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Editor's note: This story is a part of our annual My Sister's Place special section, which can be found in our Thursday, Sept. 26 edition, or online by going to https://www.athensnews.com/eedition/. If you'd like to help out, MSP has a wish list for desired donations located here.

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Twice a week, My Sister’s Place in Athens has offering an art therapy group for clients, a service that began this summer.

According to Kate Fetterolf, MA, ATR-BC., who volunteers at the domestic violence shelter to facilitate the group, art therapy can benefit survivors of domestic violence in ways that traditional talk therapy cannot.

“The main thing that makes art therapy stand out in the work of psychotherapy and cleansing is that we use art materials,” Fetterolf said in a phone interview last Thursday, Sept. 19. “…It’s a profound way to help patients visualize who they are… and find ways to visualize and create change for themselves.”

Fetterolf said she practiced in Georgia for many years before coming to Athens about three years ago. She said she believes she’s one of the only board-certified art therapists in southeast Ohio, if not the only one practicing.

Fetterolf brought the idea to My Sister’s Place, she said, because she knew that the shelter’s clients could benefit.

“Long term, I would say the creative process is kind of like going to a well and drawing water deeper and deeper from it,” Fetterolf said. “The more you can come to the well and draw water, the more you can understand the richness of your own creativity and the power that it has to show you things about yourself.”

Kelly Cooke, executive director at My Sister’s Place, said in a brief interview last week that the agency welcomes ideas from the community.

“We like to be able to offer all kinds of different programs,” Cooke said. “…When community members come to us with ideas about something they’d like to do in the shelter, we try to incorporate that as much as we can.”

According to Jordan Vincent, a counselor at My Sister’s Place who said she has observed one of the art therapy sessions, the new program is fairly popular.

Group attendance isn’t mandatory, Vincent said in a phone interview Thursday, Sept. 19. “We really try to make it voluntary, so we weren’t really sure” in the beginning what attendance would be like, she said. 

So far, there is typically “at least… one client, upwards of three or four” who participate in the group, Vincent said, which she added is “a big portion” of the clients currently staying at the 10-bed facility.

“I think what’s been really great about the art group is… the clients who participate have a lot of choice in what they create and how they create it,” Vincent said. “Choice is not often something they’ve had in their relationships, because an abusive relationship is all about power and control… They are reclaiming their narrative, in a sense.”

Fetterolf said various methods can be employed to aid art therapy, including groups where all participants focus on the same theme or similar projects. She chose an “open studio” format for My Sister’s Place, which allows participants to do whatever feels right for them.

“Open studio allows someone to come in and sit down with a variety of art materials and engage in various ways,” Fetterolf explained. “These women are transitioning from unstable to stable (situations),” she said, adding that it’s important to “let them make some choices.”

Some shared themes do arise, however, according to Fetterolf. “Because these women are looking for the future, very often what these women create is a vision of what they would like their future to look like,” she said. 

Images of a nice home, something representing children or family, or a sense of order and stability are common. “I see these things occurring over and over again in the art work,” Fetterolf said. “My job is to help them look at what they’ve done... and shine flashlights on it,” rather than to analyze or criticize the work, she explained.

Once it’s all over, participants leave with a physical reminder of the work they’ve done, unlike traditional therapy. “It’s tangible… So you can be reminded, oh yes, this is what I see for myself,” Fetterolf said.

Vincent said the group offers an alternative to “straight talk therapy.” The agency already offers music therapy, as well.  

“It’s hard… especially early on, to find words for your experience,” Vincent said. These creative alternatives give clients a new way to express themselves.

“There are physiological changes that we see in people’s brains when they are working creatively,” Fetterolf said, “whether that’s art or writing or music or dancing.”

Fetterolf and Vincent each shared examples of inspiring work they’ve witnessed in the group.

“What I observed during the first group was really powerful,” Vincent said. One of the clients Vincent witnessed, who created artwork involving a lot of red, “talked about how she had a very traumatic experience with her abuser… She had red on there for blood but turned it into a rose... I thought that was really great,” Vincent said.

Another woman reportedly described herself as a small cat at the beginning of a session, Fetterolf said, but by the end depicted herself artistically as a bear. 

“I was so impressed with this woman’s fierceness,” Fetterolf said. “…She was a protective, big mama bear in the center of the page protecting her children.”

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