Using Art as Therapy While Navigating Chicago’s Two Pandemics

This week’s blog is written by SCY’s Manager of Finance and Grants David Arzola. 

I, like most of us, have been trying to navigate and deal with the COVID-19 pandemic the and the continuing harm of systemic racism that is going on right now.  It has been a rough road for all of us.  Initially a good walk or reading a good book helped, but as time moved on and things progressed, I found myself needing to pull from skills learned when taking Art Therapy courses a few years ago.

I was introduced to Art Therapy when I was working for a small non-profit organization whose mission is to “Provide lifesaving care and far-reaching education to people affected by HIV that improves the quality of life of everyone we touch.”

I must admit I really did not know what Art Therapy was back then.  I couldn’t make the connection between art and therapy.  I would periodically go to the room where the art therapy took place and check out the art.  I tried to make a connection on what our clients were trying to say by creating this art and wondering how this helped with their healing process.

After the sessions were complete for the first round of clients, the organization held an amazing gallery event for the weekend.  The clients were so proud of the work they had done and the progress they had made.

I attended the opening of the show and met a wonderful woman who sat with me and explained what the therapy had done for her.  She explained to me the issues she was dealing with which included HIV and addiction and how the therapy really helped her work through these issues.  She had planned to continue with therapy and started dedicating more time to her art.  I then spoke to a man who said he was initially skeptical about the art but “was willing to give it a try.”  He said after a few sessions he realized it had nothing to do with whether the art was good or bad, it was the act of creating that helped him through his issues.  After talking to a couple more clients and hearing how successful this program was for them, I was very moved and very inspired.  I decided right then and there, if I ever started my own non-profit, it would be an art therapy center.

To move towards this goal I decided I needed more education.  I found a program at DePaul University.   It was a wonderful experience overall, but it was the classes in Art Therapy that were extremely eye opening.

Initially I found myself struggling with the art aspect but was always reminded of the man I spoke to at the gallery opening.  “It’s not about whether the art is good or bad, it’s about the process.”  My art was bad.  But it really was about the process and what really helped was the writing that we did after each project that really allowed me to express myself.  Through the art, I was able to express and write about issues I did not know I had.  With these classes we touched on all aspects of Art Therapy that ranged from painting to photography to music (we even had a clown visit the class to talk about humor as therapy).  We also learned about how Art therapy helps individuals with autism, addiction recovery, trauma recovery, grief/loss treatment, and treatment for mental and emotional challenges such as depression, panic, and anxiety.

Starting my own Art Therapy non-profit organization is on the back burner for now, but I can honestly say that I still do write when I need to work through issues or feel inspired and I recently bought a digital piano which I am learning to play and has helped me through the issues we are dealing with today.


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