Beth De Young walked into her therapist’s office in Bend feeling intense rage. She felt she had been unfairly fired from a job she was good at. And that firing had spiraled her back into bulimia, an eating disorder she had been overcoming with the help of therapy.
Instead of talking about her feelings, De Young, now 26, remembers drawing with pastels on a piece of paper. De Young remembers her therapist, Kristina Ziegler, asking her to draw her innermost feeling first, slowly spreading outward, and to use the color that best represented each feeling.
De Young assumed the paper would be a solid black, filled with her anger. But instead she found herself coloring with red and blue and other colors. When she was done, she sat back and looked at the paper and discovered she had many more emotions going on inside than she realized. “I’m sad and I’m confused and I’m lost,” said De Young. “I have all these other feelings, not just this rage. It was pretty eye-opening.”
De Young says art therapy has helped her in many ways over three years, opening her up to her emotions, helping her develop healthy relationships and helping her overcome her bulimia. “It’s been such a great thing for my life. (I’ve made) so many improvements. Honestly I don’t know where I would be today without the help art therapy has provided me,” she said.
Ziegler is an art therapist with a private practice in Bend. She works with individuals of all ages and helps with a wide range of issues, including depression, anxiety, trauma and family issues.
What is art therapy?
Ziegler worked for many years as a clinical social worker, in particular in youth wilderness programs. She took a weekend seminar about art therapy and decided to make a change. Ziegler returned to school, first taking studio art classes in Bend and then traveling to Marylhurst University near Portland each week to obtain her master’s degree in art therapy. In 1998, she started her own practice. Ziegler says her practice is unusual. Most art therapists work in institutions — schools, hospitals or mental health centers. Ziegler sees patients privately in her office.
Art therapy, she explains, is a practice in which “clients express themselves through art as a way of working through feelings.”
Ziegler says this approach works well for some people as it can integrate their right and left brains — the creative and analytical sides. Ziegler incorporates art into more traditional talk therapy — the mix of talk and art depends on each client (and she does see some clients who only talk). Art is not, however, simply a tool she uses to get people to talk. The art in itself can be sufficient for people to change.
Starting off, Ziegler usually offers people basic choices — paper with colored pencils, markers or pastels. Most people work in those mediums, but some people gravitate toward oil paint or sculpture.
Sometimes Ziegler suggests a certain medium based on the individual’s needs. She might try to get someone who is obsessive compulsive, for instance, to use paint and be more free-flowing. Or if someone is manic, she might suggest using a small piece of paper to force the person to be more contained.
Ziegler says many people assume art therapy is only for children, but kids make up only about one-third of her clients. It’s true, however, that many children are well suited for art therapy. Ziegler said their eyes light up when they see all of her art supplies, a wall of paints, markers, colored paper, glitter glue, felt and clay. Her favorite client group, however, is teens. “They’re never boring,” she said.
Some clients come to Ziegler after having hit a block in regular talk therapy. Others are attracted to the idea of art and creativity. She says people don’t need to have art training or experience, but they do need to be open.
Ziegler said some people “don’t seem to be engaged” in the art and respond better to more traditional talk therapy. Skill level doesn’t matter, but a willingness to try does.
One art exercise Ziegler often starts with is asking patients to draw six feelings. The feelings people choose to draw can be revealing. Further into therapy, Ziegler might ask a client to draw her relationship with her husband. Or she might ask a child to draw an animal family at home (this can be easier than asking the child to draw his or her own family).
Sometimes, Ziegler said, people feel embarrassed or self-conscious about their art because it isn’t perfect. Or, they feel “uncomfortable with you watching them do art,” said Ziegler. She typically sits beside the person as they work.
Sometimes the art is literal, and other times it is abstract.
When she looks at a patient’s art, Ziegler is looking at a host of things. She is paying attention to the space on the page, the type of line, the color, the patterns and how the art evolves over time. Some images may symbolize something — a tree with a hole in it, for instance, can be a symbol of a trauma, although it may just be a place for an owl family to live.
“Never make a diagnosis from one piece of art,” Ziegler said.
Another technique she uses involves small figurines. In her office, Ziegler has floor-to-ceiling shelves lined with small figures — animals and people as well as props, furniture and settings. During this therapy, Ziegler places a tub filled with sand on the table and asks the patient to depict a scene. She might ask someone to create his or her life story or to recreate a particular moment. Kids and adults as well can have very strong responses to this method. “I’ve had people sob over their scenes,” she said.
Ziegler says the training she received in art is essential. She understands the materials, how they work and how people respond to them. She is technically proficient in all of the media her clients work with. Personally, she likes to paint and also works in ceramics. “It helps me stay grounded,” she said. Ziegler said many of the people she sees work on art in their spare time.
Before her training, Ziegler tended to think art depicting dark images might be the most helpful for therapy purposes — that people creating dark art were excising demons and healing trauma. But exploring positive images is actually more helpful, particularly for depressed individuals.
Ziegler keeps most of the art her patients produce. Some people take it home with them, in particular pieces they find meaningful.
De Young took home a collage she made of magazine pictures representing her feelings. “It turned out beautiful,” she said. “It’s kind of a reminder that I am a complex person. I don’t have to keep everything in. There are other avenues to releasing those big feelings that I have.”
Other times, Ziegler said, clients want to destroy the art work. She says that can be therapeutic, too, if done in the right way.
Ziegler finds beauty in a lot of the work her clients make. “I tend to find a lot of things beautiful,” she said. “Transformation, I always think that’s beautiful. It happens fairly often.” •