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Healing the Artist: The Role of Art Therapy

An exhibit of fabric tapestries currently on display at Jewish Museum Milwaukee amounts to a rare public opportunity to see art therapy in action.

Fabric of Survival: The Art of Esther Nisenthal Krinitz features three dozen works. They were created by Krinitz to preserve her story of escaping Nazi-occupied Poland as a child during the Holocaust and share it with her family. Years later, the late Krinitz and her daughters decided to share the story with the world.

Credit Mitch Teich
Jim Tasse, co-director of Feast of Crispian, and Emily Nolan, director of the Bloom Center for Art and Integrative Therapies.

But the art that emerges through the process of art therapy is not always - or even typically - created to be seen by the public.  In fact, says art therapist Emily Nolan, the end result is less important than what her clients are able to accomplish through the therapy itself.

"It's process-oriented," she explains, "which can be a bit of a trick because it's counter-cultural.  We're mostly product oriented in our culture.  And of course people come in, and they're worried about how their artwork looks.

"And we say, 'That's totally normal for you to want it to look good, but just so you know, I'm not judging you for your artistic ability, and it doesn't have to look good.'"

Nolan, who holds a doctorate in art therapy and is director of the Bloom Center for Art and Integrated Therapies, is one of three people who will talk about the role of art therapy at a forum in conjunction with the museum's exhibit. 

That panel also includes Jim Tasse, the co-director of The Feast of Crispian, a non-profit that connects professional actors with post-deployment service veterans to help the veterans reintegrate into civilian life and work through traumatic experiences.  They do that through performing Shakespeare's plays.

Tasse says he sees many similarities between the work he does with veterans and the trauma survivors Nolan helps. "I think it's possible for art to be a place where it's safe to be frightened," he explains.  "And so as we work with veterans in various stages of reintegration and addiction issues, one of the points that became clear was a shutdown of emotions." 

He pointed to actors' abilities to tap into their own "stuff" to capture a role.  "And so with veterans, our idea was, what if we play? What if we pretend and hide behind the mask of the character and still allow the emotions to come up?  And when you get a chance to taste [emotion]," Tasse says, "even as Brutus [from "Julius Caesar"] - as somebody else - it's still your stuff." 

Tasse says sometimes that means veterans are still channeling Brutus, even long after they leave the stage.  Nolan says her clients have the option of sharing their art with the world, keeping it private or not even taking it home with them - if it represents a part of their life that is too painful.  "That's where it comes in that the studio becomes the keeper of it - the holder of that emotion and what's attached to that art object," she explains.

Credit courtesy Jewish Museum Milwaukee
Patti Sherman-Cisler, director of Jewish Museum Milwaukee

These issues will not apparent to everyone who views Krinitz's fabric collages. But Patti Sherman-Cisler, director of Jewish Museum Milwaukee, thinks the exhibit - and its series of accompanying events - shine an important light on art therapy.

"We talked about how this art was not only documenting [Krinitiz's] life, but it was cathartic for her in working through her trauma," she says.  "And that led us to talk about what community resources are out there for people in Milwaukee to work through their traumatic experiences?"