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Art as Therapy

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For the residents at the Northeast Center for Special Care in Lake Katrine, the circle is more than just the basic component of their newly painted mural; it is a physical representation of their journey to recovery. Recently installed in the entrance area of the YMCA of Kingston and Ulster County, the 4 by 16-foot mural was created by 50 of the center’s residents, all of whom have survived traumatic brain and spinal cord injuries.Founded in 1999, the center focuses on rehabilitation and the reintegration of its residents into the community. Most of those being treated at the 280-bed facility led normal lives before suffering a life-changing event. Many were injured due to car accidents, falls, strokes, or brain tumors; some have dealt with substance abuse. The center’s program uses art to help residents heal, says Director of Fine Arts Susan Togut. “We stress equally the process and the finished work, so residents get the whole picture and create art that can be appreciated by the community.”Each person realizes that they’re important to the whole. It makes them feel good, proud, capable of a lot moreRanging in age from 20 to 60, the residents — called “neighbors” by the staff — who painted the mural had to overcome a variety of difficulties to get the job done. Some have trouble controlling hand movements; others have poor eyesight, paralysis, or behavioral problems. Adaptive equipment was utilized to help each artist participate in the project. Quadriplegics, for example, were able to paint by using mouth-sticks with paintbrushes on the end. Canvases were suspended above those who are unable to sit up, so they could lean back as they worked. Artists with poor eyesight partnered one-on-one with volunteers who talked them through the process or directed their hands. “I have never worked with such a diverse population of people with different needs,” says Togut, “but every person was able to participate on some level.”Togut believes that creating the mural has had a positive impact on the residents. “Each person realizes that they’re important to the whole,” she says. “It makes them feel good, proud, capable of a lot more. It gives them a positive attitude for other parts of daily living.” One woman, for example, cannot speak. Before she began painting, she would get frustrated and act out. Once she started working in the art studio, her behavioral problems abated. “She’s a fabulous abstract painter,” says Togut.Working on the mural also helps residents gain a new sense of themselves as artists. After suffering such traumatic injuries, most can no longer do the things they once loved; in essence, they lose their former identities. Before suffering a stroke, one of the lead artists was an attorney who often traveled, and even piloted his own plane. After losing the ability to do these things, he struggled to redefine himself. Working on projects like the YMCA mural has allowed him to do so. “Art is his whole life now,” says Togut.

northeast center for special care muralHealing arts: Robert Conklin, president and CEO of the Ulster County YMCA, unveils the mural at a recent meeting of the organization’s board of directors

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