Helping Trauma Survivors Through Art


Trauma is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “a behavioral state resulting from severe mental or emotional stress, or physical injury.” A traumatic event can happen to anyone. Rape, physical, and mental abuse are common incidents that do not always get reported. Even having a parent coming in and out of prison or constantly feeling like you are not safe at home is traumatic. These incidents cause a flood of emotions; feelings that we can’t always describe let alone cope with.

Sometimes these emotions leave us feeling isolated, anxious, and depressed. Thoughts of suicide, self-harm, or drug use become frequent because the pain is unbearable. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises people who have undergone traumatic events or those who are suffering from mental health conditions to seek help. (For those seeking help contact the crisis hotline at 800-273-8255.)
There are many stigmas behind mental health that are simply untrue, so it’s important to seek a professional, such as a therapist or psychiatrist, because they can help save a person’s life. In New York City, the Art Therapy Project is the only nonprofit organization that offers free art therapy, a method of using creative materials to express emotions with a licensed therapist guiding the client throughout the process. The program’s slogan is simple: Art Therapy is the process of transforming traumatic energy through the creation of art.

The Art Therapy Project goes beyond talk therapy because sometimes we can’t express how we feel in words. With the guidance of a therapist, a group of trauma survivors can confront what they are feeling and it gives them power over their own stories. The art becomes a catalyst for their healing and a way for trauma survivors to visualize their pain, sorrow, and stress.

Much of the mental healing that goes into the art therapy also produces spectacular paintings and sculptures. They are manifestations that validate what that person is going through. The creations may not always be aesthetically pleasing, but they emanate the powerful emotions the trauma survivors are undergoing—these paintings have a pure fire burning beneath them that illuminate the spectrum of emotions that one individual can feel.

On May 15th, the Art Therapy Project held a private preview entitled Illumination, which featured artwork by clients that highlights their transformative journey with art therapy. In a press release, the organization described their annual exhibit as, “The power to provide insight, clarity, and understanding. Shining a light on that which was not seen before. Our annual client exhibit honors the creative process of each group member and shows the artwork that has emerged from their journey in art therapy.”

The first thing one sees at this art exhibit are large windows, illuminating every corner of the small gallery with sunlight. A circular sculpture with crooked rods protruding from it hangs from the ceiling with the description: Pre-Menstrual Honesty Syndrome, a ball stabbed with wire then painted.

As attendees take in each of these pieces of art work, they will notice that the work is simply initialed to protect the client’s identity. In order to add context to the art work, Executive Director Martha Dorn highlights three creations and the stories behind them without giving away too much personal detail. Clinical Director, Lindsay Lederman, then describes the process the client underwent when creating the work and how therapy was involved in the highlighted creations.

“All of our clients have experienced some form of trauma, PTSD, and sometimes it may be a single incident and sometimes it could be constantly continual exposure that can pertain to violence, drug abuse and things like that. Very often our clients are referred to as the ‘Lost Causes.’ People that either traditional talk therapy hasn’t worked for them or it’s just not a fit for them, and art therapy is another opportunity as a means for them to communicate what’s going on when there are no words or they cannot express those words,” said Dorn during the art exhibit’s preview.

The first art work that was discussed was an interactive piece. A glass slate with thin fabric with the faded words “enough” embedded into it. The mixed media art work invited spectators to take a flashlight, which was provided next to the piece, and asked them to shine it behind the black veil. The word “enough” was illuminated amongst the black fabric. This artwork came with the description: “I am wrestling with this word right now: ENOUGH. ‘Am I enough?’ vs. ‘I’ve had enough!’ I tried bits of glass at first and—like many parts of my process—the work quickly became over complicated. I appreciate the simplicity and interaction of the piece as it is now, and that it still allows for many layers of reflection and perspective.”

Another piece that was highlighted was a painting featuring images that represented the Vietnam War. When this client was enlisted in the army, he was raped by his superior officer. For many years this incident as well as the horrors of war remained buried deep in his mind. He drank copious amounts of alcohol and found himself in and out of prison. He was recommended to the Art Therapy Project where he painted for several years. At last a year ago he was able to talk about his traumatic experience. Art Therapy helped him find his voice, and now he is an advocate for men who have been sexually abused in the military.  

At the exhibit there were too many stories behind each painting to discuss in detail. These paintings were a small example of the enormous work Art Therapy Project does in helping over a thousand clients every year. Since this project opened in 2011, it has dedicated its staff to providing care for underserved populations, at risk youth, veterans, and so many more individuals.

The Art Therapy Project is located at 132 West 21st on the 6th floor in Manhattan. For more information contact 212-592-2755.

Photos by Amanda Moses