How The Art Room in the US provides a creative way of healing

  • Living
  • Tuesday, 05 Mar 2024

Lamar, a psychologist who has been in private practice for 36 years, at The Art Room. Photos: ElAas Valverde II/Dallas Morning News/TNS

When Marlys Lamar feels stress, she reaches for a piece of paper.

Today, she scribbles "Need money for The Art Room’' on a white letter-size sheet. She flips it over and runs her pen across the paper, tracing in all directions without breaking contact.

"Wherever you have some kind of crossing, some kind of intersection, you start rounding off the edges,” Lamar said. "You can still focus on the problem, but eventually you get so focused on rounding the edges that you get really calm.”

That quick exercise allows Lamar to clear her mind from a problem she faces. Lamar is a psychologist who has been in private practice for 36 years. This technique is one of the many things they teach at The Art Room, a nonprofit art studio in Denton, Texas, the United States, that helps people with mental health issues heal through art and creativity.

The Art Room, founded by Lamar, offers open studio hours, workshops, classes and an array of art supplies at no cost. It doesn’t provide art therapy, but it uses art as a therapeutic practice.

"Art therapy is designed to explore specific issues and express them in some kind of artistic way.” Lamar said. "Our concept is that just doing art is therapeutic.”

The Art Room, located on Locust Street, was once a woodworking studio. The custom-built cabinets on the walls and the wooden workstation now serve a different purpose.

They’re filled with bottles of different coloured paint and colour swatches. Sheets of paper are organised in flat drawers. On a counter, about a dozen coffee mugs are stuffed with paint brushes. Across the room, a bookshelf holds old books and magazines for collages.

The Art Room also has supplies for members to learn new art techniques such as printmaking or clay moulding. Members can come in during open studio times to explore or they can participate in one of the workshops offered monthly by a guest educator.

"We have artist volunteers and mental health volunteers that come every time we’re open and provide support for people while they’re here,” Lamar said. "If anyone did have an issue or a crisis, we’re here to support the person and get them the help they need.”

Maryam Flory, vice president of The Art Room, worked for Denton County MHMR Center as a counsellor for 10 years. She said it’s important for people struggling with mental health issues to find holistic treatment and seek different types of coping skills, such as art, but it’s rare to have access to that for free.Origami cranes hang from the ceiling at The Art Room.Origami cranes hang from the ceiling at The Art Room.

"When someone is struggling with paying their basic bills, they don’t have that expendable money to engage in some of these other really helpful but costly coping skills and techniques,” Flory said. "When (Lamar) told me about her idea of starting a free art studio for individuals with mental health issues, it really connected with me the idea that we could be a place where a creative coping skill can be offered to people, and that we can remove that barrier of cost and provide a safe space for individuals.”

Once a week, The Art Room hosts "therapeutic Thursdays”, which are classes led by occupational therapists. Flory said they’re not direct one-on-one or group counselling, but they do encourage mindfulness and internal reflection.

These classes are meant to help members learn how to use art to stay calm. One Thursday, members attended a concert at Texas Woman’s University, and while they listened to the music they drew with coloured pencils. Afterward, they discussed how their art made them feel or what they thought about the activity.

"There’s a sense of community from coming here,” Lamar said. "What we wanted was a place where people can kind of set aside the mental health diagnosis, or the mental health issues for a bit, and just do something enjoyable and fun.”

The Art Room has two other programmes, specifically for teens and veterans. Studio 416 serves 9th- to 12th-grade students, and Arts for Veterans just started this year.The first community art project completed by The Art Room, a piece woven together at the University of North Texas.The first community art project completed by The Art Room, a piece woven together at the University of North Texas.

Flory said members start to feel a sense of belonging, build leadership skills and become more resilient when they participate in The Art Room’s activities.

"There are sometimes people that show up and then they say, 'I really didn’t want to come in today, but here I am now, what should I do?’" Flory said. "I love hearing that. When you fight through that lack of motivation, and then by the end of the day, they’ve created something or they engaged with someone and they walk away saying, ‘At least I did this today’ or ‘I’m glad I did this today’."

While pursuing an art practice might be intimidating for some, Lamar stresses anyone can become a member by filling out an application on The Art Room’s website. Diagnosis or referrals aren’t required, but applicants need to mention what mental health issues they struggle with so the organisation can make recommendations on what practice works best.

"It’s really about the process, it’s not really about what the outcome is. We want you to have a good time here. We want you to learn something maybe,” Lamar said. "And, you know, people are often very judgy of their work. And we try not to judge anybody’s work in any way.” – The Dallas Morning News/Tribune News Service

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