Making Art: The Creative Path to Recovery

Client artwork from Wendy Frieze

Let’s say you’ve landed in treatment. For the first time. Or for the umpteenth time.

You can’t believe you’ll be stuck here for weeks, maybe months, with all these annoying people around you. You can’t believe you landed here, period. Your brain is pure fuzz. Your body craves just one thing – and you can’t have it anymore.

Then they say you have to go to art therapy. Are they kidding? Clay? Paint? Chalk? Not me, you’re thinking. You’d rather bury your head in a grave.

Then you meet someone like Wendy Frieze or Lisa Lounsbury. Both of these Twin Cities art therapists work mostly in addiction treatment settings. Lounsbury brings to her work over three decades of personal recovery history herself. Frieze has also followed a long recovery journey within an alcoholic family.

No “art crap”

Frieze and Lounsbury are used to clients coming in who want nothing to do with this “art crap.” They don’t push it.

Frieze, who has started and guided several local art therapy programs for treatment centers, recalls one man who sat and read a book during group sessions at first. “He was so rebellious,” she says. When Frieze inquired about what he was reading, she learned it was about the sea. She asked him if he had ever read Moby Dick and then brought him a copy of it.

“All of a sudden, I was accepted, and that got him started [doing art],” she says.

Another man, she recalls, “comes right up to me and says, ‘Well, I have Parkinson’s and I cannot do anything.’” The free drawing activity she was planning for that day turned out to be especially well-suited for him. He could just let his drawing instrument move along with his hand movements, even the involuntary ones.

“He did a fantastic piece,” says Frieze. “He was astounded.”

It’s rare that an art therapy client doesn’t get lured into picking up a brush or pencil that soon whisks the person into a creative, calm state of flow through art making. For some, manipulating art materials becomes pure play. For nearly all, it becomes an avenue for self-expression that helps them to free their demons and re-route their brains onto a healing course.

Another kind of “high”

Through artmaking, addicts are able to experience the good feelings they previously found in drugs.

Trauma and grief have a ready outlet as clients give physical expression to their inner life.“Literally, the brain activity that happens when you get high is the same pattern as when you make art,” says Lounsbury. As clients practice artmaking, new neural pathways in the brain are also created, so they become more inclined to reach for a pencil or carving tool than a drink.

Art offers an easy entry point for addicts to start identifying and unraveling the tangle of their using history. Says Lounsbury, “The people who are still detoxing don’t have the clear thought process to come up with what’s going on with them, but they can make art and express what’s happening.”

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Art is a safe way to express emotions, she says. “They can punch and squish clay rather than physically injuring someone else, themselves, or property.”

“They can also safely process emotions with art materials. Once they can look at this 2D or 3D thing that they created, it gives them a place where they’re removed from it being inside them. They can see it, and once they see it, they can’t not see it anymore.”

Lounsbury also points out that the part of the brain where language exists, the frontal cortex, is in a different location from the emotional center of the brain, the limbic system. That can make it tricky to find the right words to express feelings.

Artmaking, however, originates in the limbic system, right where the flood of emotions camps out. Trauma and grief have a ready outlet as clients give physical expression to their inner life.

Freewheeling and revealing

Art therapy provides plenty of autonomy, as clients choose their own materials and tools for their creative work and freely express themselves.

The art therapist provides some structure, often in the form of a theme, such as: What’s getting in the way of you moving forward?

In response, a client might paint or draw a broken bridge. Using her training as an art therapist, Lounsbury might recognize this image as a clue that the person doesn’t have a clear destination or clear coping strategies to get across or doesn’t know how to fix the bridge. She may ask questions to stimulate the client’s discovery about what’s broken “and then maybe what are possibilities for repair and what are the tools that you might need for repair,” she says.

In some cases, Lounsbury starts her work with a client by doing an art therapy assessment. If working with a couple, for example, she may lay a piece of paper at an angle in front of the two of them and ask them to create an image of a home, but they are not to use any words while doing so. Her training has prepared her to learn a great deal about their relationship by observing how they carry out this activity together. She will watch for which person adjusts the paper, how they communicate, who takes initiative, and even whether the image includes windows, bushes, or a chimney. In addition to her art therapy background, Lounsbury draws on her skills as a licensed marriage and family therapist.

In one case while working with a couple, she says one partner created one side of the house, and the other partner drew the other side. “There wasn’t any like overlap at all. I could tell they struggle communicating, they have struggles with their sex life. It’s as if they’re roommates and they live two separate lives.”

House calls with Maggie

Top left and bottom left: Art Lab Rx’s “Maggie” mobile art studio. Remaining images: artwork from Wendy Frieze clients.

Lounsbury, who operates her business as Art Lab Rx, has literally taken her art therapy work on the road. A few years ago, she purchased and outfitted a bus with eight art stations and materials for working with individuals and groups. Weather-controlled and equipped with a wheelchair lift and other adaptive equipment, “Maggie” makes regular house calls at treatment centers and other locations. Lounsbury, and several other art therapists trained in her approach, serve a wide-ranging clientele in this traveling studio, and even hold art shows there.

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Maggie was “God’s idea,” she says. She had been making plans to open a healing arts center. One day she stopped to question herself deeply about what would be best for her clients, and she says she literally heard these words, “Put it on a bus.” So, she followed this clear prompt.

Construction and reconstruction

Art therapy is all about construction and reconstruction.Frieze uses traveling in a different way. She takes her clients to MIA to see specific pieces of art. A museum visit may be a first for some clientele whose lives have been spent on the streets and in prison. They are asked to carry notebooks and do drawings in response to the artwork they see. They meet afterwards in a circle to talk about their discoveries and reactions.

For a show of Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings, “They begged me to go three times,” she says. “They found it fascinating. They were getting in their hearts, into their creative spirits.

“There’s another project that I’ve created,” says Frieze, “in which is I teach the guys to sew – running stitches – and they make their own pillows.” Referring to one of her groups, she says, “I have never seen such a prouder bunch of guys.” They started bringing in torn pants, worn shoes, whatever needed mending. “They’re doing the repairs. They’re reconstructing.”

Art therapy is all about construction and reconstruction, says Frieze. “They are learning new habits.”

She will ask clients to bring in their own music to play while they’re creating art. In one project, she has them create 12 folds in a piece of paper, so it has 12 square spaces on the page. For each piece of music that they listen to, they draw a picture in one of the squares. “Then we go through everybody’s paper,” she says, “and they talk about what how they felt about it, and it brings up what that they needed to talk about.”

Or they’ll pass a piece of 12-fold paper around, and each person draws in one of the squares. Then there are group projects, such as creating a poster together on a group-chosen topic, which give them fun experiences with planning and teamwork. Frieze is writing a book about all the different “sensorial” projects she has developed in working with addicts.

A call to serve

For Frieze, offering art therapy to people with substance use disorders is a calling. “I love sharing everything about creativity and art therapy and addiction.”

The same is true for Lounsbury, who has designed and taught a course at the Adler Graduate School on addiction and art therapy. She calls her career “the hardest work I have ever loved,” adding, “I can’t imagine doing anything else for the rest of my life.”


Pat Samples is a Twin Cities writing coach and somatic coach. Her website is patsamples.com.

Last Updated on July 18, 2022

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