Never underestimate the power of art. The mere act of viewing art has been shown to boost immunity and stave off disease, according to a 2015 University of California, Berkeley study published in the journal “Emotion.” By extension, imagine the healing properties of creating art. The Studio Downstairs at CREATE Arts Center in Downtown Silver Spring is a stand-out example of art therapy— and art healing—in action.
For individuals with emotional disorders, including trauma, physical conditions such as cancer and brain injury, autism, dementia, depression and a host of others, art therapy is a widely recognized method of treatment. Generally, art therapy programs are found in hospitals, psychiatric and rehab facilities, as well as schools, senior communities and private practices. Studio Downstairs is unique in that it meets in one big open creative space. It’s the only program of its kind in Montgomery County.
Founded in 2003, this membership-based program was conceived by artist and art therapist Sally Brucker. “Brucker attended art therapy herself and wanted to start her own” program, said CREATE’s Executive Director Heena Genti. “[Brucker] taught at Montgomery College and had an understanding of painting and drawing. Beth Tutt, the former Studio Downstairs director, “participated in the group and…was very inspiring to the clients” as well, Genti added. Today, Gwen Short serves as program director. With a master’s in art therapy from George Washington University and a bachelor’s in studio art, Short is ideally suited for her position.
Studio Downstairs serves mentally ill adults who live independently, but are unable to manage the daily stressors of attending school or a job outside their homes. Members meet twice a week for a three-hour session at the studio. Some days include field trips to art exhibits or museums.
“Studio Downstairs participants must have an outside psychiatrist and a therapist,” Short said. This ensures a member’s stability and that the art therapist has someone to confer with regarding individual cases. She added a participant does not need to be an artist to join, but an interest in making art is essential. There is an age requirement of at least 18 years old. Regular attendance is expected for at least three months, as are respect for others and responsibility for cleaning up at the end of the session.
Short said that a session at Studio Downstairs can turn a participant’s entire day around, and send them home with tools to use when life presents them with obstacles. “While creating art, we discuss the work and discuss how to handle problems” that arise. Sometimes participants arrive “negative or with strong voices,” she observed These problems are either worked through while creating art, or, if the mood precludes creating, “we work on the problem first.” “Often, someone jumps right in with a problem and the rest of the group shares feedback,” she added.
Sharing also occurs in the form of work done at home. “Some people bring in their own work and their own supplies. Some work on what they feel like. We encourage them to do the art or craft they want to do,” said Short, emphasizing the welcoming nature of the program.
Many of us would never dream of participating in an art show—showing and selling our work. Studio Downstairs sees this as an ideal opportunity for members to explore confidence and courage, as well as collaboration. One relationship created in the program led to an illustrated children’s book. Another member recently had a solo show at the Ratner Museum Carriage House in Bethesda.
“Attendance has fluctuated over the years,” said Short. “In years past, there have been so many artists that we required two rooms and two art therapists. Now we have a small core group of active participants.” Since its inception, Studio Downstairs has served more than 200 people.
“Finances definitely prohibit some individuals from attending. Studio Downstairs does not currently accept insurance, so all fees are out of pocket,” Short noted. “We are currently exploring whether we can find corporate sponsors or generous donors, and that would allow more artists to participate. We do offer a sliding scale fee system, but some people living on a fixed income still cannot afford to attend.”
Looking in on the program, participants are creating art while discussing difficulties with daily life that many might find incidental, but those with emotional disorders find debilitating—people laughing or talking loudly on the bus, for example. For some, creating art serves as a platform to “engage in conversation,” one member commented. It also provides an instant common interest; a connection.
Is the program primarily about art or largely about therapy? Short said it would be difficult to weight the focus. “It’s about finding a better way to handle situations,” she concluded. One member described the program simply as a way to “keep busy and cope.”
Studio Downstairs meets Mondays and Wednesday, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. September through May; and 3:30 to 6:30 p.m. June through August, at CREATE Arts Center, 816 Thayer Ave., Silver Spring. For information, call 301-588-ARTS (2787) or email firstname.lastname@example.org. View CREATE Arts Center on CultureSpotMC here.