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Is Art Good For You?

by Jerome Weeks 25 Jul 2014 9:03 AM

The Crow Collection has expanded its mission to include wellness classes and lectures (yoga, t’ai chi, meditation), while Rachel Nash is a rare gallery owner: She also offers art therapy.


rachel2editRachel Nash in her Deep Ellum gallery. All photo credits: Jerome Weeks

The Crow Collection of Asian Art has been expanding, adding a sculpture garden, moving its gift shop. It’s also expanded its mission. The art museum is addressing the links between art and health – and so is a brand-new art gallery in Deep Ellum.

This week, Rachel Nash gave a lecture at the Crow Collection. Back in February, Nash opened a storefront art gallery in Deep Ellum. It’s unlike any other gallery around. In front, as you might expect, there are artworks on the walls. It’s in the back where Nash holds her art therapy sessions. Many Texans have never heard of art therapists, let alone met one. The North Texas Art Therapy Association lists only 12 full members.

Nash says, there’s a simple reason: “There are very few art therapists in Texas because there are no grad schools around.” Most of the art therapy graduate programs are clustered along the East and West Coasts, with one or two others in places like New Mexico.

Nash herself graduated from SMU in psychology and got her master’s in art therapy at the Art Institute of Chicago. She’s a licensed professional counselor and a registered art therapist — Texas requires both credentials before a person can practice art therapy. Nash may have such professional credits — and the Art Therapy Credentials Board may have set standards and provided such board certification for decades — but she says many people, when they meet her, say the term ‘art therapy’ just makes them think of playing with clay and finger paints. It’s more than that, more serious than that, Nash says, but that kind of directed play is, in fact, one of her tools.

“Sometimes,” she says, “play disarms fear, and when you disarm fear, especially for, say, children with trauma and serious trauma or abuse, then you’re getting them into a place where they can really start to learn and change behaviors. You can’t get that when they’re operating out of fear and anger.”

In her lecture at the Crow Collection, Nash explained some of these basic approaches in her practice. Which begs the question: Why is an art museum presenting a talk on therapy? Or another one on the health benefits of Asian cuisine?

Amy Hofland is the museum’s executive director. Turns out Hofland originally studied to be an art therapist. But including Nash in the Crow’s lecture series didn’t come from her personal interest.

“We have really begun to embrace wellness as a large part of our program at the Crow,” she says. “And I’ve come to believe in this deep connection between looking at art and being well. And I think in this world of stress, museums can really be an oasis, kind of the quiet place.”

In addition to its series of wellness lectures, the Crow Collection hosts classes in yoga, t’ai chi, meditation and qigong, the Chinese exercise practice and martial art. And now the museum may be moving beyond just hosting such things in its galleries.

“I’m slowly hoping to build a wellness center here,” Hofland says. “You could say we already are one with classes every day of the week. But I could also see a physical space in perhaps an empty part of Trammell Crow Center here on the mezzanine [where the Crow’s administrative offices are], a place for meditational classes, yoga, and my dream would be acupuncture.”

rachelwideWhen it comes to her clients, Nash says art can provide more than a quiet place. Art is something we draw or build or paint. It taps into things beyond our verbal skills, our defensive rationalizations. It’s physical evidence of what we feel. In her Crow lecture, Nash told the story of one client, a 55-year-old depressed woman, an alcoholic. Nash had the woman draw herself.

“She did a series of self-portraits. And each week they got more beautiful,” Nash recalls. She hid the portraits, so each week the woman started from scratch. And then, after two months, Nash laid them all out for her client.

“And she looked at them and stood back and thought, ‘Wow, that’s a big difference. I had no idea.’ So art-making allows for a very tangible evidence of progress.”

Hofland says the hope is such lectures and classes can provide audiences with insights into their own well-being. But it’s also simply in the museum’s interest to encourage a more reflective approach by visitors.

“The average visitor doesn’t spend enough time with art,” she says. “I think it’s like four to six seconds. So we’re teaching a practice of how to look and what to see and how to tap into curiosity. And if we can teach people how to lower their blood pressure, how to handle stress, I don’t see why a work of art isn’t a great place to start.”