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by guest blogger Stephanie Hall Burns
cover creation: The Vessel

It Started with an Email

While working as a School Psychologist, I received an email one day inviting me to attend an Art4Healing workshop on “Compassion Fatigue,” which was being offered to members of the Orange County Department of Education’s Crisis Response Network. I’ve always enjoyed art and so I decided to attend, unaware of the impact the workshop would have on me both personally and professionally. It was an experience of freedom, a great release of stress, and a renewal of hope. I left the workshop wanting to learn more about therapeutic art and to incorporate this approach into my work with students.

Some Students are Tough to Reach

Throughout my career as a School Psychologist, I found that some students were especially hard to reach. There were many reasons for this — issues of trust, discomfort, shame, poor expressive language skills, deep trauma, guilt, fear, etc. Significant emotional difficulties such as severe depression and anxiety and issues such as sexual abuse or eating disorders can make it particularly difficult for students to express themselves with words. Therapeutic art can be very helpful in these situations. As Laurie Zagon notes, “Art has a powerful way of healing. People can say things with colors that they often have no words for. The power of our program is in the unique way people tell their story with paint on canvas.”

In a “Selfie” World, Students Find it Hard to Share True Feelings

While therapeutic art lends itself to those who have difficulty expressing their feelings verbally, others can benefit from it as well. With each passing year of my career, I noticed that the average high school student, even if spared deep hurt, often possessed a significant amount of social and academic stress. In a world of beautiful selfie photos and the competitive academic environment, many feel too vulnerable to share their true feelings with others.

Stephanie Burns - The Incredible Shrinking Machine
The Incredible Shrinking Machine

How Art Helps Students Express Their Feelings

One of the many reasons why the Art4Healing technique is able to work so effectively as a therapeutic aid is that it bypasses the thinking, rational part of the brain (and what Zagon humorously refers to as “the committee in the head”); it releases trapped, unspoken emotions. Reacting quickly to the prompts provided, participants create abstract art using their unique brushstroke, color choices, and expressive style.

The visceral and kinesthetic aspects of this style of painting take center stage, making the process very intuitive. Each canvas completed is highly unique — to see them grouped together, each one so very different from the next, is amazing. The group then shares as much (or as little) as they feel comfortable about the process of completing each piece. Sometimes, there are powerful tears of sorrow, relief, or joy.

A small sampling of some titles for workshops includes “Expressing Feelings with Color,” “Painting Hope,” and “Paint Your Way to Inner Peace.” A curriculum specifically designed for teenagers is titled “Raging Colors.”

My Art for Healing Experience

The initial “Compassion Fatigue” workshop in which I participated years ago left a powerful impression upon me. I’m not an artist in the traditional sense, and the idea of creating a painting was a bit intimidating. Yet as I worked to honor the present moment, the “committee in my head” became quiet, I could hear the music quietly flowing in the background, and I was able to paint instinctively.

I’ve since taken more workshops, and eventually became certified as an Art4Healing facilitator. Art4Healing has helped me personally to grieve my father’s death, to set goals, and to feel enormous gratitude. And, most importantly, it has helped me become a better helper to others.

Stephanie Burns - Living with Chronic Illness
Living with Chronic Illness

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