Monthly Archives: January 2014

I messed up


By far the three most repeated words in art therapy sessions with kids: I messed up! And fast, before I have time to intervene, into the trash can goes the messed up, crumpled up paper, often with just one or two little marks on it. Sometimes it’s very difficult to convince kids that making art is not about a perfect product, but about the process, and that their mess-ups are just steps in that process. That embracing the mess-ups is, in fact, metaphorically accepting all parts of oneself, ugly and beautiful.

But try telling that to a kid who has a picture in his head of how something is supposed to look. And who is so afraid of being a failure that exploration and play feel impossible. And who feels so bad inside that facing those feelings in the form of ugly art is painful.

So I always try to demonstrate that nothing’s really garbage.

  • Let’s make really ugly drawings! Keep going, make it worse. That’s not ugly enough.
  • Let’s rip out the parts of the picture we like and make a collage out of them.
  • Let’s try making sculptures out of the papers you threw in the trash can!
  • Etc.

Presenting: four little paper sculptures from the trash can.

tassel messuptoilet paper nmessup


box messupleoaprd messup


Grow, stay, decay

As an Italian Renaissance art lover, art preservation and restoration have always been important to me. So it feels like somewhat of a contradiction that I gravitate in my own work towards impermanent materials. The found and recycled materials that I use are fun to gather and to work with, but they don’t last, and they resist preservation.

So I have followed the ephemeral art movement with great interest. Andy Goldsworthy, the environmental sculptor who produces site-specific works of astounding beauty, photographs each piece once right after he creates it. He says this about his art:

Each work grows, stays, decays – integral parts of a cycle which the photograph shows at its heights, marking the moment when the work is most alive. There is intensity about a work at its peak that I hope is expressed in the image. Process and decay are implicit.

The photograph. Photography has allowed the marriage of the ephemeral and the permanent. If we are lucky enough to be there at the time, we can see the work at its peak. If not, we can love a beautiful photograph instead. We have to let it go, but its beauty remains. A reminder to value the moment.

In an older post, I included a video of Tibetan monks creating a sand mandala, which they destroyed when finished as a nod to life’s impermanence. It would be very special to see that process in person! But we were fortunate that it was captured on video. Here then are more mandalas created from ephemeral materials. The photos remind us that nothing is permanent.

Kathy Klein creates exquisite mandalas from flowers and other natural elements. Here are a few examples, but there are hundreds more, each one more beautiful than the last. You can view them all at dānmālā.com.

Here’s a beach mandala made from seaweed, artist(s) unknown, waiting to be swallowed by the tide.

The fact that the work does not remain creates an urgency to see it. For instance, if someone were to tell you, ‘Oh, look on the right, there is a rainbow’ you will never answer, ‘I will look at it tomorrow.’                                                                                                                                         – Christo

Simon Beck, a snow artist from Savoie, France, created these mandalas by plodding through the snow on snowshoes. Each piece takes 5 to 9  hours to complete and is about the size of three soccer fields. His works are quickly covered by new snowstorms.


And finally, I love these collaborative yoga pose mandalas from the folks at The Human Mandala Project.

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.

AT collage3171

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.


k1, p1

I learned how to knit as a kid, but then knitting sat on the back burner for about twenty-five years before I took it up again. I’m really glad it had a revival in my life, because there’s so much I love about knitting. The colors, textures, warmth, and beauty of yarns. The variety of projects, patterns, and stitches. The community that gathers at my wonderful local knitting store, where people share patterns, joys, sorrows, and news to the gentle clicking of knitting needles. My rhythmically moving hands. Watching stitches form into a perfect pattern.

I’ve used knitting with a few art therapy clients over the years and I think they’ve felt some of the kinds of benefits mentioned above, particularly the tactile, rhythmic, meditative comfort knitting offers.

For those also into knitting and/or recycled art, here’s a knitting artist to inspire you. Ivano Vitali spins yarn out of recycled newspaper and knits up gorgeous garments and wall hangings on huge needles.


Black Bijou (2011) is a cardigan and skirt outfit. The cardigan is knitted with black ads and has a white edge crocheted with newspaper in a daisy motif. The transparent skirt is made with the black edges of the newspaper.

Boa (2005) was knit from the yellow pages.

Lots more here!

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

AT weather pics 3161

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.