Eva Carlston Academy
Posted on:

Art Speaks: Fieldwork in Therapeutic Settings

By Maggie Willis

Fieldwork rocked my world from day one. As someone who went to a private East Coast art school, I was no stranger to large departmental critiques. I learned what I had done “right” and what I had done “wrong”. I learned, too, how much professors love talking about themselves. Sure, this type of critique helped me to build a thick skin and develop my artwork technically speaking, but I always felt that something was missing. Then I was introduced to Fieldwork. Cue face melt. A new world of understanding was opened up right before me, as I learned that my art had emotional and narrative content, and that it affected people on a deeper level than just being “beautiful”. In Salt Lake City, we have a mix of visual and performing artists involved in Fieldwork, and this interdisciplinary infusion of minds exposed me to a smorgasbord of techniques, forms of expression, interpretations, and opinions. I learned that my art actually spoke for itself, and artists who weren’t painters understood its stories. What an amazing concept. 

Over the years I became a Fieldwork facilitator and fell madly in love with the non-suggestive peer feedback structure. It is no surprise, then, that when I became the Art Director at Eva Carlston Academy, a Residential Treatment Center* for teenage girls in Salt Lake City, Utah, it was a no-brainer to include it into the curriculum. I have found that it is a great technique for critiques in class, but more importantly, it is a powerful therapeutic tool.

At Eva Carlston “artistic expression—whether painting, dancing, music, or writing—can be a potent therapeutic tool, providing an outlet for emotions and feelings that are too painful to express verbally… It is not unusual for traumatic events that have been buried deep in the subconscious to surface through art, dance, or recreational activities. Once the emotions have been released, a therapist can work more effectively with the student and healing is accelerated.”

Family Traits Tree Project

In our “art as therapy” groups, group members create artwork based on a number of prompts including family trees, boundary mandalas, body image, self-esteem, etc., and then go through several sessions of “processing” their work. Often they will explain what their pieces mean, but by using Fieldwork, they no longer get to explain away their art. They must let it speak on its own. Group members learn what their art says about these topics without being able to defend it. If you’ve ever worked with teenagers, you know what a struggle it is to give feedback without a long list of explanations, defensive tactics, and “no one gets me” statements.  

The Fieldwork guidelines for “no disclaimers” is the first step to nipping this defensiveness in the bud and letting viewers have an authentic response to artwork and interpret what is right in front of them, without descriptions from the artist. These young women have to sit (very uncomfortably at times) with the feedback and allow for their peers to form their own opinions and interpretations of their work, whether it is “right” or not.

They also have to learn how to not take these interpretations personally, even though the art projects are directly and intimately personal. They also learn that, whether the viewers “correctly” perceive their intentions, their artwork speaks on its own.

Many of my students have admitted that, while the Fieldwork process was painful, it was enlightening.  They describe how they thought they had been successfully hiding what was really going on for them, but learned that their artwork exposed their inner truths. Their art was speaking volumes about their trauma, suffering, and core issues. It was a scary process, realizing that they were exposing more than they intended. But, in a safe environment, surrounded by peers who were exposed to the same levels of vulnerability, it became a bonding experience – a way to learn about and relate to others. They learned that others actually DID get them. They didn’t feel so alone, knowing that others could see their stories, their pain, and their experiences. And this is a place for healing to begin.

*Residential treatment centers (RTC’s) are live-in health care facilities that provide therapy for youth with serious emotional and/or behavior problems, Youth temporarily live in facilities where they can be supervised and monitored by trained staff.