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Education & Outreach


Create! An interview with Art Therapist Kristi Gmutza

On Saturday, May 7th, Birthmother’s Day, we are excited to host Create!, a community art-making event and fundraiser celebrating motherhood at the Indianapolis Art Center. This gathering will be open to families and individuals from the adoption constellation as an opportunity to come together as a community, and art-making activities will be led by board-certified art therapist, Kristi Gmutza, alongside a team of art therapy students with activities appropriate for all ages. Tickets are now on sale, and if you can't attend in person, we have virtual art kits available for you to make art at home.

We thought it might be fun to sit down with Kristi to learn more about art therapy – what it is, who can benefit from it, and how it can help people heal.

Let's start at the beginning. Tell us about yourself, and how you became an art therapist.

I was in high school, taking biology and science courses, and I was also really interested in psychology, and then I loved doing art. And at the time I was thinking, what am I going to do? Which one am I going to choose? My mom heard about art therapy on NPR and she came home and said, well, Kristi, I think that this blends all of your favorite things into one profession, and I spent probably my entire senior year of high school researching; any paper I could write about art therapy, I did, anything I could read, I was doing that, and I knew from that moment on that this is what I wanted to do.

This might be a new concept for people. What exactly is art therapy?

Art therapy is a health profession, similar to counseling and other forms of therapy. Art therapists have extra training in using art as a therapeutic tool. I like to describe it like this: art is my special language that I bring to our therapy sessions. One of my favorite things about art as a therapeutic tool is that it almost becomes like a third person in that communication triangle. You and I can communicate verbally, and if I'm asking you to do some art, and you have art in front of you, you're communicating with your art, and your art is also communicating with me, and we're communicating with each other. It adds a deeper sense of expressing and communicating.

Is it easier to communicate through making art, for people who might be struggling to talk?

I think sometimes what people will think is, oh, that's good for people who don't communicate well. And that's true. But it's also true for people who do communicate well. A lot of times if someone is a good communicator they tend to be very cognitive or intellectual and sometimes art can put them into an area of emotion, a state of being that they are not used to being in.

How does it help the healing process?

There is a lot of research into the neurological effects of doing artwork, or looking at artwork. And the same with music, with what happens in our brain. And I really believe that when you're doing art, you're integrating your whole brain, whereas a lot of times when we're walking around in our daily life, we're only using bits and pieces of our brain. But when you're doing artwork, you are kind of meshing it all together, past experiences, present experience, and what you want for the future. It's all kind of happening all at once.

What if someone doesn't have any skill at art, or talent?

I’d say, welcome! I'm so glad you're here. What I think a lot of people don't realize is that artistic development is universal. So it's similar to when you learn to walk, and talk, and write, and read; artistic development has a similar track to it. Most human beings have artistic development that stopped, right before Middle School, in third to fifth grade, because typically, that's when they stop teaching art in school. So it depends on when you stop learning art in school. For everybody, artistic development usually stops at that period, unless you're really interested in art and you pursue a career in art, or you come from a very artistic family. So most people draw or do art at an upper elementary developmental stage. It’s expected for anyone who comes to art therapy to have about that level of experience.

Are there some kinds of art-making that lend themselves better to the therapeutic process?

It depends. There's a continuum of art materials, from very fluid art materials, like finger paints and clay, and then very restrictive art materials like color pencils or just pencil with no color, and then everything in between. When I'm doing art therapy, or working with a person, I'm considering that continuum of materials, so if you're a person who desires structure and control, I might consider doing something more on the fluid side with you, like clay or finger paint, to kind of loosen that up and allow a little bit more emotion to come through. On the other side, if you're very emotional and maybe needing some help with finding more control in your life, I wouldn't do clay or finger paints; I'd probably be moving more towards markers or color pencils. And so that can shift or change, depending on where you're at, or what the session goals are. I don’t think there’s any one type of art material or projects that are better than an another: it depends on the goal.

Is it more the process of making art, or the end result, that helps people?

I think it's a little bit of both. It's a little bit of the process, and a little bit of the product.  I would say that the product is kind of a secondary goal. If you come out with a really great product that is really meaningful to you then great, but if you just spend a whole session mashing clay because that's kind of what you need to do, and there's nothing to show for it at the end, that's awesome, too.  It just depends on the person. Some people really want to have that end product - something tangible - and other people are more invested in the process.

Are there certain issues that are better suited for this form of therapy? Or is anyone that is seeking a therapist going to see some benefit from this?

Art therapy is for anyone. I think that one of the misconceptions about art therapy is that it's only for children - because children are the only people that do art -  or that art therapy is only for people who like art, and who are good at art. That is a good entry to seeking an art therapist, but it's not a necessity. You know, I always say stick figures can be just as expressive as a full portrait. Stick figures sometimes are the best way to portray what you're wanting to show.

What are other misconceptions people have about art therapy?

I'm not sure if this is a misconception or just that a lot of people don't know, but art therapy has its own educational track. Art therapists have a master's level training and board certification, and [the profession] has its own credentialing bodies, just like doctors or therapists. It’s a specialized mental health profession. I think a lot of people think if someone is a social worker who does art, or there's a program and it offers art, then you can call that art therapy. But there is a difference between therapeutic arts programs and a professional art therapist.

And something a lot of people don’t know is that art therapy is under this umbrella of creative art therapy. Besides art therapy, there's also music therapy, dance movement therapy, drama therapy, poetry therapy. There's lots of other creative arts therapists out there; it’s not just fine art. There are all these creative arts that people engage in and there's therapists in those spaces as well.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

I love when, as I mentioned before, the artwork is a third person in the room. I love when a person is able to look at their art and have what I call an aha moment where it really sinks in for them when they see their art, or when they're doing their art, like the process brings a deeper sense of knowing. I love those moments where I am more of a witness or a guide to a person's own process, rather than giving straight on advice. I like that, that witnessing someone discovering something for themselves through their art.

Curious to learn more about art therapy? Check out Indy Maven's recent post. To learn more about Kristi and her work, you can visit her profile on Psychology today.

Tickets are now on sale for Create! If you are local to Indianapolis, come out and make some art! And if you aren't local, we have you covered: virtual art kits are available for purchase for those who cannot attend or prefer to participate remotely. Our thanks to event sponsors Adoptions of Indiana, The Cradle, and Kirsh & Kirsh.

Thank you for recognizing the importance of post-placement support: