By Alice Beecher
“As a species, we’ve always turned to the arts to transform our suffering,” says Randall K. James, sitting in a workroom littered with looms and boxes of clay pastels. Paid for by the Student Finance Committee (i.e. free for you) James is a licensed art therapist here to provide students with a creative outlet and a sense of catharsis.
After spending years teaching and working with the juvenile offender community, James has developed the patience and intuition needed to provide a good remedy for anxiety. A key to his practice is to provide a sense of freedom and openness—when you walk into the art therapy studio, you aren’t required to participate in the activity he schedules, nor will you be evaluated on the work you do there.
Unlike other forms of psychological care that seek to diagnose a specific problem and provide quantifiable evidence of therapeutic “success,” art therapists tend to view their patients more holistically. Instead of separating the emotional self from the body’s physiological processes, art therapists see psychological disorders in the context of the larger person, emphasizing the use of creation as a way to visually process trauma. Since the visual cortex is strongly linked to the emotion processing limbic system, this concept makes a lot of sense.
At the session I attended, James asked us to introduce ourselves by drawing a picture of our ‘internal worlds.’ While the prompt seemed vague at first, I found that as I drew, my thoughts became clearer and lighter than they’d ever been in the weeks since I arrived on campus. By creating something tangible out of the mind’s chaos, you learn that stress is something one can release and control. In addition, the practice of sharing drawings with other participants creates a kind of community that is often hard to find at Oberlin—one where people admit that they might not actually have all their shit together after all.
Art therapy sometimes lacks the credibility of traditional psychological care because the effect of creativity is subjective to the individual artist/patient. In Ohio, art therapy is listed as ‘recreational therapy.’ Furthermore, art therapists cannot collect insurance or receive a degree. Since there is no standardization of the art therapy educational curriculum, licensing agencies do little more than mark art therapy as a subset of counseling.
Our culture requires concrete evidence to prove that care is useful, but personal growth is often too complex to chart in quantifiable diagrams. Luckily for us, these political issues have not distracted James from his “calling”, and his willingness to aid the Oberlin student body with warmth and humor is clear from the outset. I would advise any over committed/overwhelmed first-year to check out these sessions, if only to talk to James for a little while. A kind ear and some oil paint are sometimes all you need to get your life back in order.
Sessions with Randall James continue in Wilder through Wednesday, September 22nd.