How Cuyahoga Arts & Culture is helping organizations heal others through arts and music

The process of producing paintings, drawings, ceramics, and other visual art—as well as making or listening to music—isn’t just a creative skill. It’s a life skill.

Art and music therapy are proven to help people cope with a variety of challenges, from the loss of a loved one to trauma and illness. The American Art Therapy Association defines the practice as “an integrative mental health and human services profession that enriches the lives of individuals, families, and communities through active art-making, creative process, applied psychological theory, and human experience within a psychotherapeutic relationship.”

Professional art therapists must be professionally credentialed, with a master’s degree, board certification, and licensure. And though the requirements to teach in this field are rigorous, the requirements to participate are far from it—art and music therapy are open to everyone.

Cuyahoga Arts & Culture (CAC) recognizes the importance of art and music therapy, supporting about 20 area organizations that actively have some sort of art therapy programming in place. FreshWater takes an inside look at the colorful and cathartic work some of these organizations are doing.

Sarah Marinelly - FlutterTherapy for all

For more than 50 years, the Art Therapy Studio (ATS) has operated under the philosophy that art is central to healing and improves overall well-being. The studio was founded in 1967 out of what is now known as MetroHealth Medical Center by art therapist Mickie McGraw, who suffered from polio, and psychiatrist George Streeter, who had tuberculosis. They developed the idea for the Studio after discovering that they both used art to cope with their illnesses.

“Both just knew that art changed their lives,” says ATS executive director Shannon Scott-Miller. “Art helped them relax, it made them feel healthy and whole.”

Today, the Art Therapy Studio hosts community-based programs and in-hospital programs, as well as post-hospitalization programming in its Fairhill Road location. A $30,000 CAC grant enabled the development of its Discover the Artist Within You program, which provides community arts classes taught by credentialed art therapists at the Studio, Ursuline ArtSpace Studio, River’s Edge Studio, and MetroHealth Senior Health and Wellness Center.

The therapists strive to create a safe and creative space for participants to rediscover and enhance themselves through art. “It’s not your average art class that focuses on skill,” explains Scott-Miller.

Classes are offered quarterly, shifting focus from metals and jewelry to textiles and weaving to painting and drawing. There is even open studio, where people can further explore various media. Scott-Miller is particularly excited about the recent purchase of a wheelchair-accessible potter’s wheel, which will make the ceramic aspect of the classes more accessible.

Scott-Miller identifies five discovery goals in the program: self-confidence, self-expression, building on strengths, improving well-being, and connecting with people. “This is a place where anyone can come and grow,” she says. “So much of our mental health and wellness focuses on what’s wrong with you. We focus on what’s working. We work on the strengths you already have.”

Scott-Miller stresses that ATS is open to everybody. “What I love about it is anyone can walk in, and if they choose to talk about their challenges, no one flinches,” she says. “It’s a very open [and] supportive environment.”

Memory jar made at Hospice of the Western Reserve by a woman whose fiancée died a few months before they were to be marriedTherapy for coping

At Hospice of the Western Reserve, art therapy helps those who have lost loved ones to work through their grief. Through a $30,000 CAC grant for its Healing Arts program, the organization offers 17 courses—all open to the public.

All of the programs are planned and facilitated by Hospice’s licensed art therapist Mollie Borgione, who stresses that participants do not need artistic skill or experience to participate.

Healing Arts programs include a workshop that focuses on a different art project each month; Fabric and Feelings, a sewing workshop; Circle of Hope Art Therapy Edition, a grief support group that meets for six consecutive weeks to create an art project; a group targeted toward children and families; a photography and journaling workshop; and the Traveling Series, held in libraries and community facilities.

“Art transcends the physical realm and can be a window to the soul,” says Diane Snyder Cowan, director of grief services. “Art and art-making are often a catalyst for discussion and a vehicle for talking about the person who died and/or the grief process.”

For instance, Borgione says Fabric and Feelings is designed to create an artistic memorial piece from the clothing of a loved one. “Many times, they discover symbolism in their art that was unintentional, but helps them understand better what their relationship with their loved one meant to them and the impact that the loss will have on their lives going forward," says Borgione.

Group members have made quilts and purses out of neckties; another popular project involves creating cement stepping stones honoring a loved one.

“It ends up being a beautiful item,” says Cowan of these projects. “The participant is walking away with something of beauty.”

Furthermore, the process can be cathartic—helping participants to feel they are not alone. “Sharing between group members helps them see that other people have similar feelings of sadness, anger, guilt, loneliness, and gratitude," says Borgione. "Sometimes, awareness of feelings that were previously hidden are revealed to the participant. There is an intentional atmosphere set by the art therapist that is respectful of each person’s grief journey, meeting people wherever they are.”

Group members are encouraged to talk about what the project means to them, although not required to do so. Borgione recalls a recent instance when a participant, whose brother had just died, said she could not talk about the collage she had made because she was afraid she would start crying.

But, as soon as Borgione held up the piece to show the group, the woman started to share her feelings. “Because she felt safe, she was able to talk,” Borgione says. “Creativity facilitates expression of emotions and helps to resolve and accept the death.”

Healing Through Art - West Side Catholic CenterTherapy for the homeless

Since 1977, West Side Catholic Center (WSCC) has offered shelter, food, and clothing to Clevelanders who are homeless or living in poverty. Its Expressive Arts program—funded with a $5,000 CAC project grant—focuses on using the arts to address trauma and facilitate healing.

“Most, if not all, of our clients have suffered some sort of trauma, either as victims or witnesses,” says resource center manager Barbara Taylor. “We know that trauma without some sort of intervention causes changes in the brain, known as a trauma groove.”

Through five programs—Yoga; Art-In-Action, classes in various media taught by local artists; Rhythm of the Heart, a djembe drumming circle; Earth Connection Garden, a community garden facilitated by OSU Extension; and Creative Writing—WSCC attempts to heal that groove.

“We developed the expressive arts program as a part of our efforts to be a trauma-informed center,” explains Taylor. “Our whole goal is to look at [our members] through trauma glasses—what happened and what can I do to make it better. We know that with folks who suffered, all cannot benefit from talking. We know that with expression through other channels, they can connect to others.”

Taylor further explains that many of the participants lead “very solitary lives. We have lot of people who don’t let anyone in; they’re guarded.”

But the expressive arts can change that isolation.

Taylor recalls one man who first came to WSCC about five months ago, sharing that he had some mental illness and would often make inappropriate comments—but his personality changed with the art classes. “He is beginning to identify with people he sees regularly,” she says.

Artists often come to WSCC to teach classes, while other times the students travel to studios or theaters. Additionally, WSCC hosts at least one musical performance each year. On March 28, the center will host Roots of American Music.

Participants in the Earth Connection Garden work in a 10-foot by 20-foot raised bed at the end of the center’s parking lot, and they get to take whatever the reap. Writers in the writing program are usually given a theme or “prompt,” like “To walk in my shoes is…” or, “If I could change one thing” to start the creative process. “It’s amazing how the writers rally around each other,” says Taylor of the times when they share their work.

Each July, the participants put on an Expressive Arts Showcase at St. Ignatius’ Breen Center, at which the creative writing students read aloud, the drummers perform, and the art class students sell their works. All proceeds from the sale go back to the artists who made the pieces.

Therapy through restorative music

Art therapy extends beyond the visual arts. The healing power of music—whether through creating or listening—has long been proven to have physical and mental benefits. At The Music Settlement’s Center for Music Therapy, the country’s oldest music therapy program in a community music school, 14 licensed music therapists help clients improve quality of life.

“We have a very diverse community,” says Ronna Kaplan, chair for the Center for Music Therapy. “We serve people of all ages and at all levels of functioning, whether they have a diagnosis or not.”

Arts-n-Play at The Music Settlement

The Music Settlement received a $175,529 CAC general operating support grant for its programs, which are offered at both the Settlement’s University Circle Campus and upcoming Ohio City Campus, as well as through outreach locations across the region.

Kaplan says the largest population they serve is people on the autism spectrum or with other developmental disabilities, as well as those with mental health issues. The music therapists also go to schools’ Head Start and special education programs, as well as social service agencies.

“We look for programs that measure progress and impact well-being,” explains Kaplan. “In music therapy, like all creative arts, we’re dealing with goals across all domains."

Domains include perceptual or functional motor skills through playing an instrument, reading music, or hand-eye coordination; physiological responses to and awareness of music; and even relaxation. “Research shows listening to calming music can affect relaxation and pain management,” Kaplan explains. Other domains address behavioral, social, and emotional behavior; communication and language; and cognitive abilities.

Senior outreach Day of the DeadOne of the outreach programs the Settlement supports is May Dugan Center, which also receives a $5,000 CAC project support grant for its senior outreach program as part of its Health and Wellness program. The Music Settlement comes to May Dugan once a week to work with the seniors.

“We launched the program to help reduce isolation,” says May Dugan’s deputy director and senior program coordinator Andy Trares. “Music therapy definitely does that.”

But the program extends beyond just social interaction. “The seniors really love it,” says executive director Rick Kemm. “The Settlement has done a lot for memory and cognition. But they’re also using social interaction, because a lot of the seniors in the program don’t know each other that well.”

The Music Settlement also helped form May Dugan’s Rhythm and Roots Senior Choir, which is well-known during the holidays for its performances at the annual tree lighting ceremony in Ohio City.

One of the Music Settlement’s interactive programs involves a songwriting exercise, in which participants write lyrics to well-known songs. “It could be as simple as filling in the blanks to popular songs, like John Lennon’s ‘Imagine,’” says Kaplan. “Or we could have people who write their own music or their own lyrics.”

May Dugan seniors participated in the program by writing their own lyrics to the song “I’ve Got Rhythm,” replacing the word “rhythm” with “May Dugan.”

Adaptive instrument lessons are another approach, says Kaplan, where oversized guitar picks are used, or a triangle is played on a stand if someone can’t hold it, or even using colors instead of musical notes.

In the case of physical injury or stroke, Kaplan says therapists might “use the music tempo to influence how fast they walk, or work on fluidity.”

The Music Settlement’s music therapy program has far-reaching impact on the region. Last year, its music therapists served 3,900 people, both on campus and through outreach programs in 61 locations.

Read more articles by Karin Connelly Rice.

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.
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