The New Art Center provides healing through art



At the New Art Center, the “Arts as Therapy” program allows artists to express themselves visually. The program now offers in-person classes for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nearly one in ten Americans aged three through 17 struggle with anxiety, and nearly five percent struggle with depression, according to the CDC. Those numbers have gone up since the pandemic.

The New Art Center, a non-profit community art center in Newton, is hoping to help students improve their mental health and express themselves through their new “Art As Therapy” program. Executive director Emily O’Neil said the pandemic has really affected her students.

“Since COVID-19, we’ve been trying to listen to the community to understand needs that have emerged as sort of critical,” O’Neil said, “When we reopened for in-person classes, we saw a much more pronounced need for support in the mental health field from our students. That became really apparent in our first summer back in 2021. We noticed anxiety, behavioral issues and a lot of social interactions that indicated that this was a whole new level of area where kids might need some support.”

In the fall of 2021, O’Neil and her team decided that the New Art Center, being a community organization, needed to provide for the community’s needs. They started a program called “Art As Therapy,” intended to help middle and high schoolers cope with their mental health through art.

“I’m hoping that students say it was helpful for them, that it was confidence building and that they feel like they were able to make social connections and learn things about themselves,” O’Neil said. “And that through this supportive group they feel not only better supported in their lives, but like they’ve developed their creativity and their expressive art abilities.”

While an ordinary art program might focus on the finished product created by students, this program is more focused on the process of making art and how that process feels to the artist, according to Erin Palazzolo-Loparo, a registered art therapist and one of the program’s instructors.

“In this group, you’re exposed to a real variety of art materials over the course of the term, and you get to experiment with them,” Palazzolo-Loparo said. “I’m not looking for a particular result or technique. It’s not about how it looks so much as how it feels and how the artist is able to see what they’ve made and reflect on it and share it.”

Palazzolo-Loparo says that what makes art therapy so special is the fact that it’s hands-on. Art therapy, as opposed to traditional verbal therapy, allows people to talk about their feelings indirectly, or rather, through the art itself.

“It can be seen and touched and talked about. It’s a concrete, tangible, visible, expression or extension of who a person is,” Palazzolo-Loparo said. “You can talk about the art and what does the maker see in the art? And how would the maker describe the art? And then, what does it remind the maker of in their own life?”

This new program is just getting on its feet and O’Neil said that, throughout this term, New Art Center is trying to get a feel for what works, what doesn’t work and how the program will change as it grows. Sarah Moriarty, co-instructor of the program, feels especially passionate that the program should be a welcoming environment for everyone.

“I want them to come to this space, this class time, this classroom, and feel comfortable and welcomed,” Moriarty said. “I always want any student that comes to the New Art Center to feel like they’re welcome there and that it’s a space for them. Even more so with this program.”

Moriarty said the program is inclusive of everyone: families pay for sessions on a sliding scale, and full scholarships are available to those who need them.

Unlike other art programs, participants in “Art As Therapy” tend to use what Palazzolo-Loparo refers to as “safer materials,” such as markers, glue sticks, and other easily accessible tools which students might be more used to.

“As the group progresses, I’m more inclined to open it up more in terms of materials like paint and clay,” Palazzolo-Loparo said, “which are harder to control and are more to grapple with physically, emotionally.”

While the program is carefully designed to help students cope with their mental health, students get to choose what kinds of projects they’re working on, according to Palazzolo-Loparo. While they work, she and Moriarty ask them questions about the process of making the art and how their art relates to their lives.

“We really believe that art can be a part of healing,” Moriarty said. “It’s an opportunity for teens to connect with their feelings and connect with their art and kind of bridge that gap between art making and the emotional aspects of art making.”

Students interested in the program can find more information or sign up on the New Art Center’s website.