Survivors Learn to Express What Can’t be Said


Maggie, a young mother, attended Open Art Studio on a rainy Monday evening with her four sons. Seated in the back of the room, Maggie briefly looked at the art materials in front of her before laying her head down on the table. The boys selected a few materials and began to draw in silence.

The Julian Center’s art therapy program adds a unique opportunity to the comprehensive, trauma-informed care model offered to survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. Led by two licensed mental health counselors board certified in art therapy, survivors and their children are able to engage in a process of healing that some find more manageable than traditional talk therapy.

The next week, Maggie and her sons returned to Open Art Studio. While she used colored chalk pastels to draw, the boys smiled and interacted with her. Eventually she laid her head down on the table, at which time the children became silent. But over the course of several more weeks, Maggie spent each session trying a new media and increasing her participation time. Her children, meanwhile, spent each week sculpting animals, houses, and people from clay.

Art therapists provide both individual and group art therapy experiences to adults and children. Adult survivors working with their children learn to give and receive empathy and form stronger bonds with their children. Children are able to express through art what is too painful to say and have their communication be acknowledged and affirmed. Cathy Malchiodi, a world-renowned art therapist specializing in treating trauma, has shown that creative arts therapies have a unique place in treating trauma resulting from domestic violence.

Eventually Maggie joined her children using clay. As the family worked, they talked about how creating art made them feel. It provided an escape from their stressful lives, and allowed the kids to “just be kids” again. Art therapy provided a healthy emotional outlet for them individually and collectively, giving them the opportunity to give shape to the trauma they had experienced. During their last week of attending Open Art Studio, Maggie and the boys worked together on a joint project: a clay sculpture of a large umbrella shielding five small figures, keeping them “safe from the rain.”

Research confirms that much of what happens in the traumatic moments survivors experience is stored visually. Survivors of domestic violence often do not have the tools and/or words to make sense of what they have been through and to reestablish a sense of safety. But the ability to break the intergenerational cycle of violence is dependent on their doing just that. Art therapy allows for images to speak what the victims have not been able to say. The healing elements and sensory comfort of art materials serve as a vehicle for hope and healing for our clients.

If you would like to make a donation in support of The Julian Center’s art therapy program, please visit or call (317) 941-2200.

Pictured: Inner Elephant (photo by Gina Baird)