Volunteering at an Occupational Therapy Art Exhibit

an ot at an occupational therapy art exhibit

This past summer, I participated in an exhibit at The Contemporary Art Museum of Saint Louis called “Occupational Therapy,” curated by Kelly Shindler. I was visiting the museum with my son on a stroller tour when I stumbled upon this gem. The exhibit encompassed a wide range of media including painting, drawing, sculpture, photography, installation, performance and video. This exhibit emphasized a variety of psychological conditions, both real and imagined, made manifest by artistic practice. It also explored the complexities and challenges that artists’ face by using both humor and cynicism. It aimed to humanize the creative process by highlighting the personal insecurities and frustrations of the artistic occupation.  

Throughout the exhibit, there were many pieces that encapsulated the occupational struggle an artist faces. For example, Carol Pope, an American artist, had her work displayed with letterpress on cardstock that bluntly stated, “This Project Started in Confusion and Will End in Disarray.” Another artist, William Powhida, used painting to critique the production, reception and economy of art making. One of his works, “Some Cynical Advice to Artists,” sardonically offered advice concerning how to achieve fame, such as, “It is better to say nothing, than risk being wrong.”

While some artists focused their work on the frustrations posed by their occupation, others, such as German artist Christian Jankowski, used it as a method of self-improvement. In his work “Das Gesunde Werden” (“Becoming Healthy”), Jankowski went on a retreat in Austria in search of balance between his struggles as an artist and his physiological wellbeing. In order to achieve this, he underwent therapies including “brain walking,” yoga, “sensual detox,” and deep muscle relaxation. He documented his experiences in photographs. His work has been received as somewhat unorthodox in the artistic community, however very relevant to occupational therapy. The diverse perspectives offered by those such as Jankowski and others underscored the artists’ humanity and debunked the common perception that their work stems from an effortless, creative genius.

Through my first-hand experience of the exhibit, “Occupational Therapy” appears quite fitting delving into to the deeper meanings of an artist and their occupation. The societal stressors, the inner struggles with meaning of work, artist block are all components of the process and journey through occupational therapy.

ot art exhibit

I was trained as a “volunteer therapist” in Pedro Reyes’ Sanatorium, a psychiatric clinic that erases the hierarchy between therapist and patient. It is a reflective experience for both therapist and patient. The clinic is a nontraditional approach to therapy, offering a new form of healing. Volunteer therapists offer “treatments”, wearing lab coats to transform a layperson into a professional. The transient clinic creates a site for radical social encounters. Reye’s celebrates the profound relationships, connections and changes that strangers can realize together.

We offered a variety of therapies for the visitors to choose from. One of my favorites was called “Museum of Hypothetical Lifetimes,” where a client chooses various figures and items from shelves that are used to illustrate their life. The therapist is sort of a curator, guiding the patient and assisting them through their hypothetical museum. This therapy was very deep and personal, ranging from the symbolism of their birth to their death and connecting complete strangers.  It was interesting to see that one of my clients left blank spaces in areas with paternal influence including fathers and grandfathers, where others may have had difficulty with filling in areas regarding love, career or even death. It was a reflective experience for both the patient and therapist. Some of the clients chose to elaborate on items they chose, where others were more private in the whole experience.

OT art exhibit st louis

Another therapy, I enjoyed was called “Epitaphs” where the client inscribes their own epitaph using language as plain or poetic as they wish. Most people never get to know what will be written on their tombstone. Some clients had meaningful words while others were more humorous.  Patients used a mallet to make the imprint on paper, similar to how it would look on stone. We encouraged clients to lie down on pillows and reflect on writing their own epitaphs. It was interesting how many clients expressed that they did not reflect on their death all to often or the legacy they wanted to leave behind.

This experience volunteering as a therapist was very unique and it truly encompassed meaning and reflection into the client’s lives as well as my own. It has made me reflect on my own challenges and goals and how I am seeking for meaning within my own career and life. I hope this trend of promoting occupational therapy in different areas continues as we do wonderful work in a variety of settings that are sometimes overlooked.

occupational therapy art exhibit


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