Coping through creative intensity: Expressing pain through art can help with healing

Erin standing against a red wall with the words "Adler Graduate School Art Therapy" on it.
Erin Rafferty-Bugher, a field experience coordinator at the Adler Graduate School in Richfield, grew up appreciating creative approaches to problem solving.

While walking through the Adler Graduate School, you’ll find an impressive array of artwork hanging from the walls, sitting on tables, and even hanging from the ceilings.

But one painting stands out from the rest.

It’s an intricate assortment of shapes and colors that all seem to lead back to the center of the painting. A circle.

“This is a mandala … It really focuses on wholeness,” said Erin Rafferty-Bugher, an art therapist with the University of Minnesota Amplatz Children’s Hospital and field experience coordinator at the Adler Graduate School in Richfield.

After taking just one introductory course, Rafferty-Bugher fell in love with the idea of using art to heal, and immediately took as many classes as she could to get her master’s in Art Therapy at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Now, she works as an art therapist with various organizations, including Adler.

a yellow mask on a shelft with the words "smart, strong" and other illegible words on it.

Adler provides masters level programs, post-degree licensing options and certificate programs to train future human services professionals. Students take part in highly condensed training programs while receiving hands-on experience working among the metropolitan community.

“My dad raised us with this creative way of parenting, and we always had that heavy influence in our lives to appreciate art, and to experience art, and to do art,” Rafferty-Bugher said.


a brown and purple mask sitting on a shelf

“Through the art, we were able to sit together in these really hard and often dark places and emotions, but the art somehow supported the intensity of these experiences.”

According to the American Art Therapy Association, art therapy is a nonverbal form of therapy that uses art and other creative mediums for healing and life-enhancement.

“Utilizing the art helps—actually it connects—both sides of the brain,” Rafferty-Bugher said. “It engages all parts of the brain depending on the different medias that you use … different parts of the brain can be utilized at different times.”

On an even more detailed level, creating artwork can help connect new neural pathways within the brain. This helps integrate emotions, thoughts, experiences and sensations.

“The opportunity for people to use art helps connect them to some experiences that might have been … tucked back in there, because of some painful things that have gone on,” Rafferty-Bugher said. “It gives a place for that to be externalized … and it can either be talked about or managed, giving that person an opportunity to heal.”

After her father’s death, Allison DeCamillis began the therapeutic process of expressing her feelings through art.

“My father had died when I was five and it wasn’t until I was a teen that I knew the emotional impact his loss had on my life … I had an AP art teacher who encouraged me to explore this loss through a series of artworks,” she said.

“I remember reworking a pencil image of my father’s face and how tears would flow each time I erased his features. That same teacher introduced me to the concept of art therapy.”

Now, DeCamillis is the program director at Gilda’s Club Twin Cities, an organization designed to help people with cancer—and family/friends they’re associated with—cope and heal.

Known nationwide for its signature red door, Gilda’s Club functions as a place where kids, teens and adults alike can find the support they need to get through the day. Programs don’t just center on art therapy, but also incorporate yoga, other expressive arts and even nutrition programs to help keep patients healthy and engaged.

For Rafferty-Bugher, art is only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to helping patients heal.

“I’m completely open in my practice to work with people in any creative capacity,” she said. “Typically, yes, I’ll use the visual art mediums, but I have sandboxes in my studio, I have music in my studio, and we have yoga mats, too. Whatever it takes.”


It’s a unique approach that isn’t aligned with the scene we often see in movies or on TV: A psychologist facing a young patient while asking, “How do you feel?” A psychologist rarely faces a teen and gives them a piano or painting easel. Then again, Beethoven and Picasso may never have discovered music and art as creative outlets had they not been drawn to their healing qualities.

“In a traditional talk therapy session, you have two players—the client and the therapist. In art therapy, it is like there is a third party invited to the session, and often times that third party can be quite revealing,” DeCamillis said.

“Different individuals need different forms of experiences to access their inner selves. The goal is the same—to help that person grow … and find meaning of themselves and their life experiences.”

So, how do teens—who are notorious for stubborn, tight-lipped behavior—respond to therapy from DeCamillis and Rafferty-Bugher?

DeCamillis believes that teens respond well to art and other creative outlets because they have the opportunity to “be with” emotions and experience. While working at a pediatric hospital in the bone marrow unit, DeCamillis found herself helping the “tough” patients, typically teens.

“Art allowed these teens the space to explore what they just didn’t seem to have words for. We explored anger, sadness, rage, humility, shame, fear, hope, joy, and even death,” she said. “Through the art, we were able to sit together in these really hard and often dark places and emotions, but the art somehow supported the intensity of these experiences.”

Depression and anxiety are common trends Rafferty-Bugher sees among her adolescent patients. Some of the most severe cases she has worked on consist of teens that have histories of trauma—or their depression was so critical, they became suicidal.

“Some (cases were) not as severe, but still as important to take care of, and hopefully prevent some of those extreme cases,” Rafferty-Bugher said. “Kids and adolescents have a hard time expressing their feelings verbally, (even) knowing how they’re feeling, and then to ask them to talk about their feelings with words is very challenging.”


For Clare Judge, an eighth grader at St. Therese Catholic School, singing, dancing and acting are the only ways she can relieve stress and anxiety.

“I feel like when you write stuff down on a piece of paper, people don’t really get to feel your emotions,” Judge said. “I’ve never been good at writing, so doing all the stuff that I do, like dancing and singing and theatre … (it’s) really the only way.”

Added Rafferty-Bugher: “That’s the beauty of art and music and all those creative forms of expression. It’s a safe way to put those feelings on a paper, using markers or pens or crayons or clay and paint. And you can say this is how I feel. This is it.”

And don’t worry: Your skill in those mediums isn’t important. A common misconception about creative therapy is that an artistic background is necessary for it to work effectively.

“I think my most successful experiences have been with the kids that have actually stated, ‘I hate art. I’m a sports person,’” Rafferty-Bugher said. “The therapeutic relationship is first. And then it’s finding those gifts within each person that, ‘Yeah, you know what, maybe I am a little creative’… Anyone can do it.”

“I like to think that conducting an art therapy session is often like creating a piece of art. I create in response to what is shared in the session. It is much like sculpting—you build, you take away, you add a bit more,” DeCamillis added.

“Art and life are full of metaphors. So is the therapeutic process.”