Memphis combines art and therapy in growing field

Art therapy grows in popularity as a creative way to manage addiction recovery. Christian Brothers University, The Memphis Brooks Museum of Art and The Oaks at La Paloma treatment facility are among the groups making use of the practice.
Art therapy sessions at The Oaks at La Paloma, an alcohol and drug treatment center a few blocks from Cooper-Young, begin by having patients paint their emotions onto a big, smooth river rock.
 
Carol Ricossa, the facility’s community director, admits that often many residents are hesitant about the process. Most haven’t made any art since grade school. They are skeptical at how painting a rock, or anything for that matter, will help them in recovering from their addiction.  
 
But week after week, when the paint comes out and the ideas start flowing, something happens. Something awakens in the patents that has long remained dormant.
 
“It’s the people that think they can’t draw are the people who start doing the masterpieces,” Ricossa said.
 
According to the American Art Therapy Association, art therapy and its creative process can help clients reconcile emotional conflicts, foster self-awareness, manage behavior and addictions, reduce anxiety and increase self-esteem.
 
“A lot of people who have used chemicals over a period of time can’t even sometimes recognize their emotions,” Ricossa said. “It has been well established that art therapy can bring out that bottled up and pent up innate intuition.”

Paige Scheinberg stands in front of mandalas created in an art therapy session.
 
The Oaks website states the idea behind creative arts therapy is encouraging alternative forms of expressing emptions, allowing addicts to open up in a way that isn’t as threatening or intimidating as speaking directly to a therapist or support group.
 
“It can really unlock a key to a new freedom,” Ricossa said.
 
It was around 2010 when The Oaks staff noticed the positive effect incorporating art into their recovery programs had on their patients, and they ran with it. Along with their standard cognitive behavioral therapy and skill groups, they now operate a regular expressive arts program. The weekly two-hour sessions give a resident the opportunity to paint and create while working through some of the difficult emotions that come with being in treatment.
 
The Oaks at La Paloma is just one of several facilities that is using art and art therapy in their recovery programs. Memphis Recovery Centers, a non-profit rehabilitation facility in the medical district, has also worked art therapy into their treatment, stating the integration of art therapy provides a “healthy outlet for patents that encourages expression, relieves stress and helps develop new-found coping skills.”
 
But it isn’t just Memphis. A 2014 study showed that more than 36% of treatment facilities across the U.S. are using art therapy. And locally, in addition to traditional treatment facilities using the technique, there has been an increase in private art therapy practices and small scale programs, helping people recover from addiction and all types of mental illness.
 
Kerry Curtis, a board certified art therapist and a licensed marriage and family therapist, runs a private practice in town and is an art therapist at the Experiential Healing Center, which specializes in addiction and recovery therapies, among offering an array of other treatments.
 
Curtis, who began practicing in Memphis eight years ago, has noticed a large increase in art therapy programs around the city. 
 
“When I first got here, I had to do a lot of explaining about what art therapy is,” Curtis said. “Now I get phone calls constantly about coming out and doing a group, or if I know anyone else that can offer art therapy. It has really changed.”

Memphians participate in an art therapy session hosted by the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art.
 
In addition to working with the Experiential Healing Center, Curtis partners with Dixon Gallery & Gardens to run art therapy sessions. After museum hours the museum sets out tables and chairs and brings in groups. A regular client is Compass Intervention Center, a Memphis residential treatment center for kids ages six to 17.
 
Curtis recalls a powerful session where they worked with teens who were known gang members. In the art therapy session, the kids were given the opportunity to use spray paint and create graffiti surrounded by the classical art of the Dixon. For many of them, it was their first time ever being in a museum.
 
“When they sent over their charts, I thought I would have to spend a lot of time redirecting and corralling the group, but you could literally hear a pin drop,” Curtis said. “They were one hundred percent focused on expressing themselves through art, when typically, they were shut down or acting out.”
 
Like the Dixon, The Memphis Brooks Museum of Art has also recognized the importance of art therapy programs for the community. For the past decade it has run an Art Therapy Access Program, which provides multi-visit art outreach sessions to local organizations giving people from all walks of life the ability to work with a registered art therapist.
 
Some of the groups The Brooks has partnered with are the Memphis VA Medical Center, Shelby County Relative Caregiver Program, the Tennessee Baptist Children’s Home and more.

Registered art therapist Paige Scheinberg works with The Brooks to make these sessions happen, in addition to running her own practice, SHINE ON Consulting. She notes that the creative culture and the strong medical community in Memphis makes it a prime city to have a need for and interest in art therapy.
 
“Memphis is a helping city. We are very philanthropic and giving and caring. Put that together with our love for art and medicine, and then you get art therapy,” Scheinberg said.
 
Scheinberg holds quarterly art therapy information sessions at The Brooks. These meetings are free and open to the public allowing anyone to learn more about how art therapy is making an impact in Memphis and beyond.
 
As the local interest and presence of art therapy increases, Scheinberg said those meetings get more and more packed.
 
“So many people come to those meetings,” Scheinberg said. “You kind of see and experience the growth of art therapy.”
 
Through March of 2017 the Brooks Museum is hosting an exhibition created by some of the participants in their in-house art therapy sessions. It is also displaying art from students of Christian Brothers University. The Brooks has partnered with CBU to offer an art therapy field course for undergraduate students interested in pursuing a career in this growing vocation.
 
CBU is the only university in the Mid-South to offer a bachelor of fine arts in art therapy. Scheinberg is an adjunct instructor in the program.

"The participants get to see their pieces come together as a whole piece and it can give a sense of closure, the end of the project," explained Paige Scheinberg.
 
“The art therapy program at CBU is a great resource for people to get the classes and requirements to get into graduate school. This is really important to the growth of art therapy in Memphis,” Scheinberg said. “It is just going to keep growing, and there is a wonderful momentum of people wanting to learn.”
 
Riding on the wave of increased interest, Scheinberg and other Tennesee Art Therapy Association members have been meeting with state legislatures to raise awareness of art therapy across the state.
 
She and her partners are working to establish a state art therapy license. The license will help make art therapy reimbursable by insurance which could increase the number of practicing art therapists in Memphis and Tennessee and give people greater access to professional art therapists and affordable art therapy services. 
 
“Anyone can benefit from art therapy, whether they have a mental health diagnosis, or are just trying to learn more about themselves,” Scheinberg said.
 
“The youngest person I have worked with is 18 months, the oldest 103 years old. That is what I love about art therapy. You can really help people across a lifespan.”

Read more articles by Katie Schnack.

Katie Schnack is a writer, book publicist and founder of the Memphis Women Writers. Her work has been published on HelloGiggles, ScaryMommy, XOJane and more. Say hello at katieschnack.com and on Twitter @katieschnack.
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