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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Startups, artists and the Big Bang Theory

To start something that did not exist before is hard. Like the Big Bang Theory. This is what artists do. This is what entrepreneurs do. This is what writers do and parents and innovators and architects and gardeners and potters and sculptors and and and.

I’ve created lots of things that did not exist before I influenced them into being.

Like this:image

and this:


and this:


and of course this piece that you are reading right now and even bigger, the Whirled Tree Arts organization that this blog is a facet of.

There are days when any one of us “creators of things that once did not exist” feel a bit confused or doubtful. Does what I’m doing matter? Does anyone care but me? Will anyone see it, love it, listen to it, read it, care for it like I do? Will I finish it? Will I know when it is finished?

In regard to business development, the questions of, is this idea stupid? Will people ever invest in my idea? Will it ever be as big as I want it to be? Or scarier, what if it grows bigger?! Beyond my wildest dreams?!  These questions and their messy, fumbling quasi-answers are poignantly recorded on the Podcast “Startup” which I’ve been listening to, binge style, all morning.  In “Startup“, former This American Life producer Alex Blumberg shares his account of his start-up process as he makes the leap from “man to businessman.” The episodes are raw and funny and so relatably TRUE to the sentiments, haps and mishaps of what starting a business is like. I think the reason I can’t stop listening is because hearing his experience is a huge relief: I’m not alone. Maybe I’m not such an idiot after all. Maybe ALL entrepreneurs and business owners fumble along in self-doubt. Maybe it’s part of the process and what makes the success stories so….successful.

Another reason why I love “Startup” is because it reminds me that as soon as you start, you’ve already made something that wasn’t there before and as an optimist, I see that as a miraculous success in itself. Like the Big Bang Theory.

Art Gives a Face to Homelessness

“[Street artist] Skid Robot humanizes the homeless by incorporating them into his art, creating scenes in which the subjects aren’t just a faceless person, down on their luck.” –Huffington Post


Before becoming an art therapist, I volunteered for a time at a homeless shelter in Somerville, Massachusetts.  I worked with another woman and we did art projects with children, taught mothers how to make healthy meals on a tight budget and most of all formed relationships with the young, often single parent, families residing in the small shelter.  It was an experience that in many ways informed my path toward art therapy and mental health counseling.

Years later, I went on to do further work at a wonderful program called Housing Families, Inc. in Malden, Massachusetts, where I interned as an art therapist.  In that role I learned even more about how fine the line truly is between having and not having. With the perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances, any one of us can find ourselves in the category of “homeless.”

I’ve lived in Burlington, Vermont now for 4 years where my interactions with people who are homeless or at risk of becoming so have continued in a variety of ways.  I see how easily people turn a blind eye to the plight of those on the streets and in my time here I’ve continued to ask, “What can I do? How can I help?”  These questions come less from a place of feeling as though I know better or have something others need but more from a place of wanting to shine a light on humanity in order to help our society as a whole give those who’ve found themselves on the margins a sense of dignity and hope. I wish to promote the message that people faced with homelessness are part of our community regardless of the circumstances they live in.

Street artist, Skid Robot, in LA appears to have a similar motive to my own.  His approach of creating graffiti art of the needs, hopes and dreams of those living on the streets is controversial but the intent behind his artistic actions is pure stating for the Huffington Post, “I’m drawing attention to a human being who more often than not is looked at as nonexistent.”  I value his work and the message he is sending.  It is my hope that Whirled Tree Arts can have a similar impact in our East Coast communities.

Skid Robot has a GoFundMe campaign to support his work as does Whirled Tree Arts.  Feel free to learn more about both our missions here:

National Art Campaign of Compassion

Whirled Tree Arts. Help Us Grow.

Can Art Change People’s Lives?


Street artist, JR seems to think so.  He has spent over a year facilitating the largest global art project probably ever by connecting people and communities through installation art and photography.  This TEDtalks video shares more of his mission and passion.  It is pretty inspirational and humbling to witness how one artist’s vision can change the world on a pretty massive scale and it aligns so fully with our mission at Whirled Tree Arts to connect people to people through creative experiences.

To learn more about JR’s project, check out www.insideoutproject.net where he invites us all to “stand up for what [we] care about by participating in a global art project…together we’ll turn the world… INSIDE OUT.”