Why Community Art Therapy?

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Sometimes people ask me what it is that I do. Sometimes that question is also followed by another question: why do you do it? Recently these questions were asked of me by a colleague, Hannah Andersen, for a blog piece she was writing for an organization called ANEW Place. ANEW Place provides a holistic range of services from emergency shelter to counseling and career development for adults faced with homelessness here in Burlington, Vermont. I’ve been delighted to provide their residents with a weekly studio art class through my arts organization Whirled Tree Arts.

So why community art therapy? Below I share with you Hannah’s post from earlier this month to help answer that question for you!  Keep reading and if you have questions or would like to support our work, contact us or donate here!

Whirled Tree Arts

Published February 4, 2015

The connection between art and healing is one that has been seen throughout the world, during every time period. Art can be inspired by beauty, and fullness but it can also be used as a tool for recovery to those who have an untold story. It has the incredible ability to bring individuals and communities together. Art Therapist and licensed mental health counselor, Carolyn Crotty knows this all too well, and is helping to connect the members of our house with each other and with the community around them, through her community arts organization, Whirled Tree Arts. Carolyn has been very involved in ANEW Place by bringing art classes to ANEW Place for our guests, as well as holding the paint party fundraiser Create for a Cause to support ANEW Place.

What are the goals of Whirled Tree Arts?

As a nationally registered Art Therapist and licensed mental health counselor, I began the organization with the belief that all people value creative, interactive experiences and that, at core, we crave meaningful connection, mutual understanding and a sense of belonging and purpose. Based on this,

I wanted to create an organization rooted in the idea that when we participate in shared creative experiences and engage in creative play and self expression our moods lift and our world expands.

I truly believe there is magic in being both participant and witness to the creation of something from nothing (both artistically and metaphorically); this is both humbling and empowering. Whether it is through the painting of an elaborate portrait or a drawing of a simple line of crayon on a blank page, creativity enriches the soul. It cultivates compassion and unity and shines a light on humanity in a way that brings us all closer through color, shapes and lines. Art becomes a metaphor for life and our own process of growing into the people we wish to be in this world. We could choose to grow alone or we can choose to evolve together in a fun and creative, colorful way!
 In my experience as an artist, art therapist and teacher I’ve seen how art and creative expression help people connect to one another as well as to big ideas and concepts.

The arts help us make meaning of our collective and individual experiences and provide us with a tool to reflect.

My hope is that the workshops and groups I run through Whirled Tree Arts such as the Kitchen Table Arts open studio group at ANEW Place will serve as watering holes where people can come to find connection and meaning in their shared experiences while also paying respect to each individual’s unique life story.
In order to reach the most people across a wide range of demographics we bring art programming to other organizations as opposed to having a home base and expecting people to come to us. Our hope is to have a mobile studio in the form of an art truck, bus or “tiny house” that can be parked in and around neighborhoods while also being able to travel outside of the city to bring art to the people with less access to services in town. This might look like art workshops brought to homeless individuals and families sheltered at motels or hotels or it might look like going to schools and other municipalities or offering retreats and workshops at parks and natural areas. It would be wonderful to connect our community in Burlington to other communities across the state and region through this mobile art studio. Maybe one day we will even have a fleet of mobile “maker” studios!”

What are your favorite parts of the workshops you run?

I love witnessing the parallels of the creative process and the process of how relationships form over the course of a workshop or group. There is always a “where do we start?” moment at the beginning and a sizing up of materials (and each other). It is an information gathering and assessment phase and then as people begin to arrange materials to create their artwork you can just see and feel the ease fill the room—people begin to open up to themselves and to each other and there is just this beautiful authenticity that people take on: their guards begin to drop and real connection emerges. It is just beautiful and it makes me smile every single time I witness and experience it. I find it even more miraculous in an age of social media and texting where our common interactions with one another in these ways have become so insubstantial and unfulfilling.

The workshops I run give me hope that we as a collective community are still capable of being present with one another.

This is the role I hope Whirled Tree Arts will play in the Burlington community and beyond. I want to create opportunities for people to be real and connect with one another authentically; to expand our collective awareness of each other’s experiences and stories and cultivate an honest shared empathy, understanding and respect for each other—for a small city and a small state, we have so many individuals living here with such inspiring stories! People who’ve overcome traumas and addiction, people who have survived abuse, people who have started their own businesses or worked on the family farm for decades, people who’ve survived poverty and others who have come from so many places around the world. Our region is so much more than green mountains. I wish to provide a way for those stories to be shared with no judgment just celebration of the rich fabric of our community through artistic expression.

Whirled Tree Arts

What are the challenges you face with Whirled Tree Arts and how do you overcome them?

My organization relies on collaboration with other organizations and community spaces. We rely on partnerships for space and funding (we are a mobile art studio) but also for getting people in the room to make art. Relying on others can be hard because sometimes the needs of those other community spaces or organizations may not always align with the needs and goals of Whirled Tree Arts and sometimes it can feel like a competition for funds to keep all of our organizations afloat. It would be so easy to get frustrated by this or sit in a place of fear or disappointment but I’ve found the best way to manage is to meet other organizations and community partners where they are at. To honestly and openly strive to understand the needs, goals and challenges within the greater system of community providers and seek out a role in that system for Whirled Tree Arts to play that aligns with our greater mission and purpose. If organizations can mutually support one another then I think we set a tone in our community for individuals to do the same.

This is the whole point in creating healthy communities: learning to work together by understanding eachother’s perspectives and seeking a way to make the world better together instead of separately.

This takes patience and time and sometimes the most effective way to get from point A to point B is to go the long and hard way through. If I notice myself getting frustrated, disappointed or fearful that Whirled Tree Arts won’t bring in the funding or make the connections it needs to survive I just ask myself, “What’s the rush?” It all comes together in time if we just trust the process, follow the signs, be grateful and believe in the vision. The longer I operate in this frame of mind the more those connections and supports develop. I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the relationships that have formed in just less than a year ANEW Place, New Moon Café, BCA, ONE Arts, SEABA, COTS and so many more amazing organizations, businesses and foundations. It is humbling and reaffirms for me what I’ve always known to be true: authenticity paired with slow and intentional growth is the key to success. All good things come in time and I trust Whirled Tree Arts will grow strong roots in this community. It is already happening.

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3 Ways to Stay Grounded this Holiday Season

As you take time to celebrate the season with friends and family it can be easy to get caught up in the chaos of presents and holiday parties. You may find yourself fighting off seasonal depression or feeling nostalgic or melancholy as the year comes to a close.  Or you may relish in the joys of Christmas carols, lights on trees, hot cocoa and candy canes. For most of us this season can bring a mix of both sets of feelings.  To stay grounded and healthy and not let the swirl of holiday mania get the best of us, here are 3 tips to beat winter blues and truly engage in the magic of this time of year.

1) Keep a gratitude journal…maintaining a mentality of gratitude is a fast way to feel the bounty and abundance we all possess. This can be important during a time of year when many of us are bombarded with advertisements aimed at convincing us that we need things. Combat the feelings of deficit and reflect on all that you have: people in your life you are grateful for, experiences you’ve had that you wouldn’t trade in for anything, moments that you cherish. Gratitude is magical and I am confident you will find that the more thanks you give, the more you receive.

2) Make something for others…Giving homemade gifts can be daunting to some. The act of giving something to others that came from your own mind, heart and hands is a humbling and rewarding experience. It is like giving someone a piece of yourself and if you are not confident that a piece of you has value (or if you’re simply not confident in your handmade gift making skills) it can feel scary to offer these types of presents to others: What if they don’t like it? What if it’s ugly? What if they think it’s dumb? etc etc. The fears are real and it’s okay! However, the reality is, most people (especially the people who love you) will be so impressed, grateful and touched by the thoughtfulness, time and COURAGE that went into crafting their gift that your fears will melt away in the exchange and you’ll likely form an even closer bond with the people you’ve given your presents to. Handmade gifts can range from simple cards with thoughtful notes written on them, home baked goodies, a collection of recipe cards, or a whole host of simple DIY crafts from a scroll through Pinterest.  Try encouraging others in your life to give only handmade gifts this year too!

3) Take a leisurely walk…too often we are rushing about in a frenzy this time of year. Quiet your mind and reconnect with your surroundings by taking a slow walk in the woods, your yard or even your neighborhood. Take time to notice…what sounds do you hear? do you notice any birds or animals? What is their behavior like this season? What do you see? Shapes, colors, people, nature? If you are in the woods, what signs of winter growth do you notice? Dormant buds on trees? Green moss or ferns encased in snow or ice? What does the air feel like on your skin? What smells are in the air…chestnuts roasting? Wood fire stoves? Pine trees? Or city smells? When we slow down we give ourselves the opportunity to experience our world in a new light. This creates space to see new perspectives and perhaps let go of the “I must do…” mentality and simply be in the joy of the moment.


What are ways you stay grounded? Please share your tips and tricks as we all make our way through the season as thoughtfully as we can.

Reconsider the Face of Homelessness

November 15th-23rd is National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness week. 

Homelessness is an issue dear to my heart. It is a societal issue that is complicated and misunderstood which makes it difficult to address due to stigmas and community misconceptions as well as a lack of resources and misdirected funding.

In my work as an Art Therapist and Mental Health Clinician as well as the founder of Whirled Tree Arts, I’ve been inspired to understand homelessness better and develop community interventions that may alleviate some of the challenges. In this work, I’ve found that an important step to ending homelessness is to give it a face…


This is Najya and her daughter Sadai . They became homeless after Najya lost her job. High market rent drove the family to enter into Housing Families’ transitional shelter program. (photo courtesy of Housing Families, Inc. Learn more about Najya’s story here).

This is Lori. She and her family became homeless after her husband lost his job and then shortly after was diagnosed with a chronic illness.  Learn more about her story here. (Photo courtesy of COTS).

frank2.jpgThis is Frank. He is an artist and a veteran. You can learn more about his story and purchase his artwork at ArtLifting. (photo courtesy of ArtLifting).

The face of homelessness is the face of our neighbors.  Here in Burlington, Vermont, 78 families, including 127 children, have stayed in emergency shelter so far this year (facts drawn from the COTS website).  This doesn’t count the number of families who may be homeless but sleeping in vehicles, or staying at hotels or “couch surfing” at the homes of family and friends.

A lot of people I talk to don’t think of homelessness as a problem that affects families or children.  They often think of people who are homeless as being mentally ill or involved in criminal behavior. But as you can see from the faces and stories above, this isn’t the case.

If there is one thing I wish for each of you to do in acknowledgement of National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness this week, it is to reconsider how you think of homelessness.

If you have a home take a moment to share your gratitude. Consider what you could do to offer support to someone who may have lost theirs even if it is as simple as a genuine kind smile directed at someone on the street.

If you do not have a home, remember your value.  You matter. Your story matters. You are part of the community and people care about you. You are a courageous survivor.  Have hope, persevere, connect, reach out–the bravest people are the ones who seek and receive help when they need it.

Learn more…these are the organizations that I know and love that support people in their struggle to secure and maintain housing while also honoring the dignity and worth of people going through hard times:

ArtLifting.comArtLifting empowers homeless, disabled, and other disadvantaged individuals through the celebration and sale of their artwork.

Housingfamilies.orgHousing Families, Inc., located in Malden, MA, works to end family homelessness and support families in maintaining permanent housing through providing safe, temporary shelter and affordable housing to homeless and at-risk families.

COTSThe Committee on Temporary Shelter provides emergency shelter, services, and housing for people who are homeless or marginally housed in Vermont.

ANEW PlaceThis is an organization based in Burlington, Vermont whose aim  is to provide a holistic continuum of services for the homeless, centered in love and dignity, that foster growth, cultivate community engagement, and provide tools for lifelong change.

Share your story! Do you know of an organization that is doing great work?  Have you overcome hardship? What helped? Please share! I love hearing about inspiring people, places and things in communities near and far. We are all in this world together.

What is “wellness” and why does it matter?

Wellness is an active process of becoming aware of and making choices toward a healthy and fulfilling life.

“…a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” – The World Health Organization.

“a conscious, self-directed and evolving process of achieving full potential.” – The National Wellness Institute

    The above definitions of “wellness” are courtesy of the UC Davis Student Health and Counseling Services. I personally think of wellness as a survival skill for modern “first world living”.  It is an act of finding self awareness and using that knowledge to make choices that give balance in our life. It’s kind of like saying, I think I’ll have a salad for dinner because I ate a bowl of ice cream for lunch.


The UC Davis page does a great job of explaining one way of understanding the balancing act of well-being by outlining the Seven Dimensions of Wellness (Emotional, Physical, Mental/Intellectual, Occupational, Environmental, Social and Spiritual).

Seven Dimensions of Wellness Banner

Why does wellness matter though and how does one actually achieve it?

Daily life for many of us contain stressors and threats in the form of the foods we eat, the work we do, the entertainment we are drawn to.  When we practice balance in the seven realms described above, we can expect to feel less stress, more gratitude and fullness of life, healthier connections and relationships with people we love and more joy despite what hardships come our way.  We know ourselves better and begin to make choices that help us feel good in a big picture kind of way (as opposed to the in-the-moment-good you might feel when in the act of eating that bowl of ice cream).

Wellness is a way of being.  It is an active practice of checking in with ourselves and assessing the choices we make and the ways we think and feel and noticing when things don’t feel right and then learning ways to put things back in place.  For example I know that when my shoulders and neck hurt and I feel a headache coming on it means I feel stressed.  When I feel stressed it’s usually because I may be spending too much time in stillness wrestling with my own thoughts.  I know that I need to go for a walk, call a friend and get out in the world and out of my own head in order to feel more balanced and to maintain my wellness. This process begins with self awareness.

Self awareness doesn’t come easily to all of us but there are things that can help:

1. Keep a journal–record thoughts, feelings and things you did that day. Before long you may notice a connection between how you think and feel with what you do with your time.

2. Try a yoga class–yoga is a practice that uses movement to help build our awareness of our bodies and mind.  Other activities like dance, running, Qi-gong, martial arts, can help you build awareness too.

3. Change one small thing in your regular routine–maybe you decide to cut soda or energy drinks our of your diet for one week.  Notice how you feel? What felt hard? Did your sleep or appetite or thoughts, feelings or relationships change? If so how?

See what works for you! Share your experiences here if you’d like.

Yoga for your thoughts. And a cat video.

“Studies have shown yoga practice to produce a relaxation response that mimics the best anti-anxiety drugs on the market today, and that it can also help people with mild depression, insomnia, and ADHD. “

In preparation for some upcoming Whirled Tree Arts workshops that combine art with yoga, we’ve been doing some research on just what the benefits of yoga actually are in our western lives. In our quest for information, we came across this little article…


…which cites how practicing yoga can be just as good or better for our health than medications. Yoga is something anyone can do and there are lots of YouTube videos to help you test it out if you’re not sure about heading to a public class yet.

Give it a try…or at least watch this 🙂