The power of art

to communicate with children

Allie Eichenhofer combined her passions for art and working with children by opening an art therapy business called Color Studio a few months ago in Port Washington. Photo by Sam Arendt
By 
MITCH MAERSCH
Ozaukee Press staff

A job she took to pay bills while living in Chicago as a stereotypical starving artist helped Allie Eichenhofer of Port Washington find her life’s purpose.

To make ends meet as a freelance artist creating abstract designs from recycled materials, Eichenhofer found a job as a nanny for a speech-impaired child who loved to paint but had trouble talking to his parents.

“I felt so much compassion with him and so much frustration with him not being able to tell his parents what he wanted,” Eichenhofer said.

“We were able to communicate through art.”

The relationship inspired Eichenhofer, who had a bachelor’s degree in communication design from the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, to go back to school.

“It was almost a spiritual experience,” she said.

Eichenhofer earned a master’s degree in social work from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, following in the footsteps of her supportive parents. Her father Dave is a clinical psychologist and her mother works in marital and family therapy.

Eichenhofer worked with children with disabilities as an intern at Saukville Elementary School. “I just fell in love being around kids that much,” she said, adding she knew she wanted to return to the Port community.

After working for disability support service agencies Balance and Portal Inc., making home visits with autistic children, Eichenhofer decided to combine her two passions and offer an art-therapy based counseling service.

She and one of her childhood friends, artist Nicole Shaver, had been looking for a space for their endeavors when Eichenhofer found ideal quarters on the second floor of the downtown Port Washington building that houses the art gallery Gallery 224 and the Port Washington Saukville Arts Council.

Eichenhofer offers art-directed private counseling, parent coaching and classes she calls Color Club.

During the six-week Color Club classes of 90 minutes each, clients are taught social skills through mindfulness and art activities.

Classes start with 20 minutes of breathing exercises to try to calm the clients, who are usually children.

Eichenhofer has a five-point scale with smiley faces turning to upset expressions. She asks children how they feel, and they point to one. She then asks why they feel a certain way.

“It helps them to tell teachers and parents what they’re feeling and why,” she said.

That quickly helps adults take appropriate steps to handling the children. “It’s total communication,” Eichenhofer said.

If someone is at a 3, or “irritated,” she has them count breaths to prevent going to a higher level of anxiety.

The earlier children recognize anxiety and how they respond to it, the better, Eichenhofer said.

“That’s why I’m so passionate about early interventions,” she said.

For those reaching higher levels, Eichenhofer has a teepee — “a safe space” —  in which children may take a break and play with stuffed animals or color or just close it up “because they don’t want to see anybody.”

It usually only takes children about five minutes to calm down, she said.

After the breathing sessions, children move on to art projects of various kinds.

Some make impressive pieces. A few were sold at a recent show.

“There are no boundaries with materials  but there are boundaries with behavior,” Eichenhofer said.

Eichnhofer’s role in the class is to be her clients’ “rock.” She said her best compliments are when she hears parents and teachers tell her that children had a great week.

Clients range from those with autism, Down syndrome and schizophrenia to depression, anxiety and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, she said.

Eichenhofer co-facilitates the classes with her father, since she isn’t certified by the state to work alone yet. She is working on reaching the required 3,000 hours of face-to-face experience and will then take a test.

Art therapy, she said, has evolved and come a long way in acceptance. Ozaukee County Human Services Department reached out to her and is referring clients.

“This is more about emotions and awareness,” she said. “These strategies, whether they’re art-based or not, people are realizing how important they are.”

They’re not just useful for children with special needs, she said. “In my opinion, every child needs these skills.”

Eichenhofer describes her work as “a dream come true, but it’s clearly not about me. It’s about the community and the space.”

For more information, visit facebook.com/missalliescolors.

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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