Art Therapy Institute draws on healing power of creating

A refugee student paints an image from a memory of home during an art therapy session hosted by the North Carolina Art Therapy Institute, a Carrboro nonprofit that promotes the use of art and creating as part of mental health treatment.
A refugee student paints an image from a memory of home during an art therapy session hosted by the North Carolina Art Therapy Institute, a Carrboro nonprofit that promotes the use of art and creating as part of mental health treatment. Courtesy of the North Carolina Art Therapy Institute

Funding is a high mountain for most nonprofits, but when your mission is a little out of the ordinary, the climb can be especially tough.

The North Carolina Art Therapy Institute in Carrboro sees healing power in the process of making art, and that unique approach takes some explaining, said Hillary Rubesin, the Institute’s associate director.

“It’s a fascinating point to consider that both the biggest strength and biggest weakness of our field is that many want to give to the arts, and many believe that talk therapy is a great solution to some issues, but by combining the two you enter into a new realm where people stigmatize either one or the other,” she said.

“We talk to a lot of verbal-based counselors who don’t understand that we have all been trained as mental health counselors for verbal psychotherapy, we just also have the additional piece of art-based therapy. Then you have all of the people who support the arts in theory, but as soon as you throw in the word ‘therapy,’ it becomes taboo. So many pieces of our mission is de-stigmatizing expressive arts therapy.”

This type of therapy can help people of all ages express complex or difficult feelings, increase their confidence and find ways to communicate. Members of the Art Therapy Institute are mental health professionals who hold individual and group therapy sessions; host workshops, art shows and other community programming; and work with local schools, hospitals and agencies to add art to the mental health treatment process.

Art therapy looks different to different clients, depending on their needs, interests and abilities. Rubesin recalled an event held for Burmese refugees. They weren’t sure what to expect, and with no interpreter at the time, communication was going to be a challenge. They decided to just lay out some art supplies and see what happened.

“Immediately,” Rubesin said, “students started drawing images of war, and images of the refugee camps from where they had come. Art therapy is incredible in this way. When you provide a safe place for people to express themselves along with appropriate and effective tools to do so, the stories that people need/want to share will inevitably emerge.”

When it formed in 2006, the Art Therapy Institute aimed to bring acceptance to a form of therapy that wasn’t widely known to many at the time. With a three-pronged mission statement – offer individual and group clinical help; perform community outreach through workshops and art shows; and educate people on what art therapy is – the group has steadily made its presence felt throughout the Triangle, with perhaps the most prominent beneficiaries being children.

“We see on average about 400 clients a year, and it may currently be headed toward more than that this year,” said Rubesin. “A lot of them are refugee and immigrant clients, children with special needs within the school district, as well as the kids we see in the hospital working with pediatric hematology and oncology programs.

“We’re doing all of this,” she added, “but we are only funded by the grants that we write. The hospitals don’t fund any of the work we do with them, so all of it comes from our own grant funding. Since we are all licensed professional counselors, we can bill Medicaid for some of the work we do with the refugees, but there are so many of them that don’t have any type of insurance. We try to reach out to donors, but it’s always a struggle.”

But the struggle is worth it, as an email Rubesin recently from a former client, a refugee student from Burma, made clear, writing: “When I had art therapy, I had a grownup I could go to and talk to. You were such a good part of my middle school years. Art therapy wasn’t just a fun thing. That was how I viewed it back then. But, no! It was a room filled with fun, colors, excitement. A room where I could find a way to express myself, feelings. It was really helpful to have it, so I thank you for that.”

North Carolina Art Therapy Institute

200 N. Greensboro St., Suite D-6

Carrboro, N.C. 27510


Contact: Kristin Linton, 919-381-6068

Description: We provide clinical art therapy services to diverse populations, empowering clients to develop their identities through the art-making process. We also offer training to allied professionals.

Donations needed: Financial donations and new art supplies.

Volunteers needed: Occasional workshop assistance, help with events, and help hanging art shows.

$10 would buy: Art supplies for an individual.

$20 would buy: Art supplies and snack for a women’s group.

$50 would buy: Part of an individual art therapy session.