their needs. Our group became one that stimulated conversations between myself and community members who usually did not interact with one another during the morning program. At the same time, the group gave them a sense of ownership of the space and the chance to do something new; for some, it had been many years since they’d last picked up a paintbrush. It was powerful to see the delight they took in their work, the energy and thought behind each piece, and the pure enjoyment of making something. They found stability in a very unstable situation. For many, it was a way to recapture the home or the country they had lost or left behind.

In addition to the open studio, I also held small group and individual sessions for trainees in the Real Opportunities program. This was an opportunity to provide extra support during a challenging transition and to gain more insight into their experiences in the program. Small-group experientials helped to create cohesion within the group and develop interpersonal skills. On several occasions, trainees were able to process memories and life events in an entirely new way, which gave them insight to themselves.

My experience at Thrive DC challenged me to think about my clients in new ways and to develop a sense of group belonging in an ever-changing environment. I believe in the power of art to heal and to provide insight, both of which I witnessed during my time at Thrive DC. There are so many artistic talents in that community, and I hope they continue to make art even though I have moved on. I will begin a new internship in the fall but will always remember my clients at Thrive DC and the incredible staff who devote their time to helping those in need.

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  2. LauraMiles | | Reply

    Thanks for including the link to the AATA website!

    • thrivedc | | Reply

       @LauraMiles Of course!  We were so lucky to have you with us for the school year!

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