One thing I’ve loved about having an art therapy practice is the way the creative inspiration flows both ways between my clients and me. It’s a real give and take. The materials, process, themes explored, and energy generated always seem to hand me some kind of gift.
In a previous post, I wrote about a mask project at a foster care agency picnic. In preparation for that project, I spray-painted about a hundred pre-made paper mâche masks on top of some scrap cardboard. (An aside about process: The masks, available to buy here, are made from brown craft paper, and I thought it would be a good idea to give people a clean white canvas to work on. For later mask-making, I skipped the spray painting prep and found that it was unnecessary with most materials, the big exception being the much-loved Sharpie markers, which look dull on the brown.)
When I finished spraying, I realized that I actually had a lot of new canvasses that would be as much fun to fool around with as the actual masks. So I cut some up and played around.
Eventually, I did a larger piece incorporating red-painted twigs and a nest. I called it Family Tree because it seemed like it could be about all my mysterious ancestors, Eastern Europeans whose children (my grandparents) fled the old country. Sadly, somewhere along that journey the stories of those old country ancestors were lost, never to be known to the younger generations on their family tree. Even though I know nothing about them, I feel that they somehow have a lot to do with who I am, and their hazy images found expression in those pieces of junk cardboard.
At an annual picnic for a therapeutic foster care unit, foster children, their bio and foster siblings, all generations of foster families, and all unit staff members come together for a day of fun: swimming, horse rides, baseball, barbeque, and a community art project for all ages. This is art therapy in a different sense, an art project that’s a fun and healing happening. In this particular unit, the children fare better when they work individually, so this year each person there is given a paper mâche mask to paint and decorate.
The resulting masks, each one highly unique, are hung on a wall, gallery-style, in the front window of the agency in midtown Manhattan. Children coming to agency appointments proudly lead others to see their work and admire the work of others. Staff members regularly comment that it makes their day to see the masks as they pass them going into work. Passersby are so taken with the masks that they come in off the street to ask if they are for sale. They are tangible works of beauty, and everyone who participates or witnesses the works knows that they are also a triumph of something much bigger.
Children in foster care commonly struggle with extreme feelings of isolation, with the feeling that they are different, that they are not a part of the world. Seeing their work as part of a whole can be a very powerful experience. Community art events have the potential to create a culture of fun, acceptance, and accomplishment. A group project can be a metaphor for a community that shares space and supplies; that helps neighbors with support, encouragement, suggestions, or an extra hand; that values the contributions of all. Community members experience real joy in seeing the beauty of a communal creation that has been assembled from their individual contributions.
This was a big week for deaths. Pete Seeger, one of my lifetime inspirations. The brilliant actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. And…my dog Gus. Like Seeger, Gus was an old man (thirteen), but was in great shape for an old guy. So the suddenness was a shock. And if you love a pet, you know why the loss brought heartbreak. The real Day of the Dead happened a couple of months ago, but at my house, a little Día de Muertos art/music therapy is in order right now.
I’ve spent many years and many miles walking with Gus in Central Park. Since I’m a scavenger, I have collected hundreds of rusty wires that I’ve found on my walks. They’re double loop rebar ties that were used to tie wire fencing to the posts (now they use a heavy duty plastic type). The wires are lying around all over the park, although I may be the only person who considers them treasures. Those that were dropped and are intact have a loop on each end, have wonderful shapes, and are great for making mobiles and all kinds of other things. The twisted and broken finds are also great for flower stems, picture hangers, jewelry, all kinds of things.
This necklace documents our mornings spent together: years worth of Gus’s worn dog tags, rusty wires, and other found objects. The yin/yang dog tag at the center was an unusually great park find, and I think it belongs here, since life and death cannot exist without each other. I made this a bunch of years ago, and as we’ve grown older together, I’ve had more dog tags to add.
Here’s my all-time favorite dog song, by one of my favorite artists. A tribute to Gus and to all our beautiful dogs out there. The Dog Song by Nellie McKay.
Bottlejarboxcan was the name of an old blog that I kept for awhile. It got its name from my penchant for constantly collecting all kinds of containers, which I use a lot in my own work.
Containers also figure big in art therapy. A lot of importance is placed on the establishment and maintenance of a therapeutic container or frame. Therapists strive to provide a place of containment, a safe space to explore, express, and experience all feelings, a relationship of trust and collaboration. This is an important component of all therapeutic theory, particularly for those working with children or others who become easily overwhelmed by affect because they lack internal controls. An important theoretical concept here is D.W. Winnicott’s holding environment.
In the particular context of art therapy, the artwork itself also acts as a container, something outside of the artist that safely holds and reflects emotions. Sometimes providing a concrete metaphor by supplying an actual container to work with can help a child to feel more safe in expressing difficult feelings.
The possibilities for containers are endless. To bottle, jar, box, and can, add book, frame, nest, teacup, basket, egg carton, or pretty much anything else you can think of. It’s pretty easy to accumulate tons of great containers without spending a cent. Any recycling bin is filled with them.