The healing side of art

With stress and trauma at an all-time high, creating art is helping people of all ages work through personal and collective anguish.
Mary Williams with craft supplies
Mary Williams of Madison Art Therapy practices what she preaches by painting.
Photo by John Ficenec

Art therapy can look and feel like playtime, especially when kids are given art supplies and the space to express feelings they would otherwise have difficulty sharing. But people of all ages and stations in life are seeking out art therapy — and the form it takes varies as much as the clientele.

Painting, dancing and making music are inherently calming activities. When done with therapeutic purpose, making art has the power to help you lessen daily stress, confront past trauma and find positive paths forward. And isn’t that what we all need, especially now?

What Is Art Therapy?

“I was surprised,” says Kelly Toltzien, who founded Madison Art Therapy with Mary Williams in 2015. “I didn’t think we’d get much business during the pandemic, but half the people who contact us are new clients and that number continues to grow.”

Kelly Toltzien sitting in her office

Kelly Toltzien (Photo by John Ficenec)

The two therapists frequently treat patients with personal trauma, anxiety and depression. Further complications brought on by COVID-19, social unrest and a contentious presidential election have brought many people to the tipping point, Toltzien says. The external issues are triggering unpleasant preexisting mental and emotional conditions.

“It’s all wearing pretty thin lately,” she adds.

art on the wall at the clinic

Photo by John Ficenec

“Art therapy really is the marriage of psychological services with the healing arts,” Williams explains. “But it’s not always the patients themselves who have been the problem. A lot of them have already been wounded by a society that, in many cases, tells them they don’t matter. Through art, movement and self-expression we’re able to help patients get past the ‘stuckness’ they’re experiencing and reduce its power over them.”

Many people think art therapy is the exclusive province of children and young adults. It is an excellent tool for kids, the therapists allow, but its application, techniques and outcomes are appropriate for patients of all ages, provided those patients open themselves up to alternate ways of thinking and expressing themselves.

Mary Williams sitting on a couch

Mary Williams (Photo by John Ficenec)

“We end up seeing patients suffering from a lot of complex trauma, and art therapy taps both the body and areas of the brain,” Toltzien explains. “Helping process trauma is a tricky thing, a difficult thing that takes a lot of time. But there is so much need for it right now.”

The methodology is individualized for all patients and may require a blend of therapies to break down personal barriers. Moving the body, creating shapes through color and movement, and otherwise overcoming mental and emotional hurdles by visual means that unlock individual trauma are critical to effective treatment.

art supplies

Photo by John Ficenec

It’s difficult work, with the therapists sometimes helping shoulder their patients’ burdens to facilitate the process. Those burdens can create issues for the providers themselves, Williams says.

“As practitioners, we’ve had to step up a little bit more at a time when social unrest and racism have risen to the forefront,” Williams explains. “It’s important that practitioners also find ways to care for themselves, including checking in with their own therapists.

Mary painting

Photo by John Ficenec

“Also, it’s important for us to get enough sleep and spend some time in nature,” she adds. “But that’s good advice for all of us.”

Click one of the links below to read more about “The Healing Arts.”

An Artful Way Out

Terrence Adeyanju

Photo by Nithin Charlly

The Patient Becomes the Professional

Kristin sitting at her desk

Grounding and Calming Kids Affected by COVID-19

Becky King showing art in her office

Artist, Heal Thyself

Brooklyn Doby in front of art

Photo By Sharon Vanorny

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