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Drawn to Heal

At a time when there’s seemingly a quick fix pill for any symptom that ails you, Elizabeth Goddard encourages an alternative treatment that sounds more affordable and enjoyable than a trip to the drug store. It’s called art therapy.

Instead of reaching for the medicine cabinet to knock back the stress or get a good night sleep, Goddard, the expressive arts program manager at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts, recommends creative releases like painting, drawing, writing poetry, and even dancing to stimulate the healing process.

In fact, Goddard's 8-week program at the UICA has helped war veterans cope with disability and adapt to everyday life through pottery. It has inspired people to kick substance abuse and learn self-worth through photography. And it has helped teenagers deal with the loss of a loved one by drawing the pain out on the page.

“I love the idea of art therapy and what it really does for people,” Goddard says. “We really work on the inner space of people as opposed to imposing external knowledge.”

Art therapy is an established health profession that uses the creative process of making art to improve and enhance people’s physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing, according the American Art Therapy Association based in Alexandria, Virginia. The treatment is based on the idea that artistic self-expression, channeled effectively, can help reduce stress, resolve conflicts, manage behavior, foster self-esteem, and cultivate new insights.

Programs are typically housed in hospitals, private practices, and community agencies. But, in Grand Rapids, the Urban Institute for Contemporary Art seems to stand out among the leading practitioners.

An Art for Every Ailment
Interestingly, art therapy at the UICA began as a program for adolescent refugees. Goddard worked with kids from Sudan, Mexico, Guatemala, and China to help them acclimate to their new surroundings through writing and telling stories about sense of place. The benefit was so apparent, Goddard says, the immediate reaction was ‘couldn’t we all use some of that.’

The approach has been so successful, in fact, that the corporate sector is taking notice. Businesses see a reasonable and cost effective way to help their employees simultaneously relax and improve work skills through the expressive arts. The new Day Away Program for Professional Women, for instance, aims to help women bring more of their creativity, spirit, and inner experiences into the workplace rather than leaving it all at home.

“We hope to truly broaden program offerings,” Goddard says. “I am a visual artist so I am attracted to that. But one gains a lot more knowledge and insight engaging other art forms as well. This spring we plan to bring in dance, music, and other art modalities.”

Make Your Own Medicine
The goal, she says, is a truly comprehensive art therapy program. Goddard relies on an advisory committee, a diverse mix of professional artists, professors, social workers, and others connected the community, to help shape the program. But she also brings her own personal passion, education, and experience to the work.

“My first experience with art therapy was as a youngster suffering from eating disorders and constantly in and out of the hospital,” Goddard says. “One day the art cart came down the way. It was the first time I put together art and expressing something with real intent and trying to work out something internally through a visual expression.”

Since her childhood days, Goddard has lived all around the country. Maryland. Colorado. Los Angeles. Texas. Oregon. And New Mexico. She followed her husband, a Grand Rapids native, back to West Michigan to raise their young son. Now, after securing an MA in art education and years of journal writing, she’s helping other folks achieve a similar appreciation for the healing power of art.

She leads art therapy classes organized around drawing, painting, and photography, as well as drama, creative writing, and dance. The overall program helps people of all ages and walks of life maintain or improve mental health and emotional well-being. And you need not be an accomplished artist to participate. It’s the creative process, Goddard says, that stimulates the healing. Not necessarily the end product.

“Whatever you make, you make,” she says, referring to ‘no pressure’ studio time.

So close the medicine cabinet and sign up to express yourself. It just might sooth the soul and give you a ‘cutting out paper snowflakes’ kind of childlike meditation.

Nancy Davis is an independent writer and artist living in Grand Rapids. She last wrote for Rapid Growth about leveraging West Michigan's design expertise to accelerate the region's transition to the new economy.


Elizabeth Goddard - a healing hand

Elizabeth Goddard

Detail of a drawing by an art therapy student

Drawing by art therapy student

Photographs by Brian Kelly - All Rights Reserved

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