Healing through Art Therapy: An Interview with Danielle Razik
Danielle Razik is an artist and healer-teacher in San Jose, California. I talked with her recently about art therapy.
Hi Danielle. Thank you for letting me interview about art therapy.
Well thank you for being interested. I'm really excited about it!
Tell us about yourself and how you first found out about art therapy.
It was purely by accident. I had been doing humanitarian work all my life and I love art and have been teaching arts and crafts to kids since I was a little kid in Sunday school. I have a BA in anthropology working on a lot of things like sacred symbols and how people relate to them and things like that.
I was going back to school to get a teaching credential and at the same time, I was teaching art because I could do that and get a little money on the side. I started teaching art in 2000. Somewhere along the lines, I had a student who was going through a really difficult time. I just adjusted her curriculum a little bit to help her express the emotions that she was going through. She told her friends and her friend's friends and then within a year I had more art therapy students then I had art students. I still do both and I do some crossover.
I don't have a degree or a background in art therapy; what I do have is a degree in anthropology and lots of classes working towards a teaching credential in Child Development. I've taken all sorts of classes on addiction therapy. I always went back to doing art classes because those are the people that would sit and pay me to learn something. It just turned into art therapy and I love it.
I don't consider myself an art therapist. I consider myself a healer-teacher that uses art therapy and biofeedback and other things to help my clients.
How do people find out about you? Is it through other people who come see you?
So far it's mostly word-of-mouth friends telling friends. I've worked with Western doctors who said that it was great for their client struggling with food issues. I have had some referrals from life coaches, other healers out and even a shaman. If they feel their client can benefit from some time with me.
that’s pretty interesting. I didn't have any preconceived ideas going into this and didn't read up about art therapy.
When I started in art therapy in 2012 I was an art therapist - it was just something that anyone could do. There were no classes, and then someone came up with a degree in art therapy. If someone has a degree in art therapy, they probably have a lot of knowledge that I'm not familiar with. I just have been doing it since 2012 before any those programs existed, so my take on things may be a little bit different than what you read in Psychology Today.
Right. What ages of people do you work with? Do you work one-on-one with people or groups or both?
I do all of those things. My youngest is a two-year-old who is a foster child. I’ve worked with foster kids a lot and this child was violent like extremely violent no matter what and very angry. We did a sticker thing with immediate rewards for good behavior. Violence was the removing of a sticker and then good behavior, you’d get your sticker back. Then we work with biofeedback to try and learn that building things up is good and that you should have a reason to tear something down. They did very well and were able to go into their foster home with other children and not be violent. That was just in two sessions.
Kids learn really fast. My oldest patient was a gentleman with dementia. He had been an artist earlier in life and so his family was hoping that this would help him. He was nonverbal by the time I worked with him until the end of his life. He would express his emotions by doing different color flowers. And if he was in distress he would paint fire and flames. This allowed his family to know what kind of state of mind he was in - if he was happy or sad - which they didn't know previous to that.
I work with a whole range of things. If I work with a couple and I'm doing couples counseling I will see them both separately as well as together.
That's interesting - art therapy as couples counseling!
It happened. Certain people couldn't find people that they trusted, especially with relationships that are are not considered ‘normal’ in our society. It was more important for them to have someone who understood poly[amorous] relationships than to have an accredited counselor. So they ended up with me. If someone asks for it, I figure I can learn something from the experience, so I haven't said 'I just work with these things.'
I tend to get a lot of women with sexual trauma. I don't know if it's because as a survivor, they feel they can trust me, or if there are a lot of women with sexual trauma looking for help. That's probably the majority of what I do but not on purpose. When you help one person and since I'm getting on my clients by word-of-mouth, you just end up getting the same thing over and over again.
You mentioned stickers, drawing hearts, and flames and flowers. What other media do you use?
Everything. I use clay and paint and markers. If the kids are younger, we'll use Legos. Then I found out that my older engineer guys love to play with Legos as well. You get a 25-year-old engineer and they don't want to play with the clay but they will totally build Legos. I discovered that someone who thought 'I can't play with clay but Legos, well these are just blocks, so I couldn't have possibly made it look right' - it takes off that pressure and allows a different kind of freedom of expression.
Sometimes once it's not so scary we'll transition to the clay. Whatever medium that person seems to respond to is the one that I'll go with.
I know you're a painter, so you do painting as part of art therapy as well?
Yes, lots of painting. It's is the easiest way because you can pick how you feel. We do a lot of color therapy where you paint how you feel. So if they use lots of blacks and reds because they're really angry, I ask 'What would you like this painting to look like?' And we just talk about what would happen. 'What does this red line mean? Let's talk about that and why don't we put some green or blue onto that and see what happens?' And they say 'Maybe I'll do this' and they put some green and it will turn brown and they don't like that. 'Well, what if I do this?' and they put some blue and it will turn purple, and they say 'I like purple. That's better.'
There are lots of ideas in different spiritualities for this. In science, biofeedback has shown that when we have visual things and hand-eye coordination along with hearing our own voice work through the problem, they're just more likely to stick. When you've thought 'I should do this' you keep thinking 'I should do this.' When you sit down with a painting and you transition from one feeling to another, you did it. Your brain thinks you did it because you made this thing and it was accomplished. In your brain, you don't think 'I should do that' anymore, you think 'I did that' and you just move forward from there.
So it's a very tangible way for people to experience their emotions in a visual format.
Right, and it works very well for my engineers. They tell me 'I'm supposed to do therapy because this [piece of paper] says it will help me' and they'll show me the numbers that therapy helps them. Then they'll show me the numbers that art therapy is going to do best with their way of thinking and learning. Then we'll just talk about brain chemistry, chemicals, what kind of chemicals we make when we're sad when we're in a codependent cycle and we see that person.
Just like we start salivating when we see some yummy food or getting excited, or we see that person that makes us angry, we start building all our angry chemicals so we can get them ready and be really angry by the time we talk to them. How to decide not to do that. And like Pavlov and bells - you can do your own. We just figure out which tools are gonna work for you so you can see what you need to do to be the person you want to be. I'm not trying to help the person fix the problem I'm trying to find out who they want to be and how to get them there.
That sounds pretty amazing!
It's very different than going to see a psychologist who would like to know about the trauma. Anything that you can live with that you're not having problems with exists. That happened to you but you don't have to drag it back up; you can let it go. If that was horrible when it happened to you as a child, if you want to talk about it we can, but you are an adult. That can't happen to you again because you're big and you can walk away, or get in your car and drive away.
That's a horrible thing that happened. Do you want to release it because you're big now and you don't have to worry about it? Some people will say 'Oh wow. I didn't know that was an option.' Then we can do a piece of art to take all those emotions and the reality of that pain and the trauma and put it in a piece of art. You don't have to carry it in your brain. You can let it go.
Some people take their pieces of art and burn them. People ask 'Do you have your students' artwork up?' Most of them never want to see them again and say 'This is my horrible trauma. Do not show that to anybody.'
I know there are so many more artists who put their trauma into the original artwork. The first person that comes to my mind is Frida Kahlo. She did that. She painted her trauma and we can all see what she went through. It's interesting that your clients say 'Nope.'
Well, there's a lot of shame. Then there's also the other aspect that if you are done with this childhood trauma, and then you expose it the world, well then your parents and siblings all want to talk to you about it. Maybe that's not something you want to do. Maybe you're OK letting it go but talking to everyone about it is a different trauma. It really kind of depends on where it is.
Some people are not trying to recover that relationship with their parent; there trying to survive Christmas. They just want enough to survive Christmas. They may say 'Hey I moved out here because I need to get away from them. There's no fixing them, there's no fixing their problem. They don't love me, they don't accept me.'
I have a lot of LGBT youth, for example. It's just about who are you and it's so sad that they don't love you for who you are because they're missing out. We can't help them because they've already made a decision and until they change their point of view or their religion, that's not going to happen. What do you want to do? Do you need to go to Christmas? What do you need to do to get through that? We make art, lots and lots of art.
It's funny; in the summertime have art students, all my time is filled with regular art students. Around about Thanksgiving time, I have all art therapy students until New Year's. Everyone is upset. Everyone I've ever seen is calling me for tune-up sessions from Thanksgiving to Christmas.
So it's not about making holiday crafts, it's about getting all their emotions out leading up to the holidays.
Yes. And, amazingly, people think 'I've dealt with everything. I'm good to go.' so the next year they tell me 'This thing came up... .' Now I don't even schedule my art students through the holidays. I tell them all 'You're on vacation from school, go have fun. I'm busy.' I save all that time for art therapy.
This will be the first year that I'm going to do a group workshop about November 1st with people who traditionally call me every year at the same time. I’ll ask them 'Would you like to get into this quick group thing and we’ll do some preemptive stuff?' Sometimes I'm busy on Thanksgiving with my family and I cannot take calls just because you're crying in your basement. Thanksgiving is much worse than Christmas.
Why do you think that is?
I am not really sure why. I get more calls at Thanksgiving. Whatever is happening to those people who know that this is a problem for them, it's Thanksgiving. At Christmas time there's kind of a lull then the people who are really upset, I'll get suicidal calls come New Year's. So I'm going to try a preemptive November workshop and see how it goes.
Will that be here in San Jose?
Yes, I'll do it here at home.
Where do you work? Is it mostly here at your house?
If I'm asked to do pro bono work, or for significantly less through a grant – I'll get a call from a social worker saying 'I have a grant for this many people. Can you come?' I will go down and meet them wherever their social worker would like me to go. For children who would have difficulty with boundaries if they came to my house, I see them wherever the social worker has or at the foster parents' house. Sometimes it's much easier to go to an angry child than have the angry child come to you.
Anyone else, like my burnt-out healers, I see them here. I had an office and discovered that it was not sustainable to pay rent here in this valley.
No doubt rent in Silicon Valley is very expensive.
People, in general, ask me 'Can you do this thing for a grant?' And then I had to tell them I can't because that means I'm only working for $20 an hour and I have to make rent so I need new clients. That really upset me because the most vulnerable people, the people who have the least access to little extra things, were the people I couldn't help.
This gives you more freedom to do that work?
Yes, so I do work at home. Sometimes you end up with clients who are late or having problems. They're seeing you because they have problems in life, right? So if I'm sharing space with somebody else and they're an hour late to the session and they're my last person, I need to leave so the next person can come in and use the space. That creates all kind of stress. Now I can just go work in my garden until they pull up. Then you're gonna have to wait for me wash my hands because you're an hour late.
it seems like there's not necessarily one condition that you prefer to work on. Is that right?
Right. My first thing is my practice, my life, my therapy, getting my life together. I've never met a person that I could learn something from them and benefit from understanding what's going on. Every client that I've ever had has taught me something amazing that I've been able to add my tool-belt to help someone else.
There's that idea of the hive mind and you have access to all these other humans and all of their other experiences. If I look at everyone as a client that I need to fix, well then I'm not going to learn anything. But if everyone is a human being who is in my life for a reason, then I can understand them and have empathy with them. I can resonate with them.
Once I've done that then I can generally feel or see what's gonna work for them. That can be weird if they're another empath, which most of my clients are. I can see what will work for them and we can go from there. I feel what will work for them and that doesn't mean that I'm always right, but I'm close enough that people referred me.
Is there anything else you want to add about your work?
Over everything, I see codependent cycles. I see that we are a culture with commercials that [tell us] we're not good enough; different clothes, different make-up, different things. I see all these people that don't love themselves and think that there's something wrong. Once I have a client that loves themselves enough that they could say “FU” to everything that happens generally, they'll leave the partners and the problems behind because they don't need that. They love themselves enough. Then they will just leave that world and move into a different social group. As far as success, it's not the success I was normally thinking it would be, but I guess when a person lets go of everything and moves forward, then that is success.
That is a different kind of success than we're taught in our culture. I saw in another interview with you earlier this year that you also go by ‘Rhapsody Decoded’.
Yes, that's my official artist name. When I do artwork, I do it under Rhapsody Decoded. There are different reasons for this. Some of my art is not nice to look at. It deals with lots of trauma and ideas because I put my own trauma into my work and then I make it public. I've separated myself from that so if my parents, grandparents, cousins are googling me it doesn't all have to come up. I used to think this was a beautiful progressive world I lived in. My bubble got popped as I've seen the true faces of a lot of America. My art is meant to be transcending to look at the other side, but apparently [to some people], it's just “crazy far-left propaganda” and I've had some problems and hate mail so by separating it from my name, I'm also giving myself a little buffer.
If people want to contact you about art therapy sessions, how would they find you?
Rhapsody.firstname.lastname@example.org is the best way to get a hold of me.
You also have a facebook page for Rhapsody Decoded, right?
Thank you so much for your time, Danielle.
The paintings in the title and pull-quote are by Danielle Razik.