Paint­ing could be good for your health, ac­cord­ing to lo­cal art ther­a­pists.

Two lo­cal coun­selors make a com­pelling case for art ther­apy.

Milwaukee Magazine - - Features - By LINDSEY AN­DER­SON

On the third floor of a ware­house near Hal­yard Park, Lori Vance strides across an airy, loft-like stu­dio space. Light streams through the win­dows, col­or­ful ta­pes­tries hang from the walls and sev­eral bongo drums can be seen through a crack in a sup­ply room door.

This is Ex­press Your­self MKE, a non­profit that pro­vides art ther­apy to at-risk youth. Vance con­ceived the or­ga­ni­za­tion in 2001, not long af­ter the events of 9/11. “My kids were in Mil­wau­kee Pub­lic Schools when it hap­pened,” she says. “There was such a sense of anx­i­ety, there was trauma … I knew I needed to do some­thing lo­cally.”

Ex­press Your­self MKE now serves about 16 ju­ve­nile de­ten­tion cen­ters, men­tal health fa­cil­i­ties and schools in the metro area. Groups of four in­struc­tors (prac­tic­ing artists work­ing across dis­ci­plines, and li­censed ther­a­pists) visit the sites weekly to teach dance, mu­sic, vis­ual art, the­ater and po­etry to young peo­ple be­tween the ages of 7 and 21. They also in­vite stu­dents to en­roll in on-site pro­grams at their stu­dio.

The stu­dents are welcome to talk about their feel­ings at each ses­sion, but Vance says they some­times feel more com­fort­able ex­press­ing them­selves through their art­work, and that’s fine, too. “Peo­ple of­ten come into ther­apy lost in their heads. The art of­fers a place to look and re­flect and ex­plore,” she says. “You’ve got to get out of your head to get into your heart.”

A cou­ple of miles south­east of the Ex­press Your­self stu­dio, in a his­toric build­ing over­look­ing the Pub­lic Mar­ket, an­other art ther­a­pist, Ernesto Atkin­son, echoes that sen­ti­ment. “Art is a lan­guage that ev­ery­one speaks,” he says. “There are no barriers.”

Born in Gu­atemala but adopted by a U.S. fam­ily at 13, Atkin­son un­der­stands how hard it can be to over­come child­hood trauma. “My life was dif­fi­cult early on. There was a lot of color but a lot of pain, too.”

Af­ter earn­ing a de­gree in fine art from North Dakota State Uni­ver­sity, Atkin­son moved back to Gu­atemala to work for an anti-hu­man-traf­fick­ing or­ga­ni­za­tion. Soon he met a young girl whose par­ents had sold her to traf­fick­ers. When she didn’t re­spond to his ques­tions, he turned on a ra­dio to help put her at ease and found that mu­sic com­forted her in a way that words couldn’t. Atkin­son re­al­ized then that he could lever­age his artis­tic abil­ity to help peo­ple over­come trau­matic ex­pe­ri­ences or trou­bleshoot per­sonal prob­lems. So he re­turned to the States to ob­tain a master’s de­gree in art ther­apy. Now he owns In­te­gra­tion Heal­ing (or Alivio In­te­gral), a prac­tice that serves English- and Span­ish-speak­ing pa­tients of all ages.

Atkin­son also teaches classes at Mount Mary, the first U.S. uni­ver­sity to of­fer a prac­tice-fo­cused doc­tor­ate de­gree in art ther­apy. And Vance, who helped found the pro­gram and taught there for sev­eral years, reg­u­larly in­vites grad­u­ate stu­dents to take on clin­i­cal work at Ex­press Your­self. “The re­search they’re do­ing is go­ing to help move the field for­ward,” she says.

Ex­press Your­self MKE’s Soul 2017 per­for­mance is stag­ing a spe­cial stu­dent per­for­mance on May 17 at the Miller High Life Theatre. Ex­press Your­self

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