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St. Petersburg native talks art therapy practice, working with youth

a man and a woman sitting at a desk: Jasmine Parker, with Listen to Your Art Therapy & Empowerment Services, teaches an art therapy course through The Well for Life, at the Boys and Girls Club located at the historic, Royal Theater, on Wednesday in St. Petersburg. © MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE/Times/Tampa Bay Times/TNS Jasmine Parker, with Listen to Your Art Therapy & Empowerment Services, teaches an art therapy course through The Well for Life, at the Boys and Girls Club located at the historic, Royal Theater, on Wednesday in St. Petersburg.

Jasmine Parker has been an artist since she was young.

As an undergraduate at Rollins College, she developed an interest in psychology and discovered the field of art therapy. She went on to pursue masters degrees in art therapy and counseling.

Now, the 36-year-old St. Petersburg native is a registered art therapist through the American Art Therapy Association. She has her own business, Listen to Your Art Therapy & Empowerment Services.

She was inspired to open the business in her home town, in part after seeing young men from her community pass through the legal system while she worked with incarcerated youth. Her business officially opened in February of 2019, focusing mainly on teenagers. She also teaches classes at local organizations and is currently working with The Well for Life in St. Petersburg to lead art therapy at the local Boys and Girls Club.

Parker sat down with The Tampa Bay Times to discuss her job, adapting to COVID-19 and working with young people. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

So, to start, what is art therapy?

Typically, when people ask me what our therapy is, I basically tell people, I use art and the art making process as a tool to help people process things going on in their lives that you know, where words may not be enough. It just kind of allows for us to use that other side of our brain, the more intuitive creative side of our brains to kind of process our experiences, our emotions.

How have you adapted to COVID-19?

Most of my services were group based, I was working at rec centers, providing art therapy groups there. And of course, when COVID happened, that kind of shut everything down. So I moved to doing virtual tele-health and so I've been mostly doing individual work in that capacity. I've done some art therapy groups virtually as well. But mostly it's been individual work.

What does a typical class look like?

I love incorporating team-building activities within my art therapy sessions. So a typical session for me would look like, I would come in, and I would have the activity set up. And then I would engage the teenagers in a team-building activity where most of the time we're touching on teamwork, communication, leadership skills, you know, decision making, them learning to kind of think outside of the box.

So I would engage them in the activity ... then we would process through the use of art. So I would give them an art directive, that would then allow them to process further what it is that they were learning. So if we were talking about leadership, I would ask them what were some of the qualities that they noticed from the people who kind of stepped up and show(ed) leadership skills. Then I would have them think about people in their lives that they see as leaders, and what qualities that they feel that they have. And then I would have them then identify those qualities within themselves — like 'When have there been times in their lives that they've demonstrated those skills as well?' — and just kind of help them process.

a group of people playing a video game: Jasmine Parker, with Listen to Your Art Therapy & Empowerment Services, teaches an art therapy course through the Well for Life, at the Boys and Girls Club located at the historic, Royal Theater, on Wednesday in St. Petersburg. © MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE/Times/Tampa Bay Times/TNS Jasmine Parker, with Listen to Your Art Therapy & Empowerment Services, teaches an art therapy course through the Well for Life, at the Boys and Girls Club located at the historic, Royal Theater, on Wednesday in St. Petersburg.

What art forms do you incorporate in your therapy?

So, in most cases, especially on an individual or family basis, I try to follow the lead of my client. So, if they have a natural tendency to want to do painting, or if they want to draw, if they want to collage, I usually will kind of start there with what they're comfortable with. And then as we progress, I'll start introducing other mediums that they may not necessarily have experience with, or just the instinct to use that particular medium. So I may start encouraging them to do some clay work, or collaging. I try to follow the lead of my client.

Also, the medium itself, it can be very therapeutic as well. So if I have someone who, for example, is very restricted, like they tend to struggle with emotional expression, or being able to communicate, they may naturally gravitate towards just pencils, just regular black pencils, and drawing with those. I would then over time try to encourage them to start incorporating color into their art.

And then from there, I would, eventually as they move through their process, try to then move them into materials that are less controlled. So pencils, colored pencils, markers, crayons, those are materials that you tend to have the most control with. Whereas like paint, watercolors, oil pastels, soft pastels, even clay, those are materials that tend to be a little bit more fluid. And we tend to have a little less control over them. So someone is struggling with, you know, the issues of control, being able to kind of move them through that direction, through the use of art can also help them in their regular day to day life.

What do you think are some of the biggest benefits of art therapy?

Art therapy works for anyone, it doesn't matter who you are. Human beings are naturally creative. It's one of our first ways of communicating. Children, before they can even speak full sentences, they are coloring, they're drawing, they're scribbling. So, it's natural for people to want to create. It just looks different for different people.

Being able to express ourselves in a nonverbal way just kind of allows us to let go of the different restraints that may come with just talking. And so a lot of people try art therapy when regular traditional talk therapy doesn't seem to work or it seems to move slower for them. Art allows for people to express themselves and to feel safe. It almost creates a certain amount of distance between the individual and the experiences that they have. They can take what's inside of them, and they can put it down on a piece of paper or if it's a 3D model, they can basically create something that allows them to tell their version of their experience.

How did you get into focusing on working with teenagers?

I always loved working with young people. There is a quote that I came across fairly recently, and I can't quote it word for word because I don't remember exactly, but to sum it up, it basically said 'Be the therapist that you needed when you were a child.' And for me, my teenage years were the years where I would have liked to have had someone like myself, you know, an art therapist that I could have sat down and worked with. And so I just naturally gravitated towards that age range.

I think preteens and early teenage years are very significant for us in terms of the people that we become. So I've always wanted to be a resource for young people to just kind of help and be just someone that they had that they can come and be in the presence of and, and talk to and be open and really kind of explore what it is that they have going on. And be able to kind of navigate to hopefully become healthy and happy adults.

Anything else you'd like to add?

I wanted to make my service as accessible as possible to individuals who may not necessarily, in traditional capacities, be able to receive my services.

So one of the things that I decided that I wanted to do was I wanted to make myself mobile. That way, instead of having a brick and mortar (office) where people had to come to me, I decided to build a travel trailer and convert it into a mobile art studio.

So, I spent about a year, I bought it, we pretty much built it all the way up into a studio. So September 6, I had my open house, because I finally completed it. Now, it's pretty much ready for me to be able to take it on the road and be able to take my services to people. On the inside, I can do small groups, so I can comfortably fit about five kids inside. The front part is my group area and then the back part is office area. So if I'm engaging in an individual session, I have space in the back. I have all my art materials that I could possibly need inside the trailer.

And then for any groups that are larger than that, I will park the trailer in the back of a parking space and I will set up outside the trailer. I have (a) canopy, tables and chairs and things like that.

But I will have all the materials readily available for the individuals that I'm working with. So, I'm super proud of it, because it's kind of an innovative idea. I'm not the first to do it, but (there's) not a lot of people out there providing their services in that way. And that's something that was super important to me. So I'm actually really proud of the trailer, it came out amazing, it looks great. And I'm just really happy that we're starting to kind of open up a little bit more so that way I can have more opportunities moving forward to actually be able to bring the trailer out and to use the trailer for my art therapy services.

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