The Art of Healing

Whether it's with watercolors, pastels, air-drying clay, colored pencils or a collection of cutouts for collage, Andrew Elman '96 encourages his clients to achieve inner peace through selfexpression.

Andrew Elman

Andrew Elman


Collage by Catrina Johnson

It's Wednesday morning. Andrew Elman '96 arrives at St. Luke's Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri, and heads straight to the infusion area within the Cancer Institute. He carries only a black bag. Walking the halls, Elman casually peers into the rooms looking for alert patients who might be talking or reading. Upon finding one, he enters the room and greets the patient with a brochure in hand.

Elman is not a doctor, nor a salesman. He is an art therapist. The black bag he carries is filled with simple art supplies one might expect to find in a kindergarten class. His services, he immediately explains to patients, incur no additional cost. However, most patients are not familiar with art therapy and are initially resistant, often because they feel unartistic. After explaining that art therapy isn't about talent, but rather is designed to help process emotions and feelings, Elman finds that about one in every seven patients he meets is interested in participating.

“I'm selling them on the idea of art therapy, and they're in a difficult place to be emotionally, anyway,” Elman said. “Most times, if I'm meeting somebody for the first time, it's likely the only time I'll see them. In a typical first meeting, the patient is sitting there with the drip going. The nurse is constantly coming in. And amidst all of that, I try to introduce the patient to art therapy.”

To most, this process would be highly frustrating and discouraging. But Elman believes in art therapy for many reasons. One of which, according to Elman, is a chapter Cathy Malchiodi wrote about neuroscience and art therapy in her Handbook of Art Therapy. In the chapter, Malchiodi explains that although at one time the left and right sides of the brain were thought to have two different functions, it is now believed that both are actively involved in the art-making process. She further states that art therapy allows people to “reframe how they feel, respond to an event or experience, and work on emotional or behavioral changes.”

Elman's interest in social well-being was nurtured while he was a student at Pitzer College. Working toward a double major, he earned a BA in both fine arts and anthropology. It was through his study of cultural anthropology that he became interested in how people communicate. During his junior year, he traveled to Australia to study Aboriginal culture and art, and he was fascinated by how much of that culture and history have been visually communicated.

“Learning about other cultures has been helpful in art therapy,” Elman said. “There's no set way to address people or understand their mindsets, especially when their culture is different from your own. Pitzer allowed me to explore my interests and experience other cultures, and that has helped me keep an open mind.”

Following graduation, Elman continued to gain mind expanding experiences. First, the Fullerton Museum Center hired him to work in its private educational programs for three years. He then taught elementary art to students at Barnhart School in Arcadia, California. Instead of focusing solely on teaching art, however, Elman found himself also wanting to understand student behaviors and what parenting techniques might be leading to those behaviors. His fascination with family dynamics ultimately led him to pursue graduate studies in psychology and art therapy at Phillips Graduate Institute in Encino, California, from which he graduated in 2005.

Armed with his master's degree and the goal of pursuing a job in family therapy, Elman left sunny California for Chicago's frigid lakeshores. Unfortunately, not being a licensed counselor, he was unable to find work in a family practice, but was offered a job with Loretto Hospital as an art therapist in their psychiatric ward.

“Loretto was a sort of safety-net hospital,” Elman said. “The maximum stay was usually ten days. Most of the patients were homeless or lived in group homes. It was stressful working there since it was common for patients to be violent and have dual diagnoses—anything from chronic schizophrenia to bipolar disorder to suicide to alcoholism. They were often delusional and had trouble maintaining continuous thoughts, but the art therapy would sometimes help them focus and process how they were feeling. Loretto was also unique,” Elman explained, “because it had an art therapy department with five art therapists on staff, whereas most facilities just have one. It was so helpful to be able to bounce ideas off the other therapists.”

Challenging as it was, Elman maintained his commitment to help his clients and learned many skills while working at Loretto. Gaining experience in group and individual therapy and helping patients to understand their behaviors, he was able to work with psychiatrists and case workers on patient assessments. He also learned, with a little apprehension, how to nonviolently subdue a patient, when necessary, although most fights broke out over trivial things such as cigarettes.

A year after moving to Chicago, Elman was offered a job with Synergy Services, Inc. near his hometown of Kansas City. The group offers a variety of services ranging from shelters to advocacy services. Elman was hired to work in therapeutic services, which primarily includes family therapy, but also encompasses abuse cases and the treatment of victims as well as offenders.

“Talk therapy can be difficult for children, so art therapy is another option for them to communicate,” Elman explained. “And it works the same way for adults. Through therapy they are able to bring difficult emotions to the surface and their subconscious comes through in the art they create. For example, I was recently working with a sex offender client. I had the client complete a ‘bridge drawing.’ What I look for in this kind of drawing is what materials the bridge is made of, what's below the bridge, what's on the left and right of the bridge and the person's placement in relationship to the bridge. The page's left, middle and center represent the past, present and future, respectively.”

Elman continued to explain that instead of orientating the bridge from left to right, the client drew his bottom to top, complete with a vanishing point. This moved the focus to the center of the page, where the client had placed himself not on the bridge, but in the river that ran below the bridge. To Elman this drawing symbolizes how his client's life had been derailed by a single incident. And through this exercise the client is able to process and understand the impact this incident has had on his future.

The “bridge drawing” is one of many artistic directives Elman selects from when deciding what will best help a patient process emotions. There is also a “kinetic family drawing” for which he asks his clients to draw their families engaging in an activity. “I can learn so much about family dynamics from these drawings,” Elman said. “Sometimes a child will draw himself larger or more adult-looking than the parent. Other times he'll draw a caricature instead of a portrait, and that helps me get a feel for personalities. In some sex abuse cases, I am able to gain an understanding of how the victim views the perpetrator, or how the victim is processing the abuse endured.”

Elman is now a licensed counselor in Missouri, having completed his required two-thousand hours of direct client contact. His work at St. Luke's Cancer Institute (contracted through Naturally Yours, Inc.) is in addition to the family therapy he does for Synergy Services. When working with cancer patients, Elman prefers to provide the materials and allow them to create freely. His materials include watercolors, pastels, air-drying clay, colored pencils, collage or any combination of these.

“The most popular choice is collage,” Elman said. “I hear responses such as: ‘I can't make art. I'm not an artistic person. Iím not creative.’ I think the pre-made images in collage help with that. My co-workers and I will clip images and text from magazines that we think will address certain situations, and then we give patients a limited number of clippings to select from so they're not overwhelmed.”

During a recent trip to St. Luke's, Elman worked with cancer patient Catrina Johnson who opted to create a collage. Suffering from ovarian cancer and diabetes, Johnson has already endured having two tumors removed within the past year, one of which was softball-sized.

“We talked about her life from her youth to now. When she was young, she lost two siblings in unexpected ways, and, just recently, her sister passed away, so she's helping raise her sister's three children. Those are just a few trials she's facing outside of the cancer,” Elman explained. “I find it incredible that she's able to maintain this amazingly positive attitude with everything she's experienced.”

When asked to sum up his art therapy work with cancer patients, Elman simply states, “When working with cancer patients, the art can provide a concrete model of what the patient is experiencing. Their creation can serve as a permanent reminder of their courage and strength.”

—Elizabeth Benson