Groups tackle life’s difficulties through art therapy

Groups tackle life's difficulties through art therapy Grand View College teaches the technique. Then, a class takes it out on the road.

April 10, 2006

Rachel Rockwell, right, a Grand View College student, laughs as she and Ruth Clark, a Calvin Community resident, work on an art therapy project.To learn more, visit the American Art Therapy Association's Web site at

My animal: Mary Warren, 86, molds clay into a penguin during an art therapy session planned by Grand View College students.

Hard at work: Marcy Nelson, 85, shares a laugh with Grand View College student Rachel Rockwell, 32, as they mold clay into animals recently at Calvin Community in Des Moines.

Some weeks it's collage, or paper cutouts. On a recent Saturday morning, art therapy took shape through clay. "It gives you a chance to express yourself," said Pat Krohmer , 82, as she worked the dough in her hands. Throughout the spring, Grand View College students in Iowa's only art therapy program meet with residents at Des Moines' Calvin Community to demonstrate and practice their skills. Art therapy can be used for many things, such as releasing pent-up emotion or expressing ideas through a language barrier. The students' goals with Calvin Community residents are to reduce stress and depression, lower blood pressure, and to communicate medical symptoms. "It allows people to express feelings and emotions in a more playful, open manner," said instructor Roberta Victor.

Art therapy, a combination of psychology and art, is gaining ground nationally and in Iowa, Victor said. At Grand View, the introductory class has grown from five students when Victor began teaching in 2000 to about 23 students now, she said. More students are on a waiting list. Grand View students said the field appeals to them for many reasons, but they emphasized that anyone can use it. "You don't have to be an artist," said student Siggy Frankel , 38. "Everyone can do this and everyone can succeed.

We all have feelings, fears, thoughts." At the art therapy sessions at Calvin, students take turns planning creative activities and discussions, and establishing relationships with residents. They typically assign a project, then discuss thoughts and interpretations that come from creating the art. When they recently worked with clay, everyone made animals they felt symbolized them. The residents gave thoughtful explanations. "This ended up being a dachshund," began Marcy Nelson , 85, lifting her small clay figure as she described it to the group. "When you come home and open up the door, they're right there to greet you. I like dogs a lot but can't have one here." Krohmer made a cat and named it, too.

She said it reminds her of her daughter. "My daughter has a cat, and she's always calling to tell me strange things the cat does," she said, smiling. "It will go get an afghan or a towel and arrange it all on the floor." Victor, who works with individuals and groups, said art therapy can be helpful in many fields of work, such as in social work, counseling or nursing.

While some of the Grand View students plan to become art therapists – they must first get master's degrees, which are only offered out of state – others are already nurses or teachers who want to incorporate the methods into their own work. Katie Glenn, 21, a Grand View senior and a nurse in Des Moines, has used art therapy with children in the hospital. "Some of the terminally ill kids, the things they produce, a lot of adults couldn't express," she said.

Students and some of the residents cited favorite projects and some that made them stop and reflect about things long-forgotten. Explained student Rachel Rockwell , 32, "You never know what project is going to speak to someone."


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