Voices of the VATA Blog: Todd Stonnell

I often find it hard to talk about myself- for some reason the action of putting my life and personality into words has Imagealways seemed as daunting a task as raising the Titanic. It is for this reason that I find sanctuary in the limitless expression that art grants me to tell my stories. A chronic introvert at heart, I find that creating something grants me a language I never knew I could possess, a brightness and spontaneity that might not be fully embraced by others who do not know me. Even at my adult age, I find deep connection and interest in stories of fantasy and adventure and am drawn to the impossibility of the characters’ journeys. Yes, the idea of falling into a rabbit hole seems welcoming, and flying around by the sheer powers of faith, trust and pixie dust, are still very, very possible. In my art, I try to capture these impossible things and make them tangible in my external world. I guess you could say that I never fully grew up, but, honestly, what does it mean to truly grow up?  This “growing-up-be-damned” dogma of mine has probably led people to view me in one of two ways: maybe I am an imaginative individual with an affinity for all things playful; or it’s likely that I can be considered immature, because, well, Disney and fairy tales are just for kids, right?  Whatever the case may be I have always placed some weight into this side of myself and have integrated it into my approach as an art therapist.


ImageI have had many rich and wonderful experiences as an art therapist, and I have met and joined in on the journeys of so many beautiful and brave individuals. As a student in the George Washington Art Therapy program, I worked with a few very specific populations: adults living with HIV, adolescents in a residential program for emotional and behavioral treatment, as well as an amazingly creative child on the Autism Spectrum, who put his own flavor to classic tales in our sessions. It was also during this time that I made my first trip overseas to India, where I worked with children undergoing treatment for cancer, while also absorbing as much from their culture along the way. I now find myself at a residential rehabilitation facility, offering art making as a method of creative expression and personal exploration for individuals seeking recovery from addiction.

This is honestly a far stretch from where I expected to be in terms of a final career, especially considering my bright, yet silent beginnings as a costume character at an amusement park. Yes, I was a living, breathing cartoon character, playing and running around in hopeful attempts to make kids and adults laugh and smile. As random as this job may sound, I actually find that it holds a very stable place as a brick in my road towards art therapy. It was behind the façade of Spongebob that I learned to communicate with others without the use of words, and it was here that I was able to be a kid without judgment. Art making is both of these things: a nonverbal means of communication, as well as a slightly transient link to that more childlike part of ourselves. When patients enter my office, they often admit to me that they are skeptical of art therapy, explaining that they do not understand what it could do for them, and they have not “done art since they were in elementary school.”  I always have to laugh and ask them what current dangers they would face in being a kid in this safe environment. Despite the juvenile lens through which these individuals sometimes view art making, I often witness a very mature response to their processes and their products. Whether they are surprised by a hidden talent or find a sublimely deeper meaning in a picture, I have been a humble witness to great change and growth.


Melted crayon “spirit animal” created in response to my work with a client

I have been incredibly inspired by the stories of those with whom I have come into contact through the power of art therapy. Each experience is not just a learning opportunity for the client, but also one for me, not just as an art therapist, but also as a growing individual. I observe these clients with open, honest eyes, welcoming them into a safe place to explore a softer side of themselves, to run around and fly a kite, or to send sand into the air with a wish for the future. I like to believe that my stubbornness towards fully growing up has lent me a welcome curiosity towards others and gives me a chance to continue to develop within this process. I really look forward to continuing this adventure through creation and evolution, and I hope to share some of these experiences on this blog. See you soon!


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