Healing Through Art

Art can be a tool to demonstrate emotions, illustrate experiences and show healing, even when feelings and fears cannot be expressed verbally.

With that concept in mind, officials of the Sexual Assault Help Center Inc. in Wheeling have secured special funding and launched a pilot project to use art to help clients deal with painful emotional effects of sexual violence.

Art therapist Bianca Benson of Wheeling was contracted to meet with participants of SAHC support groups for adults and children who have been affected by sexual violence. She helped them use art as part of their coping and recovery.

As an additional component of the pilot project, the support group members were invited to submit artwork anonymously for a special exhibit at Artworks Around Town in Wheeling’s Centre Market. The show, arranged by Artworks member Robert Sako, is on display in the art center’s North Gallery now through Saturday, March 31.

“It was a pilot project that we are now hoping to build on because of the success (of the current effort),” said Linda Reeves, executive director of the Sexual Assault Help Center. She wants to find additional funding to continue the art therapy project.

“We’re hoping to be able to offer this in the future,” the director said. “Funding is always an issue. The agency is grant funded primarily.”

The project benefited from Benson’s “training as a clinician and her understanding of the use of art in a therapeutic setting,” Reeves pointed out. “Bianca’s experience and training allowed us to open up some more opportunities to help our clients.”

Reeves commented, “The project helped open up a lot of things – that speaks for itself.” She added, “We’re really happy to give our clients this means of expression in their healing process … All clients, either current clients and past clients of the agency, were given the opportunity to participate.”

Clients produced artwork in various media, including drawing, painting and photography. Included in the display is a “blanket of hope” created by the women’s support group and a quilt that teen girls made a couple of years ago, Reeves said.

Benson, who completed undergraduate studies in art therapy at Seton Hill (Pa.) University and has done graduate work in art therapy in West Virginia University, observed that for a survivor of sexual violence, creating art “can be a really powerful witness: ‘This is my story; this is what I’ve had to go through.’ Any type of verbal unloading about what stresses you in your day is powerful. As disabling as sexual abuse is, to be able to say, ‘this happened to me,’ it’s a way to give witness to you and your struggle. To be able to voice that, to display that, it gives a voice to it. I think that alone was beneficial to them,” she commented.

Benson said that when she met with the adults, she engaged them in a mind-body awareness exercise, in which they were given a blank figure of a person and encouraged to depict through art “what happened to them physically when they think about their abuse and about being abused.”

The art therapist said, “They really got into their drawing. They worked really intently for a while, then stepped back and said, ‘Wow, this is an exact photograph of what is happening to me.’ When they looked at their picture, they saw this is what is going on with them. They might not have expressed that verbally.”