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Healing Through Art

The buttons were created from photographs brought by family members of their fallen solider.
WUIS/Illinois Issues

Operation Oak Tree — which provides military families the opportunity to participate in therapeutic art, music and drama activities — recognizes that soldiers’ children are affected just as much as the spouses at home when soldiers are on deployment. 

Administered by the Music Institute of Chicago’s Institute for Therapy through the Arts, Operation Oak Tree designed the creative arts track for an Illinois Connections for Families of the Fallen event held in November. Illinois Connections for Families of the Fallen is a group of more than 25 organizations that host events to connect families and friends of fallen soldiers with resources, services and entitlements. Creative arts activities are one aspect of the services they provide. 

Operation Oak Tree, which started more than two years ago, assists families at reintegration events for Illinois National Guard members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, says art therapist Leslee Goldman. 

The program is now involved with events for all stages of the deployment process including pre-deployment and reintegration. Events are also offered for families of the fallen. 

Anxieties, fears and trepidations can be hard to share. “By using the creative arts … it provides a language expression. And the whole point of using the creative arts is to give voice to feelings that would otherwise be to difficult to express,” she says.

“Talking about temporary or permanent loss of a soldier, of a family member, a loved one is a really hard thing to do. Somebody is going off to war, there is a lot of anxiety, a lot of fear; one holds their breath as the phone rings or some black car comes down the street because one never knows who is going to step out and bring really horrible news,” Goldman says.

This mosaic was created each person adding at least one small tile.
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues
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WUIS/Illinois Issues
This mosaic was created each person adding at least one small tile.

“We looked at creative arts because we are trying to find something for everyone. Creative arts to us looked like a way to bring families together and not just families, but other survivors. You get them all at a table, working on an art project, talking between each other, they make friends. (It) seemed like a natural medium to use to offer support,” says Illinois Army Survivor Outreach Services coordinator Bob Gillmore, who is co-chairman of ICFF. 

Art therapy can be used with children, adults and the elderly. The type of art used depends on the interest of the client, says Gussie Klorer, director of the graduate art therapy counseling program at Southern Illinois University Rdwardsville. 
“Children don’t have a lot of emotional resources because they are young,” she says. 

Operation Oak Tree was invited by the military to provide creative 
arts activities and an experience to children to give them a voice for some of their concerns, Goldman says. 

Events are not about going in and doing an art experiment. “We are not looking for an end product. We are not looking for a song that can be created that can be sung and hum when you go home. We are not looking for a drama or story that can be related to later on or a picture that can be hung up because its pretty. This is about expression. And sometimes emotional expression in the arts is not pretty —sometimes it’s really ugly and really hard to share or hard to look at. That’s why trained expression art therapists have to be involved,” Goldman says.

Creative arts activities include painting, storytelling, drama and music making with children, she says.

“While it may be difficult to talk about fear, anxiety or that funny feeling that one gets because mom or dad is crying, because they are at home and are so overstressed, the arts provide an event to express and also a bit of distance so that the child is not saying ‘I am experiencing this, but perhaps the character in a story is experiencing it or the person in the picture is experiencing it,” says Goldman. The process provides closure for the child, Goldman says. 

“You encourage people to play rather than to create art. I think if you put the idea that they have to create a piece of art, people get really intimidated. But, this isn’t about creating art. This is about being expressive and spontaneous.”

Klorer says. “Expression begins with the art, but we are also trained as counselors. Once the art expression takes place then we often bring it into a more verbal world. We start talking, we use counseling skills and we help the person discover meaning for themselves.” 

Illinois Issues, December 2011

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