Einat Metzl finds that creative expression is a practical way to grapple with strong feelings
Story by Shanee Edwards | Photos By Maria Martin
“We’ve all heard that phrase, ‘A picture is worth a thousand words.’ Well, I think it’s worth more than that. And I have a big appreciation for words!” says local resident Einat Metzl, chair of Loyola Marymount University’s Marital and Family Therapy Department in the College of Communication and Fine Arts.
Whether drawn by a traumatized child or a spouse in distress, when that “picture” is used as part of art therapy, it can communicate feelings that words often can’t. “There’s something about the somatic kinesthetic visual connection that cannot be understated,” Metzl says, adding that art “can also help us process things that are more existential and harder to make sense of through logical thought.”
While it might sound progressive and experimental, art therapy isn’t new. The discipline got its formal start after World War II, when many soldiers returned from the battlefield with “shell shock” — in today’s language, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The medical community began to realize that art had a therapeutic effect on their patients. Today, art therapy is used for all types of diagnoses.
Originally from Israel, “a place where war and conflict is part of daily life,” Metzl grew up in a family of artists and educators. From a young age she was curious about the connection between emotional healing and art and knew she wanted to put the two together in a formal way.
She came to the United States and eventually earned a master’s degree in Marital and Family Therapy / Art Therapy from LMU, and then a PhD in Art Education / Art Therapy from Florida State University. Her doctoral research focused specifically on creativity and resilience after Hurricane Katrina, and how the creative process fostered growth on both the individual and community level.
Metzl was then hired by LMU as a visiting professor. That’s when life handed her a detour.
After marrying the man she calls “the only man I knew who knew how to love another as clear and as pure as water flowing down” in an essay she contributed to “South Writ Large,” she became pregnant with twins. Sadly, her husband was diagnosed with cancer and just one month after their girls were born, he passed away.
“This is part of our personal — and universal — journey, right?” she says with a smile that is bittersweet.
When Metzl works with children in the foster care system, whether they were adopted or aged out of foster care, she’s reminded of the resilience of the human spirit.
“Kids, they have a true intuitive wisdom about what they need,” she says, “and if we just get out of their way and give them some materials to express themselves, they will do incredible things.”
Children who’ve suffered trauma can often benefit from art therapy. While they may not be able to express their experience though words, Metzl says they “can draw what they’re feeling or thinking.”
Having that visual art also serves as a record that illustrates the child’s emotional journey.
“We have a lasting product. So if somebody has created something — let’s say either in play or an artwork — I can take a picture, or I can have the physical art. When the child comes back and they do another piece, whether it is similar or different, I can always bring that previous piece out and we can witness that journey together, saying, ‘Wow, look at that. Last time it was here, and now it’s there.’”
Metzl also finds art therapy to be helpful when she works with couples facing issues in their relationship.
“Couples,” she says, “come for all the reasons you can imagine. Sometimes it’s communication challenges, the impact of past experiences, or sexual challenges.”
Though not the right fit for every couple, Metzl invites her clients to create art as a way to explore feelings, express pain and connect with one another when their words have turned toxic.
“They can see each other’s pain in an art piece that is reflected and separated from anger and blame directed at them — there’s no point in arguing with that image. That image speaks to your right brain much more directly then it does to your logical brain. It’s a way for you to connect differently,” she explains.
When she’s not doing the work she loves in her private practice, guiding her students at LMU, donating time to nonprofits like A Home Within and raising her two children, Metzl still creates art and, when possible, contributes to art exhibitions.
“It’s a part of me that I think is essential,” she says. “I’m a practitioner in my core — I practice art, therapy, yoga. I don’t get to any of it as much as I would like. I am committed to my practices and am also deeply grateful for the challenges that inform myself and others.”