Art therapy can satisfy our deepest needs, transform lives and heal communities

written by Cathy Carroll

Mary Andrus has seen how working with people through art therapy can transform their lives and build community, and she believes it can ultimately create a more just society. She has spent years working with people in a range of settings, from community mental health programs and nursing homes to an inpatient psychiatric hospital and therapeutic day schools. Art therapy and artistic expression in general, however, can benefit anyone, she said.

Art therapy’s aim is to help people function better in their lives and elevate a sense of well-being.

“It would be for anybody open to using the creative process to find and get to know themselves,” she said. “Art therapy isn’t about drawing pretty pictures … it’s about tapping into who you are inside—and maybe drawing really ugly pictures—and giving yourself permission to play and make a mess and explore a deeper relationship with yourself. It’s really beneficial to anybody who’s willing to take that risk in getting to know themselves in a deeper way.”

Art therapists have the skills to know what materials might best support people in helping create and reach their goals. “It’s really all about what your body needs,” said Andrus, who has a doctorate in art therapy and directs the art therapy program at Lewis & Clark Graduate School of Education and Counseling in Portland. “It may need to pound clay, rip up paper, untangle some yarn or weave. Working with an art therapist can help you find your voice and material and medium that will support your internal vagal needs.” 

She was referring to the vagus nerve, which connects your brain to your gut. “It’s essentially the very first thing that happens when you’re born. It’s regulating your heart and body functions and is also a place where all your sensory input is. It’s connected to the amygdala, a primitive part of the brain that’s concerned with survival—the fight, flight or freeze response.”

The more we connect with things that soothe us and support our senses—sound, touch, taste, smell, hearing—nourishes the part of the self that wants to be held, rocked and soothed. Art can be the vehicle to do just that, she said.

Andrus is also dedicated to moving art therapy forward as an integral way to help heal communities and to pursue social justice. The Art for Social Change mission at the school is centered on fostering the creation and display of art by Black, Indigenous and people of color, which amplifies and centers the artists’ minds and bodies. The works also allow others to learn, listen and reflect on the lived experiences expressed through that art. 

Making art can promote wellness, but many people have not had that privilege or let it drop out of their adult lives. “It really comes down to a to-do list and setting aside time to devote to yourself,” Andrus said. “A part of you will really be nourished by it, like yoga or exercise, it’s creating that space in your life to tend to your soul.”  

Art Therapy for All

Want to explore art therapy for anyone, for free, from anywhere? Join the Lewis & Clark Virtual Open Studio, virtual studio sessions offering a place to create and find community. Faculty and graduate level art therapy students facilitate the sessions Thursdays, 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. online via Zoom through June 10 and resuming in fall. 

Anyone is welcome. Attend the full three hours or drop in as long as you can. Begin a new piece using a gentle prompt offered at the beginning of each session or work on pieces already in progress. 

Sign up at www.graduate.lclark.edu/programs/art-therapy/open-studio.

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