Art for the sake of self-discovery
Working with the theme "In My World I See …" students reveal their inner landscapes using string painting, a technique in which the artist dips a piece of string 10 to 12 inches long in India ink then presses, drags or swirls the string across the paper. Color is then added using pastels, crayons or watercolors.
Journeys that foster self-discovery are not always easy or pleasant – but can be empowering and liberating, says Elka Kazmierczak, a slender woman with short gray hair and sparkling brown eyes. She seems to vibrate with energy and purpose. At the first meeting of the semester for the Illini Art Therapy Association, Kazmierczak invites participants to take such a journey with her.
Senior Emma Bucher co-founded the Illini Art Therapy Association in 2009. | Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
“I don’t want to go back and see the demon again, but since I have, I can move on,” she tells nearly 60 students who have squeezed into the main room of the Women’s Resources Center.
The theme for that evening’s creative expression – and which Kazmierczak said she hoped would set the tone for the rest of the semester – was for each artist to envision themselves as a hero on a meaningful journey.
“We invite you to see yourself in a phenomenally positive way as you start the semester,” said Kazmierczak, an artist who has exhibited her work in solo and invited shows in galleries throughout the U.S. and abroad.
Before launching into their art that evening, students were urged to share their feelings about it with the people around them, and discuss their pieces when they were done. Kazmierczak gently requested that they not repeat later on what group members revealed about themselves during the workshop.
Excitement – and chatter – filled the room as students, packed around five tables and clustered on the floor around the room, selected media – grabbing paints and brushes, rainbow-hued pastels and markers, charcoals, scissors and various types of paper. Some artists’ creativity was sparked immediately, and they quickly began sketching in bold strokes – trees, clouds, birds, rainbows, faces – and bright or monochromatic shades. Other artists sat pensively for a while, courting their muses, before putting medium to paper.
Above the din of dozens of voices – swapping names, majors, hometowns, opinions about their residence halls and classes, expressing doubts about their artistic merits – Kazmierczak and Emma Bucher, the organization’s president, circulated, greeting regulars and newcomers, stepping gingerly over and around the materials and people scattered on the floor, asking artists to tell them about their creations.
In a workshop held at the University YMCA, students worked in pairs tracing one another's bodies in poses of their choice on large sheets of paper spread on the floor. Using oil pastels and watercolors, the artists applied color, shape, symbols and molvements to the drawings to illustrate their feelings about different parts and aspects of their bodies.. | Photo sumbitted
Meeting the first, third and fifth Monday of each month in the Women’s Resources Center, above a bank and in view of the Alma Mater at the corner of Green and Wright streets, participants are given a theme at the beginning of each session to inspire and focus their creative energy. When they’re done working, group members share their creations with each other and discuss the experiences and feelings that inspired them.
No art-making experience is required – the facilitators guide participants through the process of making art as a means for reflecting on their lives, making sense of the present and reconnecting with their emotions and goals.
Bucher, a 21-year-old senior with a dual major in psychology and painting, and Kazmierczak, who holds a bachelor’s and two master’s degrees in art fields and is pursuing a doctorate in education, co-founded the group 2 1/2 years ago when they were classmates in an advanced psychology course about therapy.
“During my studio practice, we would stay up all night in the studios creating art and talking,” Bucher said. She wanted to make that experience – relaxing, sharing and bonding over self-expressive work – available to students all over campus.
When Bucher expressed interest in starting an artists’ group to the professor teaching the psychology course, the professor introduced her to Kazmierczak, who had trained in using art as a healing tool with battered women and girls in California. Kazmierczak founded the art4empowerment program at the Women’s Center Inc. in Carbondale, Ill., in fall 2004 and facilitated workshops at the Rape Advocacy, Counseling and Education Services center in Urbana.
A collage of preprinted colored paper illustrates what self-love means to one artist. | Photo submitted
“Art has always been my private outlet,” said Kazmierczak, who was introduced to the healing power of art at a social services agency when she sought help breaking away from the cycle of domestic violence. “I am committed to showing a way for empowerment of women. I’m against art being isolated from life, from being over-intellectualized,” and the exclusive domain of professional artists. “We need to bring art back and make it a part of life.”
Escape from the daily grind of academe was what drew Breanna Blisset, 19, of Chicago, a first-timer, to the workshop. Although the semester was only in its second full week, she was already feeling the pressure – and wanted to do something creative and fun to blow off steam.
“I wanted to get away and do something other than schoolwork,” said Blisset, a sophomore who interns at a campus radio station, WPGU; plans to apply to the College of Media; and hopes to work in broadcast journalism after graduation.
The portrait that she quickly sketched during the workshop depicted a young woman with her mouth wide open, frozen in a scream.
“The girl is a superhero in that she uses her words as power; she uses her voice to create a better life,” Blisset explained. Various hues, representing the important people in the girl’s life, swirled around the girl’s head.
“The art therapy group gives students of all genders the opportunity to speak about grief, trauma and loss and create a therapeutic environment,” said Rachel Storm, the center’s programs coordinator. “We receive comments from students about how much they love the group.”
During the "I am tree" workshop, artists were asked to depict themselves as trees, creating trunks, branches and roots in media of their choice. Participants were encouraged to identify the significant people and elements of their lives that give them strength and rootedness. The artwork shown was a collage composed of preprinted colored papers. | Photo submitted
Every year, one of the group’s workshops focuses on the trauma of domestic violence and sexual assault. Some of past participants’ art work was included in an exhibition titled “Healing Hearts” held during April, which is Sexual Assault Awareness month.
Creating art helped Zack Berent, a 20-year-old junior from Chicago, deal with difficult emotions and uncertainty, including a friend’s struggles with despair and thoughts of suicide last year. In grappling with his feelings about his friend’s troubles, Berent drew a bridge, which linked the problems on one side of the chasm with possible solutions on the opposite bank.
“The whole point is, we don’t teach about art therapy,” Kazmierczak told participants at the start of the session, explaining that her role would be, instead, that of a coach. “I’m inviting you to do something I propose, but it’s up to you to decide what works for you. You have no obligation to anyone other than yourself.”
Perhaps regaining a sense of empowerment through art is part of the group’s appeal for some students, who may feel that they have little control over their daily lives, ruled as they are by course syllabi, work and class schedules, and other commitments.
Berent enjoys the opportunity that the studio sessions offer to break away from the rigors of engineering and exercise the neurons in the right hemisphere of his brain for a change.
“As an engineering mechanics major, I rarely get the chance to express my creative side,” said Berent, who is the group’s treasurer this year. “In the fundamental years of the curriculum, there is always one right answer,” and creativity doesn’t enter in until students reach the design level.
Nurturing his imagination through art therapy may give him a competitive edge over his peers, Berent added.
Encouraged to dig deep within themselves, the artists sometimes create things that surprise themselves. Among students who are regulars, the facilitators see their work evolve – beginning perhaps with stark black and white images and over time blossoming into rich colors, bolder strokes and larger formats.
A member of an art club in high school, Berent enjoys sketching with colored pencils. When it’s his turn to share his drawing, he explains that his personal hero would be someone “really scientific who is interested in pushing the limits of what can be done, what is possible, in engineering and medicine.”
Leading his audience through the series of images in his drawing, Berent says that he depicted songs from different periods in his life and how those songs influenced him and helped him endure.