Education

Exploring the intersection of mental health and creative expression

As part of a training session focused on overcoming body image issues, artists and therapists construct life-sized sculptures out of packing tape.
As part of a training session focused on overcoming body image issues, artists and therapists construct life-sized sculptures out of packing tape.
Priska Neely/KPCC

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In a nondescript hotel ballroom on Thursday, about two dozen women — some artists, some therapists, some educators — worked together to build human-sized sculptures out of packing tape.

The participants went through drama therapy exercises to identify meaningful physical poses. Next, they worked in groups to mold sticky-side-up tape to various parts of their bodies, then pieced together a sculpture in that pose. 

The sculptures weren't just for fun. They were part of a workshop meant to help the participants learn to re-claim positive body images. 

"When I think about trauma — when the body's been violated — how do we reclaim people's narratives and really be able to be in your body and own your body?" said drama therapist Laura Wood, who worked with two other art therapists to develop the workshop. "We really felt that building a sculpture might be a way for people to redefine narratives around body image." 

The workshop was one of more than 100 sessions at the Expressive Therapies Summit, running March 30-April 2. 

The conference has been running in New York for seven years. Ping Ho, founder and director of UCLArts and Healing, which works to blend health and creative expression, got it started in Los Angeles this year. 

"A lot of people just don’t realize that these practices exist," said Ho, who wants to bring more exposure to these techniques. "The other thing is, it’s hard to describe how they work. A big challenge is to tell them about it. But once people experience it, they’re hooked."

Hundreds of artists, educators and therapists from around the region and the country have come to participate in sessions like, "Music and Play: Channeling Childhood for Therapeutic Gain," "Ragdolls & Writing: Transforming Trauma, Facilitating Growth," and "Disrupting Disruptive Student Behaviors with Compassion & Art Therapy.”

"It’s been uncomfortable at times," said Lisa Miller, a licensed marriage and family therapist, who came to the conference from San Jose and participated in the body-image and tape-sculpture session. "They’re asking us to move our body and recognize things about our body that maybe we don’t share with everyone."

But after pushing through her discomfort and bonding with her group, she saw how the technique would be beneficial in her work with troubled teens.

"I have my own perception of what I think my body should look like," Miller said, "and to actually make a 3-D sculpture of it is gonna give a reality check like there’s beauty in everything."

The goal of the conference is to share these techniques with a broader audience and equip mental health workers with tools that are also self-enriching.

"Desperately, we need innovative tools for bridging diversity, healing wounds of trauma, grief, loneliness — things that are difficult to address using other means," Ho said. 

She thinks these art therapy strategies are maybe 10 years away from becoming mainstream techniques, like yoga and meditation. 

"There’s no stigma of therapy around the arts, per se," Ho added. "So it’s actually an easy backdoor approach to social-emotional well-being."