The Art of Mental Health

Improving your mental health could be as simple as picking up a piece of paper and a pencil, according to Sturgeon Bay creative-arts therapist Tanya Kavicky-Mels.

That’s because art provides a direct connection between the mind and the body, allowing people to physically work through mental blockages, Kavicky-Mels said.

When people undergo trauma, they often have a fight, flight or freeze response, Kavicky-Mels said, and when they are reminded of that trauma in the course of their day-to-day life, they can become “locked up” in that initial response, unable to explain what’s wrong. 

For Kavicky-Mels’ clients, art is a safe way to describe feelings and experiences without having to put them into words, which can be painful – or, for some patients, impossible. 

Tanya Kavicky-Mels. Photo courtesy of Tanya Kavicky-Mels.

For example, many children who have survived trauma struggle to say what they went through or how they feel, but according to Kavicky-Mels, they may be able to paint it, draw it or sculpt it. 

The same can be true for adults, too. Kavicky-Mels recalled one patient who was selectively mute because of trauma, communicating only with animal noises. Through painting, the patient could express feelings that were “too big” for words, eventually going on to live a normal life. 

Though many of Kavicky-Mels’ patients are trauma survivors, Kavicky-Mels believes anyone can use art to better understand their emotions and experiences, regardless of how “good” they are at art. 

“It’s really not about the quality of the image,” Sister Bay art therapist Jodi Rose Gonzales said. “It’s about the quality of the expression that’s within the image.”

Jodi Rose Gonzales. Photo courtesy of Jodi Rose Gonzales.

According to her, the idea of being good or bad at art is a myth – but it’s one that often stops people from creating, even when they could benefit from it. During classes and workshops that Gonzales facilitates, she often finds herself “coaxing people into creativity” by convincing them that they can do art.

And the coaxing often pays off. People are sometimes surprised by how accessible art really is, and how quickly their own work becomes “deep,” as subconscious feelings work their way to the surface, Gonzales said. 

During sessions, she helps clients to process the possible meaning behind their art. But as Kavicky-Mels is careful to point out, art therapists don’t simply look at the art and determine where the artist’s pain or challenges lie. Instead, the art serves as a jumping-off point for further exploration.

To do a “meditation drawing,” draw a long line away from you as you inhale, then a long line toward you as you exhale. Repeat this process until the page is filled, and then color it in. This technique helps to calm anxiety by activating the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for “rest and digest” functioning. Photo courtesy of Jodi Rose Gonzales.

Gonzales realizes that many people feel apprehensive about making art, and even more so about expressing their feelings through it. But in Door County, people are surrounded by art, perhaps making it easier to get involved.

“Especially in an area like this, where there are so many artists, there are so many opportunities,” Gonzales said.

She recommends starting simply – through a beginners’ art class, an adult coloring book or even a gallery visit, because studies show that just looking at art can improve mental health.

Kavicky-Mels suggests paper, a pen and a timer set for 15 minutes.

“It doesn’t have to be anything fancy or elaborate,” Kavicky-Mels said. “It can begin by just giving yourself permission to play.”