FOR ART THERAPIST and licensed clinical professional counselor Jacqueline Carmody,​ art has been a powerful form of self-expression and self-care since childhood. After Carmody completed her bachelor’s degree with majors in both psychology and fine arts one of her mentors suggested that art therapy might be a fruitful avenue for her skills and interests. Since obtaining a master’s degree in art therapy and counseling in 2013, she has been providing art therapy to people in psychiatric facilities, hospitals and outpatient settings.

But shortly after graduation, Carmody started volunteering her time with Twist Out Cancer, a nonprofit that uses creative arts programming to help cancer survivors and their loved ones process their experiences. She first applied to the organization’s Brushes with Cancer program, which paired artists with a person affected by cancer. The artist would translate the person’s experiences with cancer into a work of art. “It was like, wow, this is too perfect for me, I’m an artist and I’m interested in using art to help people heal,” Carmody says, describing her reaction when she first found out about the program online.

After volunteering, Carmody worked with the organization to incorporate more group support into the process. She also developed another program, called Twistshops, for people with cancer to create their own pieces of art and talk about it together. Recently, Carmody spoke to Cancer Today about what led her to become an art therapist and how creative expression can be cathartic and restorative.

Q: How did your focus in college on psychology and fine arts lead you to pursue a career in art therapy?
A: I’d always been an artist, but the competition of being in a fine art school was really difficult. I was making art more out of my own self-expression—as a way to communicate, not to compete. As for my emphasis on psychology, I just had an interest in how the mind works. It was eye-opening to learn about different diagnoses and how art making could be applied to a person’s therapeutic skills and the science of psychology. I think the first course I took in college was called Introduction to the Expressive Arts and Therapy. I learned about all the different modalities of music therapy, dance therapy, movement and art-making, and it just clicked for me at that moment.

Q: How did you get involved with Twist Out Cancer?
A: I was only about six months out of graduate school, and I was seeking different ways to get involved through volunteering. I came across Brushes With Cancer event on the internet, and I applied to be an artist that year. I was matched with a girl and fell in love with the way the [Brushes with Cancer] program worked, that two complete strangers could bond over something so personal. I’ve been an artist for five different [Brushes with Cancer] events and each experience is so unique. As I continued to stay involved with Twist Out Cancer, I started working with the organization to incorporate more support groups and to develop the Twistshops.

Q: Can you tell me a little more about the Twistshops?
A: I noticed that a lot of the artists and their inspirations [Twist Out Cancer uses ‘inspirations’ to refer to the survivors, previvors, patients, caregivers and loved ones affected by cancer that take part in Brushes with Cancer] didn’t have a lot of opportunities to connect with one another throughout the course of the Brushes with Cancer program. The artists get their match, and then they have about six months to connect with the person who will inspire the artwork. Everyone’s going through this unique experience of meeting a complete stranger and telling their story or making artwork. I really wanted to bring everyone together to process how that was going for them, to have everyone in the same room to process emotions, and to just have a safe space to be vulnerable. It started as these small groups, and people really thrived in them. It was amazing to see how much they were needed.

The group sessions are about three hours in length, and I bring art materials ranging from paint to pastels, markers, yarn, crochet, collage, mixed media. There’s an option for everyone. We’ll do an introduction, and everyone will give a little brief story about what they want to get out of the group. It just takes off from there. Everyone starts connecting. It’s cool to see people of different ages and from different cultures connect on a level that’s very personal, but unique to their experience. They create artwork side by side, and, at the end, we process them together and it’s pretty powerful.

Q: Why do you kick off each Brushes with Cancer program with this kind of group session?
A: I’ve noticed that a lot of the inspirations are not familiar with art-making, or the art-making process. They’re getting paired with this person who’s going to create an art piece about them, so [at the Twistshop,] the people who have been affected by cancer get a chance to make art about their own experience first. They get to create an image that’s kind of a ‘container’ for all of their emotions, all the difficult stuff that they’ve had to hold on to regarding their treatment. These individuals, their family members, and even their friends might not have a container for these stories that they’ve been holding on to it, which causes a lot of stress and anxiety and depression. Many haven’t given themselves a chance to focus on their mental health, because their physical health has been number one for so long. The Twistshops really allow them to dive into that part of themselves that they’ve been neglecting.

Q: How does producing artwork as a ‘container’ for emotions allow people to let them go?
A: The most powerful thing about art-making is the cathartic release of energy. Even if someone’s just scribbling on paper, they’re releasing an energy. It gives them a chance to name it and identify it, which is hard to do verbally because a lot of emotions are abstract. Sometimes the act of creating something or moving your body can allow that individual to understand [their emotions] more clearly.

Q: What tips do you suggest for people who are affected by cancer and who want to start working with an art therapist?

A: I think it’s important to ask practitioners about their background, and what their approach is. I think everybody should ‘go shopping’ for the perfect fit for their therapist. It really comes down to human connection—if they’re able to feel comfortable and vulnerable in that person’s space. Every art therapist has their own style, and it’s not going to be the same experience that it would be with another art therapist.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.​