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.


Riding the Artistic High

Nothing like a huge learning curve to get the creative juices flowing! When I signed on to do the 6 Degrees of Creativity project, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I say that with love. I am coming out the other side of making my film and it has been quite a journey.

There were many challenges along the way. For starters, I don’t own a video camera. Lesley University was kind enough to loan me one for 6 days. Then I realized that the editing software that came with my computer was not quite up to snuff for what I needed to do, so I tracked down a better program and got that installed. A friend gave me a really nice computer but I have been unable to get the sound working (until yesterday!) so I was trying to edit without being able to hear anything. Not the easiest task I must say. I burned disc after disc so that I could try to finagle the sound. Yikes. Learning the software was another challenge, and I never did quite master the audio features even after I got the sound working on the computer. I spent two solid days filming, and ended up tossing half of it.

But I don’t mean to complain, because working on this project was a real gift in the end. About halfway through, when I got the audio more or less lined up with the video and made a halfway decent first cut, I finally got a sense of the finished product. And let me tell you, I was downright yahooing, fist-pumping, tears rolling down my face euphoric! I found the creative high-you know, the one you get when it all starts to come together. I compare it to a runner’s high, that endorphin rush you get when you have pushed your body to the max. This is what I keep coming back for, why I keep pushing on when I get stuck on a project-because I know the pieces will start to fall into place. This is that “trusting the process” concept that we art therapists love to talk about.

I also feel really great about being able to find solutions all along the  way. I  was the producer, director, actor, and editor of this film and I had to solve all kinds of technical, creative and artistic problems. This was not an easy undertaking but in the end I feel awesome about being able to conquer so many challenges and come out with a pretty decent film.

I hope you will join us in the 6 Degrees of Creativity workshops!

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.

Creativity and Mental Illness

School starts soon and this semester I will teaching one of my favorite classes, Art Therapy with Adults with Mental Illness. The class  covers the history of treatment of mental illness, from asylums to various means of reducing symptoms to deinstitutionalization to current therapies. I love teaching this class because I find the subject matter so fascinating. It reminds me of how far we have come in our understanding of mental illness and best practices and how far we have yet to go.

One topic of the class is the question of how mental illness and creativity are intertwined. Does having a  mental illness predispose one to greater heights of creativity? Or does being a creative person lead to greater frequency of mental illness?  There are many examples of artists who struggled with symptoms of mental illness: Vincent Van Gogh, Frida Kahlo, Jackson Pollock, Georgia O’Keefe, Pablo Picasso, Mark Rothko, Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin, Michaelangelo, and Joan Miro to name a few. And these are just visual artists, there are many musicians, writers and other creative types who fill out this list. Did these artists channel their internal psychological experiences into their work? No doubt they did, but did this make them more creative than they would have been had they not been dealing with their symptoms? And did the artmaking itself intensify their symptoms?

I will take Frida Kahlo as an example as her work  strongly typifies the entanglement of internal struggles with her creative output. As a young woman, Kahlo was in a horrific accident which almost killed her and left her infertile. She spent many months recuperating in a full body cast. Her father was a photographer and she always had an interest in the arts, but it was during this forced bed rest that she began painting. Her mother set up a mirror over the bed so that Kahlo could study her likeness and paint self-portraits. Throughout her career, Kahlo painted images which captured her physical and  psychic pain. Her husband’s infidelities (and her own), her inability to bear a child, her physical infirmity-all were immortalized in paint. Kahlo struggled with depression and physical pain, which unfortunately lead to significant substance abuse. Going back to the original question-did Kahlo’s symptoms lead her to be a more creative person? Or did being a creative person intensify her symptoms? What would her artwork have looked like if she had not suffered from mental illness and substance abuse?

The rates of suicide, bipolar illness and major depression are actually much higher amongst artists. To me, this means that this is a population that deserves our focused attention for treatment, understanding and support. In a way it doesn’t matter whether being creative leads to mental illness or vice-versa. The fact of the matter is that many creative people deal with mental illness in all its many facets.

In my next post, I will discuss the role that art therapy can play in the treatment of adults with mental illness.

6 Degrees of Creativity

I am delighted to announce that I will be part of the 6 Degrees of Creativity project, along with Gretchen Miller, Cathy Malchiodi, Lani Gerity, Kristina Bell DiTullo and Kat Thorsen.

“6 Degrees of Creativity is inspired by the “Six Degrees of Separation” concept that each of us, no matter where we live in the world are only about six relationships away from one another, as well as embraces the power of social networking, the arts, and interactive creativity to making a difference through art-making, creative goodness, and community.

6 Degrees of Creativity will be a 6 month on-line workshop opening October 10, 2011 and running until March 1, 2012 that will include 6 different workshops, offered by a group of 6 inspiring instructors from the art therapy community to explore hands-on concepts, techniques, and ideas related to themes about transformation, social change, collaboration, and using art for good.”

Please check out the video and go the  Art Therapy Alliance page linked to below for more information about the workshop instructors. I sure hope you will you join us on this exciting creative journey. More details on registration will be coming soon.


Postcard from Art School

Making art is hard. I hit the creativity wall on about my fourth print, feeling like I was out of ideas and had already exhausted the potential of the medium. The good news is that this is the moment when creativity really starts to happen. I had run through all the obvious scenarios, the first 10 ideas, and now it was time to start pushing myself to find the 11th idea.

I am an impatient artist. I like to work quickly and push hard to find the image. When it’s done, it’s done. I don’t like to go back and fuss with things. Thus, printmaking is not an obvious choice of a comfortable medium for me. It requires something I have little of: patience. Slowly building up layers, reworking the image until it is just right, working with the ghost prints on the second or third go-around, honing my craftsmanship-all challenges for me.

This class is forcing me to slow down, to contemplate the image, to immerse myself in the process of printmaking. It’s a good thing for me. Too often I rush around trying to just get things done and  over with. I need to dial it down and pay attention to the small miracles right in front of me. More than learning the art and craft of printmaking, the most important thing I will take from this class is continuing the practice of carefully attending to all that is around me. This is good practice for art making, for life, for therapy. If I learn nothing else this week, it will be a vacation well-spent.

The weather is fine, wish you were here!

The Taboo Art of Altered Books

ta·boo–adjective 1.proscribed by society as improper or unacceptable

Improper?! Unacceptable?! Says who?

Look, I am a book person. I have a personal library of over 800 books. My most precious book, a 50th anniversary edition of The Little Prince, has its very own shelf. Heck, I even work at a book store. So why would I of all people choose altered books as my medium? Aren’t books precious, not meant to be written in or torn up or painted on? Isn’t that something every child who holds a book in their hands learns is taboo?

And yet I regularly tear out pages, cut them up, glue them together, paint on them, add collage, soak them in beeswax, cover them in fabric, stamp on them-usually rendering the original book unrecognizable. I would never do this to The Little Prince. But an outdated encyclopedia? A worn children’s book? A book I found in the recycling bin? As far as I am concerned, these are all fair game for altering. I am taking something that was headed for the trash bin and using it as my canvas instead. It goes from being a worthless object to a very precious one. This is a metaphor that anyone can hook in to. Who hasn’t at times felt dusty, outdated, useless? What if we could (and guess what, we can) transform ourselves into an object of beauty and worth? Altering a book is a powerful metaphor for how we can alter ourselves and I find that my clients and students are very responsive to this idea.

The clients I currently work with live in a world filled with rules. An inpatient psychiatric setting by its nature is rule bound. Very few decisions are yours to make. When you get up, when you take meds, what you eat, who you share a room with, what time you have to be back on the unit, what you do all day……..the list goes on and on. None of this is unique to where I work by the way, it is just the way this kind of hospital works. Altering a book is a small but powerful way to practice making your own decisions and doing something safe that is also a little risky. It hands some power back to the clients.

My students make altered books to chronicle their training journey. So much personal growth happens on the way to becoming a therapist, and an altered book is the perfect way to capture it. The books allow for multiple and contained expressions of the many issues that come up while in training. Students deal with concepts such as self-disclosure, transference and counter-transference, learning how to use supervision and termination and the books help them to process all the attendant feelings. As a teacher, I got tired of my students doing one-off art pieces in class that they ended up throwing away. With the books, they can do a small art piece in every class and it is contained in a journal form. At the end of the academic year, they have a chronicle of their journey.

Why do I use altered books in my personal and professional work? Why wouldn’t I? I see the “rules” and “taboos” about defacing books as merely suggestions. I encourage you to work with the discomfort that may arise as you explore the art of altered book making. It just might transform you.  

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