How Art Therapy at Skyland Trail Helped Me

by Sheila O’Shea

My first encounter with art therapy was at my one (and I hope only) stay in a mental hospital. I’ve told people since then that it should have been properly called “shut up and color time.”

When I first arrived, I was given a page from a mandala coloring book and spent the spare time I was there trying to finish it before I left. When I reached the day of actual art therapy, it was pretty much people coloring mandalas and other coloring book pages. The act was soothing, in its way, but only provided so much comfort in the circumstance I was under.

My experience with art therapy at Skyland Trail was much different than that first encounter. Skyland Trail has two tracks of art therapy—product art and process art. I was fortunate enough to engage in both of them and got a lot out of them. Beyond just the art itself, I gained more intangible things.

Product Art

The pendant was created in product art.

At its simplest level, product art is a class for making different kinds of artistic creations. I painted silk scarves, wove beaded jewelry, added a pattern to a ceramic bowl, and many other things. The instructions were fairly straightforward, and we were given a great deal of latitude for expressing ourselves. Some of the things we made were offered for sale at events like Arts in the Garden, but most of the time we were able to keep them.

One of the projects we did was glass pendants. We selected two small squares of glass and sandwiched small beads and fragments of glass between them, then secured the whole work with gel glue. The glass constructions were then taken to be fired in a kiln and brought back to us the next week, as now perfectly smooth pendants. I used a black backing with a clear top and put glass bits in shades of red in between.

The results looked, in a “shape-in-the-clouds” kind of way, like there was a fluffy cat with small ears and a large, curled tail in the center of the pendant. I still have it and I still wear it. I treasure it because it’s the work of my own hands and something of a useful metaphor for how the broken parts of ourselves can be formed into a beautiful and unified whole.

Process Art

Process art is a little different in that it’s not as utilitarian as product art. The work doesn’t even have to be pretty or even completed. The objective of process art is to express what’s inside you so you can get it out of you and work through it.

In one process art group, we were told to think for a few minutes about a place that made us happy and then to take the materials provided and draw it. There was a variety of drawing media to choose from, from markers to crayons to pastels. I chose pastels. I drew a simplified picture of the view at my favorite beach and did a pretty good job of it. Handling it carefully, I took it home and put it somewhere safe until I could get some spray fixative and a frame. It hangs on my wall to this day.

The beach scene was created during process art.

On New Year’s Eve that year, I went to a music venue I really like, went down to the outdoor patio, borrowed a lighter, and burned the mandala I had colored at the hospital to ash. It felt positively liberating to have the souvenir of that time (there’s a reason I call it The Unpleasantness) gotten rid of. I still have the things I made at Skyland Trail because they remind me of a much better time in my journey with mental illness. I’m deeply grateful for my time in those art classes and will never forget what I learned from them.

A portrait photo of Sheila O'Shea

Sheila O’Shea is a writer, recovering poet, and one of the first graduates of the Creative Writing program at Emory University. She acted in Theatre Gael’s production of Waiting for Godot, sang on the album The Mod Mod Sounds of Middlesex, and DJed for Emory’s college radio station. She’s currently working on The Ten Thousand Flowers Project, in which she draws flowers and gives them away to people, with the intention of drawing and giving away ten thousand of them. She’s halfway through and still going. You can find out how to get one at She also works as a freelance copywriter, with an emphasis on narrative marketing. You can find out about her writing services at