Natalie Norrell, Art Therapist & Alum, uses creative process to help clients

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Photo by Brenda Ahearn
Daily Inter Lake

Natalie Norrell sees the healing effects of art on a daily basis.

As one of just a dozen art therapists in Montana, Norrell uses the creative process of art, combined with therapy, to help people of all ages improve their physical, mental and emotional well-being.

"What I love about the work I do is that although I initially see people at a low point in their lives, as we work together they find the courage, skills and resilience to keep going and create a life worth living," she said.

Norrell opened her studio on First Avenue West in Kalispell in May, a feat that was the culmination of years of schooling. She worked as a massage therapist in Kalispell for 20 years, but a few years ago began having physical trouble with her hands. Norrell knew she'd have to retrain for another profession.

"So I starting thinking about what I could do," she recalled.

It didn't take long for her to draw upon a lifelong love of art.

"I used to get in trouble as a child for drawing instead of doing my homework," she recalled with a laugh.

Norrell knew it would be tough to make a living as an artist, though. She contemplated becoming an art teacher, but settled on art therapy instead.

Since art therapists are master's-level professionals trained in both art and therapy, Norrell had her work cut out for her, completing first a double-major undergraduate degree in art education and art therapy from Burlington College in Vermont and then completing a master's degree in counseling psychology with a specialization in art therapy from Prescott College in Arizona.

It was a fairly expensive, all-consuming process, she admitted, because after finishing graduate school, art therapists must work for another two years to get licensed.

But the investment has been well worth it as she has seen how using the creative process of artistic self-expression helps her clients resolve a variety of conflicts and programs, develop interpersonal skills, manage behavior and increase self-awareness.

Norrell still is building a referral base for her studio and has worked with local groups such as the Center for Restorative Youth Justice and the Violence Free Crisis Line. She's currently working with the Kalispell Soroptimist Club to launch a project in which women artists will do artwork with a body image theme.

"There's been a huge upswing in eating disorders with older women," Norrell said.

The Soroptimist project will include a show of the artwork at the Hockaday Museum of Art and will tie in with an educational component.

Norrell also spent two years working with youths at Flathead Crossroads School in Evergreen.

While Norrell works with clients of all ages, much of her work is with adolescents and women. The issues are wide-ranging, from women struggling with eating disorders or career changes to youths with behavioral problems. Depression, anxiety, grief or loss and post traumatic stress disorder are other areas in which art therapy can be effectively used, she said.

Norrell also works with members of the gay and lesbian community and has a support group for adolescents working through issues of sexual identity.

"Art works on a different level of conscientiousness," she explained. "If images keep showing up, you can delve deeper into what they mean."

Norrell exudes confidence and enthusiasm about her new profession, a contrast from her childhood days when she was quiet, introverted and "painfully shy."

Because her father was in the military, Norrell's family moved a lot while she was growing up. She headed to Kalispell as a young adult to apprentice to be a massage therapist. And she found her voice, so to speak, in an unusual place.

"I got a job at Woody's," she said, recalling her days at the convenience store east of Kalispell. Having to deal with customers "got me over that shyness, though I'm still not a chatty Cathy."

In 1993-94 she started teaching classes about native plants and herbal remedies after studying under a specialist in that area for a year.

As she develops her art therapy practice, Norrell would like to work with women veterans but has found the paperwork requirements through the Veterans Administration to be a big challenge.

"As a service brat, I have a soft spot for veterans and I know about that lifestyle," she said.

Norrell already is mulling the idea of going for her doctorate in art therapy because she ultimately would like to teach. That may be a ways down the road, she said. As she settles into the homey, comfortable studio it took six months to find - "my clients love the space," she added - Norrell at this point in her life is dedicated to using her gifts as an artist and therapist to heal and enhance lives.

Norrell can be reached at 756-7638 or by email at blkwolfatmontanasky [dot] com.

Natalie Norrell, Art Therapist & Alum, uses creative process to help clients