Living an Artful Life

Making art every day: chronicling that goal was the objective of starting this blog. But, like many things in life, the objective and the goal have transformed.

I have never been one to fit easily into a box. It even turns out that I don’t fit into a box of my own creation. The box I created was to make art every day and to do so in a journal with a drawn or collaged image. I will be honest with you, that plan bit the dust some time ago.  But here is what I have done: created approximately 300 domino pins, started an etsy shop, maintained this blog, submitted a book proposal, helped create 150 silk scarves, guided my class and interns in making altered books, worked in my own altered book, and started making custom guitar picks.

It is time for me to reframe my goal for myself. Rather than dictate to myself the ways that  I will exercise my creative muscles (i.e. make an image every day), I am going to start asking myself a broader question. Did I live an artful life today? Did I do something, anything, to enliven my creative spirit? This week, this moment even, I am focused on getting all the silk items ready for a big sale this weekend.  What can I do each and every day to keep engaged in my personal art making? It seems apparent now that it is  not going to work for me to have a specific task that I complete every day. I should have seen that one coming because I know how important it is to me to have a wide variety of undertakings.

So, did you live an artful life today? What did you do today to feed your creative spirit? It does not have to be anything monumental. Remember the idea of making Little Art: pull out an art book or magazine, cut out some collage words, go on some websites, organize your materials, look at your past art work, do absolutely anything that immerses you in art.

Living an artful life does not require a studio or a big time commitment. It does require a desire to surround ourselves with creativity large and small and to pursue it in our daily lives. Whether you are an accomplished professional, a time-crunched graduate student, a working parent, or maybe even all of these things at once, think about the ways you can carve out a corner of creativity in your day. It will feed you on your journey.


Heartbreak Hotel

One of my mantras is “If your heart isn’t getting broken doing this work, you are not paying attention.” Why pay such close attention? What are the risks and payoffs? How do we put out hearts back together again day after day?

A full engagement in the work of therapy means that we open ourselves to relationship with another. A dispassionate and distant approach is possible and even the standard in some models of therapy. I work from an existential and humanistic approach and to me that means  diving into the heart of connection with another. Does this mean I have a full-blown completely transparent and mutual relationship with my clients, one bordering on friendship? Absolutely not. But it does mean that I am present and available to them to journey with them  into the dark reaches of the heart. It means sitting with people through all the messy feelings and tears and fears of life. It means celebrating growth and success and healing. Sometimes it means sitting with them when they are dying.

The risks: not being able to recover ourselves sufficiently, getting our hearts broken beyond repair, taking the hurt and therapeutic failures personally, overextending ourselves as therapists and fellow feeling human beings. This all leads to burnout and even a departure from the field of therapy. The payoffs: a deep understanding of the matters of another person’s heart, compassion for the suffering in the world, perspective on our own sorrows, a greater capacity for empathy.

I spent a great deal of my career working with elders and medically ill people. I truly love working with these populations. And yes, your heart gets broken every day if you are paying attention. But oh, the moments of grace! The blind woman who painted trees. The woman with late stage diabetes who started painting and found herself all over again. The man with a serious self-inflicted wound who tapped into his anger at himself and the world, and then re-entered the world. The people with Huntington’s Disease who delved into art history. The elderly man who took our storytelling group on an imaginary drive to California in his convertible. The man whose glasses I always washed before our sessions and who died suddenly one night. Grace, grace, grace.

Putting our own hearts back together means becoming a guru of self-care. This will look different for everyone. For me, it means staying engaged with my own life, my own family, friends and activities. Making my own art, having homemade spa days, tending to daily life, spending time with friends and family, and staying connected with my spiritual community all buoy me in the sea of heartbreak. Any population is going to drain your energies in some way. The question is can you fill yourself back up sufficiently to continue doing the work. After five years of working with a medical population, the answer began to be “no” for me. And that’s okay. We did great work together, I loved every minute of it, and it was time to move on.

Heartbreak is a place to visit, not a place to live.

It’s a Small World

The world of art therapy is a small one indeed. Your fellow students, supervisors and professors become your colleagues and friends. My facebook friend list is filled with art therapists that I have grown to know through my own schooling and teaching. Lesson number one is: don’t burn any bridges. I had a painful experience at the end of my graduate training and I was so tempted to blow out of there in a blaze of glory. It took all the restraint I had to keep my composure and exit gracefully. I am so glad I did because it would have hurt me professionally for years to come if I had chosen to burn that bridge.

Lesson number two: networking is key. Back in the old days, and by this I mean 1996, there was no Google, no Yahoo groups, no LinkedIn, no Facebook. I was stuck looking for a job in the want ads in the newspaper. You remember the  newspaper? The big help wanted section came out every Sunday and I would get out my highlighter and desperately pore over the ads for a job bearing some resemblance to art therapy. I barely knew what I was looking for and the job search was arduous indeed. Week after week I would send off resumes into what seemed like a black hole and wait for the phone to ring. I finally secured a position with a mental health agency as a Master’s level clinician. Before you get your license, this is the type of the job you qualify for. I was lucky because within the parameters of this job I was  able to do art therapy with elders in nursing homes. I was also extremely lucky that within the agency there was a licensed and registered art therapist who was able to provide me with the supervision I needed to get my own credentials. Lesson number three: always ask if there is anyone in the entire agency who can provide you with supervision. It could save you a great deal of time and money and serves as a nice job perk to boot.

It takes some time to “break into” the field, but fostering relationships while in graduate school and beyond is key. You never know who may be hiring or who might hear of a job that would be perfect for you. Stay in touch with everyone you can in the field. Connect in every possible venue. Thanks to the Lesley alumni list I hear about job openings all the time. I wish that valuable resources such as this had been available to me when I was looking for that first job. It doesn’t have to be the lonely experience that it used to be for me and many other art therapists trying to get started in the field.

“Networking” is such a daunting word to me. All it really means is taking every opportunity to meet people and stay connected. This can happen formally or informally. Attend art openings. Go to workshops. Take a class. Do an internet search. Join an online group. Lesson number four: Say yes to every opportunity to connect with other artists and art therapists. You never know how it will benefit you in the future.

Lesson number five: Be gentle with yourself. It takes some time to establish yourself in any field and art therapy is no exception. Because we are so small in number and our work is unfamiliar to many people, it can be even harder. Perseverance is key. I wanted to give up several times. Bartending started to look pretty good again. But I kept going because being an art therapist was my dream and I wasn’t going to give it up lightly. I am wishing you well as you pursue your own dreams.

Destination: Art Therapy

I am getting a lot of hits to this blog about “a day in the life of an art therapist” and “what does an art therapist do?” so I am going to go into those topics in more detail.  First, let me tell you how I arrived at this destination.

When I was in high school, one of my art teachers suggested art therapy to me as a career. I had no idea what it was, but I knew it was my destiny. I mailed  off for the course of study for every graduate art therapy program in the U.S. As an undergraduate I took every possible prerequisite in the areas of fine art and psychology. I found an art therapist in the area and did a mini-internship with her to see what it was all about. After getting my BFA, I worked for a year at a state hospital to make sure I had what it took to work in the field of mental health. At the ripe old age of 24, I packed up my pickup truck and moved halfway across the country to attend the graduate program at Lesley University. I did an internship at an elementary school and at a psychiatric day program for elders. My first job out of school was….as a restaurant manager. It took a while for me to find a job in the field. I went ahead and took the licensing exam and found a job with a mental health agency. For two years I  worked in nursing homes and rehab centers while accruing my hours for licensure and registration as an art therapist. I then moved to a pediatric inpatient psychiatric unit. My next job was….as a bookstore manager. I tell you this because the path to our desired goals often involves some detours. Next I worked at an adult day treatment program and after that landed at my current job of 7.5  years. I started out working with the medical patients at the hospital and now work on the psychiatric units. I teach at Lesley University and have a private practice offering supervision to recent graduates.

So what exactly do I do all day? Some of the basic elements are the same from job to job: paperwork, meetings, training students, supervising staff, basically keeping all the plates spinning. Depending on the population I am working with, the actual work of art therapy can vary widely. Some groups and some settings demand a great deal of structure. Directives and a tight group process may be called for to contain the group. For example, while working on the  pediatric unit I had the kids build a 3D bridge as a group using masking tape, straws and popsicle sticks. They had to communicate with each other, problem-solve and cooperatively find a solution. With my current population, I work from an open studio model so I work with each person individually to select an activity that is meaningful to them. While doing this I am also facilitating a group conversation and process. This empowers them to make their own decisions and regard the studio as a sanctuary from an often stressful hospital experience. The studio is filled with professional grade materials and shelves of art books to encourage a full engagement with the art making experience.

I constantly tell my students that I will not teach them how to “do art therapy.” But I will teach them how to BE art therapists. These are two very different things. Doing art therapy means mastering a certain set of skills and applying them in a prescribed way. The cookbook method, if you will. But Being an art therapist means embodying the mindset and heart of a therapist, modeling empathy, being willing to use yourself as a tool and all that implies, and being willing to have your heart broken by the sadnesses in this world. Parts of this job are very fun, but parts of it are downright hard. If your heart is not getting broken doing this work, you are not paying attention.

Well, that’s enough for today. I will talk more in the future about finding a good job fit, knowing when you are with the right population for you, and managing the heartbreak that comes with this work. Traveling mercies on your art therapy journey.


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