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Bloomington-Normal provides haven for art therapy

Front of the Creativity Center Building
City of Bloomington
WGLT file photo

When Bruce Moon and his wife Cathy Hyland-Moon relocated to Bloomington a few years ago, they wanted to find community.

Before the move, Bruce Moon said he’d been having jam sessions with a "cadre" of 20 or so musicians a couple of times a week. He couldn’t find anything like that here. He said it was like going “cold turkey.” So, he decided to start an open mic night at Crafted Commons. Now, Moon holds weekly open mics at Station Saloon.

“I like being in places where … they’re used to hearing a cover band and providing music that has more guts to it or more meaning to it, to make people think and to begin to engage in a give-and-take reciprocity around the themes that are expressed in music,” he said.

At an open mic in Libertyville, he played a song about the Vietnam War. Unbeknownst to him, there were veterans in the bar.

“The guy who had been playing lead guitar, for me, had never heard the song, but he was just playing along, and I looked over at him, and he had tears running down his cheeks,” Moon said.

Two other patrons saluted when the song ended. They had all formed a bond.

Moon said this is like the work he did as an art therapist. Both involve using art to connect with people. What he does now is not therapy, but he uses the principles of art therapy at his open mics.

“If you take art therapy — art as a way to pay attention to, music as a way to pay attention to other people — that's really what it's about,” he said, explaining that the Greek word for therapy translates to “to pay attention to.”

His wife Cathy Hyland-Moon, also a former art therapist, said “making is often a very healing process for people whether they can put it into words or not.”

Traditional art therapy for Bloomington-Normal

Moon is not the only community member providing this service. Karli Johnson is an active art therapist and trained clinician at Creative Healing Art Therapy in Bloomington. She dabbles in a little bit of everything.

“That can range from talk therapy to art therapy to whatever we want to sprinkle in to make it interesting therapy,” she said.

Art Therapist and Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor Karli Johnson in the Creative Art Healing Therapy space.
Art Therapist and Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor Karli Johnson in the Creative Art Healing Therapy space.

Methods of “interesting therapy” include pottery and splatter painting.

“Those are all ways to incorporate the body and help people move their energy throughout the space and find what materials help them feel comfortable and empowered in the therapy room,” she said.

In one case, Johnson said she helped a woman set personal boundaries using pottery.

“We just spent that whole hour with this client, telling that clay what to do, and having to fight against that resistance of the clay,” she said.

The physical experience echoed the woman’s social life.

“She came back after our session and said, ‘That last session really gave me — it allowed me to understand my strength and I went into my relationships after that session and set the boundaries and communicated my needs,” Johnson said.

Johnson is also currently running a multi-week group session that does a combination of dance and self-defense. She said Creative Healing Art Therapy partnered with an instructor who teaches a small group of women a new “dance” every week to empower them.

At a recent session, the group danced to “Calm Down” by Rema and Selena Gomez. Undra Uphoff, an attendee, said she found it empowering.

“You walk out of here and you’re like ‘Yes, I’m so glad I dedicated that time,’” she said, adding that self-care is important.

Uphoff also teaches abstract art for other art therapy sessions. She said art therapy provides a different environment than talk therapy.

“Everybody can use some positivity and safe place, and art therapy is definitely one of the top things that would make you [live] a better and healthier life,” she said.

Undra Uphoff poses with one of her abstract artworks that was hanging in the Creative Healing Art Therapy space.
Melissa Ellin
Undra Uphoff poses with one of her abstract artworks that was hanging in the Creative Healing Art Therapy space.

‘Largest practice in central Illinois’

However, art therapy isn’t common. There are lots of prerequisites to art therapy graduate programs, and the degree itself also isn’t well-known so a lot of people — including those who want to enroll — can’t get into the programs.

When applying to schools, Johnson had already heard of art therapy and had taken the required coursework because her undergrad interests aligned. However, the program she did at Illinois State University in Normal doesn’t exist anymore.

Instead, ISU today offers a Music Therapy degree and lists art therapy asan option for Art Studio Arts degree wielders.

Now, Johnson said people in Illinois go to places like St. Louis of Chicago to study. But to practice, she said they come here.

“When there are graduate-level interns needing their experience of art therapy, for their online courses, they're coming here to Bloomington from the surrounding cities,” she said. “So they're coming here from Springfield, and Pontiac, Peoria, and Champaign, so north, south, east, west.”

Johnson said this is because she believes Bloomington has the “largest practice in central Illinois” — her practice — for art therapy. There are nine counselors, therapists, social workers, and interns at Creative Healing Art Therapy, according to its website.

She said she’s currently trying to make the area less of a “desert” for this type of education by advocating for art therapy’s inclusion in therapists’ education.

Art therapy is not an “alternative therapy, it makes sense as a primary therapy,” Johnson said, adding that people and children, in particular, respond well to it. She said art becomes a language.

“So it really is needed,” she said. “It's not as common as it used to be, but hopefully we're doing something about that.”

Other programs in Bloomington

Nora Zaring wearing a Threshold to Hope shirt.
Melissa Ellin
Nora Zaring wearing a Threshold to Hope shirt.

In addition to Bruce Moon’s open mic nights and Johnson’s traditional art therapy, there is also Threshold to Hope. Nora Zaring — who is not a trained clinician and doesn’t call her work “art therapy” — started the nonprofit six years ago.

Threshold to Hope offers free art classes a few times a week to community members, including those experiencing homelessness.

“We have just built this community of people who come together, they do art, they eat lunch together, they have coffee, they talk, they kind of share their lives with each other,” said Zaring, executive director of Threshold to Hope.

After so much time working with the community to do art, Zaring said she can see how it’s therapeutic. She said most of the people who come in tell her they’re bad at art, but she doesn’t see it that way.

“It's not magic that you come in and you just create something, you know, inexpressibly beautiful, but you come in and you create and the feeling that you get is inexpressibly beautiful,” she said.

Zaring said one of the women who comes in uses the art as a form of pain management, and others use it as an outlet.

Cathy Hyland-Moon
Cathy Hyland-Moon
Cathy Hyland-Moon

Cathy Hyland-Moon said while she’s not currently doing art therapy, she’s looking to start a free community art studio here. It would operate like Threshold to Hope, open to everyone and free of charge.

“Creating a kind of community where people can like tap into those natural impulses they have to support and mentor one another to share resources — like all that can happen in a community art studio,” she said.

Right now, it’s just the brainstorming stage. She hasn’t yet found a location for a studio.

Regardless, Bloomington-Normal has already established itself as a beacon for art therapy — traditional or not.

We depend on your support to keep telling stories like this one. WGLT’s mental health coverage is made possible in part by Report For America and Chestnut Health Systems. Please take a moment to donate now and add your financial support to fully fund this growing coverage area so we can continue to serve the community.

Melissa Ellin is a reporter at WGLT and a Report for America corps member, focused on mental health coverage.