Painting away the pain: Free art therapy program helps trauma victims

The jumbled images and swaths of color swirl together in catharsis.

When Caroline Fisher was angry and frustrated at certain people in her life, she turned to abstract art as a way to channel her emotions. She took images of those people, mixed them up and turned them around so that the pictures were unrecognizable.

The creative process was a healthy outlet for her feelings.

“I took four images of people who were vexing me, and gave them some nose rings and moles and things like that. And I felt better. I did another one and was pretty much ready to let things go,” she said.

Fisher saw the value that art therapy could pose, and wanted to bring it to others who had suffered some kind of emotional distress. Teaming up with fellow artist Patty Coulter, as well as Franciscan Health Indianapolis and Beacon of Hope Crisis Center, she started Take It Out in Art!

The free class is available in four-week sessions, during which Coulter and Fisher lead participants through the process of making abstract art. Through art, the hope is to help people cope with the trauma in their lives and move them toward healing.

“It’s going to give them so much confidence and peace, and take them out of their head with their problems and abuse they had. They can find out something new about themselves. It will bring them a lot of joy,” Coulter said.

Throughout her career as a registered nurse, Fisher was well-versed in how traumatic events can completely disrupt people’s lives. She was a certified sexual assault nurse examiner. As the founder and former coordinator of Center of Hope at Franciscan Health Indianapolis, she ensured victims were provided with a private examination room to work with nurses trained specifically to deal with the physical, mental and emotional issues surrounding such violent attacks.

Her experience exposed her to trauma that stemmed from working with patients.

“We encounter a lot of secondary trauma based on the stories we hear,” she said.

Fisher had started taking art classes at the Southside Art League, focused mainly on watercolors. During one class, her instructor led the group through creating an abstract art piece. She thoroughly enjoyed it, and started exploring new options in the genre.

After her own experience using art to address emotional situations, she thought it may have value for others suffering from the after-effects of trauma.

“I thought it could help them let go of some of their trauma,” she said.

Research has shown that engaging in artistic endeavors — whether music, dance, visual art or a myriad of other genres — can have positive mental health impacts.

A systematic review published in 2015 in the “Trauma, Violence and Abuse” medical journal looked at six controlled, comparative studies on art therapy for trauma in adult patients. In half of the included studies, a significant decrease in psychological trauma symptoms was found in the treatment groups, and one study reported a significant decrease in depression, according to the review.

Fisher worked with Beacon of Hope Crisis Center, a southside organization that offers advocacy services and referrals to people who are or have been victims of domestic violence or sexual assault, and officials from Franciscan Health Indianapolis to bring her program to life. A pilot class formed in early 2020, and it was well attended by both victims of trauma and health professionals that worked with them.

A second class came together, and plans for a series of sessions were in place before the pandemic hit, halting any progress.

But late last year, Fisher wanted to resurrect that initial effort. To help her with the artistic side, she connected with Coulter, a well-known artist in the area and member of the Southside Art League.

“I was wanting a place to teach this year, and wow, this just happened. Caroline contacted me, and it’s a very exciting opportunity,” Coulter said.

Classes are held in the Franciscan Education and Support Services Center in Greenwood. Session times are staggered, providing options around working conditions or other obstacles for participants.

The class is free, and supplies are provided. The process involves taking an image and tracing it in different orientations around the canvas. Erasing lines and moving shapes around distorts the images to be almost unrecognizable. Fisher provides other imagery that can be used in the work, such as a broken heart or a beer can.

“They can pick from those, or bring their own images, which makes it more personal,” Fisher said. “As you move lines around, it becomes less recognizable. They can leave things in that are recognizable if they choose, but they can also have total anonymity of those first images, if they want.”

Coulter and Fisher provide guidance for the artistic process, teaching a variety of techniques to approach their piece. At the same time, representatives from Beacon of Hope are available to give support. Beacon of Hope not only provided an advocate to take part in the class, but was able to secure funding to pay for the program throughout the year.

Take It Out in Art! has started its first sessions this year, and already, organizers are seeing an impact. Participants dealing with issues ranging from loved ones with illnesses to the grief of a miscarriage to the aftereffects of a stroke have all come through the initial classes.

”It’s about transforming that pain or that heartache into something different,” Fisher said. “Maybe joy, maybe just letting go.”