HOPKINSVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Windows stained with sheer smears of purple, gold, green and cerulean capture sunlight that shines in on an unexpected floor at Western State Hospital.

Positive mantras and murals are painted on nearly every inch of white wall that outlines the wide-open space that makes up the art studio for patients at the mental health facility.

"The patients ask if they can do something on the wall, and I say 'go for it' — as long as they don't cover up anybody else's creation," said Ashley Mason, therapeutic program assistant and director of the art studio at the hospital.

Mason and her colleague, Beth Tillman, organize activities in the studio, which houses a variety of art projects for clients to try. There's leather-stamping, ceramic molding, two weaving looms, pottery wheels, painting, drawing, coloring, wood crafting and more.

As Mason moves throughout the room, she recalls who made what and where they wanted to display it when they finished.

"They can make whatever they want up here, but they can't take it back to the unit," she said. "I have to put it in their personal belongings so when they get discharged they can have it."

In some instances, Mason remembers how a patient felt while making their creation. Some open up to her about memories they have, difficult experiences or familial scenes they paint.

"When I see people draw something as simple as a house and a tree, I'll ask them about it and they'll just start talking," she said. "Sometimes it goes sideways where they start talking about bad experiences with family members or friends, but I let them talk about it. That's what they're here for, to feel better, and things like that can help people get stuff out."

Joe Stone, director of therapeutic activities, said the art studio is one form of therapy they offer to patients along with recreational and occupational therapy.

Stone hired Mason almost five years ago, a few months after they decided to re-purpose the empty space.

"It's one of the biggest spaces for the patients to express themselves," Stone said. "I think it lifts their spirits because it's the brightest, probably happiest place in the hospital."

Tupperware bowls hold collections of colorful beads waiting to be strung into bracelets. Ash-white ceramic statues line shelves facing cupboards holding palettes of glaze. Making ceramic art happens to be most of the patients' favorite pastime, Mason mentioned.

"Me and Beth made these little tiles and put the numbers on them so they know which (glaze) to pick from the shelf," she said. "These are the most popular ones, the ones with the speckles. Once it melts in the kiln, it creates the pattern on the tile."

Mason, herself, has always been interested in art as both a hobby and a career. Before working at Western State, she worked on activities with the elderly at the Friendship House.

"I've always enjoyed art," she said. "In school, I focused on ceramics, so it's good that that's what the patients like because that's what I'm the best at."

Mason received the Customer Service Award for the second quarter of 2018 at Western State and was recognized in the hospital's newsletter. Comments from patients and their families during the Customer Perception survey said Mason was "friendly, caring and has a helpful attitude."

Stone said it's evident to everyone that Mason loves her job.

"She brings a lot of energy and enthusiasm," he said. "It rubs off on the patients, and they benefit all the more."

No patients were present for interviews due to HIPAA laws, but their markings were evidence that they spend a lot of time inside this oasis.

"People will come up here and say it's so nice because it's so different from the rest of the hospital," Mason said. "We'll turn the music on and some people will just come and ask if they can just sit and listen to the music."

Patients can also sit with Mason's other two helpers, Anna and Arturo, certified therapy dogs Mason adopted from the Christian County Animal Shelter. She got them registered as therapy dogs for emotional support.

"I did that specifically for here (Western State) . they are probably the most underpaid yet best employees in the entire hospital," Mason said, laughing. "They are paid with bacon strips by a lot of staff members."

During Halloween, she dresses up the pups and takes them around the hospital to visit.

"I think they are just as much therapy dogs for the staff as they are for the patients," she said.

Mason described Arturo as more energetic — he wants to sit on your lap and give you kisses. Anna is more laid back — like Eeyore — and wants the people to come to her.

"We had a guy who didn't want to come up here and do art; he wanted to come up here and hang out with the dogs," she said. "He literally would sit down on the floor and Anna would lay with him and he'd just pet her, and that was fine with me."

Mason said her thought behind art for therapy is simple: "whether it be ceramics or painting, it really doesn't matter. It's whatever the individual is drawn to and it's relaxing . Sometimes you might get them to paint or draw something that gets them really happy or sad, and then you can talk to them about it. Anybody can do art therapy — not to belittle people with art therapy degrees — but just talking to someone is a form of therapy.

"I love my job," she continued. "A lot of people can't say that, but anytime I can teach someone something they didn't know, it's nice, especially with art. This is one of the areas where you can be free — the doors are still locked and they are supervised, but they have their own space to create."


Information from: Kentucky New Era, http://www.kentuckynewera.com