Art therapy

Up-and-coming field blends art and science

Posted: Thursday, December 24, 2009

There are 18,819 workers in the city of Juneau, according to the latest Census data. But only one of those, Cecilie Cody, is a certified art therapist.

"I think I'm one of maybe one in the state," said Cody, who works for the Juneau Alliance for Mental Health, Inc.

In fact, there are at least three other art therapists in Alaska (an Internet search turned up two in Anchorage and one in Eagle River) but four out of the 302,578 total workers in the state is still a tiny number, one that gives an indication of the profession's fledgling status in the mental health field.

Though a broad overlap between art and therapy is certainly nothing new, the hybrid nature of art therapy, bringing art and science together in a single profession, is a rather recent development.

The field started to gain traction in the 1940s, building through the 1950s as outmoded ideas about mental health were reexamined, and became more formally recognized in the late 1960s with the establishment of the American Art Therapy Association. Though it continues to gain recognition in the U.S., it is by no means common: Currently there are only about 30 schools in the country that offer graduate degree programs in the field.

Cody, who attended the Art Institute of Chicago, was hired by JAMHI last year as residential clinician, and has been working with other staff members to incorporate art therapy into JAMHI's services. At her last job in New Mexico, she said she sometimes felt forced to prove the validity of her position, and often worked without much outside support.

Her experience at JAMHI has been more positive. She just received a $10,000 grant from the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority to set up an art studio in one of JAMHI's Lemon Creek facilities, a move that will allow her to apply her training in a more direct way.

"Writing the grant was a step forward for us in that direction," she said.

In formulating ideas for the JAMHI art studio, Cody relied in part on The Canvas Community Art Studio & Gallery. The Canvas, a REACH facility that opened in 2006, helped her come up with a list of supplies, one that included a kiln, three pottery wheels, three easels, paint and glazes. Cody plans to begin ordering supplies after she gets back from Christmas vacation, and said she hopes to keep the connection between the Canvas active.

"We would like to coordinate with the Canvas once I get the studio set up and get the nuts and bolts rolling," she said.

Soon after moving to Juneau, Cody helped organize a joint art show between JAMHI and the Canvas and was very impressed by Canvas staff.

"They are masters at recognizing and seeing unique aspects of the clients' artwork," she said.

The Canvas also focuses on the exploration of art in a therapeutic setting, but the two facilities will differ in several important ways. For one, the Canvas serves people with developmental disabilities and is structured to bring together those clients and the rest of the Juneau community in common artistic pursuits. In contrast, JAMHI art studio will serve those who experience mental health issues, and will be for clients only, at least at the outset. Cody said the primary users will be residents of JAMHI's three group homes and 20 independent living units. She will lead classes and also offer supervised open studio time.

JAMHI's client base includes those with severe mental illness, and often overlaps with those suffering from substance abuse issues. Cody's training, a blend of art and science, included classes in drawing and painting as well as science-based studies in human behavior, psychology and trauma. Bringing those two fields together involves not just motivating the artists to work, but helping them explore the result and being aware of clients' safety.

She said that her main goal is not to "cure" her clients, but to help make their daily lives more enjoyable and fulfilling.

"Their quality of life is what we're in charge of and there's a huge potential for things to get so much better for them," she said.

One of her favorite parts about being an art therapist is sharing the knowledge that artistic skill doesn't have to be something you are born with, but is something people can learn - something she can teach them. She said working with adults is especially rewarding in that regard, as artists can be surprised to see how quickly they can improve and build on their creative skills.

Many interesting studies have been done regarding the connection between mental health issues and creativity. A 2004 study, "Artistic creativity and bipolar mood disorder," published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, found that bipolar mood disorder in particular is highly over-represented among artists, and that highly creative individuals share many traits in common with those who suffer from the disorder. Many prominent visual artists, Van Gogh perhaps foremost among them, were known to have mental illness of some kind.

But though stimulating creativity is something Cody tries to do, encouraging art for art's sake is not her goal. Rather she works to help clients find an alternate pathways for communication, build relationships with others, broaden their self image and live happier lives.

"It just becomes magical for them, they start seeing different parts of themselves, and start acknowledging that they can be a well-rounded person, rather than having their only identity be 'I am sick' or 'I am depressed' or 'I am traumatized.'"

The process of creating art can help to rechannel those negative emotions.

"You can see the tension in their bodes leave when they're focused on a project," she said. "Time kind of becomes suspended and their focus is directed at something besides themselves and it relieves internal pressure."

Cody said she eventually hopes to help organize a gallery space somewhere in town where JAMHI clients can show their work. In the meantime she will begin work on setting up the studio and getting ready to apply what she's learned.

"Its an amazing field," Cody said. "It's a skillful blend of psychology, art education and art making. You have to be pretty good in all those areas to make it work."

• Contact Arts & Culture editorAmy Fletcher at 523-2283 or

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