Category Archives: art therapy

Three hearts

Three hearts, three different people, three different art materials. And each material serves to facilitate a deep expression of feeling.

The first is made with finger paints by an eight year-old girl. The daughter of a troubled couple, she has witnessed domestic violence and has made it her business to appear invisible so as not to get caught in the crosshairs. She is very quiet and constricted. Finger paints are an opportunity for her to break out, and she makes the most of it. Her heart is messy, full of blood, full of life.

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The next heart is drawn with markers by a ten year-old boy. He is also from a troubled home, but cannot be described as self-contained. He is talkative, rambling, all over the place. Markers, which are straightforward and don’t allow for much shading or nuance, help contain him, and he creates a powerful and straightforward image of his pain. (The image also seems to depict a physical penetration, and sends out a red flag for sexual abuse.)

AT collage3173

The third heart is created with colored sand by a foster mother. She is fostering her three grandchildren because her daughter is a drug addict and has deserted them. She is angry and full of complaints when she  enters the parent workshop, exhausted by the demands on her time by the agency, the schools, the courts. At the end of the group, I put out colored sand and ask each person to make a sand painting of something they would like to throw away. It is only after she finishes the image that she recognizes what she has created. She would like to get rid of her black heart. She tells us that she is filled with anger and heartbreak, terrified that her daughter won’t survive. She tosses her image away, and the group expresses support and hope that her sharing has made the load a little lighter for her. There are several other grandparents in the group in similar situations.


Weather report

The recent stretch of extreme weather so many of us have been experiencing has me thinking about weather as metaphor. We commonly hear weather metaphors in music, and so it goes in art therapy as well.

Art therapists believe that all art communicates emotional experience, and inclement weather is a good stand in for bumps in life’s road. Rain in an artwork is sometimes seen an indicator of sadness or depression, because of the association to tears. Sometimes precipitation raining down on figures in a child’s drawing can be a red flag for some type of abuse.

Ultimately, though, the metaphor comes from the artist, and so must the interpretation. Although a clinician may sense that the drawing is an indicator of depression, abuse, or other difficulty, it is only through further dialogue that the meaning of the metaphor becomes more clear. If a child is unable to verbalize about the picture, an art therapist’s job is to encourage the client to explore the metaphor through further artwork.

And of course we have our own emotional reactions when we view an artwork such as the following. Our reactions are useful information, but can be misleading if we are projecting feelings onto the artwork which are unrelated to the artist’s.



Putting one piece of work into the context of a larger body of work can help the client and the therapist work together to understand the full story. In this case, rain was a running theme that appeared in many drawings.

Sisters in the Rain

Sisters in the Rain

Sisters in the Rain 2

Sisters in the Rain 2

Context, context, context. This drawing by a ten year-old New Yorker is titled Drowning House. If it had been done on or after October 22, 2012, we could venture a guess that it had to do with Hurricane Sandy, which was a big topic for some kids in my art therapy room at that time. But this drawing was made years before Sandy came raging in. This child was not able to verbalize about her picture. One direction might be, “Can you draw a picture of what was going on before the rain storm came in? How did the house start to drown?”

Drowning House

Drowning House

A few more weather pictures, all different in composition and color intensity but all powerful. A fiery sun/eye, a shattered world, a sad rain.

Hot Sun

Hot Sun

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Big Storm





The new year has me thinking about mandalas. Something about coming full circle, back to the beginning again. A mandala is a circle, a symbol of the universe. A Hindu or Buddhist mandala is a circle enclosing a square with a deity on each side that is used as an aid to meditation.

Some art therapists make mandala-making a primary part of their therapy practice. Although this is not true of me, I see a mandala as a representation of wholeness, and experience has shown me that creating mandalas can be very therapeutic. In spiritual traditions, mandalas may be used for focusing attention and establishing a sacred space. In therapy, creating a safe space is paramount, and focus and self-reflection are ongoing goals. With children that are very disorganized, that lack focus, that have difficulty containing themselves, a paper with a pre-drawn circle to work within can be very helpful. It creates a frame, a container, and the circle form surely contributes to a feeling of centeredness. According to Carl Jung, who wrote extensively about mandala symbolism, “The severe pattern imposed by a circular image of this kind compensates the disorder and confusion of the psychic state—namely, through the construction of a central point to which everything is related.”

An eight year-old girl came to see me weekly for art therapy. She and two younger siblings landed in foster care because their father used regular, severe corporal punishment as his primary teaching and discipline strategy. She struggled with severe anxiety, among other things, and each week when I greeted her, her brow was furrowed with worry. But she loved to make art, and found some safety in the sessions. She was easily engaged and lively, and enjoyed the looseness and playfulness of the art process. But experience had taught her to contain herself and to avoid messing up at all costs. So when she did allow herself to loosen up, she could only enjoy it for a little while before the anxiety came flooding back.

In a memorable session, we spent 50 minutes blowing colored feathers into the air (her idea) with a hair dryer (my idea). After we had spent some time on this playful, silly, fun activity, I became aware that she was becoming anxious. This surfaced in the form of a kind of forced jocularity, a change from fun silly to nervous silly. And I knew that giving her a way to contain her anxiety (Jung’s “disorder and confusion of the psychic state”) was very important. So we brought things down to earth and made this mandala (Jung’s “construction of a central point to which everything is related”).


This time lapse video of Tibetan lamas creating a sacred sand mandala is fascinating to watch. It is over 15 minutes long and spans a four-day process. It’s a slow start, but if you can stick with it, I think you will find that the simple observation of the amazing process is a meditation, and the magnificence of what emerges over time is a revelation. For those who are not Tibetan sand mandala-savvy, there’s a surprise ending.


A Christmas Carol

Like the Charles Dicken’s tale, this one’s about transformation and haunted by the Ghost of Christmas Past. It’s about a ten year-old foster child with big trauma in her past and very aggressive behavior, which leads to a hospitalization, and then to art therapy with me. For a long time she is mostly non-verbal and sullen in the sessions, although clearly smart, and she mostly doesn’t trust me. Her birth mom has a history of heavy substance abuse and they’ve lived through lots of domestic violence. Mom has made many positive changes after a long uphill climb, and she is fighting to get her children back, all five of them. All this child wants for Christmas, she tells me, is to go home. I am awed by how hard she works to overcome the challenges she faces. Often she is not successful and beats up on herself. But she tries as hard as any kid could possibly try. She’s a fighter.

She loves to sing and dance. She is truly an amazing dancer, and regularly dances in our sessions. She doesn’t want to talk to me but she wants to dance for me. I am wowed by what a great dancer she is! At some point, she asks to use my iPhone to find music she can dance to, and I show her how to use Spotify to play the songs she likes. This Spotify/dance thing becomes part of our weekly routine. Sometimes she comes in and does nothing but sing and dance for the whole session.

When she’s not singing and dancing, she wants to make iPods and iPhones. She might not be talking much, but she’s got communication on her mind. She enlists me to cut the devices out of cardboard with my exacto knife and to help her copy the screen from my phone. Then she decorates them and makes earphones out of pipe cleaners. She makes many of them, and they all look pretty much like this reproduction:

phone buttons


phone jewels


One day she comes in after having had a very bad fight in school, refusing to speak, looking angry at the world and probably herself. She gives me the cold shoulder. I give her my iPhone and ask her to find a song that describes her day. As angry as she is, she can’t resist an iPhone, and she types “I Don’t Care” into the Spotify search bar. A lot of songs come up with this title, and she goes through them one by one until she finds one with a loud, angry, punk sound. This one, she says. Then we listen for awhile as the grating song bombards us, and talk a little about what happened.

A few weeks later she comes in feeling great and asks to use my phone to find some music. I ask her to pick a song to describe her life this week. She doesn’t hesitate. The Climb, by Miley Cyrus. She launches into it with great feeling. Although she’s an amazing dancer, she doesn’t actually have a great voice, and the fact that she’s singing a little off-key only makes her impassioned singing more beautiful.

She gets what she wants for Christmas this year. She and all of her siblings go home to their mom by early September. I haven’t had any word of how they’re doing. Keeping my fingers crossed for them. God bless us, everyone!

I can almost see it
That dream I am dreaming
But there’s a voice inside my head saying
You’ll never reach it

Every step I’m taking
Every move I make feels
Lost with no direction
My faith is shaking

But I gotta keep trying
Gotta keep my head held high

There’s always gonna be another mountain
I’m always gonna wanna make it move
Always gonna be an uphill battle
Sometimes I’m gonna have to lose

Ain’t about how fast I get there
Ain’t about what’s waiting on the other side
It’s the climb

The struggles I’m facing
The chances I’m taking
Sometimes might knock me down
But no, I’m not breaking

I may not know it
But these are the moments that
I’m gonna remember most, yeah
Just gotta keep going

And I, I got to be strong
Just keep pushing on…