Art Therapy in Chicago

Roxanne Samer

Photo Courtesy of Advocate Media Center. Heather Randazzo works with a young Advocate Healthcare client.

Art Therapy is a vibrant field in Chicagoland. With two distinguished programs in the city as well as a couple others across the state, Chicago has over five hundred mental health professionals practicing art therapy in a variety of manners with a wide-range of clients around the city. In order to practice art therapy in Illinois, one needs a master’s degree in art therapy as well as one or more certifications, depending on how one intends to work in the field. Art therapists in Chicago tend to have come out of either the M.A. Counseling Psychology: Art Therapy program at the Adler School of Professional Psychology or the M.A. in Art Therapy program at the School of the Art Institute (though many also hold degrees from UIC’s former program in the field). While there is a fair amount of professional overlap between the two—in researching this piece I spoke with an SAIC alumna who now teaches at Adler and an Adler alumna who now teaches at SAIC—the two offer distinct approaches to the field of psychology and the use of art therein.

Most generally, those coming out of the Adler School tend to focus on art making as a tool through which a patient’s issues can be revealed, confronted and addressed. If they work in their own private practice, their office is most likely to resemble that of a standard counselor with limited space and a few easy access materials available for making art in session. Clients will often be asked to work on a piece at home in their own time and to bring it in to the next session to discuss. Therapist working out of this methodology have often found it easier for clients to talk about a painting or other art project than what is ailing or stressing them at present. The artwork thus becomes a conduit through which they come to address the patient’s issues. Those coming out of SAIC, on the other hand, tend to emphasize the art making process as a key component for expression and communication. Making art is understood as therapeutic and capable of providing an alternative means to working out one’s issues than more traditional talk therapy. Similarly, the therapist’s space is more likely to be a studio with a wealth of materials at hand to use mid-session. There is less discussion of the “meaning” of the artwork and a stronger emphasis on how making it made one feel.

That being said, these generalizations quickly become complicated considering the number of institutions involved in such practices and the various combinations of individuals, groups and issues that present themselves for help. Art therapy in Chicago is currently being practiced in not only private practices but hospitals, clinics, jails and schools as well. Many of the therapists I spoke to while researching this piece acknowledged that their practice and methodologies are constantly shifting depending on whom they are working with, in what context and what the particular goals may be. One distinction that came up repeatedly was the difference between working with groups versus individuals. Whereas working one-on-one with a client on a regular basis allows one to personalize each project and give time to their development, when one is working with a group, the projects must be adjusted to a “one size fits all” format, and one has to find creative ways to make it work on multiple levels so that no one is left out. Taking into consideration the patients’ particular backgrounds and issues is important as well. Many of those who have experienced extreme trauma find it difficult to tell their story and express their feelings about it through words, and developing an art-heavy therapeutic program is a way in which such patients can gain comfort expressing themselves through a variety of media and/or find a suitable personalized method. One therapist I spoke to, for example, said that she might have a sexual abuse survivor create a book, illustrating her experience, which would initially be kept private between the patient and therapist but may eventually be utilized as tool to share her experience with others. Another told me about the recent great success she had working with an abused adolescent, whose creation of a “hate box” allowed her to, for the first time, both identify her abusers by name as well as properly channel and express the anger she held in their regard.

Spiral Inward Spiral Outward, Patrick Morrissey

I would like to take this opportunity to profile two exciting art therapy practices in the city. I encourage readers to add to this brief list through comments, and tell their own stories of practicing or undergoing art therapy in this city.

Patrick Morrissey is an art therapist who facilitates group sessions in seven different clinics within the Jesse Brown Veterans Hospital as well as takes on individual sessions by consult. All of his patients are United States military veterans, most having recently returned from Afghanistan or Iraq but some having served a while ago in the Persian gulf, Korea or elsewhere. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and Military Sexual Trauma (MST) are issues he and his patients address daily. “Very often,” Morrissey told me, “art therapy serves as a transitional space between denial or masking of an insight or experience and ownership of that insight or experience. While a veteran may not yet be able to discuss a trauma, he or she may be able to draw it. This provides a safe space to explore and process an issue without stating, ‘I did this’ or ‘I have this.’” Many of these veterans have been trying to work through their traumas for some time. They have told their doctors, their families and their peers about their experiences and in doing so have become used to telling their story but have still made little progress in terms of healing. Morrissey explained, “When people talk about their issues over and over again, it starts to lose meaning for them. It starts to become a script. By processing those same issues in different ways, using different tools, they can begin to take on meaning again.” And this is what art therapy does for his clients. In one of his favorite projects, Morrissey has his patients draw glass jars and “fill” them with rocks, pebbles and grains of sand. One is to include a large rock for every significant trauma that haunts one’s day-to-day life, a pebble for every serious stress such as a job, a relationship, debt that weighs one down, and pour in sand for the daily minutia that causes anxiety. The result is a visual representation of their contemporary personal psychology. His projects, such as this one, are meant to give a weight, texture and space to his patient’s anxieties.

A belly cast displayed by a proud patient.

This spring, the Norwegian American Hospital and art therapist Mary Andrus launched a pilot Clinical Art Therapy Program that targets the needs of women at risk for depression, isolation and anxiety during their pregnancy period. The program just completed its first six-week group. The women, who were all about 20-24 weeks in their pregnancy, met once a week for two and a half hours, during which they took on a variety of art projects as well as relaxed through meditation and discussed the shared anxieties they were facing as expecting mothers. Many of the women were low income, single and lack familial support, and each had been referred by a hospital midwife or doctor who sensed that they were at risk for depression and may have expressed fears around the birth and pregnancy. The major artwork that the group completed was the belly cast project, for which the mother chose a pose and with assistance covered her belly in plaster gauze, embellishing and painting the surface when the cast dried. Andrus told me that the goal was “to create a safe supportive group for women to explore and understand emotional stressors by allowing the creative expression of feelings, thoughts and emotions through art making.” She has taken the lead on collaborating with OBGYN and Behavioral Medicine and Community Outreach to put together this pilot project. Their hope is that they will be able to build from this point and develop more comprehensive services for women in the community. Currently, there is no other program of this nature offered in any prenatal program in the area; Andrus and the Norwegian American Hospital are the first to introduce it to the Chicago market.

In addition to tens of private practitioners and the two hospitals named above, art therapy is currently being practiced at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, at the Open Studio Project in Evanston, in Advocate Healthcare’s Family Care Network and Childhood Trauma Treatment Program, in the Cook County Jail and in a few Chicago Public Schools. Every year, RIC organizes a juried art exhibition called ArtFutura, selling work by RIC patients and other emerging artists and raising money for the Therapeutic Recreation Program. The OSP, however, is a great place to “test drive” art therapy if you’re curious, as much of the non-profit arts and social service organization’s programming is targeted at the general public.

Video for the Open Studio Project Art.