It can be easy to take for granted that so much human communication occurs alongside of or beyond the verbal realm. In fact, the premium we put on words can sometimes obscure important inarticulate dimensions of our lived reality and our relationships. For instance, it can be challenging for some to verbalize feelings about traumatic experiences in their personal or shared collective histories. This can, in turn, makes it difficult for people or groups to adapt themselves to their present conditions in healthy ways. Hillary Rubesin, Executive Director for the Art Therapy Institute of North Carolina (ATI), believes that, when a therapeutic approach is needed to help a person re-adjust, it can be useful to locate alternative outlets for people to express what might not otherwise easily emerge in traditional psychotherapeutic settings. Expressive arts can often serve this purpose. To that end, ATI works with over 30 different schools across local districts, with hospitals and community centers, centers for domestic violence, nursing homes, homeless shelters, alternative schools, and a variety of resettlement agencies both to help individuals and even communities to heal through creative expression.
I had a chance to meet Hillary at the YouthWorx building in Carrboro, where we talked a little bit about her journey to become an Expressive Arts Therapist. Visibly passionate about her work, Hillary is a testament to the fact that the most serendipitous results can flower from a compost of circumstance and difficulty. As a senior in college and a budding artist, Hillary enrolled in a painting class whose professor unkindly informed her that she would never make it as a studio artist, that she didn’t understand light or color. Understandably daunted, Hillary opted to take a service learning class instead, and for her coursework researched successful youth-based programs in New England to use as models for better helping at-risk kids. This fieldwork brought her to Raw Art Works, a youth arts organization rooted in art therapy and located in Lynn, Massachusetts. Immediately impressed by the creative, generous, and caring kid-centered atmosphere, where art was being used for healing and connecting purposes, Hillary thought to herself, “This is the kind of place I want to work for the rest of my life!”—and soon after enrolled in two graduate programs in Art Therapy. Pursuing her degrees, she found herself in good company, surrounded by other people who “spoke her language” and who shared her vision for the healing power of the arts. These days, Hillary keeps up a busy schedule as both executive director and clinician for the Arts Therapy Institute, focusing on outreach across the state, while still maintaining close ties to clients.
Say a little about your background in the humanities, especially with regard to your training in art and expressive therapies. How do you use this background on a day-to-day basis?
I have always been involved in the arts in some way. As a child, I sang in various choirs, took guitar and piano lessons, wrote poetry, painted and drew, and acted in various theater programs. As a teenager, I used songwriting and other forms of creative writing to express my emotions, and this background eventually led me to a career as an Expressive Arts Therapist. I have both my Masters and my Doctorate in Expressive Therapies and currently use various arts forms in my daily work at the Art Therapy Institute, where I act as the Executive Director and also as a clinician. Beyond my clinical work at ATI, I use my training in Expressive Therapies to conduct ethical, culturally-congruent, arts-based research, to engage community members in collective art-making, and also to educate others about the field through presentations, supervision, and community-based workshops.
Your biographical information on the Art Therapy Institute website notes that you believe “all art forms hold great potential for healing on both individual and community levels.” Can you offer a couple of anecdotes or concrete examples that have, in your experience, led you to this belief? How does community healing compare with individual healing?
Yes, I believe that the arts are a powerful force for both individual and collective healing. At ATI, we provide clinical therapy both to individuals and within groups. Beyond our official clinical programs, we also lead and collaborate on various community-based arts projects. This allows us to spread the expressive arts as widely as possible, and make them accessible to as many people in our community as possible. Every month, for example, we host community-based workshops and community-based art shows. Sometimes these art shows highlight the work of our clients. This could be seen as controversial, because in the Expressive Therapies, the artwork created during sessions is held in the same confidential light as progress notes or the verbal words shared within sessions. I believe, though, that there is potential for added healing (both on the individual level and the community level) when we share our stories. Because of this, we sometimes ask our clients if they want to share their artwork in community-based shows (and we receive formal, written consent from them to do so). Every year, for example, we have an art show highlighting the amazing visual art and stories created by our clients of refugee and immigrant backgrounds. During these art shows, clients and community members alike mingle and share their experiences with one another. We ask show attendees to make their own artwork and hang it up, in order to remove the separation between client and non-client, or between refugee/immigrant and other community members. We have given out surveys during these shows, and the responses overwhelmingly show that community members learned something important about both the exhibiting artists as well as themselves. I believe that when we make connections through art (a universal language), it can help with various larger community-based issues, like decreasing anti-newcomer sentiment, or de-stigmatizing mental illness.
What is it about art / artistic expression that promotes healing?
I could talk about this for a long time. Some of the reasons I believe that artistic expression can promote healing are that: 1) art-making (in all forms) allows us to externalize internal thoughts and emotions, then re-work them into something healthier, and then re-integrate them in a new way; 2) Art-making is something that we can do alone or in community; 3) Trauma—which many of us experience in our lifetime in some way—lives in visual imagery in our brain and also within our bodies, so processing trauma verbally (alone) doesn’t often work. The arts allow us to process trauma in the same way that it is stored; 4) The expressive arts are universal, and used in most, if not all cultures. This allows us to communicate with one another and engage in healing across cultures and continents, when words are not necessarily possible (or needed); 5) As mentioned before, the arts help de-stigmatize mental health issues, and they are appropriate for numerous settings, including public spaces…They often make it easier for people to approach the idea of healing and mental health; 6) The expressive arts are very strengths-based and choice-based! They help us choose whether we want to get messy and let loose, or be in more control of a situation; 7) The arts are tangible. You can see and hold a piece of art, or hear a piece of music, or watch a dance. This art form can become a transitional object, or a tangible reminder of healing and growth; 8) Art-making can evoke pride and joy. It allows us to surprise ourselves when we get stuck, see new possibilities, and problem-solve, alone, and/or in community-based settings!; and 9) In healing and post-traumatic growth, taking action is important (again, to feel like we are not stuck). The arts are inherently active. When you paint or write or dance or drum, etc., you are moving in some way—I think this in integral to healing work.
What is one thing you wish that more people understood about art therapy and/or expressive arts?
We spend a lot of time trying to justify this approach or make this field more palatable for allied professionals. I think there is often fear about trying something “new” within therapy or professional/academic settings. What’s interesting to me is that the arts have been around for all time, and many of the leading psychotherapists, like Freud and Jung, knew that artistic expression was integral to expressing emotions, understanding our psyches, and engaging in healing work. I wish that the field was more well-known, and that people knew that art therapists and other expressive therapists (including music therapists, dance therapists, drama therapists, and intermodal expressive arts therapists, like myself) need to have at least Masters-level mental health training to engage in this work. I wish people would be more open to different types of therapies, and that we could all work together more fully and respectfully as professionals to help one another heal. In our current world…Well, as we all know, there’s a lot of healing—both on an individual and community-level—to be done!