Nile Lansana, an apprentice award recipient for the Chicago Arts and Health Pilot for Creative Workers, poses for a portrait near Malcolm X College on Oct. 24, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago


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CHICAGO — Shalom Parker has practiced art therapy in Chicago for three years. In that time, she hasn’t met many others in her occupation.

That’s pretty common, since many organizations only hire one or two art therapists at a time, she said — and it’s easy to feel isolated.

So when Parker saw an application over the summer for the Chicago Arts & Health Pilot for Creative Workers, a new program that pairs artists with the city’s mental health clinics, she jumped at the opportunity.

“I started to realize that this was an opportunity not only to … work with other artists in the city who are also passionate about their communities and about healing, but also to be a part of proving the efficacy of art as a healing practice,” Parker said. “Art therapy is a pretty new space and not very established.”

Parker and nine other artists became the city’s inaugural cohort for the arts and health pilot program in September and began training for community health worker certification through Malcolm X College.

Shalom Parker, an art therapist with the Chicago Torture Justice Center, throws clay on a wheel in her West Garfield Park home on Oct. 20, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

In January, each artist will join one of five Chicago mental health clinics, where they’ll spend the year developing new programs — perhaps holding spoken word workshops, designing attractive marketing materials or guiding people through calming ceramics sessions. The clinics are in Bronzeville, Englewood, Gage Park, Lawndale and North Park.

The program is run by four partners: the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, the Chicago Department of Public Health, City Colleges of Chicago and the national arts and health initiative One Nation/One Project.

For Chicago, this pilot breaks new ground. While clinics may have held individual art workshops in the past, the health department’s Assistant Commissioner of Mental Health Alisha Warren said this is the first time the city’s community mental health clinics are intentionally bringing in outside artists.

“Right now, our services are all very therapeutic,” Warren said. “The combination of those therapeutic services with some of those social services, like an art class or a dance class or exercise, really helps us sustain our mental health goals.”

Connecting Art and Health

For people who may have grown up hearing stigmas about therapy, Parker said art can be a more accessible form of expression. It’s “a really easy entry point for a lot of people,” she said.

Each pilot participant will figure out how they can best contribute in coordination with the clinic they’re staffing. For instance, Parker, a ceramic artist, said she’s hoping to use the kiln at the Greater Lawn Mental Health Center to incorporate clay into her healing work.

Chih-Jou Cheng is a movement artist and a participant in the Chicago Arts & Health Pilot for Creative Workers. Credit: Provided/Michelle Reid

Chih-Jou Cheng, another artist in the pilot, said she’s hoping to fill gaps in the support system for immigrants and refugees.

An immigrant herself, Cheng said a lack of community often hurts immigrants’ mental health. Resources and community centers for immigrants exist, but Cheng said they’re often hard to access, and she wants to help change that through this program.

Though only two months into the program, cohort member Nile Lansana said the community health worker training is already helping to affirm and expand how he views healing in his artistic practice.

Lansana, an interdisciplinary artist, said he found solace in art after getting two concussions in high school that forced him to set aside playing soccer. He started writing to unpack his emotions, which led him to poetry performance.

As Lansana healed, he found community.

“I really am a living example of how arts and health and healing and wellness are intertwined,” Lansana said. “I know that if that can happen for me, then it can happen for other people.”

Shalom Parker, an art therapist with the Chicago Torture Justice Center, throws clay on a wheel in her West Garfield Park home on Oct. 20, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Aiming for Long-Term Impact

Across the country, 18 unique programs aimed at supporting mental health through art are underway. One Nation/One Project is studying the impacts of those programs, including the city run pilot and another Chicago program run by the Inner-City Muslim Action Network.

The One Nation/One Project researchers are hoping to add to a body of research that shows the importance of creativity on a person’s well being.

“The arts aren’t just nice. They aren’t just dessert to the meal of life,” said Jill Sonke, director of national research and impact. “They’re actually fundamental nutrition for us.”

Organizers of the arts and health pilot in Chicago plan to continue investing in arts and behavioral health after the current artist cohort wraps up at the end of 2024.

Meida McNeal, senior manager of arts and community impact investments at the city’s cultural affairs bureau, said she wants to create a pipeline for the artists to find mental health-related roles.

She’d also like to launch another iteration of the arts and health pilot. In the long term, McNeal sees the program as the beginning of a project to funnel more artists into mental health training.

Parker said there is a particular need for more art therapists who come from and can support underserved communities. She pointed out that because graduate school for art therapy is so expensive, few people can formally study it.

While the pilot program trains people in community health, not therapy, Parker is optimistic that it will increase the number of people working at the intersection of healing and the arts.

“There’s so much that could be given to the community if the accessibility of these programs was wider,” she said.

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