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Art therapists devise innovative project for addiction patients

December 31, 2013
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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From pairs of used shoes, Rosecrance Health Network recently hit on that rare idea that can turn into a meaningful experience for adult patients, adolescent patients, and program staff alike.

Patients at Rosecrance’s adult and adolescent campuses in Illinois used staff-donated shoes as blank canvases on which to tell their life stories or relate their future hopes through art. Patients then saw their work displayed in a gallery show that generated extreme pride for both the patients and the Rosecrance workforce.

“The patients were eager to explain why they did what they did,” says Jada Miller, art therapist at Rosecrance’s adult Harrison Campus. For staff, seeing patients’ stories depicted in this way reminded them, “This is why I do this [work],” Miller says.

Origin of idea

Jennifer Thammavong, an art therapist at Rosecrance’s adolescent Griffin Williamson campus, explains that the concept for the project called “Walk a Mile in Our Shoes” grew out of the desire to learn more about each patient in order to deliver better care. From that came a discussion of the patient’s “life path,” and thus the concept of a shoe project as a component of art therapy.

“We’re always doing crazy stuff,” adds Miller in reference to the activities in the art therapy groups at Rosecrance. “We tell the patients, ‘You’re going to be out of your comfort zone when you come into one of these groups.’”

Once the pair of art therapists collected donated shoes from staff members, they decided the footwear would be painted white so that it would serve as a blank canvas for each patient. “Even the painting of the shoes was a stress reliever,” says Miller. “Some of the guys in the program helped with it.”

Each patient then was able to select a style of shoe, whether it be tennis shoes, high heels, boots, or something else. They were instructed simply to use acrylic paint and mixed media (glitter, pipe cleaners, etc.) to share something about their life that they would want others to know.

Some patients traced their addiction history while others focused more on the here-and-now. A number of patients used the back of their shoes to depict the beginning of their story, moving forward to the toe to describe their life today. Of course, there is no right or wrong approach with such exercises, and the learning comes more from the message than the medium.

“They worked on the project for a week to a week-and-a-half,” says Miller. “We told them to focus on whatever they felt they needed for the day.”

Showcasing the work

The art therapists consider every creation by patients to be a clinical document and part of the recovery process. For these patients, an additional boost came from having these works displayed in an on-site gallery show that adhered to the traditions of such events in the art world.

“Many of the clients wrote artists’ statements to go with their work,” says Thammavong. “In reading some of the comments of their peers, in many cases it made them step back and appreciate what they had.” In addition, for the younger patients, seeing adults’ experiences helped them realize how difficult their lives could get if they stayed on a self-defeating path.

Rosecrance likely will try the shoe project again, Thammavong and Miller say, as it offers some variety from an art standpoint and also engages patients because they do not have to create art completely from scratch—the shoes already are an aesthetically pleasing item with which to work.

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