How can art help you heal trauma?
Transcript from the Take an Art Break Podcast Episode
Preparing. I think we’re gonna be long.
Okay. And, hi everybody. We’re back.
<Laugh>. Okay, great. All right, we got it. Oh, welcome. Welcome to Take an Art Break podcast. Today we’re here with Gretchen Miller. Hello. Yes. So excited. We’ve been, we interviewed you by email, like I think in 2006 or 2008, cuz it seems like we are right on the same page, so we’re I’d love that. It’s kind of like a, a circle coming to in 2021.
Yeah. So we’d love just you to introduce yourself to the audience and you know who you are, what do you do, and what’s your passion.
Yeah. thank you all for having me. I super appreciate it and I agree that it feels very much full circle from the early days of when our paths sort of crossed and sort of doing this now. So thank you. So I live in northeast Ohio in the Cleveland area. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, I am a practicing art therapist. I’ve been practicing a little over 20 years. Wow. And I’ve mostly worked with youth and adolescents, but I’ve also worked with adults and women. A lot of the populations or settings that I’ve worked in throughout the years are connected to work that is trauma-informed or com trauma sort of focused. And really art is a great way to kind of use in the, the art therapy work that I do in that capacity.
And outside of art therapy I enjoy making my own art <laugh> I, yes. Which I think is very important within the practice of art therapy and being connected to your creative self. I also teach art therapy as an adjunct and do different kind of workshops and sort of classes. What I’m most passionate about in addition to art therapy is definitely technology. Oh. And the use of social media and kind of virtual kind of environments and platforms to really share your interests and things that are important to you and your values and sort of letting the world know those things. So yeah, that’s kind of it in a nutshell, I feel like. Yeah.
That’s awesome. I feel like, yeah, you are intertwined into a lot of communities and subjects and I think that’s awesome. And given all that and given your experience and your professional experience and personal experience and everything like that, that we thought we would start the conversation off asking you the question, how can art help you heal? A trauma or just trauma in general?
Yeah, definitely. Was thinking a lot about this question and thinking about the work that I have done with different populations, youth, adults, and feeling that trauma is an ongoing process, you know, like managing trauma mm-hmm. <Affirmative> sometimes it doesn’t get sort of wrapped up sort of in a bow, you know, like that. It’s all good now, you know. I feel like a lot of the work that I’ve done within art therapy is, is helping the individuals or groups that I work with be able to manage or cope with or navigate sort of the world or life or the experiences they’ve had in living with kind of what has impacted them. So art I think is a great kind of way to create sort of self-soothing and kind of regulation and mindfulness and giving your attention to that present moment versus, you know, like your mind sort of wandering to like the past or, you know, kind of racing into the future, which can happen.
Art can really help center us and ground us. And being able to focus in that way can, I think, be really valuable for managing traumatic experiences or situations or stresses that your experiencing. I think if you notice that art is something that is very helpful for you or you have a strong sort of response to it kind of connecting with an art therapist to sort of work with who can then sort of really advance and kind of deeply like work specifically like connected to the trauma then I think could be also very beneficial. Versus just kind of the, you know, artist therapy just using art sort of in itself Right. To kind of help kind of create calmness and sort of that grounding. Yeah.
I know what you said about cuz I think it is, I think I even think that way sometimes too. You have a trauma, you kind of work through it, you work with somebody and then you tie a bow upon it, you know what I mean? And then it should be done, it should be over. Right. And I think this is what we believe as a society is, you know, once I go to, you know, get, do the work, it’s all I’m fine. You know what I mean? And all of a sudden, boom, you hit, you know, you hit the, you hit the bottom. Yeah.
I would really love to know, and if you could tell our audience, and even, I mean, everybody’s traumatized in this whole world, especially with Covid and I mean, we’re just no one’s, no one can get out of without trauma. Right. <laugh>. So what I would love for you to share was how, how do you gently guide people through art therapy to make it a daily practice or to a go-to when I am stressed out or a go-to when I do hit that bottom and that trigger comes back and I feel the post-traumatic stress disorder, I’d like to know about that. Mm-Hmm.
<Affirmative>. Yeah. I think creating a a sense of like, safety is really important, whether that’s like a, a safe place a safe kind of visualization or image that kind of grounds you in feeling safe to either kind of focus on before beginning mm-hmm. <Affirmative>, you know, what you’re gonna be working on, or in times that you’re feeling maybe a little dysregulated or anxious or, or just having kind of a hard time. Sometimes being able to ground yourself in a safe place. Mm-Hmm. <Affirmative> is really the first place or step mm-hmm. <Affirmative> in kind of doing more work or continuing to, to keep doing that sort of work.
Yeah. One, one tech, one technique I like that I think it might, is something that’s easy to remember, at least for me personally, is you look for something you can smell. Right. Something
Yeah. The senses. Yes. I
Love, I love that one for a really quick grounding exercise mm-hmm. <Affirmative>, because I, I think you’re right. I think when you’re, cuz if you’re at that edge and you are going either down like into that deep sort of worry depression or up into that sort of manic like racing brain you can’t like just pick up a paint. I mean, I think some people do pick up a paintbrush when they have that tendency and when they’ve basically kind of trained themselves to do that. But if you’re at the beginning stage of this, I think grounding, I think that’s a really great point that grounding exercises are a really good place to start. So yeah. Go through that 5 cents thing for us real quick.
Yeah. This, the senses are super helpful. So, you know, being able to visually sort of see something and, and looking in the environment of that, like five of those things and maybe four things that you can hear like sound. And then three things that you can touch and hmm. Two things that you can smell. And then also taste, you know, one, one thing that you could maybe kind of taste and take in when we engage our senses, which really where trauma is sort of stored or mm-hmm. <Affirmative> kind of remember versus kind of the top of our kind of brain, the sort of our top of the, the cortex of our brain is very developed and very cognitive based and very focused on language and words. And trauma is very much like at a lower part of our brain where senses kind of live and imagery and being able to communicate without words, which is why art therapy or the senses are doing creative expression can kind of tap into those things a lot easier or safer or feel like less threatening because you don’t need the, the cognitive part or the cognitive part is just completely not accessible.
Mm-Hmm. <Affirmative>. So senses can be a great way to ground yourself. And then also the senses can be something that also can be triggering too, right? Because we remember, you know, like, we smell something or we see something or we hear something, you know, and it kind of brings you your memory kind of back to sort of that. So the senses are, are so very powerful for that. And art being a sensory-based sort of use, you know, of expression so powerful for that
Mm-Hmm. <Affirmative>. Yeah. It’s really a somatic expression, right? Mm-Hmm. <Affirmative> that you gotta, you gotta get it into the body. But what comes up for me is like, because, you know, I think what Lauren is alluding to, maybe you don’t have to sit down with a pen and paper. Maybe you can do things that are not like your traditional art mm-hmm. Concepts
Mm-Hmm. <Affirmative>, yeah. Yes. Mm-hmm.
<Affirmative>, right? Yeah. And, and I think that’s that’s a myth that kind of needs to be busted because when people think of making art or art therapy, I’m gonna go in there, I’m gonna, you know, <laugh> draw my
Portrait. I, yeah. It’s, it’s, yeah, you’re right, Lisa. It’s this misconception of even about what art therapy is or what it can be for the individual. And I, and I do think that art is a very, what’s so magical to me about art, there’s so many things that are magical about art to me, but it’s that it’s an individual experience while also being a universal experience at all in the same time. And so I think that art therapy and creating art around trauma are, are that as well. It’s that you, you have to find, you have to find what works for you. And I think that some people can pick up a, a, a paintbrush. I mean, that’s what you did, Lisa, right? Yes. Paint, it was your sort of savior. But it’s not everybody’s savior. Right. Some people need to you know, take a walk in the woods on a daily basis Yeah. Nature. Yeah. And notice how the tree, the sound of the trees sound, or they need to Yeah. And I guess, you know, our, our our definition of our definition of art, and I know it’s not everybody’s definition of art is very fluid and very broad. And I think it should be that way because I, I think that there’s more room for more people and more Yeah. More benefit from that. Yeah.
Yeah. Yeah. And I, I think that there’s like making art and doing art, which I think a lot of times people may go to, you know, right. When you mention art, you know, and sometimes people are like, oh, I’m not an artist. I can’t like, make anything or I can’t do anything. But, but also there’s the, you know, participating like, even like viewing art, like going to a museum or a gallery or an event. And just participating in the arts or engaging in, in some way. And art isn’t always visual. It’s music, it’s dance, it’s movement, it’s drama. There’s so many different ways of expression. Even, you know, how you dress your hair, you know, how you cook garden. I mean, there’s so many ways that creativity can come out. And that’s really valuable too, for self soothing and mindfulness and helping regulate our emotions and yeah. Also our thoughts. Definitely.
Is there something that you do on a, I mean, I know you create every day. You’re, you’re very big and part of that movement, you’ve been part of that movement as long as, or if longer than us. Is there something that you do personally every day to you know, as your art break?
Yeah. My daily creative practice has kind of slowed. I was doing a lot of 365 projects for probably like a, about a five years or so. And that practice, like every single sort of day or a project kind of connected to that, I haven’t done that in in a formal kind of sense. But when I create art on a regular basis I try to just kind of let myself kind of organically let things develop. Cause I can be a huge over thinker. And even though I maybe not, don’t have a really specific plan in mind like judging, you know, while it’s being created mm-hmm. <Affirmative> and just sort of like, let it happen. And so I enjoy using watercolor a lot and the fluid kind of nature of that. And also just putting the paint onto the surface mm-hmm. <Affirmative>,
Like with the water and just kind of watching the paint kind of just kind of spread out or engage with the water and just being very mindful sort of to that versus, oh, I’m gonna create and paint like this sort of picture, you know? Right. Sometimes it’s just slowing things down in that way. And then also I really enjoy doing things with like, patterns and designs like untangling or, I mean, that is a, a really I dunno, like regulating kind of process for me to participate in when I ha and it’s super simple. Doesn’t take like a lot of time sort of to do that. Yeah, I know the projects that I did, the 365 projects, one of the things that was really important was that they were kind of manageable and kind of small. I did a lot of things on really kind of small or index cards sort of size or artist trading card size, so it wouldn’t seem so overwhelming and I could do that. Versus like a big canvas or even an eight and a half by 11 sheet of paper just kind of seem too.
Yeah. Yeah. So I’m hear, I’m hearing like not a lot of ti you know, short amount of time mm-hmm. <Affirmative> in a small work is how you were able to consistently mm-hmm. <Affirmative> create. Yeah, yeah,
Yeah. And having like almost like a, a pouch or a kit or something that I can carry around mm-hmm. <Affirmative> which is really basic simple materials. So whether I’m sitting at the doctor’s office or wherever, you know, you can like pull that out and just start working, you know, I don’t need, it’s my super fancy creative space. I mean, it’s nice for sure, but, you know, I can kind of do this anywhere on the plane, you know I’ve travel as much now with Covid, but yeah. But you know, I’ve kind of, you know, taken that out. And it’s been helpful. Definitely. Yeah.
That’s cool. What I’m, I love, I mean, I, this conversation is great, but what I’m hearing we’re like, we’re kind of re reclaiming art and it’s art is about being in the present moment or mindful, this is one I’m gathering together and it’s really about, art is about the five senses. It’s not a, just about, you know, visual. So it’s really the activation mm-hmm. <Affirmative>. And then I love that it’s almost like you’re participating with the universe, cuz I do that too cuz I’m an automatic expression in this painter and I just watch the paint go and do itself.
Oh yeah. Oh, mm-hmm.
<Affirmative>. Mm-Hmm. <Affirmative>. Yeah. And that’s amazing when you’re kind of collaborating with the universe there. But also I love that you said that for you, you take the small little things that you can create anywhere, you know, more like really accessible. So
Art is. Yeah. <laugh>. I know. It, it is. I mean, I think it’s one more question I have is, you know, speaking of, so art helping you through a trauma and I do agree that we have this notion that you just check a couple things off a list and you’re good. We are a very much fix-it kind of society where things are laid out in black and white and, and reality exists in the beautiful gray that we all need to embrace. I was wondering if you have a notion of sort of when someone who has experienced trauma should seek mm-hmm. <Affirmative> or can know when to seek art therapy as something that they will benefit from.
Yeah, that’s a really good question because everybody does art, you know, on their own. I mean, art in itself is a very therapeutic mm-hmm. <Affirmative>, you know, just the act of that, you know. And as far as, you know, really formalizing that in a, in a therapeutic, you know, with a, a therapist or a therapist sense I would sort of recommend, you know, if you really notice that when you’re creating art or using creative expression in some way that you wave a strong reaction to that either positive or negative mm-hmm. <Affirmative> and our therapist can be really helpful in sort of helping sort of guide that or create sort of a structure for that that’s sort of safe and contained. And also being able to connect it to like goals that you have con for yourself, like around, you know trauma and what you would like to kind of benefit related sort of to that, you know, whether that’s like treatment planning or, you know, things like that versus just kind of doing the art just cuz you know, it’s regulating and soothing and, and all of that.
So that would be like one sort of thing if you sort of notice with that. And I think it’s also important to really highlight that you don’t have to be good at art or have any skill or interest in art making to participate or engage in art therapy. It’s totally okay if you know you’re doing stick figures or just line shapes and color, you know, you don’t need to be good sort of visually or artistic in any way. Sometimes people kind of feel like mm-hmm. <Affirmative>, they kind of have to have that and an art therapist would be able to sort of help with sort of guiding that sort of as well. I would say too, if you notice that that sensory-based trigger kind of can happen for you or just being able to express yourself more nonverbally versus cognitively mm. As well could be because again, that cognitive kind of part is a little bit kind of shut down with trauma. So being able to work with an art therapist, I think would enhance that and strengthen that and help maybe be able to process that sort of as well.
Now I have <laugh> I have a question. So we, I’m, I’m always fascinated with the art wound. Like, you know, something happened to somebody at some point where they were creative, but then almost a trauma happened to them where they stopped creating and they’re fearful of it. And we, we have actually a series on that. How can we help people that have art wounds, you know, and some people do get traumatized, but they go through it mm-hmm. <Affirmative> what is your take on art wounds and how would you help an art wound? And like we also have people that are, you know, we classify ’em like, you know, we, because we have these heartbreak days and we invite people to sit down and create. So this is when we’re in public, obviously, but a lot of times people run away. A lot people <laugh>. Yeah. <Laugh>. Yeah. So we, you know, we’re always trying to figure out, we’re always just trying to figure out like, how do we get more people to sit down and create art and then to experience the benefits. So if you wanna allude to the art wound and what would you do with the art? Yeah.
Yeah. No, that’s a really good question as well. I know there’s been adults, older adults, you know, that I’ve worked with or kind of crossed paths with that specifically remember mm-hmm. <Affirmative> sort of moment in time where maybe a teacher or, you know, someone in their life when they were much, much younger, you know, sort of did or said something that really impacted their confidence or ability to kind of see themself as an artist or using art, you know, because they didn’t have like skill or talent or sort of the message of that. So I often again, that creating the safe environment mm-hmm. <Affirmative> is, is really helpful in an inviting environment, I think is included, you know, within that safety. And that includes being like non-judgmental and really allowing the artists to freely express themselves without sort of I don’t know, like tons of questions or interpretations or just giving them sort of the space mm-hmm. <Affirmative>
To just experiment without a expectation. And I think it takes time that, you know, just because I may be encouraging like, oh yeah, you can just like create and whatever you do is great and you know, like that, like nobody like buys that, like, they’re like, yeah, right, right. You, you would just like say that, you know? Right. But just really per holding that space of being a support and sort of a witness or just helping kind of sort of be alongside, you know, and what you kind of create that it’s about kind of the process, you know? Right. And not necessarily what it kind of looks like or the product or your skill level. I feel like I’m constantly sort of saying kind of that, you know, that, you know, it’s not about how well you create or the skill level with the work, you know, that I am doing with clients.
Although I, I mean, I think people do want to create something that they are kind of happy about or pleased or kind of feel good about, or I mean, not feel good, like happy, but like kind of feel like, you know, wow, I like did this. And I think there’s ways to still kind of have that experience, but it not being like, this thing that you envision will kind of, I don’t know, like go up somewhere in a museum or a gallery. Right. Which is kind of like what people sort of associate, like, if they’re good or not, you know? Right. Like, judging themselves, like Right.
I think that’s a, yeah, I think that’s right. That’s a really good point. Yeah. That you, if you looked at what you created just solely as wow mm-hmm. <Affirmative>, th this came out of me mm-hmm. <Affirmative> this is entirely myself represented in this object over here. And if we started looking at things rather than following sort of naturally what sort of capitalism teaches us is that, you know, how much can you get forward or is someone willing to sell it and things like that. Oh yeah. The
Yeah. I do think that people think that that is where your worth is, right? Mm-Hmm. <affirmative> and, and we’re trying to have that conversation where it’s very experience based, right? Mm-Hmm. <Affirmative>, it’s the process, it’s the, and it’s the growth that, that you actually can’t necessarily see because it’s, it’s you, it’s like you’re insides are growing mm-hmm. <Affirmative> per heartbreak, right? Yeah. And that’s not something that is, you know, you don’t hang like it up on a, in a museum and it’s, it’s totally different conversation. I, I liked what you said about being a witness, and I feel like that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to, we’re trying to be that witness for the entire world and also sort of that support system that says those things to people that, you know, it’s about the process and it’s not, you don’t have to have some sort of divine gift for something, but if you do want that mm-hmm. <Affirmative>, you can certainly work towards finding that within you, finding that style, finding that, finding that heartbreak that works for you mm-hmm. <Affirmative>, and in the meantime feel better. Mm-Hmm.
<Affirmative>, I’d like to add something to that. I feel it’s like I, when I teach, you know, and people create, I’m like, you just burn something new, right? You burn something that was never be there before. And I mean, if you think about it, if you had a baby and you, we went, oh, my baby doesn’t look like that, you know, that in the museum, or, I mean, you know, that’s just not right. Right. If you look at art as precious as that, as you’re birthing in, and you don’t need to compare and contrast with anything else in the world, right? Yeah.
Yeah. It can be so hard to let go of that judgment or that inner critic or, or hearing the voices that you’ve heard from, you know, other people or experiences or, you know, with even within yourself. Yeah. And so giving kind of that permission to, to kind of release that, you know, sometimes it’s that, and it’s just taking the time or, you know, to, to develop that more. And I think you both touched on something else that I really value in art making is the collaboration or being in community like with other people. Whether that’s making art together or being inspired or motivated by what someone is doing. I feel like a lot of the collaborative sort of art male type projects and things that I’ve done sort of online and using social media that really engages like a group of people who are totally working in isolation, you know? Right. To be able to kind of come together in some way. And that witnessing piece, I think is is part of that too, even though you’re not maybe physically there, like with somebody. Right.
Yeah. Yeah. I, I think that, that, that’s always been an interesting sort of power of, of art in, in my own personal experience of, of looking at art. You mentioned that you don’t even have to make art if you’re not ready to do that, but you could go look at it. Yes. I’m always fascinated about how I could go and see a work of art and have this experience. Oh, I’m not, I don’t, I’m not alone. I think that that’s one of the biggest things about art is that you can walk in a room and feel an emotion and realize that the artist was feeling the same thing as you, and that you aren’t walking this world alone. You may never meet this person. Yeah. But they have had a similar experience and, and they, and they went through it as well. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, you know, that’s a, that’s a beautiful sort of connection that I think art has this big power to do. And then when artists come together and collaborate, that, that is even a, you know, sort of a stronger bond. So I love that. Yeah.
Yeah, definitely. Art can be so powerful to bring, I mean, I think like art is moving. I mean, just the name of that. I mean, there’s that, that movement, you know, it moves you like emotionally and deep, you know, and it also can teach you or bring awareness to things either that you can resonate with and have experienced in, in some capacity, or maybe you haven’t, but it’s somebody else’s sort of experience or story or voice and, and you can feel sort of what they’ve sort of also sort of gone through, like through their art. And I think that is very very valuable, you know in that sense.
Yeah. Wow. Thanks for talking
To us today. Oh, yeah, no problem. Yeah, no, this is great. I love all the kind of organic, you know, developments of Yeah, yeah.
I love it. It was redefining art, but also like the power of the healing power of art. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative> the, the, the bridging together that art is a bridge for people, and obviously it creates empathy for people. It’s so powerful.
Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, it’s, yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And there’s a lot of, I mean, I, I think Lauren was, you know, speaking to the heaviness of the world and just, you know, ev ev you know, there’s so much that’s going on that has like deeply impacted and affected individuals and communities and sort of groups that art is so helpful in being able to, to shed light kind of on that, you know? And also communicate and bring awareness or advocate. I mean, there’s so many different roles that art can play for that, whether it’s making or viewing or participating in some way.
Right. So how can people get ahold of you if they, if they need some art therapy or just some inspiration
<Laugh>? Well my website gretchen-miller.com is sort of my kind of home base of where I put a lot of just constant, like, regular, you know, it’s sort of like a holding place for a lot of the stuff that I am interested in or the work that I do. So that would be a good place to start. And my blog, which I haven’t been as active with sort of keeping, I feel like it’s kind of shifted into like other kind of platforms on social media. Mm-Hmm. <Affirmative> versus like the whole blog writing sort of things. But my blog, there’s like tons of like, archive, like a lot of the 365 things that I did. I really documented on my blog, which is Gretchen Miller dot, WordPress dot com. Yeah, I mean, it’s called Creativity Emotion, so you could just like search for it as well. It’s also linked on my website, like the website really just has like all the different places to kind of go. So, yeah. Awesome.
Great. Thank you so much. Oh, thank you. So great.
Keep up all the good work and Yeah,
Yeah. Right back at you. Yeah, I know. We’ll have to connect again
And Yeah. What is it? Yeah, I know, I know, I know. We’ll have to do that again. Like, I wonder what that’ll be like. Yeah. <laugh>. I love
It. Cause I mean, you said creativity, creativity, emotion, art is moving. So we are kind of like on
Oh yeah. Think about that. That’s very cool. That’s a cool thing. I like that.
Awesome. Thank you, Gretchen. Thank
You. Yeah. Well, thank you. Thanks. All right.