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Art therapist Ulli Chamberlain knows the value of using creativity to raise self confidence
Ulli Chamberlain, a retired art therapist, sits inside Inman Perk Cafe in Gainesville Monday with a few of her abstract watercolor paintings that are on display for the month of April. Chamberlain has seen the therapeutic effects of art for children and believes the school systems should stop cutting their art programs. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Artwork by Ulli Chamberlain
When: Through April
Where: Inman Perk Cafe on the Gainesville square.
Cost: Free



Coloring books filled with images of puppies and princesses may seem like an innocent enough gift for children, but retired art therapist Ulli Chamberlain says the books are undermining their development.

"They destroy confidence to create by oneself. We're basically saying you're too stupid to create something on your own," said Chamberlain, a Gainesville resident.

"Children need freedom, not to be conditioned by very well-meaning parents and teachers to use coloring books or cut out patterns with instructions.

"When we give them coloring books, we are conditioning them not to think."

Chamberlain, who started her artistic career as a potter, began studying counseling and art therapy in the late 1970s and earned a master's degree on the subjects in 1978.

"I have always been very concerned about children," she says.

Instead of telling children to color between the lines of pre-determined shapes, Chamberlain says they should instead be given a blank sheet of paper.

"It's so amazing to see what children can create if they are left alone. As adults, we have to learn how to respect a child's space in developing their own techniques by experimentation and play," Chamberlain said.

"We shouldn't be judgmental of their work because then their creativity gets blocked and they can't move forward. Instead of imposing your own ideas about their work, be encouraging and ask them to tell you about it."

Through her studies, Chamberlain says she was able to learn how art can be more than a hobby to pass the time.

"As part of my training, I had an exciting internship in a public school system doing preventative art therapy with children. The principal of the school referred the most difficult children to me. The ones who were destructive and were hard for the staff to deal with," Chamberlain said.

"I saw each child alone for one hour per week and gave them a choice of their art materials and some juice and crackers. They were free to play and express themselves, so they were able to create from within and listen to themselves."

Being able to work independently allowed the students to develop their own problem-solving techniques, which led to them being less frustrated in their other classes, Chamberlain says.

"They each shared with me at the end of their art sessions. Their art creations and inner-focus raised self-confidence and self-esteem ," Chamberlain said.

"After a few months, the positive results were so amazing. Now, instead of being sent to the principal daily, the (previous) difficult children felt much better and their behavior improved in class and with their classmates."

Although art and other creative activities are largely considered to be right-brain functions, Chamberlain says allowing children to create independently also helps with left-brain functions like working out math and science problems.

"If children are allowed to create without interruption, they learn how to make their unconscious conscious," Chamberlain said.

"During this process, they learn how to take care of their own problems internally. This isn't about making all children into artists, it's about making creative, adjusted and well-balanced people in whatever they do."

When she first began her career as an art therapist, Chamberlain says she was hopeful that the practice would catch on in schools. Unfortunately, the funding for school arts programs continues to be cut.

"The money is just gone. Since there's no funding for art or art teachers, it's up to the parents to help their children," Chamberlain said.

One of the first steps in helping children develop their full range of talents is by not purchasing ready-made art kits, she says.

"We're setting children up to not use the creative and spontaneous gifts they were born with. The damage that we do to them is outrageous," Chamberlain said.

"We don't mean to do it, but we have to be more aware of the consequences of our actions. We have to let them use their own, God-given tools.

"Children are like flowers, they need a little watering and a little nurturing, but they also need space to grow."



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