Mandalas and me

Spotlight On: THERESA BENSON – “Staying Open on my Expressive Arts Journey”

Are you curious about how people are using Expressive Arts in their lives?

Are you interested in understanding how Expressive Arts makes a difference in the world?

Theresa_SpotlightThis is the third “Spotlight Interview” with graduates of our certificate training program. In this series,  you will hear from therapists, educators, healthcare practitioners and more.  We hope these conversations will provide you with glimpses of some innovative real-life applications in the field.

Today’s spotlight is on  THERESA BENSON, 2015 EAFI graduate, from Champaign, Illinois.
Kathleen Horne recently 
interviewed Theresa, and we share the dialogue here.

Introducing Theresa: As a Registered Expressive Arts Consultant Educator (REACE), Theresa
Benson is passionate about incorporating the expressive arts, mindfulness and nature-based practices to facilitate healing and/or promote holistic health and well-being. She has been actively offering education, training and counseling infused with the expressive arts at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign as the Program Coordinator of the award-winning Counseling Center Paraprofessional Program. As a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in the State of Illinois, she provides a skills group incorporating expressive arts for individuals with eating disorders as well as offers trauma-informed counseling in her private practice, Whole Life Expression. One of her greatest delights is facilitating a Dancing Mindfulness session each month at The Living Yoga Center.

KH: Theresa, thanks so much for this interview! To begin, can you share what initially drew you to the Expressive Arts Florida Institute (EAFI) training?

TB: Yes, I was always intuitively drawn to this work, and have been integrating the arts into what I do for a long time. When I was doing my Masters in Holistic Health at JFK University, I was introduced to Expressive Arts formally for the first time, and I really resonated with it. When I pursued my PhD,  however, I got pulled away from what I deeply love. After my PhD,  I knew I wanted to seek training in Expressive Arts, and found your program through IEATA (International Expressive Arts Therapy Association).  I didn’t want another degree. I wanted to fully immerse myself in the arts, at my own pace. EAFI was a great fit.

KH: I am glad that you found us! In terms of both your personal and professional development, what did you anticipate that the training would give you?

TB: I expected that it would reconnect me with the arts and creativity, and I knew there would be some personal excavating. I knew it would open me up, and expected it to be a rewarding experience. I didn’t know what might unfold.


KH: And did it meet those expectations?

TB: I remember being at the first intensive, and thinking “oh my gosh, this is even more than I expected!” I could let go, and engage deeply in the experiential process, pulling out aspects of myself that I didn’t even know were waiting to come to the surface. I was free to be completely in the experience, without having to divide myself and keep an eye on how the process was facilitated. At the end of each intensive, you gave us these wonderful handouts that described and referenced each process we did. As I progressed through the program, I documented my personal process, as well as the professional applications. My completed big binder of documentation contains it all, and this has become an invaluable resource for me as I move forward professionally.

KH: That’s great! It is our intention to offer our students both a full personal immersion and a high quality professional training. By documenting both aspects, graduates come away with a rich resource guide along with reflections about how each experience affected them personally.

What stands out for you, Theresa, as your biggest “aha” experience or turning point in the program?

182TB:  The big body-tracing painting from the Intermodal intensive really stands out as the most impactful process.

We started with a body tracing, and then worked with that image all weekend. All of the different intermodal work we did kept taking me back to her, and layer after layer unfolded, as the work went deeper and deeper. And it didn’t stop with that weekend; it continued for the whole summer. This helped me see how generative this process can be, and how one art modality can build on another one. So much has come out of that piece for me!

KH: What a great description of  an extended intermodal expressive arts process! Sometimes, in working with the art, people make an image, ask “what does it mean?” and then leave it and go to the next image.  What you have just described is a much deeper process, where an image continues to deepen and unfold. This is an essential and significant quality of Expressive Arts.

TB: Yes, I still don’t know what this image “means”, but it is still continuing to move and inform me.

KH: I want to talk about your professional work in a moment, but first I would like to touch on the  importance of a personal practice.  Can you say something about that?

TB: I think it is vital to do the work yourself if you are going to engage others on a professional level. And, my personal practice feeds my professional and vice versa.

KH: In the midst of a busy life, is it challenging for you to maintain a personal practice?

A mandorla – to explore a polarity

TB: Well, it really depends on how I look at it. If I think my personal practice has to be some grand thing that I do every day, then yes, it is difficult. I have come to look at it differently, though. I have my visual journal, and, although I don’t work in it every day, it is a resource and a tool for me, and I can count on it. I also make mandalas and mandorlas quite regularly. And, even though it is something I do only one time per year, I make a mask every year with my students, and I now have a series of ten masks, which definitely tell a story. These are all aspects of my own arts practice.

KH: A personal practice is a way to stay current with ourselves, and it also becomes a way to review the terrain of our lives. We encourage all of our students to develop an ongoing practice.

Let’s move to your professional life now, Theresa, as it covers quite a scope, and I would love our readers to get a sense of some of the possibilities.

TB: Well, there are several different aspects in the work I am currently doing, and, in each one, Expressive Arts is central. I would like people to be more aware of how powerful this work is. I think of the arts as the core of our work, not an “add on”.

KH: Yes, that is an important point! We see the expressive arts as the core of what we do.

Theresa - center (back) with EAFI classmates
Theresa – center (back) with EAFI classmates

Theresa, for the last ten years you have been teaching, training, and counseling as the Program Coordinator of the Counseling Center Paraprofessional Program at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. How has your work there changed since you completed the EAFI program?

TB: I have always incorporated Expressive Arts into my work with the students in the Paraprofessional Program,  but now, with my additional training and skills, I have taken this to a much deeper level. I have a group of students who I train to work with Expressive Arts and they share facilitation with me in various settings on the campus.

In addition, I have initiated my private counseling practice, and I am working individually with clients, incorporating Expressive Arts.

KH: So you are working both as an educator and as a therapist, using Expressive Arts. That is great! And, in addition, for your internship at EAFI, you created a community art-for-social-action project. Can you say something about that?

TB: Yes, I wanted to try something new. Along with my students, I created the U and I Project on campus, focusing on diversity. This gave me the opportunity to take an expressive arts process from site to site, and engage people I have just met.  Up until then, I was much more  used to working with people I have gotten to know over a period of time.

KH: What was that like and what did you learn?

TB: As I reflect on it now, I see that I learned a lot. My students came up with the idea of creating pennants (flags) on muslin fabric, and taking these to a variety of campus venues and student groups. We asked the participants to reflect on the questions: *What do I bring culturally to University of Illinois?  and *What do I wish people on campus would celebrate regarding the diversity I bring?  We gave them the blank pennants and art materials and created a safe space to make art and share. I was most struck by the students’ ability to go deeply with the art, and to uncover potentially intense personal material, even with a relative stranger as a facilitator. After the sessions, they often reported feeling relaxed while making the art. I find it interesting that in a situation addressing culture, and the different ways that people my be oppressed because of their culture, that they can still feel relaxed while creating. The art-making gave permission for that expression, and allowed them to engage and express from a relaxed state of mind. That was really beautiful. In this work, creative expressions – even expressions of pain – can bring a sense of awe, as the creative process is life affirming and it activates something very holistic within us.


KH: That is nicely stated, Theresa. The creation of a safe space and a sense of trust is so important, too. Continuing to talk about the U and I project, what happened after your took it to various venues on campus and students created the pennants?

TB: We attached all the pennants to a clothesline, creating an evolving collaborative project. In November, it was hung in the Womens’ Resources Center on campus, as part of an exhibit for Art and Healing month. Next semester, each student in the expressive arts program will each take the project to a different student group on campus. So it continues to evolve and grow, impacting both the students who create the pennants, and those who see the ever-growing art piece.


KH: It is really a wonderful initiative, and our readers can see a slide show and description here.

Theresa, you mentioned an exhibit at the Womens’ Resources Center. In addition to the U and I Project displayed there,  I understand that you had some personal art work in that show as well.  I know I have heard you say that you don’t consider yourself a visual artist. Can you talk about that?

TB: November was Art and Healing month, so I contacted the Womens’ Resources Center, and talked to them about an exhibit, which they were excited about. As a first step,  I gave a presentation and a workshop there, entitled Touching the Heart, Mending the Soul. It was really well attended and stirred a lot of interest.  One of my students – Evalina Kirkpatrick – assisted with this workshop. I was asked to exhibit some of my own artwork, along with the pennants, and a few other submissions. I displayed some of my mandalas, touch drawings, and masks. It definitely took me out of my comfort zone! This is very personal artwork, and I didn’t create it for others to view.

Presenting at WRC
Evalina and Theresa presenting at Womens’ Resources Center, U of I campus

KH: You took a risk in showing your art publicly. What did you hope to inspire by taking that step?

TB: I wanted people to know that there is value in making art, and something to be gained, personally. It doesn’t have to be for other people. You can do it for you, as I did it for me.

KH: In your words, Theresa, what can people gain from making art for themselves?
TB: When a person commits to making art for themselves, I believe it helps them reconnect with creativity in all its forms–preparation of a meal, setting a table, choosing an outfit to wear, creating a playlist for an event. All of these simple everyday things can be an act of creativity. By doing art, we remember that we are creative even in the simple everyday things. I honestly believe we were born to create, and when we engage in the creative process of art-making it helps us relax, become more at ease, to focus, to channel energy.

KH:  Yes! At our institute, we talk about this as developing creative life skills for personal, professional, and social change. As you speak about your life and your work, I see so many examples of how you embody and share these skills.

I love seeing this photo of you with the mandala that you made in your first intensive at EAFI. I know that when you created it you didn’t have any intention of sharing it publicly. And yet it says so much! I am sure it inspired others.

Mandalas and me
Theresa’s mandala from EAFI 120 – Expressive Arts for Body,Mind, Spirit

We have talked about your personal practice, and several aspect of your work – in education, counseling, social action, and a community exhibit. It sounds like a lot, and yet, I know there is more!

TB: Yes, for the past couple of months I have been facilitating Dancing Mindfulness at The Living Yoga Center here in Champaign.  I love expressive movement, and I discovered Dancing Mindfulness, as one of my elective credit workshops through EAFI.

KH: That is an incredible scope of work, Theresa, and the expressive arts are at the core of  all of it. What is next for you?

TB:  I am interested in doing more work in a  clinical setting – both individual and group –  and maybe offering some training to psychologists. I am also possibly interested in research.

While at EAFI, I got a great grounding in the field, and I took three electives that really shaped me as well: Touch Drawing with Deborah Koff-Chapin, Dancing Mindfulness, and Art as a Healing Practice with you (Kathleen). Although visual arts is not my strongest modality, I really identify and embrace Touch Drawing as a holistic practice, and I continue to use the mandala and mandorla art forms I learned in Art as a Healing Practice.  At EAFI, because of being guided by three faculty (Kathleen, Victoria, Tamara) who each come from different pathways and bring unique strengths, I was exposed to so many ways the expressive arts can be brought to serve so many needs, populations, and purposes – in therapy, education, community work, and more. My fellow students at EAFI were a diverse group as well – therapists, educators, artists, spiritual directors, healthcare professionals, and more. I am a pretty open person, and I learned from everyone.

KH: You recently attained your REACE (Registered Expressive Arts Consultant Educator) through IEATA (International Expressive Arts Therapy Association). This is a big accomplishment, and you are the first of our graduates to attain this standing. Congratulations!

TB: Thank you. I hope to attain my REAT (Registered Expressive Arts Therapist) as well.

KH: I expect you will! Do you have any words of wisdom for anyone just starting out in this field?

TB: Well, in the words of Shaun McNiff: “Trust the process!. I do think it comes down to that. We don’t really know where anything is going to take us. We can have some ideas but it is important to stay open and allow spirit to guide the direction of where we land. When I was 20, I would never have dreamed I would be where I am today. It is about trusting each opening, and following it, and seeing where it takes me. A big part of my journey is staying open to the journey.

KH: And I think, Theresa, that you have really embraced that way of being in the world, for a long time.

TB: I want to thank you, Tamara, and Victoria for the training!  It has made a big impact on me, and  it has shifted my career path to be more in alignment with  who I am.  I can bring all of myself forward now. Its been a real gift.

KH: It has been a real gift to be a teacher, advisor, and mentor for you, Theresa! Thank you again for this interview and for the work you are doing in the world.

Links for the reader

*Whole Life Expression – Theresa’s Website

*To learn more about and U and I Project and the Paraprofessional Program at University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana, use this link.

*International Expressive Arts Therapy Association (IEATA)

*Dancing Mindfulness

*Touch Drawing

*Art as a Healing Practice

*The Living Yoga Center

*Find out more about Expressive Arts Florida Institute Certificate Training Program here. 

Our next Level One course is April 7-10:                                                                       

Dive In to Expressive Arts – Intermodal Intensive and it’s a great one to start with!

Interested in other graduate interviews?

Spotlight on Tammie Norton An Artist’s Journey to Trust

Spotlight on Pam HironsA Therapist Enriches her Life and Work

Theresa Benson, Ph.D, Licensed Psychologist, EAFI Graduate