Art Paints a New Picture for Therapists, Patients

A painting of a mask by Stephanie Harris, a patient at an art therapy session at Mary Free Bed Hospital in June, 2023. Photo by Bryan Esler.

Stephanie Harris sits close to the table in her wheelchair, a half-painted papier-mâché mask propped on the tabletop easel. She talks to art therapist Libby Smith about her next step for the mask. One half has lipstick, eyeshadow, rouge, and eyebrows. The other is blank.

“One half is wearing makeup, which is how I usually look; the other will darker like a tan, which is how I would if I could be outside,” said Harris. “I will add words and expressions about how people see me.”

Before the hour-long session is over, Harris has covered the half mask with a darker tan paint and penciled on the words “strong,” “effort,” and “determination.” She’ll paint those words next time and is thinking about what she’ll paint on the inside of the mask.

“The outside is to express how I feel others see me, and the inside how I see myself,” said Harris, who has been at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital since May 11. She’s hoping to be released on July 20.

“The last piece of art I did was about how I felt that day. It was a bad day because I found out I had to stay longer. I split my painting: one side was a beach and water and sun, and in a bottom quarter I put clouds and rain,” said Harris. “I painted my emotional landscape.”

Harris painted while she talked with Smith, an art therapist (ATR-Provisional) who blends talk therapy and art to help all kinds of patients at Mary Free Bed: adults, children, those who have experienced car accidents, amputations, strokes, spinal cord injuries, and a variety of other indications.

Art therapy helps with fine motor skills and emotional processing and regulation, said Smith. “Any time a patient comes to a hospital, that is a trauma, and trauma can be stored in our bodies,” she said. “I want to work on the trauma stored in our bodies before it does any harm and begins to cause dysregulation.”

Art therapy is part of the mental health profession and is used as a form of treatment to “foster self-esteem and self-awareness, cultivate emotional resilience, promote insight, enhance social skills, reduce and resolve conflicts and distress, and advance societal and ecological change,” according to the American Art Therapy Association (AATA), a nonprofit professional organization for art therapists.

Western Michigan University offers the undergraduate course requirements via its Studio Arts Degree (and similar degrees) that allow students to continue to graduate programs. In Michigan, Wayne State University offers a master’s degree and certification in art therapy, all overseen by AATA.

While Mary Free Bed uses art therapy as part of rehabilitation therapy plans, Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services adds art therapy to in-patient mental health care plans. Kayla Jeltema is a Certified Therapeutic Recreational Specialist who uses art in her work with groups and individuals.

“I use art as a tool to help people regulate emotions, as a stress management technique, to develop coping skills,” she said. “I used it in groups to aid in whatever topic we’re addressing and to back up our teaching.”

Topics can include mindfulness, stress management, distress tolerance, and emotion regulation. Jeltema has patients color mandalas, geometric designs in circular form, and focus on the center. She has them draw something that holds their stress, such as coffee pot or watering can and picture pouring out the stress. She uses Zentangle, or structured doodling, to help with relaxation and focusing on the moment.

Painting is a favorite activity—she has patients choose a song and paint whatever comes to mind when they hear it.

“We might play ‘Happy’ by Pharrell Williams, yet patients have different emotions about that song. They are all hearing the same music and using the same painting supplies, but all have a different take on that song,” said Jeltema.

Kerry Huver, a licensed professional counselor who is also board certified in art therapy (ATR-BC), uses a combination of talk and art therapy in her practice through Grand Rapids Therapy Group.

“I gauge what is therapeutic for the person, what mediums they might be drawn to,” said Huver. “It’s an opening to other verbal discussion. They might tell me more about an image and I can gain insight into their relationships or their family.”

Huver uses a variety of mediums depending on the patient’s wants and needs, including drawing, painting, 3-D sculpture, visual journaling, photographs, and music. A patient may connect with a symphony or movie soundtrack, lyrics to a song or an instrumental piece. Some may use different art materials each time or use the same materials each session.

She helps patients deal with anxiety, depression, life transitions, and trauma, helps them work on emotional regulation and to be more at ease in their bodies. Around 30 percent opt for art therapy in the therapeutic space.

“Within therapeutic relationships, it’s so unique to each person,” she said. “We work together to figure out what’s going to be the most supportive for them, what fosters communication in the therapy space.”

Art therapy, as Huver said, “opens the door in a different way to discussion.”

Smith at Mary Free Bed adds, “Art therapy touches everyone. It is a different way to form a new path in our brains, a different way to process the emotions that are overwhelming us.”

While art therapy in a clinical sense can only happen if a therapist is present, the healing qualities of the creation process are well known. If you need mental health services, please contact a provider. If you’d like to experience art in a casual setting, check out these options.

I’m an Artist Community Studio, 2166 Wealthy St. SE—Art classes, workshops and open studio time for adults and children.

The Mud Room, 1971 E. Beltline Ave NE—Pottery painting, potter’s wheel, wood signs, glass fusing, plus range of activities for children

Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, E. Beltline Ave. NE—Wide range of art and gardening classes for all ages.

Grand Rapids Art Museum, 101 Monroe Center NW—Adult workshop series, drop-in sessions, Saturday studio sessions, plus activities for children.

Hearts for the Arts, 1141 Quarry Ave NW—Inclusive public art classes and group events for adults and children of all abilities.

Pottery Lane Studio & Workshop, 401 Hall St. SW—Offerings ranging from eight-week classes to one-night events to private parties for adults, plus a variety of classes for youth.




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