By Joseph Robertia
Long before there were psychologists and psychiatrists to help, people used art to explain their inner thoughts and feelings. Today, art as a form of therapy is better understood and actively utilized by mental health professionals.
“The groups and activities promote recovery, empowerment and self-reliance,” said Katie Wales, a clinical team leader with the Birchwood Center, a psychological recovery center for adults that is associated with the Peninsula Community Health Services organization.
The Birchwood Center provides skill-building, activity and psychotherapy groups. From these sprouted the Birchwood Artisans, a group of 20 to 25 clients who, in addition to participating in groups, also collaborate with staff to create arts and crafts projects.
“The artisans have created candles, dreamcatchers, jewelry, tie-dye socks and shirts, driftwood mirrors, birdhouses, ornamental driftwood fish, Christmas ornaments and more,” Wales said.
Wales said that the art creation and mediums used depends on each artist’s interests and skills, which can vary from person to person. While they are all there for some form of recovery, their recovery applies to various mental health conditions, from depression to bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
“There’s a lot of good energy and excitement to participating in a project, and a lot of levels in learning and healing to doing them,” Wales said. “Some may come up with the design, others may make the templates, some collect supplies, some put it together, and some are finishers. But everyone has a part in the project.”
Because everyone weighs in and takes part in the project, it is one of the ways the art is therapeutic.
“Participating from start to finish and being part of the creative process is very empowering. It creates meaning and purpose, and since they have so much say in what they’re doing it makes it a good recovery activity,” she said. “But, also, having a project like this is a team effort, so it also requires and creates collaboration. The artisans meet weekly to discuss ideas and projects, and they invite the staff to these meetings. As a group, we collaborate on if we want to do this thing, how do we want to do it and where do we want to vend it?”
The artwork has been displayed in the Peninsula Community Health Services building in Soldotna. The artisans also seek out other venues to display the work they have created.
For the past two summers the artisans have participated in the Soldotna Farmers’ Market on Saturdays, Wales said. Currently, the Birchwood Artisans are also preparing for upcoming local holiday bazaars.
Money earned goes toward purchasing supplies for future projects. In addition to showing and selling their wares, the artisans attempt to promote more than the work itself. The artisans have a message that they share with community members during the fairs and markets.
“They created a brochure that describes who they are and what they do. They share information about how the collective efforts help promote meaning and purpose in life,” Wales said. “The artisans hope to promote acceptance and tolerance, and debunk myths about mental illness. The goal is also to challenge preconceptions and to increase awareness.”