By Molly J. Anderson-Childers | Updated May 30, 2018
This interview is with Sonia Wijts, Art Director for the Center for Adaptive Learning in Concord, California. Sonia teaches expressive arts classes for adults with learning disabilities a great example of the many ways creative professionals can help give something back to their communities.
Q: Discuss some of the classes you're currently teaching.
A: Fabric class is a lot of fun. Anything that can be done with any kind of fabric and paints, dyes, or coloring agents is a possibility. Clients have free reign in their creative expression, but this group is also about observing and learning techniques both from me and from each other. It's a lot about cooperation and interaction. Clients have impressed me with their courteous interactions. They are learning to share tools and supplies, express their needs, support each other, and help clean up, which is a major undertaking. We have created some very innovative fabric pieces that are on display at the center.
We also have a two-dimensional class: we work in a variety of media, including pencil drawing, charcoal, pastels, and acrylic painting. Many of our clients have problems processing visual cues, so in this class the accent is on observation of shape, size and color, as well as light and dark. I want clients to draw what they really see instead of what they think is there. Clients are expressing this in vastly differing ways.
Kellie is concentrating on representing the shapes correctly and then coloring them to accent the details. Oriana works mostly in charcoal, with other media thrown in for effect. Brian has developed a very personal style, using graphic pencil lines to represent mood in his pictures. Bruce is our expert on modern art; he will discuss new developments in art and then paints his version in bold color blocks with acrylic paint. Paul works with the fluidity of powdery pastels and is learning to introduce unexpected elements to create tension in his work. They both concentrate on vivid color interactions. Rachel works more on her graphic style and uses soft coloring to set the mood, while Mark uses primary colors to express himself. They all have very different styles, but they take great pride in their work and are dedicated to what they accomplish.
Q: What was your first job as a young woman?
A: I grew up in Belgium, where you only go to work after you finish your studies. My first job was a grade school teacher in a public school out in the country amid green pastures. I had four grades in one classroom and cows next door to distract everybody.
Q: How did you get interested in expressive arts therapy?
A: After I came to the U.S. and landed in California, I wasn't allowed to work, so I took adult education classes in art. One of them was a ceramics class. The teacher was studying to be an art therapist. She told us all about her classes and the people she worked with. It sounded very interesting to me a combination of psychology and art, two of my favorite subjects.
Q: What type of credentials, experience and education are needed to become an expressive arts therapist?
A: In order to be admitted to a university program that teaches art therapy, a Bachelor's degree in either art or psychology is needed. In the area there were only two programs available. The program at the college of Notre Dame in Belmont leads to a Master's Degree in art therapy; the program at John F. Kennedy University leads to a Master's Degree in psychology with a specialization in Expressive Arts Therapy. I chose the latter.
In order to earn a degree, I participated in several supervised internships. I worked in different acute mental health settings teaching arts and crafts. I worked in a high school for challenged teenagers teaching ceramics classes and poetry while providing counseling. Next I worked as a paid intern in a mental health maintenance program using visualization, painting and drawing to help clients deal with their challenges.
Q: Describe the center you work for.
A: Currently, I work at the Center for Adaptive Learning, which serves adults with Learning Disabilities. I have worked there now for eight years, and became the Art Director two years ago. Our mission is to empower adults with neuro-developmental disabilities to realize their individual potential for self-reliant living. This is defined by the ability to engage in meaningful productive work, to socialize successfully, to attend to their own physical and emotional health and to experience on-going personal growth.
On our site, we display pictures of client work as well as information on the day program. We teach living skills, and provide counseling and an art program. Clients live in apartments next door or a few blocks down the road, with 24-hour staff presence. We are located in Concord, California. We are a unique program and people come here from all over the United States.
Q: What advice would you give to someone hoping to make the leap from 'day job' to dream job?
A: Be creative! Dream jobs aren't usually advertised in the paper. Once you are sure what you would be happiest doing, you need to look for an opportunity to create your dream job. I was hired as a counseling intern. I started doing art-oriented group projects like crafts, videotaping, and large-scale group art creations. Next, I took over a classroom where I could do art one-on-one and started to re-invent the process.
Besides painting, drawing, fabric work and jewelry making we also venture into visualization and relaxation, sometimes doing breath work or movement, or even poetry. Clients come to the art room to relax and communicate, either verbally or in artistic outpourings. It is a place for them to relax and get some positive strokes. Once a year we have an art show to showcase their talents, and sell their work or greeting cards that feature it.
Q: What are some of the creative techniques you use in sessions or classes with your clients?
A: Clients participate in individual sessions lasting 30 minutes, or groups or classes lasting 45 minutes. Most clients have a limited attention span, so it is imperative to keep it short and simple, or break things down in components that can be spread out over several sessions.
When I first get to know a new client, I work together with them on one sheet of paper; we each draw from opposite sides of the paper. It shows off their abilities, and puts them at ease. It also shows me how they interact and absorb stimuli.
In art therapy it is the process that is important, more than the product. The first few sessions are an exploration of media and techniques, so I can get a feeling for their preferences and talents as well as discover where their mental development stopped. For example, some clients draw like kindergartners and when you get to know them it becomes clear their behavior and ways of dealing with the world match that age group's approach to life. Others are stuck in their early teenage years; their chronological age seldom matches up with their mental development.
In the art room, we create a microcosm of society. They meet each other there in a non-threatening environment, almost like meeting a friend for a cup of coffee. Often, I have several clients in the room interacting with each other and working on a project, while I am working one-on-one with one of them. I learn a lot from their conversations and interactions.
I always stress how important it is to have FUN! Sometimes we make butterflies by folding the paper palettes in two and rubbing the paints together, or use it to print on a fresh piece of paper and discover designs which we then enhance with a few strokes. I love powdery pastels because they are very tactile and clients can rub their frustrations into the paper and leave the art room refreshed and balanced. Some clients talk about their frustrations as they work, but most are just happy to rub and stroke and even fold or rip.
In the classes I usually demonstrate technique, promote awareness of shape and size and the importance of negative space, and observation. Classes are geared towards traditional art expressions and contain students that have already discovered their talents. Art groups are designed for experimentation, and clients learn more from each other than from me. Co-operation and manners are emphasized, as well as practical things like cleaning up when you are done. Techniques are demonstrated as needed.
Q: Share some of your success stories at the Center for Adaptive Learning.
A: Sometimes success is just very simple. One of my clients is waiting for heart surgery. In the meantime, he can't get too excited. Art keeps him in a calm, steady place and keeps his mind off his worries. He produces very sensuous, organic pastels that touch your core.
Another client was more of a challenge. He came in wounded and needy. He was subjected to bullying while growing up and just didn't feel good about himself; he was very critical of anything he did. He proclaimed: "I don't know how to draw," when he first came in. I made him trace simple animal shapes and create a background for them. Then he started painting, big powerful shapes of primary color. He used to get very upset when something went wrong, express his frustrations with destructive behavior, or just quit and stomp out. One day he drew a whale plunging into the ocean, and it sold at the next art show. He was beside himself. His self-esteem went up and he became more accepted by the other clients. He started believing in himself and today he works every day and is very proud of himself.
Q: Describe a typical workday at the Center for Adaptive Learning.
A: The minute I arrive, some client is always there to discuss something, share what happened or offer some help in carrying my stuff. I always bring in things to inspire them: books from the library, unusual objects, pages torn out of magazines, anything that looks interesting.
When I get to the art room I immediately start the computers, then I go to my own computer and tend to my e-mails. If I need more information, I go talk to my colleagues. Then I start setting up the art room for the first few scheduled clients. As soon as the morning class is over they will flood in. I sit down with each scheduled client and at least get them started. Some need me to stay with them, others I just keep an eye on while I tend to other people. Four non-scheduled clients can use the art room; each client has a goal to work on, and a medium they prefer. I usually watch them for a while, then make some suggestions or model a technique. I always use a separate piece of paper, rather than drawing on their work. Respect of their work is very important.
In the mornings, everyone is supposed to tend to supervised cooking and cleaning so we have fewer non-scheduled visitors at those times. In the afternoons, we schedule more classes. I teach drawing and painting classes (beginner to advanced), fabric classes, visualization, and relaxation. Other counselors do reading, poetry, typing and creative computer work.
Q: What are some of the challenges and rewards inherent in working with clients with developmental disabilities.
A: Our clients are in varying stages of development, so a "one-size-fits-all" approach to teaching is out of the question. Many clients lack basic social skills, so modeling positive interactions is part of everything we do. Awareness, empathy and flexibility are very important skills to have, as is patience. Our clients learn and change very slowly, sometimes imperceptibly, but one day they will do or say something that makes you exclaim: "Hey, you really heard what I said!" and that day is a glorious day. My clients also have a very fresh way of looking at the world. That is very inspiring. Thinking outside the box is almost a given.
One of my clients has lost both of her parents. So, I shared with her my own experiences. I wanted to see how she'd react to my feeling like an orphan at times. She said: "You're not an orphan, you have 40 children!" They love me! I'm their substitute mom.
Q: How does expressive arts therapy benefit your clients? What do they gain from your work together?
A: The most important thing to me is how clients feel about themselves when they do art. They relax and their self-esteem goes up. Sometimes they pour their hearts out to me or to a friend, but most of the time they express their emotions through their work. I can help them because I really heard (and saw) what goes on inside of them. They can't always put it in words and ask for help.
We also model behaviors that can then transfer to other areas of their life. Some examples are: dealing with challenges, making choices, persistence, cleaning up after yourself, taking responsibility, courtesy, helping each other, and stress relief.
Q: Do you have specific goals for each class or session?
A: Yes but since our clients are challenged in the area of processing information, these goals may seem trivial to outsiders. Short-term memory may be impaired, so sometimes just having them show up is an achievement. Other clients need help calming down, so they can be productive.
One of my clients is extremely influenced by other people's behavior; he gets upset if other people are arguing, and he is so busy trying to make sense of what's happening that he can't function normally. His brain has to be redirected, refocused to an alternate occupation. He creates mosaics with tiny plastic beads hundreds of them fill his 12"x 18" canvas. It takes all his concentration. In the art room, he is totally calm and able to tackle whatever he needs to do. The problem comes when someone bumps his work and I need to repair the damage!!! He is able to come back to a project week after week, working until it is completed.
Other clients can't do this. They want a project that can be finished in half an hour. They can use those very same beads and just put them on a pegged template, and that is an accomplishment. For them, moving from randomly fitting the beads on the pegs to creating designs of repeating color can be a goal. Each person moves at his or her own pace a technique that works one day may not work the next. That's where versatility and inventiveness comes in, so we can still end up with something that they can be proud of. Ultimately, the goal is to have the client feel good about themselves, and bolster their self-esteem. In the outside world that doesn't happen very often, but the odds improve when they are happy and feel good about their accomplishments.
Q: Where do you hope this work will take you? What do you see for the future for yourself as you continue to follow your dreams?
A: I would like to work towards more exposure for my clients, the Center, and my work. I'd like to reach a wider audience there are a lot of people that need us, but don't know about us. A wider exposure on a national scale through publications in Outsider magazine or guest lectures about the work in different locations could really benefit our clients. At the Center itself, I'd like to work with a combination of relaxation, visualization and drawing. I have presented these ideas in weekend workshops for the general population, and the resulting growth is amazing.
I also want to work more with computer graphics and website design, to create more dynamic sites both for the Center for Adaptive Learning and my own artwork I will hopefully get my website online in mid-December! I would like to find more time for my own art work, maybe after I retire! I belong to the Arts and Disabilities Network and this past year we worked with the De Young Museum in San Francisco. On Access Day, a video was shown of the network's participants, including ten of my clients. This was very impressive and so rewarding!
Learn more about the Adaptive Learning in Concord, California by visiting alc-ca.org.
Next Interview: Interview with Quinn McDonald, Paper Artist & Creativity Coach
©2006 Molly J. Anderson-Childers. All rights reserved.