Addiction professionals & creativity: How addiction counselors use art to heal

Deborah Feller is a psychotherapist who takes feelings she encounters in therapy sessions and transforms these into drawings and paintings. A highly gifted artist, she talks with us here about her work in addiction therapy and how the process of creation can help addiction professionals working with clients.

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Childhood's Edge (work in progress) © 2011 Deborah Feller

ADDICTION BLOG: Hi, Deborah. First of all, thanks for what you do. We need men and women like you to help others who are dealing with grave injustice, past abuse, and chemical dependency issues. My hat’s off to you for being in the psychological service of others. You also have the true gift of figurative representation. Your pieces are amazing.

So, did art come first? If so, at what age did you start to consider yourself an “artist”?  Do you remember the first piece that you were really proud of?

DEBORAH FELLER: Art goes back as far as I can remember. In elementary school, I enjoyed drawing covers for my reports. As soon as there were art classes (starting in junior high school), I spent as much time in them as possible.

Reflections on Self © 2003 Deborah Feller

In second grade, I sat next to a friend who drew and we created a scene of a beach. He did one half and I did the other. He doesn’t remember this and I don’t remember which half each of us did but I can still see the blue water, yellow sand and colorful umbrellas and people.

I began to grow into my identify as an artist sometime in the early 90s. It preceded my returning in a serious way to the study of art and then by 1999, I was enrolled in an MFA program in figurative studies at the NY Academy of Art. I wear that identity quite comfortably now, which feels very good.

ADDICTION BLOG: What attracted you to therapy and social work, especially addiction treatment?

DEBORAH FELLER: Since my late teens I wanted to be a therapist. I read Freud and was fascinated by the power of the unconscious in our lives. I loved his books about creativity, and after majoring in fine arts (studio and art history) in college, went on to study art therapy & creativity development in an analytically oriented program.

I fell into the field of addiction when the first job I landed out of graduate school was as a recreation/art therapist on the Bowery in NYC, which was at the time our skid row. Now it’s home to the New Museum and trendy galleries and restaurants. Within two years, I found out about a job as an alcoholism counselor in Brooklyn and during my almost eight years there, I went back to school for social work (to qualify to be a supervisor) and got my CSW. After another couple of years in agencies, I decided to start my own private practice. I’d reached the level of program director and missed the clinical work. And I was tired of always having someone over me preventing me from providing the best services for the clients we served.

Human nature fascinates me. The power of therapy to help people recover and transform their lives compels me to maintain my private practice even as I try to spend more time at my art. Now I’m also writing art and theater reviews, as well as articles on mental health issues. They’re all related.

ADDICTION BLOG: Can you tell me a little about the process of creating a narrative? First, how do you choose a particular narrative?

DEBORAH FELLER:  Over the course of the years, in my work as a therapist, I’ve heard many stories. Because I’m a visual person, my brain codifies the memory as an image first, then with words. Among all those images, only a few can be turned into drawings and paintings. The others, of incest and other forms of child abuse/neglect, would turn people away, defeating my purpose to get them involved enough in the art to keep them looking.

Once I decide on a narrative, I talk to my client about my idea. (I do the same when putting together a still life representing a particular client’s experience.) The person might go with it or make suggestions to improve it. I get the details regarding props and I let the person select the child model from a batch of head sheets I will have already secured from the model agency I use. I then make some sketches to show my client and once we agree on how things will look, I take it from there.

I hire models, have them pose for an hour-long photo shoot and then work from the photo and the props, if there are any. I do a fully realized drawing, have a full-size photo made of the drawing. I then use the photo in my transfer process to get the image on the canvas. Then I paint. For my next narrative, though, I’m determined to shorten this process and will probably do more of a preparatory sketch than a finished drawing.

ADDICTION BLOG: Second, how does your emotional state evolve as you move through a piece? In other words how do you feel at the beginning of a piece versus the middle versus the end?

DEBORAH FELLER: At the beginning I’m very excited, always thinking it will take less time than it does. By the middle, when all the basic elements of perspective, proportion and likeness have been worked out and I’ve started the work of modeling, I’m psyched. By the end, I just want it to be over; everything takes a long time to render in the hyper-realistic way I do. When it’s over, I relish its appearance and quickly forget how much I labored, though my tally of hours spent reminds me.

I go through a similar process for the painting, though for that I’ve already worked out the drawing elements so it’s mostly about corrections and then color. Once the underpainting is in place, the fun begins as I apply the color.

ADDICTION BLOG: Finally, given the difficult subject matter that you present in narrative, what sense of completion do you have when you are finished with a piece? Perhaps I’m projecting a little, but it seems hard to “close the book” on the pieces. What do you do to represent and then create a boundary with the topic matters you choose?

DEBORAH FELLER:  I’ve already got my next projects in mind before I’ve finished a work. I like to alternate between narrative and still life, and now have an idea for a self portrait; it’s about time to do another one of those.

So far I’ve not sold any narratives though I have had to part with a number of still lifes. So my narratives adorn the walls of my apartment and I get to look at and admire them. After they appear in one of my paintings, my clients become known as, for example, the Toy Soldier client or the Dolls client. The book is never closed on any of my pieces because the book has yet to be closed on child mistreatment.

ADDICTION BLOG: In the same vein, what do you hope your audience will do with viewing these difficult subjects? Do you set an intention for audience reaction?  Let me use a personal example. Daddy’s Girl particularly draws me back over and over again. I just want to peel that man’s hands from the child. I feel angry and disgusted. What can I do with these emotions as a viewer?

DEBORAH FELLER: I develop the images that I paint and draw because they tell stories that need to be heard. I’ve learned that if I refrain from explaining (though I find that difficult), viewers come up with their own interpretations. My intention is to capture attention and evoke a visceral response while at the same time helping the audience remain engaged because of the quality of the drawing/painting itself.

A colleague had a very different reaction from yours to the Daddy’s Girl painting. It reminded her of her husband with her daughter in a very positive way, which I found curious especially since she has her own history of childhood sexual abuse (not incest and when she was older than the girl pictured). I’ve heard many different stories explaining The Annunciation, too.

What to do with your emotions? Feel them and learn from them about yourself and your own experiences. Emotions are vital sources of information and cannot harm us though they can certainly feel awful.

ADDICTION BLOG: What benefits does art bring you? / What does the creative process allow you do accomplish? For example, can you better accept your client’s past experiences and difficult moments? Does your artistic process help you develop your own internal peace of mind?

Artist working on Toy Soldier © 2009 Eva Yaa Asantewaa

DEBORAH FELLER: I’m an advocate. I want to change the world, one person at a time. I want to participate in helping people heal. Originally, I went back to school for my MFA because of my love of art. As I acquired more skill, it just seemed natural to create art that is meaningful and not just pretty. I’m a passionate person and try to infuse my art with that passion. I draw and paint my primary interests: human nature, relationships, stories, personal motivations, and so on.

My artistic process requires enormous discipline and patience. It can be frustrating and rewarding, maddening and pleasurable. I especially enjoy the feeling of accomplishment when I resolve an issue. And I love the way my artwork looks, which keeps me going. Peace of mind? I’m not sure what you mean by that.

ADDICTION BLOG: Would you recommend creative art therapy for other addiction professionals?

DEBORAH FELLER: Everyone has a creative outlet, whether it’s making marks on a surface, playing or listening to music, reading or writing, or any other number of similar pursuits. Creative arts activities enable us to express ourselves and in so doing gain more understanding of ourselves and what we enjoy, and can do.

ADDICTION BLOG: What tips, suggestions or words of wisdom do you have for addiction professionals looking to begin a similar path?

DEBORAH FELLER: Get started! If you can’t, find support so you can overcome whatever prevents you doing what you want to.

ADDICTION BLOG: Would you like to add anything else?

DEBORAH FELLER: I suppose if I didn’t love my clients as much as I do and if I wasn’t as dedicated/obsessed with making people pay attention to harm being done to children, and to adults who suffer silently from their own childhood abuse and neglect, I couldn’t summon up the persistence that my artwork requires. I also feel a responsibility to use the gifts I’ve been given, to be a channel for the good in the Universe. That keeps me going, especially when I feel as tired as I often do.

More on Deborah Feller, MFA, LCSW, NCAC II

About the author
Lee Weber is a published author, medical writer, and woman in long-term recovery from addiction. Her latest book, The Definitive Guide to Addiction Interventions is set to reach university bookstores in early 2019.
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