Author Archives: Helen Ellis



We accumulate a good amount of scrap wood at our house from various projects. Most of it gets used for kindling, but there’s always plenty for arts and crafts too. When I’m working with kids, I give the scrap pieces a very quick sanding to get rid of splinters, and sometimes I spray paint the scraps very randomly to liven them up a bit.

Here are a few characters that climbed out of our woodpile.





Seniors in the streets with spray cans!

I am a long-time fan of street art, and since I’m somewhat… uh, senior in years, I was pretty excited to come across a Lisbon-based project called LATA 65. This organization is providing seniors with the history and basics of street art and graffiti and then arming them with masks, spray cans, and walls in run-down neighborhoods where they can try out street art for themselves. Judging by the photos, it seems like it’s been a joyous experience for the participants!

According to LATA 65, the project aims to promote connection and understanding between generations through the arts, by introducing older folks to an art form generally practiced only by younger people.

LATA 65 hopes to promote active aging and demonstrate that age is just a number. Their goal is to “awaken, motivate and excite the elderly through urban art” by presenting them with “new activities, new techniques associated with youth, as a way to escape and to break routines, generating quality, joviality and well-being in their lives.”

LATA 65 also stresses the power of urban art to democratize contemporary art by encouraging participation and expression by people of all ages.

I love this project! (Also, what a great logo!)



Back in January, a friend challenged me to participate in an online art project called 100 Sticky Sketch Challenge. The idea was to draw one sketch a day on a 3×3 post-it note, starting February 1st, for 100 days.


Draw something from your bag or pocket


Draw something inspired by love

Each week there was a new topic, so there were seven post-it note sketches each week in each category.


Draw something using only one continuous line


Make a complete drawing from someone’s scribble

Participants were asked to post photos of their sketches on Tumblr, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, using the hashtag #stickysketch100 to share with the group.


Combine two everyday objects to create something new


Draw something from your shopping list

As you can see, I did accept the challenge. I had been looking for a way to inject more creative discipline into my days, and had actually been looking around for an interesting art class, in search of some structure and inspiring assignments.


Design a bogus merit badge


Draw a simplified famous work of art

Although working on little yellow post-its didn’t appeal to me, it also didn’t seem at all daunting. They’re cheap, and if I needed to throw ten away to get one drawing I liked, it was no big deal. In fact, the crumminess of the paper made me feel that not every drawing had to be anything special, which was very freeing. And the small size presented constraints that limited the possibilities, which is always helpful to me when I’m feeling unfocused.


Draw your favorite song lyrics or movie quotes


Draw something thrown away

The weekly themes were varied. Most were playful and fun, and I loved them. Some were challenging, in a good way. A favorite week: Choose your own adventure: seven drawings, one topic.









I was ambivalent about some topics, and those were more of a struggle. Sometimes I was uninspired, and did something lame to get it over with. Some weeks I was busy and fell behind, so I did three or four drawings in one day to get caught up.


Draw the most boring thing you did today


Draw something odd you overheard or saw

I posted all my drawings on Facebook and Tumblr. It was fun to get comments on the sketches from friends. I also loved seeing the work that other people did, which was easy to do because of the hashtag. Except for the friend who challenged me, I didn’t know anybody else personally, but I began to recognize people by their drawings. It was great fun to see what everyone else was doing. Whether people are professionals or amateurs, there’s just no end to creativity.


What will the future look like?


Draw your sticky selfie

I made it to drawing #100 a few days ago. Towards the end, I was really looking forward to finishing. I had other things I wanted to work on. But the process brought a lot of insights, and I’ll really miss it.


Mother art

In my art therapy practice, I have primarily seen children who have been suffering due to very difficult family situations. In most cases, for a variety of reasons, the child’s mother is struggling, is having trouble functioning, and can’t take proper care of the child. These paintings by a mother and her child both convey a sense of their distress.


Mother’s self-portrait


7 year-old child’s self-portrait

All children are disturbed and scared by a mother’s dysfunction. But at the same time, they usually have a profound sense of their mother’s love for them, and the longing for that loving mother never goes away. This child’s clay figures show two sides of her mother. Although the mom with the cigarette hanging out of her mouth was a neglectful addict, the child has also often experienced the warmth of that motherly smile.


My Mother, 8 year-old girl

In spite of whatever distress, dysfunction, neglect, or abuse a child has a experienced, most children cling to that sense of their loving mother through thick and thin.

Me and My Mom, 8 year-old boy

Me and My Mom, 8 year-old boy

Untitled, 14 year-old girl

Untitled, 14 year-old girl

To those mothers who are struggling hard to overcome big, difficult problems and become good mothers to their children, I wish you the best. I wish you a Happy Mother’s Day.

Inspiration: Alejandro Durán


Alejandro Durán, a Brooklyn-based multimedia artist, has created a series of site-specific sculptures in the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, in his native Mexico. His site: undeveloped, federally-protected land, a place named “where heaven was born” by the ancient Mayan people. His material: trash.

“In my current project, Washed Up, I address the issue of plastic pollution making its way across the ocean and onto the shores of Sian Ka’an, Mexico’s largest federally-protected reserve. With more than twenty pre-Columbian archaeological sites, this UNESCO World Heritage site is also home to a vast array of flora and fauna and the world’s second largest coastal barrier reef. Unfortunately, Sian Ka’an is also a repository for the world’s trash, which is carried there by ocean currents from many parts of the globe.”

“Over the course of this project, I have identified plastic waste from fifty nations on six continents that have washed ashore along the coast of Sian Ka’an. I have used this international debris to create color-based, site-specific sculptures.”

“Conflating the hand of man and nature, at times I distribute the objects the way the waves would; at other times, the plastic takes on the shape of algae, roots, rivers, or fruit, reflecting the infiltration of plastics into the natural environment.”

“More than creating a surreal or fantastical landscape, these installations mirror the reality of our current environmental predicament. The resulting photo series depicts a new form of colonization by consumerism, where even undeveloped land is not safe from the far-reaching impact of our disposable culture.”

“…Washed Up speaks to the environmental concerns of our time and its vast quantity of discarded materials. The alchemy of Washed Up lies not only in converting a trashed landscape, but in the project’s potential to raise awareness and change our relationship to consumption and waste.”

For a look at the work of another trash-collecting artist, check out this post about Barry Rosenthal.

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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Easter egg cartons

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I save all my egg cartons, and not because I have chickens. No, I save them to make egg carton purses. Decorated and filled with little items, they make wacky, fun gifts. They also make great jewelry boxes. And they are great projects for kids during this (or any other) season.

I paint and then decorate them with paper scraps, twigs, beads, feathers, recycled yarn and ribbons, whatever I have around. The purse handles come from my rusty wire collection.




I fill the purses with small items, mostly things I find around the house: a tiny package of samples from my paper collection, chocolates, barrettes, snappers, buttons, beads, etc.





In the Camp AmeriKids art & crafts room, where I work in the summers, the younger girls have made beautiful egg carton purses. They use the same array of materials, although we spray paint the rusty wires in bright colors. The girls leave them with us to dry, and we surprise them by delivering them to their cabins filled with little treats of small art supplies and candy.

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IMG_2462Happy Easter, Passover, and Spring!