Art therapists helping community cope with pandemic stress
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COVID-19'No previous art making experience required'

Art therapists helping community cope with pandemic stress

JFCS is now providing art therapy sessions for Jewish organizations and community members.

JFCS staff enjoys art therapy, helping combat stress during the pandemic. (Photo provided by Angelica Miskanin)
JFCS staff enjoys art therapy, helping combat stress during the pandemic. (Photo provided by Angelica Miskanin)

For art therapist Angelica Miskanin, the act of putting acrylic paint, pen, highlighter or, yes, even crayon to a blank page is more about the journey than the destination.

“We really focus more on the mindfulness aspect of art making,” said Miskanin, a licensed professional counselor who came to Jewish Family and Community Services in 2019 to help the community process feelings surrounding the Oct. 27, 2018 Squirrel Hill synagogue shooting. “Art therapy serves as another language that doesn’t rely on words. Scribbles on the page? Or art that tells a story? Either one is there to provide help.”

Since the COVID-19 pandemic swept the nation, Miskanin and fellow JFCS art therapist Kelly Moore have been offering regularly scheduled sessions for staff at Jewish agencies, as well as community members, to decompress and reflect.

The two therapists’ next “art-based support group” takes place 5 p.m. Aug. 27 via the teleconferencing program Zoom.

“No previous art making experience is required, just an open mind!” reads the event’s promotional flyer.

Moore said there’s special meaning to hosting groups for organizations such as the Jewish Association on Aging and the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.

“We are all people that give to our community – this is an hour to give back to ourselves,” said Moore, who joined the JFCS staff in May. “This was a space to come together to not talk about work [and] to be more lighthearted about the art we’re doing.”

“The Lighthouse” by Kelly Moore. (Image provided by Kelly Moore)

Marlene Layton, a community-building administrative specialist with Pittsburgh’s Jewish Federation, has taken part in four or five of Miskanin’s and Moore’s sessions this summer – and she loves them.

“I thought it was helpful; it was therapeutic,” said Layton, a native Pittsburgher who lives in Forest Hills.

Layton remembers one session where the therapists taught coping skills by asking participants to draw things based on their senses – five things they could see, three things they could smell, and so on.

“I think it’s very good to do during the day,” Layton said. “I’d like to do it every day – it calms you.”

The therapists sometimes use art to help participants process feelings about COVID-19, the uneasy state of national politics, and the social unrest that has hit many cities around the U.S., among other things. Moore stressed, though, that only sometimes do she and Miskanin prompt the participants on what they might want to draw.

“Taking your anxiety on vacation” by Angelica Miskanin. (Image provided by Angelica Miskanin)

“What would it look like if your anxiety went on vacation?” Moore once asked. Another time, they asked participants to paint the colors of their stress. Once, they drew their breathing, getting them in time with every inhale and exhale – à la meditation.

Art therapy isn’t just about the serenity of watercolors. When a person feels stress, the adrenaline in their body rises, and so does cortisol, a naturally occurring steroid hormone that regulates processes such as metabolism and the immune response, said Miskanin.

Miskanin and Moore said they feel lucky to be providing this service to the community.

“That moment of getting into that space? I was fortunate and honored to be in that space with those community members,” Moore said.

“It’s great to be a messenger,” said Miskanin.PJC

Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.

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