The art of occupational therapy

By Jill Pease

Closeup of student showing zine
Janyla Manley shows off her zine.

A Doctor of Occupational Therapy course led by Becky Piazza, O.T.D., OTR/L, a clinical assistant professor of occupational therapy in the University of Florida College of Public Health and Health Professions, uses a creative approach to explore policy change while simultaneously giving students the opportunity to gain from all the health benefits that participating in art can provide.

Piazza recently revised the curriculum of her Advocacy and Interprofessional Skills course to teach policy and advocacy in health care and occupational therapy through arts participation.

“I’m using an arts perspective to showcase how various art mediums, such as music, fashion, paintings, sculptures, literary work and more, have been utilized throughout history to communicate social and political activism and advocacy for policy change,” Piazza said.

Students completed a module in which they created “zines” for a policy analysis and advocacy plan project. They identified a critical issue, researched underlying policy and communicated a direct action advocacy plan. Guest artist Rebecca Welch, a graduate of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University, a Gainesville-based interdisciplinary artist and a preschool art teacher, guided students through the creative process.

“I was pleasantly surprised by the general excitement, after maybe a bit of nervous anticipation, around getting to create something,” Welch said. “Students dove right into paging through magazines, scribbling their thoughts and project points out on zine drafts and creatively working through some of their tougher questions regarding iconography, use of image worldwide versus within a controlled space and how to put themselves, little by little, into this really interesting avenue!”

The experience also reinforced the roots of the occupational therapy profession, Piazza said.

“As occupational therapists, we understand the significance of participation and doing, and that our profession was birthed in the arts and crafts movement of utilizing art participation, such as wood working, leather making, ceramics, painting and gardening, to rehabilitate the mind, body and spirit of soldiers wounded in WWI,” Piazza said.

For student Gianna Martello, the zine-making experience offered lessons in understanding how people interpret art differently and how art can provide a communication bridge for occupational therapists working with clients who may not be able to express themselves verbally.

“Dr. Piazza is a wonderful role model who inspires all of her students to be creative in our work,” Martello said. “Her teaching us how to communicate with and treat clients through different art mediums is the perfect example of how she instills passion in our OT journey every day!”

Photos by Nathaniel Guidry.

“We want to graduate qualified skilled clinicians! We also want to graduate compassionate and creative clinicians who are willing to sit in the process of discovery, both for themselves and their future clients/patients,” Piazza said. “Arts participation, presented as scientific research and coupled with opportunities for expressive arts, can equip our students to not only know in their minds that occupational therapy is an art based science, but to ‘really know’ as art participation beneficiaries themselves.”

Dr. Becky Piazza talks with student Miranda Green.

“I tend to think that I lack creativity,” Tatum Sybert said. “However, this project has made me realize that with the right motivation, in this case advocating for the fair and just health care rights for individuals within the prison population, I can unlock my creative side. I was able to creatively express my thoughts and knowledge through art and found myself engrossed during the creation of my zine.”

Tatum Sybert and Sophia Hoff add artistic elements to their zines.

“This assignment has showed me making my opinions heard doesn’t have to come from the mouth of a government official or big-name leader — it starts with us, the frontline leaders who notice the effects directly and daily,” Samantha Gommel said. “I am a capable agent of change for causes I believe in and identify with. Being an advocate for people who need us, trust us and deserve everything we can offer fills up my cup!”

Samantha Gommel and her group focused on the role of occupational therapy in addressing clients’ mental health needs.

“Art not only provides an outlet for communication through something other than language, but improves physical functioning, allows the chance for self expression, presents creative coping strategies, and brings together people of all sorts of backgrounds and needs for interpersonal relationships, which is good for mental and physical health,” Rebecca Welch said.

Rebecca Welch, who works in mediums such as textile and fiber art, photography, book binding, zine and photo-book making and other traditional forms, collaborated with Piazza on the development of the students’ zine module.

“I think we all know someone or have even had personal negative experiences caused by gaps and barriers within our health care systems,” Lauren Goboff said. “It’s something we all have to care about, even if we don’t know the what and the how. Considering how to talk about and advocate for change through a creative outlet like a zine can make complex policy challenges more understandable, but also more immediate and more visceral.”

Hailey Esperanza, Lauren Goboff, Janyla Manley and Monika Beard take a quick break from creating.

“Art provides occupational therapy practitioners with additional options to facilitate client-centered interventions that promote occupational participation at the individual, group and communal levels,” said Cameron Hall (back row, second from right). “This is important, as art adds to the holistic, well-rounded lens that occupational therapists see their clients and the world around them through. It is what makes our profession unique from other rehabilitative services.”

Students pose with finished works at the end of the project.