OWN
02/02/2017 11:28 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2017

How Art Therapy Helps You De-Stress (Even If You Don't Think You Need It)

Can a lump of clay and a bunch of strangers soothe your frayed nerves? Michelle Wildgen finds out.
2012-10-11-omaglogo.jpg
The Voorhes

There were eight of us around the table. We’d signed up for a two-hour workshop with Madison, Wisconsin, art therapists Mary Williams and Kelly Toltzien, who together founded Madison Art Therapy in 2015. Our number included seven women and one man, mostly in our 30s and 40s. We were there to reconnect with our artistic sides—and our feelings.

Williams and Toltzien sat at either end of the table. Williams had silver bands on her fingers and a contagious grin. Toltzien’s blue eyes seemed to take in the entire room at once. The two have known each other since college, and they chatted easily like the friends they are.

First they spread postcards across the table, and we sifted through them to select one that introduced both ourself and our state of mind. Carrie considered a photo of a nude woman in a field, but instead chose an image of Yosemite’s rugged landscape. Ellen, fresh from work in a dress and a cardigan, chose a picture of children on bikes. “It’s been a shitty week in the news, and I chose this because it’s a happy image,” she said. I’d just returned from a long work trip and thrown a birthday party for my 5-year-old, and I was miffed at my husband for suggesting we keep it smaller next time. I picked two cards: a Picasso Mother and Child and a Cartier-Bresson photo of three people in Spain looking suspicious and defiant.

Sitting and talking may be the typical way of expressing your feelings, Williams said, but art therapy is built on the idea that using the creative process—and our physicality—in therapy is doubly effective. If you’re throwing paint at a canvas, she says, “that’s sending a message to your body and brain: ‘Okay, I just said this paint was going to represent my anger, and here I am letting go of it.’”

Once we’d used the images to read the mood in the room—mostly frazzled—we moved to our first project, which was sculpting clay into a depiction of something we were ready to part with. I hoped to release my habit of holding on to resentments (like those that arise in the wake of unappreciated birthday parties). How to embody that?

As I worked, I looked around the table and had my first therapeutic insight: I’m not a very good artist. At least not by comparison. Carrie’s flaring lily had a twisted stem, which, when turned, looked cunningly like a tornado. In Ellen’s diminutive clay wall, each brick was eerily uniform. Marianne, who talked of feeling fragmented in her job and homelife, made an open hand, placed a clock in its palm, then closed the fingers. Our therapists sculpted, too; Toltzien fashioned an impressive mountain peak, like a tiny Mordor.

I noodled with worms of oyster-colored clay before settling on my best representation of hidden resentments: a tentacled ingot trapped in a coiled vase. After we finished and described our sculptures, Williams and Toltzien revealed that the “letting go” was no metaphor. We fanned out into the night to find a place in the grass, trees, or bushes where our sculptures could return to the earth. (This being environmentally conscious Madison, we’d verified that our creations were toxic only in emotional terms.) Carrie and Marianne pitched theirs into the woods. Terry walked off, holding her sculpture in both hands, then returned without it. I wasn’t sure about hurling my resentment tentacles, so I set the sculpture behind some nettles.

Much of what happens in art therapy is beyond words, Toltzien told us. She and Williams offer a variety of media to help people reach that primal plane: collages, flowing watercolors, grid drawings to help with focus, even body movements. Next up for our group was stones. The idea was to fill the psychic space we’d cleared with something positive. Each of us chose a smooth rock to transform with paints and markers. Marianne adorned hers with looping rainbows; Carrie turned hers into a precise fairy garden of blooms. Anna painted a silhouetted rabbit (”my spirit animal”) within the borders of a snake eating its own tail. Layering paint on stone, I learned that to me positivity resembles a blurry Ukrainian Easter egg. Our group discussed kids and work, issues of middle age or middle-class life. But Madison Art Therapy also serves people grappling with trauma, grief, anxiety, depression. Whatever her malady, a client may not have held a paintbrush since childhood.

During the session, I’d had a glimpse of transformation. It didn’t really matter what I made; what was calming was the process of making—and of seeing what people struggle with and how they choose to express it. By the end of the session, my very posture had changed. I felt no need to fidget or speak—just an unfamiliar, welcome stillness. I wondered what I could create that would let me feel it again.

CONVERSATIONS