Art Therapy - Milwaukee VA Medical Center
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Milwaukee VA Medical Center


Art Therapy

Q: What is the local and National Veterans Creative Arts Festival? Do I have to be actively taking art therapy to participate?

A: The Milwaukee VA local art competition – normally held in February each year – is the first step toward the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival and is open to all Veterans enrolled in VA. You do not have to participate in Art Therapy. While the contest is open to all Veterans who get care at VA, many use it as part of their recovery to heal from post-traumatic stress, substance abuse and a variety of other health care concerns. There are more than 100 categories in music, dance, drama, visual arts and creative writing.  In the Visual Arts category there are 50 categories such as drawing, painting, woodworking, ceramics, sculpture, photography, fiber arts, leatherwork, and craft kits to name a few. The local first place finishers advance to the national competition with the opportunity to be selected to attend the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival, hosted by a different VA each year. For more information regarding our local Creative Arts Competition, call the hotline at 414-382-5070.

Q: What does art therapy consist of at the Milwaukee VA
A: We use artmaking as a non-verbal form of therapy, which utilizes a variety of creative art materials such as drawing, painting, collage, clay work and mixed media to help Veterans process and manage their illness, trauma, or challenges in living. Through creating art and reflecting on the art products and processes, Veterans can increase awareness of themselves and others, cope with symptoms, stress, and traumatic experiences; enhance cognitive abilities; and enjoy life. It is offered most often in a group setting but is also offered on an individual basis.

Q: What are the different forms of art therapy?
The spectrum of art therapy services ranges from “Art as Therapy,” where the focus is on the product (arts and crafts) and developing artistic skill. The art making is used as an outlet for creative expression. At the other end of the spectrum, “Art in Therapy” artmaking is used as a vehicle for communication (art psychotherapy) for the purpose of developing insight and for resolving emotional conflict. We offer Group Art Therapy where members complete the same art task with a common therapeutic goal as well as an outcome-focused Art Studio experience.

Talent abounds at Creative Arts Festival

People look at artThe annual creative arts festival is open to anyone enrolled for care, but many who participate find it a part of healing for trauma, substance abuse and other issues. From painting to pottery, to leather work, water color and more, many Veterans express themselves through art therapy. Learn More.

Q: How does a Veteran sign up or participate in this part of therapy?
A: Art Therapy is only available for Veterans receiving care in the Domiciliary Residential program and in the Veterans Recovery Resource Center. For some Veterans, art is prescribed as part of their core treatment, and for others, it’s an elective they can attend based on availability within their treatment programs.

Q: Can Veterans just show up to participate?
A: Unfortunately, no. A Veteran must either be admitted to the DOM residential treatment program or PRRC. Some art therapy groups are a mandatory part of the core programming for specific programs such as PTSD, Substance Abuse, GEN Mental Health, Women’s program, etc. There are elective programs where veterans residing in the domiciliary may come to “open studio” or “skill building” sessions as their schedule permits.

Q: Is there a schedule of events?
A: There is a monthly program calendar in Domiciliary 123.

Q: Where does the art therapy take place?
A: Art therapy group sessions take place in the art therapy studio, Room E100 in Domiciliary 123.

Q: Why is art therapy so important?

A: Art therapy can be used to treat and assess anxiety, depression, PTSD, substance abuse, addictions, trauma and loss, and other mental and emotional problems. It has the power to tap into unconscious material and gain access to emotions and experiences that are buried deep in the brain, without overwhelming the artist. Art therapy provides a pleasant distraction in conjunction with exposure to difficult content so that the traumatic material can be processed. The act of creating builds self-esteem, can reduce emotional numbness and help re-establish social functioning. In the end, the art piece can serve as a visual record and evidence of one’s mental state, but it can also serve as a container for difficult emotions. Art therapy can offer solace from physical pain and relief from symptoms.

Hearts & Minds a stark reality of war, wins Best in Show

Luke Yanny and his artworkLuke Yanny left the Iraq War, but he brought the war home from him. When he closed his eyes, he lived the war. He put those images into art work as part of his healing at the Milwaukee VA. Learn More.

Q: Do I have to be good at art to participate?
A: You don’t have to have any art background or art skill to participate. The only requirement is an open mind and willingness to try something new. The Art therapist comes up with specific art tasks or processes that facilitate self-expression and the specific goals of the group.

Q: Will I be forced to talk at these therapy sessions, or can I just do artwork?

A: In group art therapy, two-thirds of the session is art making, the last third is discussion or sharing of the artwork. No one is ever forced to talk. However, reflecting on your finished piece can create new understanding and heighten self-awareness. Open studio is a time for personal art making and there is no formal discussion unless the veteran requests this.

Q: What different things can I do?

A: Drawing, painting, ceramic mold pouring, clay hand-building, collage, mixed media, beadwork, polymer clay work, leather craft, pyrography, mosaics, and mask-making.

Q: How much will this cost me to participate?

A: There is no cost to participate.

Q: How does the VA afford these items?

A: Recreation Therapy programs have a limited budget for materials, but they are supplemented by donations through Voluntary Service Organizations.

Q: Can I take these items home with me?

A: Absolutely.

Q: Am I allowed to display my work at events?

A: This is usually not an issue, but Veterans must get approval of their recreation/creative arts therapist or the medical center director.

Q: Can I sell my art?

A: Your art is yours and you can sell it if you wish, but not on VA premises. Veterans who create artwork through VA Recreation/Creative Arts Therapy programs are not allowed to sell their work on the VA premises.

Q: Are there any competitions where I can show my artwork?

A: Across the country each year, Veterans treated at VA facilities compete in local creative arts competition. The Milwaukee VA hosts their local art competition where we have a panel of artists judge and select the top three places from each category of art. The competition includes 50 categories in the visual arts division that range from oil painting to leatherwork to paint-by-number kits. In addition, there are 120 categories in the performing arts pertaining to all aspects of music, dance, drama and creative writing. Our winning entries are then sent on to a second phase of competition where they are judged against winners from VA’s across the country. A national selection committee chooses first, second and third place winners among all the entries. Select winners are invited to attend the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival each year.

Q: What are some success stories from your Art Therapy program?

A: We’ve had Veterans report that “It saved my life by giving me purpose, something constructive to do and a way to open up and share things that I never had before”. We’ve also had Veterans leave our program and become successful artists in the community. We’ve had other Vets gain local recognition for speaking on their personal experiences and the healing power of art. Others return to the VA to share their creative expertise and give back to fellow veterans by serving as volunteers.

Q: Where can I get more information about the VA’s art program?

A: Contact Marisa Straub, ATR, at 414-384-2000, ext. 41976. Or Rene Burgoyne, ATR-BC, ext. 46575.

Meet the Art Therapy Team

Rene BurgoyneRené Burgoyne is an Army Veteran and has been a board-certified art therapist since 2004. She has worked at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center since 2015. She is also a licensed professional counselor who has worked closely with Veterans since 2006. In her role as an art therapist, she is responsible for facilitating group art therapy with Veterans from all eras. Some of the groups she facilitates focus on dual diagnosis while utilizing a recovery model and other groups are focused on trauma and general mental health. She brings her love of mindfulness and self-compassion to the group to help with emotion regulation and healing. Rene currently completed her certificate as a Level-OneTrauma-Informed Expressive Arts Therapist which allows her the use of expressive therapies, mind-body approaches and resilience-building in trauma integration and recovery.

Marisa StraubMarisa Straub is a registered art therapist and has served Veterans at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center for 30 years. She has worked in the Mental Health Domiciliary Residential Rehabilitation Treatment Programs using art therapy in a variety of programs throughout her career. She has trained numerous art therapy interns from local universities and has organized Veterans art competitions and shows at the Milwaukee VA for more than 20 years. She has also served as the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival, Visual Arts Chair from 2009 to 2016 and cohosted the 2014 National Veterans Creative Arts Festival in Milwaukee. Marisa believes visual and symbolic expression can give voice to experience and empowers individual transformation.