Exploring the Art in Art Therapy

The art world has long embraced works by untrained artists, calling it folk, primitive, or na?ve art. But two recent exhibits in Wilmington took that idea further, by exploring the intersection of art, and therapy. WHQR's Megan Williams recently visited both shows to learn more about the issues...

Wilmington, NC, February 8, 2006 – At first glance, this could be an average art opening. There's the bottleneck at the wine table, the conversations about which canap?s you have to try. But that's where the average part ends. Because these refreshments are set up in the lobby of the Alterra Clare Bridge nursing home in Wilmington. And the art on the walls is, in part, the work of the patients.

Valerie Betts' points out her father's work, a row of brightly-painted wooden bird houses that sit along a table. As his memories have slipped away, Betts says his art keeps her connected to her father. She adds, "it's a way for him to stay alert with his painting, and he then can communicate with other residents and people that visit and show his work."

The nursing home uses art therapy to give their residents a degree of focus, and an outlet. But it was photographer Joel Reibert who saw the art in their therapy, and decided to put it on the walls. His grandfather is a patient here. And while visiting him, Reibert became fascinated with the patients' artwork.

"You can see a de Kooning, you can see a Pollock," he says. "You can see all these artists in the work of these residents, so I felt, why not show their work in the same respectful manner that you go to MoMA and look at a Pollack?"

Reibert is working at the intersection of two older schools of thought. In the middle of the last century, therapists began to understand the clinical value of their patients' artwork. At the same time, many artists were glorifying the product of untrained creativity, including the works of children and the mentally impaired. The residents' paintings, those up at the opening, are mostly bright primary colors - flowers or simple landscapes, which Reibert hung surrounded by his own photographs of the residents. Reibert admits he's not really asking the paintings stand alone.

"If I wanted the art to be judged on its own merits, then I wouldn't have shown any of the portraits," Reibert says. "So I am kind of cheating by showing the portraits of these beautiful, aged individuals and then showing the work... I'm using the art show experience to draw people in to the larger issue."

Reibert approached the issue as an artist. But the same idea motivated art therapist Tai Kulenic, who works with sexually abused children at the carousel center, to create an exhibit of her patients' work. She says it's about awareness: "The art show was a way to kind of reach the public, I hope. That it is happening, and it's not strangers in the bushes, and we probably know somebody, all of us, probably."

The abused children Kulenic works with use painting and sculpture to tell stories for which they have no words. But when it came to taking those private expressions and making them public, she says it was the last thing on her patients' minds.

"They were surprised, they didn't think anyone would want to see it. They were really like, 'who would want to see that?' They did not see any beauty in it. And I wanted them to also feel there was something good coming out of their abuse."

When she started practicing art therapy in Wilmington five years ago, Kulenic says there was little awareness about what the discipline actually involves. And there's still, she says, a debate about what it accomplishes.

"There's two big schools of philosophy in art therapy," she says. "There's art for the process of creating, and that school believes that's healing in itself. And then there's the other school where you're supposed to create the product and talk about it. And I think it's both for me."

While the pieces in the show started out in therapy sessions, the works also have a purely artistic appeal. Rows of portraits, colored forcefully over newsprint, stare out from the walls. A grid of tiny clay heads grimace at the room. On a quiet morning, local artist Rachel Kastner stopped in to have a look at the exhibit. She says the young creators seem to have wrestled with the same creative forces as other artists.

"The reason that people create art is that they have a lot of either emotions or thoughts that they feel a need to get out and express, whether it's good or bad, or just pure physical beauty. And I think maybe these children have more in them that they need to get out," Kastner says.

Both shows take the personal interaction between therapist and patient and add a third ingredient - an audience. It's a recipe that makes public what was private, and defines the social issues at the intersection of art, and therapy.

Megan Williams, WHQR News

The Carousel Center Art show has moved from the Independent Art Company to government departments around the county. The show re-opens to the public April 1st at Westfield Independence Mall.
You can find more information about the Center at their website
Support for local arts and cultural programming comes from WHQR members, and Landfall Foundation, an organization of residents who support projects enhancing health, education and the arts in New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender Counties.