By Marissa Grasmick
“You can’t help but feel like you have created a new little friend,” states Katie Markley shortly after creating a little fox out of felt.
Katie H. begins her workshop with the staff at Transitions through the lens of “art as self-care.” She puts a pile of various colors of felt on the table, and gives a demonstration and has everybody start exploring the materials.
Soon after, everyone is fully engaged in the process (one of the therapeutic goals of art-making as self-care, you get absorbed. Some even say absorption=happiness). If you have never explored the world of felting before, it may appear to be intimidating. But it is actually quite simple, you take a needle and through repetitious poking you shape felt into whatever you want. I have never felted before, and by the end of the hour, I too had a “new little friend,” a small fawn that was so cute and miniature that I couldn’t help but fall instantly in love with it.
The staff at Transitions created amazing images as well, no one having felted prior to this workshop. We saw an owl, a bird, a woman, and more. Near the end of the workshop, Katie H. tried to ask some questions about what they were experiencing. I kid you not, everyone was so absorbed that no one lifted a head, everyone just kept on working.
Art has this miraculous way of gently pulling you out of your discursive mind and bringing you intimately into your body as you sustain engagement with your project, and this case was no different.
From the outside, an art therapist can sometimes appear to be like an art teacher or a bringer of a craft, especially in groups and workshops. However, it is a very intentional discipline and the art therapist is well trained in the therapeutic use of art materials. For example, each art material lends itself to working effectively with different emotional states. Clay for instance is useful for pounding out aggression and anger. Watercolor is useful for a more loose and free expression. Colored pencils are more controlled and tight. Felting, and the repetition offered by the needle poking, regulates the body’s nervous system and allows a wandering mind to focus on one thing (a skill that builds mindfulness and an ability to be more intimate with each moment). There’s a lot more to it, but I will leave it at that for now.
Let’s go backwards for a moment. Preceding the felting workshop Sue gave a psycho educational talk to the Transitions staff about the differences between primary trauma, secondary trauma, vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue, and burnout. We honed in the discussion on vicarious trauma, a term that refers to the cumulative effects on those working with others who have been traumatized. It can lead to professional burnout, marked by symptoms such as increased anxiety, self-criticism, feeling isolated, not wanting to be with your emotions, over-working, etc. We used this to stress the importance of self-care for mental health practitioners, something that we practice in length at Naropa. Self-care allows a therapist to be effective with clients and keep an open heart and compassionate presence despite repeated exposure to severe degrees of suffering.
This led us into the felting workshop as an offering of one way that self-care can be practiced. As many of us have experienced in our own way, when we are exposed to trauma and suffering, sometimes it feels like it is just too much to hold. Art offers a place to let things spill over, it holds anything that we ask it to and has no limits in what it can contain.
With love and gratitude,