Painting could be good for your health, according to local art therapists.

On the third floor of a warehouse near Halyard Park, Lori Vance strides across an airy, loft-like studio space. Light streams through the windows, colorful tapestries hang from the walls and several bongo drums can be seen through a crack in a supply room door.

This is Express Yourself MKE, a nonprofit that provides art therapy to at-risk youth. Vance conceived the organization in 2001, not long after the events of 9/11. “My kids were in Milwaukee Public Schools when it happened,” she says. “There was such a sense of anxiety, there was trauma … I knew I needed to do something locally.”

Express Yourself MKE now serves about 16 juvenile detention centers, mental health facilities and schools in the metro area. Groups of four instructors (practicing artists working across disciplines, and licensed therapists) visit the sites weekly to teach dance, music, visual art, theater and poetry to young people between the ages of 7 and 21. They also invite students to enroll in on-site programs at their studio.

Photo courtesy of Express Yourself MKE

The students are welcome to talk about their feelings at each session, but Vance says they sometimes feel more comfortable expressing themselves through their artwork, and that’s fine, too. “People often come into therapy lost in their heads. The art offers a place to look and reflect and explore,” she says. “You’ve got to get out of your head to get into your heart.”

A couple of miles southeast of the Express Yourself studio, in a historic building overlooking the Public Market, another art therapist, Ernesto Atkinson, echoes that sentiment. “Art is a language that everyone speaks,” he says. “There are no barriers.”

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Born in Guatemala but adopted by a U.S. family at 13, Atkinson understands how hard it can be to overcome childhood trauma. “My life was difficult early on. There was a lot of color but a lot of pain, too.”

After earning a degree in fine art from North Dakota State University, Atkinson moved back to Guatemala to work for an anti-human-trafficking organization. Soon he met a young girl whose parents had sold her to traffickers. When she didn’t respond to his questions, he turned on a radio to help put her at ease and found that music comforted her in a way that words couldn’t.

Express Yourself is staging a special student performance on May 17 at the Miller High Life Theatre.
Atkinson realized then that he could leverage his artistic ability to help people overcome traumatic experiences or troubleshoot personal problems. So he returned to the States to obtain a master’s degree in art therapy. Now he owns Integration Healing (or Alivio Integral), a practice that serves English- and Spanish-speaking patients of all ages. Atkinson also teaches classes at Mount Mary, the first U.S. university to offer a practice-focused doctorate degree in art therapy. And Vance, who helped found the program and taught there for several years, regularly invites graduate students to take on clinical work at Express Yourself. “The research they’re doing is going to help move the field forward,” she says.

‘Hands-On Healing’ appears in the April 2018 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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