Friday, March 14, 2014

Sarah Riley Discusses the Role of Art in Therapy

In late January I wrote about a Beer for Bowls event that Tonya Borgeson had arranged with the North Pole Bar on Raleigh Street. There were several potter's wheel in action and when I arrived two of them were occupied by women involved with art therapy, Andrea Boyadjis and Sarah Riley. I felt there would be value in following up as I know that making art can be personally therapeutic, but I wanted to learn more about the use of art in a deliberate manner to this end. Both young women attend or attended UWS in Superior and both agreed to share more about what they do. I was fascinated with the insights they offered, but felt a need to share them separately so as to keep this blog entry a manageable length.

Sarah Riley, who hails from St. Germain in mid-northern Wisconsin, came to Superior to attend UWS for music and art. She says that once she honed in on the idea of an Art Therapy career, "I had that 'aha' moment, and I realized that art has always been therapy for me. It was a place to hide, a valuable source of expression, and it's always given me a sense of purpose and peace."

Riley said she's always been interested in art for as long as she can remember. "I've been making art since before I developed motor skills. I've only ever wanted to be two things: when I was very little, I wanted to be one of Santa's elves (my mom calmly explained to me that I would be far too tall to be an elf) and then I wanted to be an artist...since I was 4 or 5, I think."  Because there were other artists in her family, her creative pursuits were always encouraged- lots of happy memories. "My grandma was a brilliant fiber artist, constantly knitting. My grandpa is a wood carver, my Uncle Buck a ceramicist, my Uncle Brian a retired art teacher, my Uncle Art a wildlife artist. My mom's a gifted jeweler, and she was always coming up with fun art activities for us when we were kids. I've always had a reverence for the handmade, and I continue to be full of awe and wonder for the creative passion and skill that goes into making art, whether the artist is famous and world-renowned, or a child who is just beginning."

In college she became enamored with the works of the Impressionists, "and now I'm more partial to such artists as Lucien Freud, Alice Neel, Frida Kahlo. The list goes on and on."

Today Riley is a Mental Health Practitioner through Heartland Kids, working with kids with severe emotional disturbance. "This 'disturbance' is a catch-all term that can be attributed to a variety of issues such as a history of abuse, neglect, mental illness, and learning disabilities, among other things. I also intern at Safe Haven Battered Women's Shelter, where I run art groups for women and children who have fled abusive situations and are often afflicted with such issues as PTSD, Acute Stress Disorder, and general depression and anxiety.

"My main goal is to use art therapy techniques to help people develop coping skills. I present art as a constant and approachable resource for emotional expression as well as a method of relaxation and a source of great achievement. I've used art to help kids with ADHD to focus, women with extreme anxiety feel calm, and people of all ages to have fun and feel accomplished. Art empowers people- art heals. I feel like I really can't take credit for any so called 'achievement'-- it's just art. I just try to nudge people in the right direction.

"All artists, and children, understand that art is intrinsically therapeutic by nature. Some adults need some reminding, but everyone can benefit from art therapy- it's truly universal. Engaging in the creative process stimulates the middle brain and releases all sorts of 'feel-good' endorphins and hormones- such as serotonin and dopamine; it relieves stress, increases happiness, and provides a much needed mode of expression- a creative outlet for when words aren't enough. It is my belief that art IS therapy."

Sometime soon I will share Andrea's story as well. 

If you enjoyed this article, you may also enjoy this article on how music has the power to comfort and heal.

REMINDER: IF YOU ARE OUT AND ABOUT in Downtown Duluth, Caleb Wood, Alexis Pio & Flo Doodles have taken over Prøve for the night.... I drove by last night and peeked in. Looks like a whole new world. Show starts at 7:00. Check it out.

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