Imagine walking into an office room, with a desk strewn with bright-colored pencils, markers, and drawing papers. You plunk yourself down in a cozy chair. The person seated opposite you asks you to take your pick from the array of art media and start painting your feelings.
Sounds offbeat? But that’s what your first meeting with Kara Hovland, art therapist at the Flandreau Indian School, is likely to look like.
She’s neither quite your high school art teacher, nor your regular shrink. She’s an amalgam of the two—a psychiatrist with a difference.
Yes, she’s in the business of helping people cope with obsessive-compulsive disorder, learning disorder, depression etc., but her method is novel and fresh.
Pretty much like an art teacher, colors, and crayons are the tools of her trade, but unlike the former, she doesn’t use them to impart training in art. She puts them to another use, a therapeutic one.
An offshoot of psychology, art therapy is of a fairly recent origin. “At the time I was getting interested in the subject, no one had heard about it in South Dakota,” Hovland said.
It’s an innovative, non-medication-based approach to the treatment of a wide range of emotional disorders. The practice, according to the American Art Therapy Association, is grounded in the belief that the creative process involved in the making of art is healing and life enhancing.
Hovland uses art as a medium to accomplish three objectives: (1) to do a surface analysis of a person’s psyche, (2) to obtain an in-depth assessment of the individual’s inner concerns and conflicts by studying his or her art work, and (3) to formulate an art-based treatment strategy.
Explaining her role as an art therapist, she said, “Every time I meet with a person, I try to show them as many art objects as possible. Some of the common media used are highlighters, color pencils, crayons, and clay.
I tell them, ‘Here are my supplies. Take whatever you like.’ Then, I study them, watch how they’re behaving, how they’re using the materials to draw or paint, whether they’re using water colors or pencils, whether they’re pressing hard against the paper.”
Back from Portland, Oregon, early this year, Hovland joined the Flandreau Indian School, in January 2004, as a part-time counselor.
She has a master’s degree in art therapy from Marylhurst University, Oregon and a bachelor’s degree in communication and theater studies from South Dakota State University.
She had her first brush with the fine arts at the end of her sophomore year. By the time she was a junior, her academic palette began to look very colorful with an assortment of courses—psychology, theater, art, communication. “I had to put all that I had studied so far, in perspective,” she said.
She headed to the university’s career planning center in quest of the strokes, which in due course, would give a broader meaning to the canvas of her life.
She’d studied psychology. She’d studied art. It was time to mix the two apparently unrelated fields to paint a pretty picture. “I looked up the alphabetical index of the various career listings under psychology. Art therapy was the first under ‘A’”, Hovland said.
From being a coy student at South Dakota State University, Hovland has come a long way.
Talking about her life with the Flandreau school kids, she said, “After school gets over at three in the afternoon, the kids have nothing to keep them occupied with until nine in the evening. That’s when I’m around to discuss their problems.” She has a current case load of 20 clients, but that number is fast growing.
On being asked about the effectiveness of the approach, she said her student-clients were “responding positively” to art therapy.