Belief in Things Unseen

I just finished making a 16 foot long dragon for story time during tomorrow’s Easter services. What, pray tell, does a dragon have to do with Easter? I was wondering the same thing until it was explained to me during this morning’s rehearsal. The story is about a boy who is the only one who sees the dragon until it so large it is impossible not to see it. How all this ties into Easter is the subject for another blog, this is a Unitarian Universalist church after all.

I think it is an apt metaphor as well for the work we do as therapists.  So much of our work relies on believing in the unseen and unknown. We usually don’t know where our words and actions land within our clients. We spend a lot of time time helping people unravel the mysteries of the heart and the psyche. Sometimes our clients are the only ones who see the dragons. Being the Dragon Seer can be a precarious role to play.

All of this impresses upon me the power and the awesome responsibility of the job of being in the role of therapist. I must act and speak with kindness and care. I must hold onto hope when my clients have abandoned it. I must believe in each person’s  ability to change, heal and grow. Hope, kindness,healing-all of these things are unseen and immeasurable-yet I must maintain absolute faith in them.

It seems to me that anyone working as a therapist must have a bedrock belief in something so ethereal as human potential. How else do we carry on? How do we understand the nebulous nature of our work other than a belief in things unseen?


I am artist, hear me roar

What are the qualities that make one a good art therapist? Does one have to be a skilled artist to be a good art therapist? I was asked this question recently and I think it is an important one.

In previous posts I have discussed the important differences between creativity and artistic skill. I would posit that it is necessary for one to have a passion and affinity for the arts, including some intensive training in technique, in order to be an art therapist. What is required is a facility with the arts, a knowledge of art history, a thorough understanding of the creative possibilities and an ability to guide a client through the creative process. Is this you? Are you thoroughly grounded in the arts-the making of it, the history of it, the care-taking of the creative process? Imagine a music therapist who knew the words to all the songs but couldn’t play an instrument.  Are they still a music therapist? Can you lead if you can’t play the tune? We have to be able to play the artistic and creative tune.

You may have already read my thoughts about being able to draw. Drawing skill alone does not equal artistry in my book. I cannot draw realistically, does this diminish my ability as an art therapist? No, of course not. Drawing realistically is a particular skill subset, my strength lies in my overall creative sensibility. And so does yours.

I definitely think you have to self-identify as an artist in order to be an art therapist. How else can you truly support others on their creative journey unless you are on one yourself? I like music, but that doesn’t make me a music therapist. I embrace art, I practice art making, I am trained as an artist. My identity as an artist is truly the underpinning of my identity as an art therapist.

Have Art, Will Travel

With a new batch of art therapy students about to start the job search, I am being asked about what types of jobs they should be looking for. I have had a variety of jobs in multiple settings. Some were explicitly art therapy jobs and in others I had to be more creative about integrating the arts into my work. Let me tell you about my first job out of school.

Honestly, and I don’t mean to scare you off, it took me a solid year after getting my master’s degree to find a job in the field that met my needs. My first job was as a master’s level clinician at a large mental health agency. I worked in Elder Services and spent ALOT of time driving around to various nursing homes. I had to bill for 28 hours a week which was no small task. I only saw individuals for treatment, there were no groups because the billable rate was higher for individual therapy than group therapy. It was tough work. My clients were all very ill with both medical and psychiatric conditions. The work consisted of dealing with issues both large and small. I could spend an hour with someone helping them deal with an annoying roommate and then spend the next hour helping someone else work with their sadness over their loss of functioning. On several occasions I came into work to find that a client had passed away suddenly. I was at this job for two years. I was fortunate to have had a supervisor who was both an art therapist and a licensed mental health counselor. This supervision enabled me to garner my own credentials.This job was not specifically geared towards art therapy but I was more than welcome to bring it into the work I did with clients. I had a tool chest that was filled with art supplies that I carried around to all of my sessions. I called it my “have art, will travel” box. I was prepared if a client wanted to do some art making but was also available just to talk if that was what they wanted.

This job wasn’t necessarily my dream job, but it helped me along my journey. I learned so much during my two years there. I can still see the faces of many of my clients and vividly remember their stories. It was an immensely moving experience to walk a little bit down the road with them. I wouldn’t trade my time spent there for anything.

When you are just starting out, it can feel very frustrating to search the job boards and not see art therapy positions listed anywhere. I am here to tell you that it is entirely possible to get a job in this field and to find satisfying work. Here are a few tips for the job hunt: Ask about the type and amount of documentation you will be required to do. Ask whether this documentation will be something you are paid for-some jobs expect you to do this outside of your 40 hours and it is unpaid. Find out if there is a licensed professional in your discipline anywhere in the agency you are applying to. There may not be one in the department you will be working in, but there may be someone in the agency who can work with you. Expect to apply for jobs that don’t have “art therapy” anywhere in the job description. Get REALLY good at explaining what you do and how it can benefit the site. Get creative-about places you apply to, about how you can integrate the arts into their site, about how to shape your work life. Network, network, network. This is as simple as staying in touch with your professors and fellow students, attending gatherings, getting involved in professional organizations and joining online groups. Print up some business cards and give them to everyone you meet. Don’t give up. I almost did and boy am I glad I stuck with it through the difficult times. You can shape the career you are dreaming of. It may not be easy, but it is possible. May the wind be at your back.

A Room of Our Own

Unfortunately, I forgot to put in a time-off request for the holiday today and had to work. Fortunately, I got some rare and treasured time alone in my studio at work.

This studio is a living, breathing space. It is a little messy most of the time no matter how much time I spend trying to organize it. I try to remember my motto ” a clean studio is one where nothing happens” whenever I walk in and survey the disarray. It is a rather small space but the soaring windows give it an expansive feel. There are two carts loaded down with flat work stored below and table weaving looms resting above.  A large selection of art books anchors another table and under the table are bins filled with fabric, magazines and recycled items. The cabinets burst with paints, pastels, craypas, beads, collage materials and paper. A rolling rack holds six drawers filled with yarn. Because I work at a psychiatric hospital, all the “sharps” have to be locked up. These all live in a padlocked cabinet that threatens to explode every time I open it because of all the bins and toolboxes stacked inside.

I keep thinking that some day this space will be truly organized and completely functional. But you know what, it already is. I have certainly never heard a group member complain about it. They come in and gather their materials and sit right down and start working. They are perfectly content with the space. This satisfies me. My dream for this space is that it can serve as a sanctuary to our clients.  So much of hospital life is about loss of choice. I want the art studio to be all about choice. I want it to be a place of comfort, of rest, of peace of mind-a place where you can unhook from your troubles for just a little bit.

So never mind the mess, this studio is about being a warm and welcoming place to come to. The clients don’t care about how I decide to organize the paints. They care about how they feel in this space. And isn’t that really the most important thing?

I Still Can’t Draw

I can’t draw very well. I admit it. When I was taking figure drawing classes in art school, I had regular practice and I actually got pretty good at drawing realistic portraits. But now, well, let’s just say my skills are sketchy at best. The question is, does my limited ability to draw realistically limit me as an artist and by extension, an art therapist?

I would say that it frustrates me at times, but ultimately does not limit me as an artist or art therapist. I find that when people say that they are not artists or are not creative, what they usually mean is that they cannot draw realistically. This self-excludes a large portion of the population from the creative realm! Drawing realistically is only one of many creative outlets. It is a skill subset, not the definitive criteria for being an artist. Because of my training as an artist, I understand the elements and principles of design, color theory, art history and everything else that goes into formulating my creative ideas and work. I do not have to master every skill to call myself an artist, and neither do you and neither do our clients.

I tried to teach a client to draw a portrait this week. I showed her the correct proportions and talked about line quality and shading. However, my drawing came out looking pretty goofy even though it was “following the rules.” We laughed about it and it actually sparked a really great conversation. She thought I knew how to do everything and it was eye-opening for her to see that I can’t do everything and that I was comfortable admitting that. I was willing and able to expose myself as human, not just as “all-knowing therapist.” I believe that there are times in the therapeutic relationship when it benefits the alliance to reveal our own foibles and let the client see that we therapists have the same challenges and struggles of life as they do. Revealing my weaknesses as an artist does just that.

So go and create in whatever way and form your heart feels called. And let’s all work on letting go of our artistic insecurities. They don’t serve us well as artists and art therapists.

Spaces & Places: Where We Create

Join me in this exciting project!

“It’s exciting to announce a new art collaboration coming in February being organized by The Art Therapy Alliance! Spaces & Places: Where We Create will be an art therapy community photo documentary project developed by Magdalena Karlick, ATR, LPAT, LPCC and Gretchen Miller, MA, ATR-BC inviting participants to submit a photo of their creative work space and favorite tools of the trade.

Through social media and digital photo sharing with Flickr & Instagram, this collaborative project aims to provide education, awareness, inspiration, and understanding about the spaces & places, settings, populations, and materials that art therapists, art therapy students, expressive arts therapists, and art organizations work in and use for their practice.

Photos (or video!) that this project will be looking for include:

– Images of your creative space: Where you work, intern, or your own personal art-making space;

– Commonly used art supplies and media in your art therapy work or internship with clients;

– Favorite technique: An art intervention or technique approach with individuals or in groups;

-If your creative space has changed: Before and after photos

Submission guidelines and more details to be announced when the project officially launches! Information will be posted to Spaces & Places: Where We Create project page @ on February 13.”


Coming Around Again

It has been just over a year since I started this blog. My original intent was to hold myself to a commitment to personal art making every single day. How to measure my success or lack thereof? I confess that I have not made art every single day. However, I feel that I met my overarching goal of living a more artful and art-filled life.

I am supremely fortunate to have an arts based job. Just today, I spent over an hour at work on the internet searching for new ideas for my vocational arts program. I marvel at the fact that I get paid for this. Much of my day-to-day work life is spent dealing with staff issues, scheduling and running programming, helping patients, working with interns and just keeping all the plates spinning at our program. But then I get to go to the studio……..happy sigh.

The studio is my breath, my respite, my sanctuary. I am sitting in my home studio right now in all its glorious mess and am so thankful for this space that I have created for myself. Just glancing around I see: an altered book in progress, my Bag O’ Supplies, display cases of jewelry I have made, a design project for my church, shrines, diplomas, beeswax collages, tons of materials organized by type, and the last three pairs of shoes I have worn that are tossed on the floor. Just being in this space reminds me of all that I am doing and could do. I can tell you a story about every single thing in this room.  This room connects me to my larger life. It gives me space to contemplate, ruminate, concentrate and dream. It says “I have plans, I have goals, I continue to accomplish what I set out to do, I give myself permission to have a landing place when I need to rest.”

I hope that you have or can create or find a creative space for  yourself this coming year. It is integral to our identity as artists and therapists and art therapists that we have some creative breathing room for ourselves. We cannot give endlessly without finding a well where we can fill up. I am constantly reminded that I must rejuvenate in order to rise up to life’s daily challenges. I cannot allow myself to get burned out or drained. I must constantly attend to my energy levels, my focus, my numerous passions in order to be present for my clients, friends and family.

May many blessings rain down upon you in this new year and may creativity flow in and through you.

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