An old, broken chair changed Kelee Katillac’s life when she was 22 years old. At a thrift store in Kansas she saw the chair that she says mirrored the way she felt about herself — broken and beyond hope.
“I was very much down and out. I believed my life had no value, that I had no talent or skills. I was in a bad depression, a life-threatening depression. At the time I was living in a trailer,” Katillac says. She took the chair home with her and worked to repair it, thinking she could fix it, and in the process fix a little of herself, too.
“It made me feel a lot better,” she says, so she started looking around her tiny trailer for other objects or areas that were in need of attention. Soon her home was filled with one-of-a-kind creations.
“In retrospect, we call it the best little trailer in Kansas,” she says.
For Katillac, the work of creating beautiful interiors was therapeutic, helping her hammer, paint and stitch her way out of depression.
That she could work through her issues using art is not surprising to artists and art therapists. They have been prescribing a healthy dose of creative expression since the 1940s to treat people, according to the American Art Therapy Association. And recent studies in scientific publications such as the Journal of Psycho-Oncology and the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management back up claims that art therapy is effective in treating pain and anxiety associated with diseases such as cancer.
What Katillac and others, including several organizations operating in the East Valley, have found is that engaging children and families in art activities helps them work through problems, including stress, divorce, bullying and illness.
An appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” inspired Katillac — who went on from her trailer to a career in interior design — to adapt her “belief-based” methods into projects for children and families.
Oprah’s producers were receiving letters from children who were experiencing a divorce in their family, were being bullied at school or were coping with parents who work all the time. They contacted Katillac to see if she could apply her ideas to help kids.
“Children were writing saying they felt like they didn’t have their own place,” she says.
In “Kids’ Sacred Places: Rooms for Believing and Belonging” (Ice Press, $45), Katillac compiles a number of “heart and hand” projects aimed at helping children and families work through difficult life situations by creating havens in the home, usually the child’s bedroom.
The projects include writing positive messages to yourself on the seat of a chair or creating pillows with the faces of role models on them.
“It’s about making something you can see,” she says. “When you make it yourself, you believe in yourself.”
Katillac says the projects are a parenting process, a way to bond families together and to learn something meaningful about one another. The finished project is just one of the benefits.
What Katillac is doing in her book is similar to what art therapists have been doing for years, getting people to express what they can’t articulate in words through visual creation.
“It’s not art therapy per se,” says local art therapist Michelle Bethune about Katillac’s methods. “But it is the experience of creation, and the experience can certainly help people. Any time a family, a mom, a dad, a kid gets a chance to express themselves through art, it’s definitely a good thing.”
Bethune is the vice president of the Arizona chapter of the national Art Therapy Association. She says many of the concepts of creating to heal are understood by all artists, regardless of whether they are registered therapists.
“A lot of art therapists are artists who used their art to help themselves and see the benefits of how it can help others,” she says.
Bethune works with adults now, but for years she worked primarily with children who needed to learn anger management and stress relief.
“Art therapy works fabulously with children because children have a real connection with art. They see it as a safe experience,” she says. “They can draw pictures of angry people, if that helps them, and they don’t get in trouble.”
Joy Kockerbeck is not a registered art therapist, but like Katillac, had an art experience that inspired her to share its power with others. She wants to enhance people’s lives through creativity.
Kockerbeck discovered the healing properties of art after what she calls a “small occurrence of cancer” exposed her to the fear and uncertainty people face when dealing with the disease. She found relief through time spent sculpting.
“I poured all my worry, fear and anxiety into it and it felt so good,” she says.
She works with children and adults who face chronic illness or the loss of someone close to them and helps them find peace through working with clay. She started Creative Arts in Healing, a local nonprofit organization, five years ago to bring her clay therapy to more people.
Kockerbeck says art is particularly valuable to children who are coping with loss.
“It’s an avenue of nonverbal expression,” she says. “We give them a little bit of clay and we talk about their loss. We tell them to craft something out of the clay that reminds them of the person they lost. There is power in losing yourself in the creative atmosphere.”
Kockerbeck says the healing comes through the process of creation, and the end product is not the point.
“There was one teenage boy (in a session) who crafted an amazing piece of two figures, one that looked like it was falling down and the other holding it up. He sat apart from everyone, by himself. At the end of the day he squished it up. It was a way for him to express himself, and then it was done.”