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.


Get Off the Couch and Make Art

I was laid low this week by a terrible cold, the worst I have had in recent memory. I spent all of it, 7 days, on my couch in my studio. This couch doesn’t get much use as a couch. Mostly I pile papers and bags on it and use it to hang up my coat. Sometimes visitors to the studio actually  sit on the couch. I got this piece of furniture when I moved to Massachusetts almost 18 years ago. You could say that we go back a ways together. It started living in the studio when I decided that I wanted this to be a cozy and inviting space. Mostly it invited me to fall asleep on it in front of the television. I had 7 whole days to lay on this couch and think about how else I could create a comfortable space for myself while delineating my work space.

That’s really the problem, you see. I can’t have my studio space double as my living room. It is getting way too easy to zone out in front of the television on my cozy couch. This in turn is taking away from my focus on my work that is theoretically supposed to get done in this space. I really don’t need any help distracting myself from my work.

So out went the couch and in came my bookshelves with all of my art books. What were they doing out in the kitchen anyway? Now this studio sends a different message. It says “this is where creative work happens.” It says “roll up your sleeves.” It says “turn off the television and make some art.”

What changes can you make in your environment that will make it more conducive to engaging in your creative work? What is it about your current arrangement that is holding you back? How can you create a nourishing yet stimulating space for yourself?

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.

How Art Therapy Can Work-A Case Study

Along with many art therapists, I sometimes struggle to articulate exactly how art therapy works. In response to this question recently posed by Cathy Malchiodi, I am going to attempt to explain it via a case study. Details have been changed to protect the identity of the client, who has since passed away.

Many years ago, I worked extensively in nursing homes. One resident was in the late stages of an illness that was greatly exacerbated by his diet. Many battles ensued between him and nursing staff over his constant intake of food that worsened his condition. The attending psychiatrist asked me to work with him to address this problem. I imagined that our work would focus on his body image (as he was morbidly obese), his declining health and the struggles with nursing staff.

This case ended up being a lesson for me in person-centered planning. He had no interest whatsoever in focusing on what I considered to be the primary problems. He was, however, very interested in painting even though he had never done it before. During our first session, he pulled out a book of postcards that depicted various nature scenes on the West Coast. The time he spent living in that part of the country was the happiest time of his life and he wanted to capture these images in paint. I brought him a set of acrylic paint, some brushes and paper and we were off and running.

Over the course of time, nursing staff started to notice that he was quite gifted as a painter. He painted all weekend instead of eating all of his favorite snacks. Nurses checked in to admire what he was working on instead of to scold him for what he was eating. A few even commissioned works from him. While he painted, he reminisced about his time on the West Coast and his younger days.

We never spoke of his diet, his weight, his battles with nursing staff. We talked about line, shape, form, color, harmony, and composition. I listened while he told me of adventures from his youth, his life and loves. I accompanied him on his journey. By the time he was discharged from the nursing home, his relationship with the staff was a positive one and his diet had improved.

So how did art therapy work in this case? Art became a healthy coping skill, allowing this client to engage in a positive activity to manage his feelings, rather than burying them in food. It became a conduit in his relationships with others, allowing them to see his strengths rather than focusing on his deficits. Art was the language that joined us together in our relationship. He benefited from the time and attention I gave him and from my willingness to follow him where he needed to go in therapy.

This case was a good lesson for me. I had to let go of my ideas about what this client needed and not impose my treatment priorities on him. And guess what? He found exactly what he needed.

I do not “do art.”

I was recently asked how I make time for my art. Posing the question this way makes art making sound about as interesting as doing laundry (to me anyway.) How do I make time for anything important in my life? Do I make time for loved ones, or do loved ones permeate my life and my activities? Do I make time for spirituality, or is it something that informs my thoughts and actions daily? Do I make time for love, or does it fill all the crevices of my heart?

When I think about my priorities, art falls right in there with loved ones, spirituality and love. So why do I need to “make time” for it? Shouldn’t it be part and parcel of everything I do? Since starting this blog almost a year ago, I have given a great deal of thought of how to incorporate more art into my life. The conclusion I am arriving at is that art is not a discrete activity that I partake of when I have or make the time for it. It is something that is tightly intertwined with my physical and spiritual being, it informs my thoughts, vision and actions.  It is not something I need to make time for, because it is a constant companion on my journey. It is infused into my worldview.

There are times when this infusion looks like sitting down in the studio to make a concrete piece of art. But other times, it is about how I see the world, how I think, what I surround myself with.  Art is not something I find the time to do, art is something I live and breathe. As I tell my students all the time, I will not teach you to “do art therapy,” but I will teach you to “be a therapist.” An important distinction, as therapy is not about “doing to” but about “being with.” Likewise, I do not “do art,” I live art. You can too.

Cultivating Energy

This probably happens to many of you too. I suffer a serious slowdown in the fall and winter months due to the decline in daylight. This is a big problem because the fall and winter months are my busiest work times. New interns, new classes, new projects sprouting up everywhere….not the optimal time to be crashing. Ah, how to conserve and cultivate energy in a time of hibernation?

I find this to be a time when self-care becomes my primary concern and focus. I don’t worry as much about little things, and I just try to take of my self by performing all the tasks of daily living. Making art is a priority as always and I try to get  in some little art every day, mostly by making art at work. Today I made some jewelry with clients in preparation for a big sale coming up in a few weeks. Earlier in the week I worked in an altered book. It is important to be gentle with myself right now. Energy is precious.

At times like this, I especially struggle with making art a priority every day. Luckily, I have opportunities at work to make art, but I can’t beat myself up about not getting a lot done in the studio right now. Better to rest. Conserve energy. Store up for the work ahead. Spring will be here soon.

Art Storm

This past weekend I, along with the East Coast of the United States, was in the path of Hurricane Irene. I share a home with my brother and we rushed to and fro to bring in every single thing from the porches and yard, procure supplies and in general batten down the hatches. And then we waited. And waited. For two days. We had a few trees down in the neighborhood and lots of wind and rain but mercifully we emerged unscathed from the storm. What does this have to do with art? Well, I had an unexpected bounty of time and while I spent some of it working in an altered book, I had trouble dedicating much time to art making.

Part of the problem was anxiety about the  storm. I had a terrible stomach ache and couldn’t sleep. Another problem was that I had a lot of preparation to do for my classes and I spent a great deal of time reading and working on my lectures. But then there was the un-allotted time where I could have made art but did not. I wrestle with this all of the time-when do I push myself and when do I take a rest? Is not art making a form of rest at times? Why is art making one of the last things I push myself to do? I  want  to devote my full attention and energy to art making-and I rarely have that  kind of attention and energy when all the other tasks of the day are completed. I think that  I want to make Big Art every day but when I did that on my Art Vacation the mental exertion and challenge of it totally wiped me out. Ah, I go around in circles all of the time trying to find this balance, trying to make something really special part of my daily routine, seeking nirvana and catharsis  on a regular basis.

So the art storm was not a storm of art making unfortunately. Rather, it was the internal storm that goes on in my head and  maybe even your head  too. I will  probably never resolve the conundrum of how to relax and  make art while still needing the tension to make art. I hope that I can learn to exist peacefully with the thought that there is no resolution, that for me anyway art making and creative  tension will always  go hand in hand and I should just go in my studio and make some art.

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