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Articles > Marian University exhibits work from Syrian, Burmese and Somali refugees

Feb 10, 2017
posted by Nwe

The timing for Marian University's Refugee Art exhibit couldn't come at a more crucial moment.

The work reflects the dreams and aspirations of newly arrived refugees from Syria, Burma, and Somalia who created it. The show geared up just weeks before President Trump's executive order to ban immigrants from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen.

Refugee Art is the result of a collaboration between Art of the Soul Studio and Catholic Charities Refugee and Immigration Services, and it's running through February 17 at the Marian Art Gallery on the Marian University campus. It's funded by the Preferred Communities Program of the Administration for Children and Families/US Dept of Health and Human Services.

Susie Marren, Manager of Vulnerable Care at Catholic Charities of Indianapolis, explains why they partnered with Art of the Soul, an art therapy studio, to work with their clients.

"We were starting to see a hole in our program," she says. "We were so concerned with about making sure that [refugees] were self-sufficient when they first arrived, making sure that they knew how to pay their rent, making sure they knew how to get back and forth to work, things like that... We noticed that some of our clients, about three to six months in, were just kind of falling apart on us."

Among the works at the Refugee Art exhibition at Marian University are hanging quilts, collages, mosaics.

A wall-hanging series of collages, entitled "Gateway to Your Goals" exemplifies the kind of work that Art of the Soul does. The collages were inspired by artwork that Kristi Gmutza — an art therapist at Art of the Soul Studios — originally saw on Pinterest. She used it as the template for artwork geared towards the group of Burmese refugees she was working with. The artists used sheets of construction paper that opened up like a gate, to serve as a frame for their collages. The refugees pasted cutouts from magazines such as pictures of cars and houses within them.

"So the idea is this is a gateway that opens up into what the clients want to happen in their lives," says Gmutza. "You open it up to find things that they want in their lives, a happy family, a nice house.... One particular gentleman wanted a pet dog. So this helps this particular group of clients visualize and put into concrete terms some of the goals they have, in a fun way."

In addition to visualizing a prosperous future for themselves and their families, art therapy is designed to counter stress and to build coping skills. These skills may soon be put to the test, especially if some of these refugees are hoping for family members to emigrate and join them in the United States. This is because President Trump, on January 25, signed an executive order temporarily banning Somali and Syrian refugees from entering the country while a review of screening procedures is completed.

While no refugees attended the exhibition opening on January 19, Marren and Gmutza were on hand to explain the exhibition and art therapy to the crowd of several dozen students.

Gmutza says that art therapy is a growing profession in the state of Indiana.

Marian University has an undergraduate program in art therapy. So does the University of Evansville, the University of Indianapolis, and Indiana Wesleyan University. St. Mary of the Woods College offers an MA in Art Therapy and the Herron School of Art & Design on the IUPUI campus all have graduate programs.

"Art therapy is a mental health profession," she says. "All art therapists are trained as mental health professionals, same as counselors or psychologists; we have masters level degrees and training. We're trained not only in the psychology part but the art part too. So I like to call us therapists plus. Same as music therapists. They're trained as psychologists and therapists but then they have the added benefit of knowing about music."

Gmutza received her undergraduate degree at IU Bloomington and an M.A. in Art Therapy from Marylhurst University in Portland, Oregon.

"I first heard about art therapy when I was in high school," Gmutza says. "And I was trying to decide what I was going to do with the rest of my life, going to go to school for. Actually,  it was my mom who heard about art therapy on NPR and she came back to me and said, Kristi this is perfect for you, it's a blend of art, science, psychology, you get to do all those things that you like, that you get excited about. And I knew that I wanted to be an art therapist from that point on."