ART THERAPISTS MAKING THINGS HAPPEN!
Shan Ru Lin
Shan Ru Lin is a Board-Certified Art Therapist (ATR-BC), and a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC) in Chicago, Illinois. She earned an MA in Creative Arts in Therapy from Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA. Prior to her MA, Shan finished an undergraduate art therapy concentration study at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia, PA. Her professional experience includes work with juvenile sex offenders, adults in psychiatric hospitals, trauma-informed practice in community social service settings for adult women, sexual assault counseling for adults and children, studio-based art therapy, and art therapy consulting in a school setting.
For the last three years Shan has been working in Chicago with women in homelessness. Part of her program is offered from a dedicated art therapy room. Overtime, it became apparent to Shan that the art room itself is an instrument of art therapy. Shan believes art therapy services should be site specific and tailored to the clients of each specific program. For her clients at the homeless service agency for women, the art room is not only a creative environment, but a safe space within the agency at large. Shan maintains its consistency. The Art therapy room is a symbolic container, a therapeutic and consistent place within an ever-changing environment. While practicing in the art room, Shan contemplates the intersection of power, poverty, wealth, and social justice. Shan believes treatment and critical programing decisions are made by understanding the contextual meaning of who the art therapist is for the clients, and what the art therapy program means to the clients. These contemplations inform her approach to the art room and how she crafts a space based therapeutic message.
The art therapy room, nestled in a social service agency that offers the bulk of its service in open milieu settings, provides a space for containment. In trauma informed care, creating predictability is imperative in helping clients gain a sense of safety. The way the art materials and artworks are stored and displayed all convey a message to clients about the therapeutic opportunities present within the space. There is space for storage and a sink for washing. The hard surface of the floor and table are simple to clean and a way to convey the message that this room is ok to get messy in.
A large amount of donations come through this room. Shan makes deliberate decisions to select art materials that are appropriate for female adult clients who suffered significant trauma. Over time, her clients have co-created the space with her as their continued feedback helped her shape the room into something that works for them.
Shan designed the room to speak the non-verbal language of playfulness, diversity, inclusion, calmness and serenity. There is space to be, to play, to talk, and be heard. In addition, she has learned a great deal about the artworks she displays and how it impacts her clients. In consideration of what can be most useful to clients of diverse culture, background, and history, she tends to use nature-based elements, color wheels, color mixing charts, common symbols, geometric shapes, and often, the colors of the rainbow. Basic artistic elements embedded in these colors and shapes are often used as a reference for the artwork the clients are trying to work through. The use of “contrasting colors” is often useful as clients look to create more dynamics in their artworks. Universal symbols such as objects in nature and basic man-made things like houses often evoke rich conversations of client’s association with personal memories. Examples of artworks such as tissue paper flowers arranged in harmonious colors are used to decorate the room. They serve both as artwork samples and examples of color harmony.
Art materials are routinely displayed and accessible for clients to encourage creativity, control, and autonomy—another aspect of trauma-informed care. Clients in homelessness often feel disempowered and overpowered by their environment. The set-up of the art room is meant to encourage clients’ self-expression and ideas. Having a sense of control to one’s environment can be therapeutic and empowering. Fabrics are arranged in gradations of colors to invite and stimulate creativity. Yarn, knitting needles and painting supplies are made available so clients are free to gather them from around the room during art making.Part of maintaining the art room is sorting art material donations. Shan manages those materials and maintains good condition so the materials are appropriate for her clients. She conveys respect to clients by offering materials that are respectable. While not everything offered is new, those appropriate for their age, gender, dexterity, sensory ability, and with good design are kept and offered. All art materials are selected with the user in mind so the artistic experience itself can be as therapeutic as possible. Some of the art materials and projects, while durable and well designed, require several sessions to complete. The sense of time for those living in stable housing with their basic needs met is essentially different than those without stable housing who are constantly seeking to meet their basic needs. Art materials and projects that require a commitment longer than three sessions are often less attractive for this client population.
The art room, as a therapeutic space, has been a place for clinical contemplation in the context of social complexity. Overtime, Shan learned that the label “homelessness” is an overgeneralization of complex social problems. The lack of a home is a manifestation of systemic issues that have deep roots in the American history. Shan’s clients are personally affected by Redlining, Jim Crow, systemic racism, low wages, lack of a social safety net, crime, sexual assault, fraud, and other complex historical traumas. With this knowledge, art materials offered for art therapy in this setting tend to be more structured to compensate for the shuttered internal and external structures clients experience. Part of her goal is to offer clients a sense of restoration, opportunities for mastery, experiences of success and completion, and a sense of being protected and contained within a safe environment. Unstructured art materials are always available, however, in this environment, her clients do better when art materials offer inherent structure through material durability and pre-determined forms. Art in this context may offer what society has not. By experiencing structure and mastery, her clients have a place to rediscover what’s still possible after everything they have lost.
The physical boundary of the art room is part of the therapy. After trying to run closed groups for a period, Shan realized that the open studio format works the best for her clients who often have other priorities besides art therapy. Shan’s service to clients is best utilized when the art room is open on schedule for clients who choose to enter. Challenging experiences may be worked through while creating a piece of artwork while talking to the therapist. Verbal processing is offered at the clients’ pace and readiness. For clients who don’t have a home, the art room also serves as a literal “holding environment” where she stores and holds their artwork in the hope that they will soon find stable housing.
Time boundaries are kept in order to create consistency over time. Shan is mindful not to change her schedule for the sake of variety or adding interest. To maximize the benefit for clients, it’s the best if multiple things can be accomplished from one trip to the agency. Shan keeps the schedule consistent over time so some clients can plan to attend according to what works for them in any given week. It may be easy for middle-class people to take for granted the convenience provided by smartphones and access to transportation. When clients in homelessness don’t have the same agility simply due to the lack of funds for transportation or a reliable phone, a reliable therapist and art room schedule are intentional services directed towards their needs.
For the predominantly female clientele, the art room has been transformed to respond to the type of art process that clients find most meaningful. Her clients frequently asked for yarn, which led to her calling for a “yarn drive”. The result was successful, and the art room is stacked with yarn to allow for continuous creativity.
The process of requesting donations led Shan to think a lot about international trade and how that trade connects to social justice. Shan reads and looks at the labels of yarn to see where they originated. Some are old, based on the smell and the label. Some are freshly purchased from a store. Overtime, the donations piece together a picture that tell the story of how manufacturing had shifted from the United States to overseas. Items that look like they were made in the 70s or 80s, based on the font, color, and discoloration of the plastic, are often made in the United States. Newer materials, especially those of artificial fiber, are often made in China. Other countries that raise sheep and have a tradition of making fabric out of wool, are often the suppliers of natural fibers. Countries like Peru, Ukraine, are often where 100% wool yarn were originated. Cotton yarn are often found to be from India.
Contemplation about these materials led Shan to think about economics and women’s power in the world. Her clients are often offered job opportunities that pay minimum wage and won’t lift them out of poverty. Shan considers the human behind the art materials that have found their way to the art room from around the world. At times, signs of excess that exist in our society are evident in the donated clothing, household items, and art materials. In the same neighborhood, city, society and system which provides these donated items exists our clients who don’t have housing, appropriate mental health care, means for transportation, and predictable meals. Social injustice can be so glaring and overwhelming when one becomes aware of it. It requires mindfulness to focus on what is immediately doable for her client seeking art therapy. Shan feels compelled to use her power as an educator, therapist, and a witness to speak about these issues. From this lens, Shan sees that the work art therapists do should not only about using an art room designated for trauma-informed art therapy, but a collective social-justice informed practice so art therapists can make therapeutic spaces a better place for everyone.
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