Monthly Archives: April 2015

Burning down the house

For 23 out of my 30 years as an art therapist, I worked with kids in foster care. And I’ll probably always continue to be involved with that system in one way or another. How could I have worked so long in a system that is such a nightmare? Why would I want to continue?

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My Block, girl, 8 years old

The children we worked with were poor, abused, neglected, unheard, invisible. With few exceptions, they were beautiful kids, although sometimes it took awhile to be able to see that. They were depressed. They were filled with rage. Sometimes they acted out in aggressive ways. Kids who have been told all their lives that they’re worthless tend to destroy things, their own or other people’s. They often try to destroy relationships. I don’t think any of us ever thought of their behavior as “wrong,” though. They had been given no other way to express themselves to show the world how they were feeling. One thing we never did:

We never blamed the child.

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Untitled, girl, 12 years old

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The Boy in the Scribble Scrabble Suit, boy, 7 years old

Sometimes, when behavior got really out of control, we did have to contain kids. This involved hospitals, residential treatments, changes of placement. Sometimes it involved the criminal justice system. Heartbreak city for everyone. But we did what we had to do to keep everyone safe. One thing we never did, though:

We never blamed the child.

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Untitled, boy, 10 years old

So many of my colleagues were just such superstars. Foster care is filled with people who are ready to jump in and do their best, who care deeply about kids and their families. Really, why else would anybody work in foster care? The system’s a nightmare, the options always feel very limited, and the money’s lousy. But the mission is pure wonderful. We tried to create safety for children and those around them, to listen to what they had to say about their lives, to help them start to trust others and love themselves, to feel better, to act better. We tried to help their families get back on their feet. This usually involved a great deal of struggle for the kids and everyone connected to them. We were often frustrated, with the system, with the kids, with the parents. We tore our hair out when they made bad decisions, which they did frequently. In the end, there were successes, and there were failures. One thing we never did, though:

We never blamed the child.

The relationships I formed with the children, teens, parents, and colleagues during these years have enriched my life in the most profound ways imaginable.

Why is it any different for whole communities that are poor, abused, neglected, unheard, invisible? I don’t blame anyone for trying to contain the violence in Baltimore, but I do blame those who want to blame the victims, instead of offering them support, services, caring, safety from the storm, listening ears, respect. If we all tried to offer those things, it would change all our lives in the most profound ways imaginable.


Sometimes a child creates art that feels like it’s crying out for a container, sort of the way a child can be crying out for a hug. It can be very helpful to give a metaphorical hug to that child by framing their art. Framing lets children know they’re valued and accepted, in spite of whatever messy or bad feelings they might have inside.


In this work, some pieces remain contained, or hidden, and some have fallen out and lie exposed. This child and I worked together to place her work in the shadow box frame, so whether the exposure was intentional or not, it was her choice to leave the pieces the way they fell. Perhaps this exposure was a reflection of her safety in opening up, and perhaps the containment of the frame added to her safety. It’s hard to say, but In a non-verbal process with a younger child, thinking about metaphor is invaluable.

This kind of collaboration between child and art therapist is a powerful example of how a metaphorical art process can create trust and safety and strengthen the therapeutic relationship.

If you’re interested in reading more, two earlier blog posts address art therapy work with containers in general and frames in particular.

Picturing foster care

I have always felt this painting, done many years ago by a 9 year-old boy, was the most perfect metaphor for what it must feel like to be in foster care.


His story about it was this: “The flower is caught in a snowstorm.” (The snow is painted in blood red.) “A nice lady comes along and picks the flower to save it from dying in the snowstorm.” (But once she picks the flower, it’s only a matter of time before it will die anyway, right?)

This picture always seemed to be the essence of the foster care dilemma: If I’m left in the storm, I’ll perish. But if I’m uprooted from my home soil, I’ll perish too. Some heartbreak just can’t be expressed in words.

Inspiration: Queen Califia’s Magic Circle


Several years back, I was visiting a friend in Los Angeles and dragged her, kicking and screaming a bit, onto I-5 South to sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic on a very hot Saturday in June. We were headed to Kit Carson Park in Escondido, about a half hour north of San Diego. When we got there, LA freeway aggravation gave way to joy. We had arrived at the amazing Queen Califia’s Magic Circle, a gorgeous mosaic sculpture garden created by French artist Niki de Saint Phalle that is rich with magic and myth. The garden takes its name from a fictional warrior queen.

The entrance to the garden is a maze with walls covered in black, white and mirrored mosaic tiles. The mirrors reflect the colors of the sculptures and the greenery and the blue southern California sky. A 400-foot snake wall surrounds the courtyard, which contains a powerful, magnificent Queen Califia and eight totem-like figures covered with symbols, creatures, and animals that played important roles in the mythologies of the indigenous peoples that are part of California’s history.

The sculptures are covered with hand-cut glass, ceramic, and stone mosaic tiles. Queen Califia herself is embellished with hand-cut mirrored glass. The movement of light, wind, color and reflection continually transforms the garden.

This is a place for people of all ages. The works are playful, and children are welcome to explore and climb on the sculptures. Underneath the Queen, a deep blue, starry mosaic sky covers an area lined with benches, a place to meditate and dwell in the beauty and myths that have been brought to life here.

If you find yourself in southern California, don’t miss it. It’s well worth the bumper-to-bumper traffic. In the meantime, scroll through these and have a look:

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