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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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.