Art Expression Support Group: Eliciting Feelings in a Creative Way

Thanks to a $5,000 grant from the Wheaton Franciscan Sisters, Family Shelter began offering an art expression support group for clients in August of 2011.

Family Shelter Counselor Judy Petrushka spearheads the group and has structured the sessions around the special needs of individuals affected by abuse.

Many Family Shelter clients have experienced not only physical violence, but emotional trauma and sexual abuse, resulting in a number of psychological issues, such as anxiety, fear, depression and hopelessness. With the art expression group, clients are encouraged to express their feelings in their own creative way.

Petrushka explained that there are two important benefits from participation in the group. “One is for self-care, relaxation and play,” she said, “tapping into that place, particularly for people who have experienced isolation. The other is being able to express yourself in a way that’s different from words. It’s about developing some insights and empowerment based on what comes out in the art.”

Sessions begin with each attendee identifying a word to describe how they are feeling in the moment. The group is then led in grounding exercises and deep breathing for relaxation in order to prepare them to begin the project and bring themselves into the present.

The group is not focused on aesthetics, Petrushka said. “We’re not necessarily trying to create beautiful pictures, because some of these ideas are ugly and not nice. We don’t want it to be about artistic talent. It’s really about getting to what it is they want to represent. It’s about the process and not about the product. We talk about that a lot when we’re sharing. What was your process and what was it like for you to do this?”

In addition, it’s been found that the tactile nature of art materials can be soothing and relaxing and may assist the process of emotional healing. The sensory qualities of art expression are helpful not only in reducing stress, but in making meaning of past traumatic events.

“I’ve had a client in the group for whom every project was in the same two colors,” Petrushka said. “When someone remarked on that, she said she had never been allowed to choose and these were her favorite colors.”

The Franciscan Sisters’ grant enabled Family Shelter to obtain a wonderful array of art materials. “We work in markers, watercolor pencils and crayons, stamps and even collage,” Petrushka said. “The grant also enabled us to purchase a photo printer, so we can alter photos and sometimes include them in our collages.

“Typically, we start by experimenting with the art materials without any outcome in mind, to foster comfort and safety within the group. Creating a safe space to explore feelings and share is really important. Then we move to a variety of topics, for example grounding, inner critic, boundaries, what we can control, forgiveness and gratitude. We might finish with healing, growth, creating your path and the like.”

In the final phases, Petrushka explained, the group becomes more goal-oriented and is directed toward thinking about a path or journey where they want to go.

“The important thing is that there is total acceptance,” Petrushka said, “there is no right or wrong answer. Making an accidental line or spilling paint can lead to new discoveries or insights. People often get surprised by something that they did — some idea that they weren’t thinking about might come out.”

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Collage is a common form of expression in our Art Expression Group. The collage above was part of Family Shelter’s 35th Anniversary Traveling Art Exhibit “Behind Closed Doors.”