Behind a batiked door under the Infinity Wellness Center on 27th Street lies a lair known as Art Alley. It's a concrete secret garden with crumbling walls and paint-splattered floors. A waxy smell of candles and Crayolas wafts through the air and strings of Christmas lights give a rainbow glow to tacked-up collages and illustrations. It's a nostalgic trip back to childhood that evokes braided lanyard key chains and clandestine attempts at "light as a feather, stiff as a board." And that's precisely the environment Lisa Williams hoped to create.
Williams, who is a professional art therapist at Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center, opened Art Alley in last July as a retreat for those she refers to as the "worried well."
"Every person in this world suffers from, at one point or another, sadness or depression or anxiety or stress," Williams explains. "There's no one who doesn't."
So Williams decided to open an art space where overworked adults can reacquaint themselves with the recuperative powers of creativity; it's a therapeutic environment not unlike craft time at a summer sleep-away camp.
"We never really stop to take the time to heal ourselves," laments Williams. "We have these stresses and we never do anything about them until, maybe, you end up in the emergency room with a heart attack because you're so stressed out."
Williams has been making art for as long as she can remember. Her parents divorced at a young age, and she was left to entertain herself while her mom worked. Drawing and writing became the creative outlets that buttressed her young adult life.
"[Art] is the thing that saved me. It was therapy on myself," she says. "I would write stories and go to these magical places and then I wouldn't be as alone."
In college, Williams graduated with a bachelor's in fine arts and a concentration in illustration and psychology. Naturally, the burgeoning field of art therapy seemed like a perfect fit, because it synthesized her two loves.
The art therapy program at Marylhurst University in Oregon taught Williams to utilize her artistic background as a way to help people explore their emotions in a therapeutic setting. But, she's careful to explain, her work doesn't involve diagnosing patients solely based on their art.
"The biggest thing that I was actually taught in school was that you don't analyze things because a flower to me could mean something completely different than a flower to you."
Art therapy, Williams explains, shouldn't be seen as a Rorschach test for diagnosing mental illness, but rather as a tool to further discussion and communication. It requires people to be engaged in their treatment as active participants. Through creation, they are able to move from their analytical left brain to the more abstract right, and in the process, help uncover masked psychological issues.
Williams has dreamed of opening a space like Art Alley since grad school, when students spoke excitedly about the new public art houses in New York. These spaces were non-profit environments where the homeless, wayward teens and the mentally disabled could congregate to create and socialize. She imagined a global network of these spaces that, working together, could address public ailments through art.
"I thought of Art Alley on this huge, global stage to start with. You know, I was going to save the world," Williams says.
But as she became more settled into her profession, Williams discovered that there was an unfulfilled niche in catering to the needs of the normal neurotic. She worked daily with the chronically mentally ill but felt there was an absence of preventative therapy being done for people like her.
"I wanted a place for someone like myself who's starving to go and do art and socialize and relax and laugh and do all those things that I forget, myself, to do because I get so busy," says Williams.
Art Alley is just that place. Open the creaky door to the left of the craft table and you'll find a veritable Chocolate Factory for the art crowd. Boxes of pastels and acrylics are nestled next to various sizes of card stock, sequins and googly eyes. Tupperware containers full of multi-colored pom-poms and pipe cleaners beg to be Crazy Glued together. And though this array of supplies can be intimidating at first glance, Williams assures all who cross the hallowed concrete threshold of Art Alley that it's not about the art.
"It's not about the finished product. You use the art as a way to open a pathway of communication. And it's right there, in front of your face."
This approach has been reassuring for Art Alley participants like Alana Hansen, who is pursuing her master's in counseling at Boise State. She first visited Art Alley during a particularly rigorous round of final exams. Though she had done collage work in the past, she hadn't wielded a pair of scissors and a glue stick in years.
"I ended up coming at a time when I was really stressed out and worried about the tests," Hansen recalls. "And I sat down and did a collage, and my collage ended up being a really peaceful place ...It made me see that art is therapy."
Hansen's story is reminiscent of many others that Williams recalls from the past nine months that Art Alley has been open. From a woman who worked through marriage problems while assembling pom-pom turkey place cards to Williams' father venting about the stress of last summer's Ketchum fires while doodling, Art Alley has proven to be more than just a child's creativity corner. It is a safe place where adults of all ages and artistic backgrounds can come to relax and feel inspired.
"Adults are afraid to do art because they think that it's supposed to be a Van Gogh or something. And how unfortunate is that? Because if I put a piece of paper in front of a kid and say 'draw,' they draw. It's not even a thought."
Williams hopes that her Tuesday and Thursday sessions at Art Alley will inspire area art enthusiasts and novices alike to set aside their daily stresses and take a couple of hours to focus on themselves. Each week, you'll find her seated among flickering candles, swirling markers on cardstock, and beckoning people to take a seat at her craft table.
"I'm here to let people know that this is a safe place, but I'm not really acting as their therapist. I'm more the creative cruise director."
For more information, contact Lisa Williams, MA-ATR, LPC; Art Alley, Inc., 1001 N. 27th St., www.ArtAlleyInc.org. Art Alley will be closed for remodeling for the first three weeks in April. When it reopens, it will be open to the public Tuesdays and Thursdays from 6 p.m.-8 p.m., other days by appointment.