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How The Art Room provides a creative way of healing

By Stephanie Salas-Vega, The Dallas Morning News
Published: February 17, 2024, 6:16am

DALLAS — When Marlys Lamar feels stress, she reaches for a piece of paper.

Today, she scribbles “Need money for The Art Room’’ on a white letter-size sheet. She flips it over and runs her pen across the paper, tracing in all directions without breaking contact.

“Wherever you have some kind of crossing, some kind of intersection, you start rounding off the edges,” Lamar said. “You can still focus on the problem, but eventually you get so focused on rounding the edges that you get really calm.”

That quick exercise allows Lamar to clear her mind from a problem she faces. Lamar is a psychologist who has been in private practice for 36 years. This technique is one of the many things they teach at The Art Room, a nonprofit art studio in Denton, Texas, that helps people with mental health issues heal through art and creativity. The Art Room, founded by Lamar, offers open studio hours, workshops, classes and an array of art supplies at no cost. It doesn’t provide art therapy, but it uses art as a therapeutic practice.

“Art therapy is designed to explore specific issues and express them in some kind of artistic way.” Lamar said. “Our concept is that just doing art is therapeutic.”

The Art Room, located on Locust Street, was once a woodworking studio. The custom-built cabinets on the walls and the wooden workstation now serve a different purpose. They’re filled with bottles of different colored paint and color swatches. Sheets of paper are organized in flat drawers. On a counter, about a dozen coffee mugs are stuffed with paint brushes. Across the room, a bookshelf holds old books and magazines for collages.

The Art Room also has supplies for members to learn new art techniques such as printmaking or clay molding. Members can come in during open studio times to explore or they can participate in one of the workshops offered monthly by a guest educator.

“We have artist volunteers and mental health volunteers that come every time we’re open and provide support for people while they’re here,” Lamar said. “If anyone did have an issue or a crisis, we’re here to support the person and get them the help they need.”

Maryam Flory, vice president of The Art Room, worked for Denton County MHMR Center as a counselor for 10 years. She said it’s important for people struggling with mental health issues to find holistic treatment and seek different types of coping skills, such as art, but it’s rare to have access to that for free.

“When someone is struggling with paying their basic bills, they don’t have that expendable money to engage in some of these other really helpful but costly coping skills and techniques,” Flory said. “When [Lamar] told me about her idea of starting a free art studio for individuals with mental health issues, it really connected with me that idea that we could be a place where a creative coping skill can be offered to people, and that we can remove that barrier of cost and provide a safe space for individuals.”

Once a week, The Art Room hosts “therapeutic Thursdays,” which are classes led by occupational therapists. Flory said they’re not direct one-on-one or group counseling, but they do encourage mindfulness and internal reflection.

These classes are meant to help members learn how to use art to stay calm. One Thursday, members attended a concert at Texas Woman’s University, and while they listened to the music they drew with colored pencils. Afterward, they discussed how their art made them feel or what they thought about the activity.

“There’s a sense of community from coming here,” Lamar said. “What we wanted was a place where people can kind of set aside the mental health diagnosis, or the mental health issues for a bit, and just do something enjoyable and fun.”