June 10, 2004
Capitol Hill gets a dose of art therapy
If art is good for the soul, therapists have now proved that art is also good for cognitive functions and motor skills.
Art therapy is a type of psychiatric care that allows people — including senior citizens, disabled individuals, mentally challenged people and victims of memory loss — to cope with their afflictions through the creative process.
And results of this alternative to “talk” therapy will soon be on display on Capitol Hill. Next week, the American Art Therapy Association will host a five-day exhibition of paintings, drawings and other crafts made by senior citizens in the rotunda of the Russell Senate Office Building.
artwork courtesy of Megan Robb
Art-therapy exhibit in the Russell Senate Office Building rotunda
The exhibit, “Creative Aging: Beyond Words,” will feature 105 hand-selected pieces of artwork from 14 states and Canada, said Megan Robb, who organized the event.
Robb — an art therapist, volunteer lobbyist and curator — said she became interested in putting together the exhibit because “elderly issues are at the forefront of everyone’s mind.”
“It’s not like any other art show,” she added. “When you walk through the exhibit, you’ll get a sense of the concerns and the aging process.”
By creating and discussing art, patients can enhance their cognitive abilities and learn how to cope with symptoms, stress and traumatic experiences, according to the association’s website (www.arttherapy.org).
“Everyone is so keen on medicine as a treatment,” Robb said, “but art therapy is often cheaper and helps people develop coping skills.”
Robb said art therapy also has proved useful in diagnosing dementia and Alzheimer’s because memory loss often becomes apparent in a series of artworks created over a span of several years.
Art therapists are professionals with experience and training in art and therapy.
They typically hold master’s degrees in art therapy or a related field.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who co-sponsored the exhibit with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), said art therapy provides senior citizens with a unique venue to convey their emotional and physical states.
“I’m a social worker,” said Mikulski, ranking member on the Aging Subcommittee of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. “I know, when facing challenges, one of the roads to healing is to express yourself.”
Mikulski called art therapy a “breakthrough approach.”
Art therapy emerged as a distinct profession in the 1930s and became more widely known in the 1970s with the creation of the association in 1969.
Robb estimated there are more than 5,000 art therapists in the United States. “It’s becoming more popular,” she said. “It’s a rapidly growing field.”
Although Robb usually works with emotionally disturbed children, she said that particularly in the late stages of a person’s life, remembering the past becomes very important and therapeutic.
“Elderly people often don’t have people listen to them talking about the good old days,” she said. “Art therapy gives them the opportunity for self-worth and dignity.”
The works that will be on display were not produced by professional artists. The creators are seniors over 65, many of whom suffer from Alzheimer’s, homelessness and mental illness.
“When you see the exhibit, you really get a sense of where they come from and what they go through,” Robb said.
Mary Louise VanDyke, a 73-year-old Oberlin, Ohio, resident, wove, over a period of several months, a quilt that will be on display. She said in a telephone interview that she took the opportunity because “this gives me the chance to express an idea.”
VanDyke said the elements of her woven design are simple — a “beautifully balanced” combination of horizontal and vertical complementary colors and rich texture.
Through her work, VanDyke said, she realized that when you are young, events in your life seem random, but that a pattern emerges as you grow older.
VanDyke said she found weaving therapeutic. “I got so much pleasure out of thinking about what I wanted to say,” she said. “I’m glad to have that chance to reflect on my life and see how I can do this within the constraints of the loom.”
Robb said one of her favorite pieces of artwork in the show is an intricate colored pencil drawing by a Native American from Minnesota of an Indian wearing a headdress.
She also described a “very detailed watercolor of a man sitting reading a book on a chair.” The artist, she added, is a 90-year-old woman who is legally blind in her right eye and has very little vision in her left eye.
“You would never know that she has a vision impairment,” Robb said.
She said several of the artists will be traveling from California, New York and Tennessee to Washington to see the exhibit.
An opening reception will be held Tuesday from 5 to 7 p.m. in the Russell Senate Caucus Room.