How Art Therapy Can Help Both the Body and Mind

Come on over here and check out all my colors,” art therapist Kathy Schnur tells the five women and one man gathered in Henry Ford Hospital-West Bloomfield’s central atrium. “Remember: There are no right or wrong choices. Just choose the ones that appeal to you.”

Soon, each participant has chosen a personal palette, and pieces of paper in front of them fill with small paint puddles of sky blue, grass green and fiery red.

“Now, I want you to choose a tree,” Schnur says, holding up stencils of a stand of birches, a tree of life, and bare branches silhouetted against a simple sky. “Again, don’t overthink it, just choose the one that feels best.”

The group meets in the peaceful, tree-lined central courtyard, known as the “quiet atrium,” recently for a class  – one of many art therapy options available through the hospital. Studies have shown that participating in art therapy can help patients and their families manage stress, improve rehabilitation and alleviate pain. 

Your inner artist

Some participants admit to being intimidated and more than a little nervous about coming. “I’m not an artist,” one woman says, adding that teachers discouraged her in grade school. Schnur tut-tuts, telling her that stencils make getting started easier and that everyone is creative and an artist at heart.

Getting past that inner critic is important, Schnur says. “As children, we all made the most wonderful art,” she explains. “Somewhere around [age] 9 or 10, however, we start worrying about what others think. We have to get past the little voices in our heads.”

Freeing that internal artist may not be easy, but it’s crucial if you want to absorb art therapy’s many benefits, says Dr. Betty Chu, chief medical officer and vice president of medical affairs for the hospital. “The mission of the Healing Arts program is to create restorative and calming environments for patients, visitors and staff by integrating the creative arts and aesthetics into the healing process,” she explains.

The process

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"It's about the process. It's a chance to give your mind a break." - Kathy Schnur
The hospital also has volunteer-staffed art carts that make rounds, an art and wellness walk and more. “Art therapy uses the creative process of art to improve and enhance physical, mental and emotional well-being,” Dr. Chu says.

Schnur agrees. “The great thing about art therapy is that it has the ability to take you out of what’s going on in your life and put you in a different space, if only for a little while,” she says. “Art therapy is really about the process, not the finished product. It’s a chance to give your mind a break.”

Back in the quiet atrium, Schnur checks on the progress of the participants and cautions them not to stress about the mess.

“I’m in charge of cleanup, so don’t worry,” she says. “Acrylic paints are easy, fun, and you can correct your mistakes. Just remember not to drink your brush water,” she adds, with a laugh.

Stress relief

Soon, pieces of paper are filled with blooming trees. Diane Surma, of Northville, chooses a tree-of-life stencil. “I’m looking for something with a strong foundation,” the former social worker explains as she carefully paints a tree with a solid brown trunk. “It’s symbolic for me in my work. I had to feel like whatever happened, I’d be OK.”

For Surma, art therapy has the same effect as meditation, she says. “It’s a feeling of being comfortable, peaceful,” she explains.

On the other hand, Jeff Smith, of Wixom, chooses a bare-branch stencil, ultimately painting a van Gogh-like image of blue against a maize-color sky. “I joined the zipper club last year,” he explains to the group about his heart attack and triple bypass. “I also moved twice, so there’s been more than a little bit of stress in my life lately.”

At the end, Schnur walks around and asks each participant to share their work with the rest of the class. Despite starting with the same three stencils, each piece is unique, a reflection of the artists and their experiences.

Participants also are encouraged to fill out a one-page survey that includes how they feel at the beginning and the end of the class. Many express common feelings. “I was a little nervous at first about trying something new, but I’ll be back,” Smith says.

Others vow to continue painting or pursuing other creative endeavors, which makes Schnur happy. Sherri Szepietowski, of Farmington Hills, who painted a tree of life studded with flowers, says the class brightened her day and her mood. “It was all great,” she says. “Right now, I’m feeling pretty optimistic.”

“It's about the process. It's a chance to give your mind a break."

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Categories: Get Healthy