In therapy, a simple doodle can be the key
World-renowned Mexican artist Frida Kahlo famously wrote in her journal: “Feet, what do I need you for when I have wings to fly?”
At the time, she had endured countless surgeries for a range of conditions and was headed for the amputation of her right leg below the knee for gangrene in her foot.
Her story planted a healing seed deep inside Erin Partridge, an artist and board-certificated art therapist based in America.
“I think that’s such a beautiful metaphor. I’ve loved that forever,” Partridge told Shanghai Daily.
This is one of the two reasons that she named her studio “Wings to Fly,” where she offers workshops and classes to help people deal with emotional problems and inspire creativity through art therapy, in the company of her pet parrots Sammy and Griffin, as well as golden retriever Carina.
Dr. Partridge also teaches at university in the art therapy department, and works in the community, pediatric, forensic, and geriatric settings.
Q: Could you please introduce yourself?
A: I am a board-certified registered art therapist and my doctoral is in art therapy as well. I have kind of two roles or three roles as an art therapist, one as a professor of art therapy. I teach in the master’s program currently at Notre Dame de Namur University. I am also the art therapist and experiential researcher in residence with elder-care alliance, which is a non-profit that provides care and services for older adults here in California. And then my third role is as an art therapist here in my studio.
Q: How does your story with art therapy begin?
A: I found out about the field when I was in undergraduate school, didn’t know it was a thing. And I had a kind of some health issues of my own and found that my own art process was just as helpful if not more helpful than any doctor or medication or anything.
I learned that this was an actual thing I could do in the world. So, I switched from being a graphic design major to being a studio art major, and I added a psychology minor in order to prepare me to go to school for a master’s in art therapy.
Q: Is this job as an art therapist also quite new in America?
A: We’ve had the field of art therapy for quite a while now in California or in the US. But here in the US, the education program that I teach in the university, we’ve been around for 40 years now and have been kind of a practicing field prior to that.
Q: What is a standard art therapy process?
A: It is kind of using images as a way to introduce yourself. For example, the first therapy session with a traditional talk therapist can often feel kind of intimidating and overwhelming. Like where do I start? I got 60 minutes and I have to tell you my whole life story, and that can be really hard for people.
But what I’ve seen is in that first session with a client in art therapy, you can ask them to make an image that’s about something they want to share with you or an introduction to themselves, and making an image about it, even though art can also feel intimidating to the many people.
Art therapy really isn’t about that finished piece. Sometimes I think the thing that people really need to hear is that art therapy is about the process.
It’s about what did I do in the making of this image. The final image might not matter at all, because making the image enabled me to say something that I’ve never been able to put words to before.
Q: So what is the next step?
A: Making an image and then reflecting on it. Sometimes that reflection comes between the art therapist and the client. The therapist might ask questions, or the therapist might start a little less directly and might say ‘what do you see here? What shows up in this image for you? Because it’s not about what I see in it, it’s really about what the client sees.
Q: Is art therapy more helpful in helping people express deeper feelings or can it also help relieve bad emotions like stress, anxiety or even early stages of depression?
A: All of those things. And in different ways with different materials. If I wanna work on stress reduction with a client or a group, I might have some materials that require ripping and loud noises and such. The art process can help with that. Because there’s some kind of catharsis comes from that. In other ways, I might do something slower and more fluid to bring me to a sense of peace and calm instead of being so fast-paced.
Q: Are there other approaches to apply?
A: Yeah, I think for a lot of people drawing and painting can feel intimidated. So collage can be a really, powerful way to work with people.
Q: Can you give us some academic or scientific research or support for this method?
A: There’s lots of studies that have come out, especially in recent years around the efficacy of art therapy in treating stress, in treating PTSD, post-traumatic stress, in treating anxiety and depression. We’ve really seen some increases in the scholarly work around that. And there’s lots of support for the use of art therapy with kids on the autism spectrum, with eating disorders.
Q: How can art therapy affect eating disorders?
A: One of the things that art therapy can enable is putting words to something that people don’t have words for and exploring some of the visuals of it.
So making images around their own perceptions of their body, exploring that, and then also imagining the future. For someone who’s got a really, maybe a long history of chronic eating disorder, it can be hard for them to imagine a future where that’s not their way of interacting in the world, that’s not their coping mechanism.
Q: So visual images or just appreciation can also help?
A: Right. Appreciate. My favorite example of that is once when I was in a large museum in San Francisco, with a group of older adults. There is this very small woman who really wasn’t an art person. But when she saw a work of Garhart Richter who does really big bold brush strokes and the canvas was probably six times for her size, then she turns around to me, and said ‘I would do it like this’ and she’s like moving around dancing in the gallery.
There was so much joy in that moment. And also you saw a little bit of like her child-like self who she must have been before her 90s.