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Art Therapy Offers Outlet for Creative Expression

Whether it’s finding a new passion, rebuilding a career or coping with emotions, the art therapy program serves creative and practical purposes.

From painting and drawing to pottery and photography, patients at Shepherd Center have many ways to express their creativity through the hospital’s art therapy program.

Arts specialists Phoebe Whisnant, M.A., ATR, and Alex Chukabarah, M.S., who oversee the art therapy program work with all patient populations: spinal cord injury (SCI), acquired brain injury (ABI), as well as those in the SHARE Military Initiative and Multiple Sclerosis Institute. They also try to accommodate every artistic interest.

“We use all kinds of mediums, and if we don’t have it, we do everything we can to either get it while the patient is still at Shepherd or provide resources to help them find it when they get home,” Chukabarah says. “We may not be able to meet every need, but if there’s a way we can get the materials, we will.”

Art therapy is part of Shepherd Center’s expansive Recreation Therapy (RT) Department and shares the overall goal of rec therapy – helping patients return to what they were doing before their injury while also discovering new interests.

Beyond serving as an outlet for creative expression, art therapy also has practical purposes. For example, if a patient is working on a specific goal, such as upper-extremity range of motion, painting can be a helpful intervention. Art therapy also is beneficial for patients who are looking to learn a new activity after their injury. They can learn how to use adaptive equipment, such as a mouth stick or a paintbrush attached to a wrist cuff. Art therapy also has positive psychological and emotional benefits, including increased self-esteem and self-awareness.

“We use art materials to express ideas, thoughts and feelings,” Chukabarah says. “Art is a nonverbal form of communication. We don’t interpret the art, but we can go back and reflect on the piece. We help them gain insight by asking the right questions.”

Chukabarah remembers a patient with a spinal cord injury who came in the art room and wanted to paint, even though he had never painted before.

“He chose a picture of a lion,” she recalls. “He was hesitant and struggled in the beginning, but as he gained control and strength, his mood brightened as the painting progressed. The process drastically improved his self-image. It was inspiring to see.”

In 2015, the department created a visiting artist program in which patients who are artists return to teach workshops.

“Not only do they get an art lesson, but it’s a great form of peer support,” Whisnant says. “They see someone thriving who has been in the exact same position that they are. It’s inspiring for them, and it’s so rewarding for us to see that.”

Whisnant and Chukabarah say that the benefits of the art therapy program include the life-affirming pleasure of making art, as well as the opportunity for patients to discover new solutions to problems and creative coping strategies that can be applied to all facets of their lives. All of it is part of the process, which, they say, they get just as much out of as the budding artists.

“The patients here are on a journey to rebuild their lives,” Whisnant says, “We are proud to be part of that journey.”

By Sara Baxter

About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.