Monthly Archives: May 2014

Staff training: art materials

In a training this past week with a great group of staff who work in a program for adults receiving developmental services, we focus on materials: What are the right materials to offer clients? How might different materials affect different people? What kinds of materials and formats promote organization? Containment? Freer expression? What materials and tools might be helpful in various art situations with clients? Group members explore these questions by trying out a wide variety of materials themselves, noting their own reactions, and thinking about all of this in relation to their clients. Here’s a bit about the group and some of our collective revelations:

Model Magic, Crayola’s air-dry modeling compound that comes in colors, really is magic. It’s a feel-good material, something that seems to relax people and make them comfortable, and is therefore a nice way to start off a group. It’s soft and lightweight, kind of dry like a marshmallow but without the marshmallow gooeyness. The colors mix beautifully so there’s a wide range of colors if desired, and markers look great on it. I buy Model Magic in assorted class  packs.

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In this group, each person takes one packet and fools around with it any way they want. After awhile I offer some decorative elements: feathers, beads, sticks, wires, etc. There is a lot of laughing and general playfulness in the room.

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The two works below are two-thirds of a trilogy with an ancient Egyptian theme. The fact that these three artists choose to make a trilogy of works also seems to contain a metaphor for their relationships as long-time coworkers.

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Model Magic helps to create a comfortable atmosphere and to energize this group, and has the potential to do the same for a group of their clients. The drawback, surprise surprise, is that it’s not a cheap material. Here are some recipes for homemade substitutes, neither of which I have tried yet. This is a Model Magic knockoff and this is more like play dough and is flavored with KoolAid, which sounds gross. But it might be a good answer for the blind client of one of the group members, who has some history of eating art materials.

Later, group members choose from a wide variety of materials set up at various stations and explore them. Markers, pencils, paints, pastels, collage, and more. Some people combine different materials. One person in the group tries every material in the room on a single piece of paper. After an earlier talk about containment and frames, someone creates her own frame to work within. The discussion: Which materials are in your comfort zone? Which feel uncomfortable? What about paper sizes? Some people describe being stimulated and inspired by so many materials, but one group member describes feeling overwhelmed and working her way through the process with difficulty but eventual gratification.  Topics like obsessive perfectionism, messiness, and perseveration are discussed.

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Some people use many materials…

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while others get absorbed in just one.

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And one person brings a cosmic note to the group with an earth/galaxy mobile.

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Some people become very absorbed in the art process, while others struggle to stay with it. All of these reactions are beneficial for understanding how clients might respond.

There are a lot of great questions and observations in the group. A profound one: Is it important to urge someone out of their comfort zone in hopes that they can grow by working their way through the art process? Or should we concentrate on encouraging a comfortable and fun experience?

Well, both. Falling apart isn’t good. Stability is very important. So safe, contained, and comfortable can be what’s most needed. But expansion is good! Growth is good. Trust in the importance of play in all of our lives for development and growth. Trust that staying mindful and attuned to clients will lead you to the answers.

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Patient’s journey

There’s a lot of info out there about art therapy, and pretty much all of it comes from art therapists. It’s rare to hear about the art therapy process from the point of view of the client.

In this TEDx video from Bow, England, Anise Bulmore gives us the patient point of view in a presentation about her art therapy experiences during treatment for breast cancer. Take a look:

Mother’s day

I’ve done many art groups with foster parents over the years. Foster parents work with children, agencies, birth parents, schools, legal systems, and more, and are faced with challenges from many directions. Thus the groups tend to go in many directions. When people find themselves in a supportive culture and have the opportunity to express themselves, magic happens, pretty much always, and all kinds of feelings are shared. For Mother’s Day, here are a few drawings by foster mothers of themselves and their foster children.

I love this mother’s picture of herself, with such a bright expression and arms long enough to take charge, protect, and give big hugs. (And she’s going to need those long arms to hold that teenager back…)


This mom did a drawing of herself and her foster son watching Transformers together. How wonderful, since they are both transformers, working together to transform the past into something better.


“A big hug and some beautiful words. I love you, Mami.”



Inspiration: Museum of International Folk Art, Santa Fe



Toys represent a microcosm of man’s world and dreams. They exhibit fantasy, imagination, humor and love. They are an invaluable record and expression of man’s ingenious unsophisticated imagination. -Alexander Girard

I traveled recently in New Mexico, where there is an abundance of inspiration both indoors and out. In Santa Fe, I visited the Museum of International Folk Art. It houses designer Alexander Girard’s collection of toys, nativities, and miniatures and encompasses more than 100,000 works from 100 cultures worldwide.

There is a ton of material available about the importance of play for child development. In fact, research has shown that children’s learning mainly happens through play. SInce children learn mainly through doing, toys are important hands-on materials for learning and development.




But visiting this enormous collection, the toy story for me was not only about children, but about the artists who produced these spectacular works. The imagination, scope of self-expression, enormous variety of materials, and level of skill that is evident in the works is dizzying.




The nature of play might change throughout the life span, but this vast collection of work demonstrates that play is important throughout our lives. The imagination and creativity of these artists was passed down to the next generation through the toys they were given to play with. And as the children grew, the elders passed on techniques and skills so that creativity was cultivated in future generations.