Art Therapy on Wheels

Aditya Ganapathiraju
ADA Knowledge Translation Center

Lisa Lounsbury, an art therapist in Minneapolis, MN, stood in front of a building she hoped would become a healing center someday. "What if I'm wrong?” she wondered out loud, “What if this isn't the right place?" As she stood there, she heard a small voice whispering to her, "Put it on a bus." That moment marked a turning point for her business: Art Lab Rx, a mobile mental health therapy program dedicated to delivering hope and healing directly to those in need.

In 2015, Lisa reached out to The Great Lakes ADA Center, part of the ADA National Network, and connected with a Technical Assistance specialist named Peter Berg. Peter told Lisa about the different ADA guidelines regarding bus accessibility in terms of the art stations she wanted on board. It became clear to Lisa that her existing plans for a 40-foot bus without a lift or toilet would exclude an entire population of folks that could benefit from art therapy.A parked colorful bus with red, orange, green, yellow, and blue splashes of colors. On the top of the windshield it reads, Create - Explore - Transform.

As her business grew over the following years, she decided to get a 45-foot bus with both a lift and an accessible bathroom. Lisa contacted Peter again. He remembered her project and guided her through making some cost-saving modifications to the existing bathroom in order to make it ADA-compliant. He was pleasantly surprised when he learned that Lisa planned to make all of the art stations on the bus accessible and mobile: the eight art stations are now all on wheels and can be offloaded using the bus’s lift for an art therapy session at a scenic location in nature, for example.

While discussing her work, Lisa stated that the creative process of making art can be healing in many ways, and when used therapeutically art can allow people to gain new self-awareness and make meaning out of their experiences. With the guidance of an art therapist, clients benefit from creating art in an interactive way. It allows them to tap into their experiences in a safe and comfortable setting, with the emphasis on the process rather than the product.

The beginning of an art therapy session starts by emphasizing that what will be created is not as important as the process of using the art-making session to tap into emotions, “stuck feelings,” and unresolved experiences. This perspective often ends up being an exploration of one’s psyche. Using both wet and dry canvas and materials clients depict each of the following terms: anger, peace, sadness, and joy.  Lisa plays soft instrumental music in the background and gives her clients about a half hour of time to use the materials in whichever way they choose to create art through self-exploration.

“They create,” Lisa says, and “as they start to create, their expression changes, they become completely absorbed in the process of creating from a place they perhaps have not ever visited in their psyche, their spirit.”  At times, it can be a new and scary process, Lisa notes, bringing up emotions and allowing them to well up to the surface. Clients are frequently able to see something meaningful they have been holding onto without even realizing it. Lisa also notices how clients become immersed in their creation, lose track of time, and soften their guarded layers when they are in the midst of healing.

The next part of the therapeutic process begins by focusing on one of the pieces that brings up the strongest visceral response, and using a new piece of paper or canvas to delve deeper into that subject. As clients engage in this next step, Lisa continues to provide guidance: she walks around to the different stations observing, being present for those who may be struggling, and sometimes creating along with them.

The final part of the process is often the most meaningful: it involves a discussion where clients share and witness each other’s work. Lisa prompts them to share what it was like to make images based on their emotions and memories. She asks probing questions: What was liberating about it and what did they notice internally? Did they solve any problems or come to any conclusions or resolutions? Often, this is a rich and complex discussion where people can realize that they share very similar or very different experiences or responses.

“To feel what it’s like to have others witnessing their raw expressions,” Lisa says, “is often a very powerful experience.” In that group setting clients engage in their own self-exploration, watch others do the same, and often have a transformative and enlightening experience.

The Art Lab Rx bus will become fully operational in the fall of 2018 with the implementation of the design recommendations from Peter at the ADA Center. Therapy art sessions will be available for a wide variety of populations: workshops for schools, faith-based groups, and local communities; groups for caregivers and families in palliative care or hospice; students and other young people who have experienced grief from the loss of a classmate; adolescents and adults living with conditions like Down syndrome, Multiple Sclerosis, Traumatic Brain Injury, spinal cord injury, or Parkinson’s. All these sessions can be offered in Spanish as well.

“Through his personalized assistance and professional expertise,” Lisa recalls, “Peter helped me by giving me peace of mind” by talking her through her plans and incorporating ADA guidelines for making tables, pathways, and bathroom accessible.

What started as an idea that sought to bring the healing power of art therapy to everyone became a wonderful reality through Lisa’s creativity and passion, the knowledge and personal assistance of the ADA Center, and lots of hard work, “the hardest work she’s ever loved.”