Emotional access through art

Art therapy has been used in Kingston prisons to help inmates access suppressed memories and emotions

Local art therapist Sister Kay Morrell often has clients use a landscape setting to illustrate how they see themselves. According to Morrell, artistic talent is unnecessary for art therapy.
Local art therapist Sister Kay Morrell often has clients use a landscape setting to illustrate how they see themselves. According to Morrell, artistic talent is unnecessary for art therapy.

Artwork can have more than just an aesthetic effect.

Art therapy is a form of psychotherapy that uses the creation of art to facilitate self-exploration and understanding. Participants use colours, shapes and imagery to express their feelings on subjects they can’t verbally articulate.

Beth Merriam worked in the Kingston Prison for Women as an art therapist from 1992 until the prison’s closure in 2000.

According to Merriam, in verbal therapy inmate’s words would sometimes become jumbled as they spoke about experiences.

“A lot of them were suffering from mental illnesses or they weren’t receiving adequate treatments so they were unable to participate in verbal therapy,” she said.

While Merriam’s services were sometimes requested, often the prison’s nurses and psychologists would tell her which inmates would likely benefit from art therapy.

Her contract only required her to work a few hours a week, but as art therapy became more popular through word of mouth, she worked up to 20 hours a week.

Merriam said her job was initially overwhelming due to the wide range of personal conflicts among inmates, issues stemming from mental illnesses, sexual and substance abuse, self-injury and suicidal thoughts.

“Most women in prison had experienced a lot of trauma and grief in their lifetime. It had piled up over the years so they had difficulty managing their emotions, so they would turn to using substances or other things to escape from society,” she said.

Merriam was hired by Corrections Canada to work in the special needs unit after several prisoners committed suicide in prison.

Working at the prison was Merriam’s first job after graduating with her art therapy degree from the Toronto Art Therapy Institute, a private career college

There are no professional art therapists on staff in Kingston prisons now, but Correction Services Canada runs volunteer-based arts and crafts programs with inmates.

Merriam said art therapy allows individuals to reconnect with their emotions in a safe way while she looks for themes in patients’ artwork. Art therapy can reveal issues associated with trauma, eating disorders and parents’ divorce, she said.

The use of colours like black and red are indicators of anger.

“A lot of them had experienced a lot of anger,” said Merriam, adding that many inmates were mothers and would draw happier times with their families.

“Even in drawing images of the outside world, there would be a window with bars.”

Painting, drawing and clay sculpture can all be used in art therapy, and patients can choose what type of artwork they’d like to work on.

Merriam said something as simple as a patient’s choice of tool can indicate their thought processes. For instance, women with eating disorders often choose pencils, markers or other forms of restrictive art mediums to create straight lines. This demonstrates a need for control, Merriam said.

“Over the years I have observed a lot of art and it’s not the symbols or images people draw, it’s the way people go about art,” she said, adding that someone with psychosis may create disorganized piece.

Therapeutic value is found through informal conversation between an art therapist and patient as the patient creates a work, Merriam said.

“Often in a conversation people share some lighter ... things that is helpful therapeutically, so in a following session we will talk about the theme as they are working,” she said, adding that oftentimes the theme will appear in the patient’s creation.

In a 1998 article published in the Women and Therapy journal, Merriam reveals her memorable interactions with inmates.

Merriam writes about a 24-year-old woman named Grace who was diagnosed with a personality disorder. Merriam describes the inmate as violent and self-destructive. Grace also assaulted a staff member and attempted to murder a fellow inmate, resulting in the patient’s placement in isolation.

According to Merriam, prison isolation contributed to the patient’s depression, despair and anxiety about social contact.

Although the patient was unable to recall any childhood memories in verbal therapy, her artwork in art therapy always had a childlike theme, suggesting a desire to return to simpler times, Merriam said.

Group therapy sessions allow isolated inmates to be in a social setting, Merriam said.

“This way art was able to sort of normalize the situation,” she said. “It’s a different atmosphere. The women there were quite isolated from the world, from each other.”

According to Merriam, the biggest misconceptions about conducting art therapy in a prison setting are safety-related.

“For the most part, I felt that the inmates were excited to try it out … I never had an incident. I think they valued art therapy and felt like they were being heard,” she said.

Merriam said her attention and interest in inmates’ artwork ultimately allowed her to connect more with them.

“Someone was willing to sit with them for an hour or so and listen to them and take interest in what they had to say,” she said, adding that she noticed small aesthetic improvements in inmates’ artwork over time.

Though many of her patients used art therapy for self-exploration and understanding, Merriam said several enjoyed creating art for art’s sake. Many inmates chose to keep the artwork they created in prison.

“It wasn’t always about a symbol or the meaning of something. You want to be able to bolster their confidence and not break it down and make it vulnerable as it happens in therapy sometimes,” she said.

Merriam said she saw the benefits of art therapy for inmates.

“The goal was to increase their level of functioning so they could manage the day-to-day tasks in prison,” she said. “There were certain improvements in that aspect, they became interested in things because art gave them feedback on their decisions and peaked their interest.”

A different kind of therapist

Sister Kay Morrell is a licensed art therapist and currently practices at The Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul on Princess Street. She said though there’s a need for the profession, it doesn’t pay well and there aren’t a lot of jobs available.

When she first moved to Kingston in 2005, Morrell said she sent over 100 resumes out and had approximately 50 responses.

“They would say, ‘Oh we would love to have you, can you volunteer?’ So there weren’t a lot of fulltime opportunities,” she said, adding her previous experience as a secretary, teacher and T’ai Chi Chih instructor helped her secure her first job at a hospital.

According to Morrell, art therapy offers a different kind of emotional outlet than verbal therapy.

“We are so used to using words that often they become a barrier in expressing oneself because we’ve built our own defense mechanism into our verbal presentation,” she said.

Art therapy allows patients to express their inner psyche on paper or canvas, Morrell said, adding that people of any age can use the practice for recreational purposes or self-healing.

“Art therapy works well for people who don’t have artistic skills … the purpose is that you are using a different channel [than speaking],” she said. “They are not trying to make it look good or pretty, they are just letting it out on the page.”

Morrell’s clientele range from age 20 to 80, who come to her for everyday problems like anxiety and stress.

Morrell’s art therapy sessions last for 75 minutes each. There are different types of art therapy to choose from, she said.

The program Atop the Mountain asks clients to reflect on their life and make an artwork in a landscape setting as a metaphor of how they see themselves. As the artwork is created Morrell observes how the client creates their artwork and conducts a therapeutic conversation, she said.

“I like to connect with them through the art as opposed to words,” she said.

Because art therapists don’t receive government funding, patients have to pay for the service, Morrell said. But since art therapy is growing in recognition and seen as a successful form of psychotherapy, this might change.

“The Ontario government has decided to regulate the profession,” she said. “In a couple of year’s time art therapists will have to be registered with the government.”


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