Melissa Hedlund was a college student planning to become a doctor, but when it came time to fill out her application to take the Medical College Admission Test, she found herself feeling defeated and depressed.
"I knew medicine wasn't filling my soul and wasn't my calling in the world," she said.
If you goWhat: Gallery reception for The Light of The Heart
When 6 to 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 7
Where: 14 W. Downer Place Aurora, Suite 203
Info: (630) 486-4078
To put some fun back in her life, she went to the grocery store and bought a 99-cent set of watercolors and a $2 sketch pad. Those simple tools reignited the love of art she had had as a child.
"I just started making image after image and I felt better," she said.
Researching the connections between psychology and art, Hedlund discovered the field of art therapy and knew that's what she wanted to do. She earned a master's degree in counseling and art therapy from the Adler School of Professional Psychology in Chicago and worked in a variety of settings -- with everyone from victims of domestic violence to psychiatric patients to people dealing with cancer -- but Hedlund always felt something else was still in store for her.
She found that something in 2010 when a friend asked her to serve as art director at a summer camp on the east side of Aurora. The children were from low-income homes and some had experienced violence and trauma. They arrived looking defeated and left two weeks later singing and dancing, with a sparkle in their eyes.
Hedlund had seen what the power of creating could do. The Wheaton native, who by then had fallen in love with Aurora, started The Light of The Heart: A Community Art Therapy Project, with a mission to bring light and healing to others through art therapy.
The changes people experience through art therapy can be dramatic or more quiet and subtle, but they are definitely real, she said.
"I don't have words to explain the magic that happens," said Hedlund, who also is the new president of the Illinois Art Therapy Association. "It just opens people up and allows them to grow where they need to grow and to heal from some things they need to heal from."
Liz Gardner, an art therpist who is a member of The Light of The Heart board, agreed. She said she's seen art therapy bring amazing changes in the struggling and rebellious students at the alternative high school where she works.
"There, kids are just opening up and learning so much about themselves," she said.
Hedlund said art therapy can be used in a variety of situations to help people dealing with transitions in life, depression, anxiety, loss of a loved one, mental illness, relationship issues or simply to help people get more in touch with themselves.
"Anybody willing can benefit," she said. "In my experience, those who are not trained artists have the most to gain from art therapy."
As part of Aurora's First Fridays art events, The Light of The Heart will hold a gallery reception from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 7, at 14 W. Downer Place, Suite 203, in downtown.
Hedlund works with groups, individuals and families. She has a mobile art therapy program she takes on the road to sites such as Rush-Copley Medical Center to work with patients with movement disorders and to Hesed House to make art with children and adolescents who have experienced homelessness.
A self-titled social justice organizer, Hedlund also has spearheaded community art projects such as the "Mural of Love" outside the River Edge Café in downtown Aurora. A hundred artists completed two of the panels, and a bucket of chalk sits in front of the third panel for anyone to add to the mural.
"The directive was to draw what you love," she said.
Hedlund said after the Mural of Love went up, the cafe owner told her customers coming in for morning coffee started talking about what they love instead of bringing in their usual complaints.
"How cool is that? That's social change at its finest," Hedlund said.
Another installation in a vacant window down the street has featured artwork from Hesed House. She also conducts twice-monthly open studio sessions at Culture Stock bookstore in Aurora and holds a Heart Makers summer camp for kids ages 7 to 14.
Hedlund has been recognized as a woman leader in the arts in Aurora by being one of the artists chosen to show her work in a "Broad Strokes" exhibit at the Paramount Theatre.
She holds art retreats for those working in the healing professions, with the next one on Feb. 8 at the Clarus Center in Warrenville.
Ruth Dogra, a mental health practitioner, social worker and founding member of The Light of The Heart, said she goes to the retreat every year.
"It's great burnout protection," she said.
Connecting with art
Dogra said she first met Hedlund when they were both interns at Family Shelter Service and Hedlund noticed some art Dogra had created on her binder. The two bonded in their belief in the healing and therapeutic powers of art. The Light of The Heart uses Hedlund's gifts for connecting with people through art, Dogra said.
"She's very centered and she's very genuine. She's good at interacting with people where they're at," she said.
Hedlund said sometimes she creates art with her clients; other times she just gives them art materials to use or lets them talk.
"Sometimes it's (talking) a lot. Sometimes it's very minimal. It just depends on what the client needs," she said.
Hedlund may ask a child who has experienced bullying to draw a bully, then write a letter to the bully and read it to the image. A client who is experiencing anxiety may be asked to draw an object that represents that anxiety.
Hedlund said she doesn't interpret her client's artwork, but may ask about recurring images or the energy with which a client is working.
"I do a lot of noticing, but not interpreting," she said.
Hedlund sometimes combines art therapy with music or writing, but she said she believes the visual arts help people express what words cannot.
"There's something about the images that just holds so much and brings incredible healing and insight," she said. "It's one of those things -- you lose yourself and find yourself at the same time."
Some clients are referred to her by professionals. Others come by word-of-mouth, Hedlund said. Sessions normally last 45 minutes to one hour and fees are on a sliding scale.
Hedlund works with a staff of four interns and a board, headed by her sister, Alice, who co-founded The Light of The Heart with her. As the executive director of The Light of The Heart, Hedlund applies for grants, gets donations from businesses and individuals, and holds fundraisers to cover costs.
Hedlund, who has a husband, and a dog named Chachi, admits she is not making a living from The Light of The Heart, but says the nonprofit is growing. Last year, 702 people were reached directly by its services, she said.
"This is what I love to do. This is what I'm called to do," she said. "I couldn't see myself doing anything different."
The Light of The Heart can be reached at (630) 486-4078 or www.thelightoftheheart.org.