Art plays key role in treatment program at DSHS’ Maple Lane residential treatment facility

The art wall, part of the large milieu area at Maple Lane’s Oak Unit, has become an object of much interest and pride for residents.





These words accompany images of faces, cityscapes, snowboarders and trophies, part of collages that brighten the art wall of Maple Lane’s Oak Unit, the Department of Social and Health Services’ 16-bed residential treatment facility located near Rochester. On one collage, a quote attributed to Leo Tolstoy stands out: “Art is not a handicraft; it is the transmission of feeling the artist has experienced.”

In these collages, Oak residents have transmitted their feelings into their art, mapping out abstract self-portraits based on how they saw themselves. The collages are just one of several art interventions used as a form of therapy for residents, who are civilly committed for 90 to 180 days.

“Art therapy helps residents express their thoughts and feelings without the use of words,” said psychologist Massiel Aspron, who joined Oak Unit in August 2023. “Complex thoughts and intense feelings can be hard to articulate, and art therapy bridges that communication gap. It also engages residents in a communal, stress-relieving activity that exercises the creative part of the brain.”

In another exercise, residents created trees representing various memories or periods of their lives. Aspron demonstrated this by creating her own tree and describing a moment in her life that inspired the tree. Following her lead, residents then began creating trees reflecting their lives. Residents are not required to share during these exercises, but many find themselves inspired to speak up.

“Sometimes, when it’s challenging to make a connection with a resident, working on a piece of art will open them up,” Aspron said.

Another particularly effective activity involves creating masks. Residents are asked to decorate the outside of the mask based on how the outside world sees them. They then decorate the inside of the mask representing how they see themselves.

“This activity fosters self-reflection, exploration of feelings, fears, and strengths,” said Aspron. “It also can help spark conversations about things that are otherwise too difficult to talk about. They tell you so much through their art, and it provides an avenue to ask more questions.”

While the art activities often take place in an enclosed group room, Aspron has experimented with bringing activities into the larger milieu room in the center of Oak Unit, offering both more space and a chance for other residents to see and engage.

“Sometimes people would just be walking by and see what’s happening, and they would stop to watch or begin making something themselves,” she said.

Other activities were lighter in focus: residents made maple leaves last autumn, and created gratitude cards for staff and gingerbread houses during the holiday season.

These activities still provided an important outlet for residents who may have had unpleasant or challenging holiday memories, said Norman Goodenough, Oak Unit program director. “These activities have their own inherent benefits. They help residents cope with stress, and making art helps calm the nervous system.”

The art wall, part of the large milieu area, has become an object of much interest and pride for residents.

“They’re proud to see their art displayed and love to talk to others about their art,” said Aspron. “When their art is displayed, they show and talk about their art to staff and other residents who are seeing it. It’s a great conversation starter.”

Aspron drew from her own lived experience using art as a coping strategy to develop the art interventions.

“Growing up in a house with a substance-using parent was stressful and shameful. I used art as an expression of those thoughts and feelings I was not allowed to talk about or couldn’t talk about. I still use art as a means to unwind and regenerate,” the psychologist said.

She began using art interventions as a way to provide a respite from traditional group therapy, and to offer a different approach for residents to make connections with each other. Residents participate in art interventions at least once a week. She is hopeful that residents will be able to use art as a coping strategy long after they leave Oak Unit.

“This is something that they can take with them. We hope they can remember this as a way to cope with stressful times,” she said.

Many artists have spoken about the power of art to communicate deeper truths and to find self-fulfillment. Perhaps Kurt Vonnegut put it best when he said, “To practice any art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow. So do it.”

And so it is with residents at Oak Unit, who are using art to share their innermost feelings, speak their unspeakable truths, and grow their souls.

(By Tom Vasquez)