Category Archives: art therapy

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.

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?

AT collage3172

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.

kids art001

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.

Anonymous, sort of

It’s not unusual for therapy clients to be curious about their therapist’s other clients. In the case of an art therapist, this curiosity Is intensified by the physical evidence, the materials and artwork, left by other clients in the art therapy room.

In the case of an art therapist working in a foster care agency, this curiosity is an ever-present topic. There is a family-like atmosphere in a foster care agency, where foster parents are often relatives or friends or at least acquaintances, and foster children become part of their social circles. Agency staff (case workers, therapists, psychiatrists, medical staff, etc) are shared by many children, which furthers the communal sense. Many of the kids stay in the system for years, so those who were my clients often knew each other, and my teen clients were sometimes good friends. Although kids often feel supported by this sense of community, they often feel exposed and smothered by it too. (Sounds like family, right?) Although they’re curious to know about OTHER clients, they don’t want anyone in THEIR business.

Maintaining boundaries and confidentiality in these circumstances is challenging, with so many interactions and all kinds of scenarios being played out publicly, right in the lobby. But it’s important to try.


I love this cardboard tube piece that hung over the desk in my office because it seems a great metaphor for all these issues around community and privacy. The staff in our medical clinic, just down the hall from me, knew I used a lot of recycled materials, and they began collecting the cardboard tubes from inside the rolls of examining table paper. The tubes turned out to be really appealing to some kids, and they began painting them in their sessions and hanging them up all over the art therapy room. Eventually, when I moved from one office to another, the tubes became consolidated into one hanging. So the various artists are unknown to each other, but yet it imparts a sense of community while revealing nothing else.

Hide and seek

kids art040

It’s a joy to be hidden but a disaster not to be found. -D.W. Winnicott

True in any game of hide and seek, and meaningful in deeper ways. Winnicott, the British pediatrician/psychoanalyst, was a wise and playful man, and an important influence for me in work with kids.

A fifteen year-old girl comes into my office and refuses to speak, to draw, to do anything. We have known each other for years, have seen each other every week in art therapy sessions, and have lots of history together. Ours is a strong relationship, but these days she’s pretty unhappy, and having to come to therapy makes her feel even worse. She barely even bothers to roll her eyes at me when I talk to her, just puts her head down on the table. It’s going to be a long 50 minutes. So I start drawing her. There’s really not much else I can do. For a long time, she doesn’t stir. But she has been listening to the scratching sounds of the colored pencils I’m using, and she is curious about what I’m drawing. Eventually it’s too much for her, and she lifts her head.

at015She is visibly pleased by the drawing, or maybe just by the fact that I drew her, and we chat a little bit, nothing heavy, before she leaves. She thinks I ruined the drawing with those spikes coming out of her arms, and I can’t disagree. She laughs when I tell her I was just trying to draw her porcupine quills. Things feel comfortable, things feel safe. We are both relieved.

The following week she’s not talking again.

It’s a joy to be hidden but a disaster not to be found. Sometimes the best gift we can give is to be present, and wait until someone wants to be found. And find a way to remind them that they probably really DO want to be found.


I am counting my many blessings this Thanksgiving, and also feeling kind of sad. I sometimes get happy holidays texts from teens that I saw in art therapy, and today I heard from a former client who is not doing so well. She’s an amazing girl, very dear to me, and we have a lot of history together.

In psychology jargon, our relationship would be described as a strong therapeutic alliance. The term describes a relationship between therapist and client in which a sense of safety, trust, and common therapeutic goals is present. It has been said that a strong therapeutic alliance predicts better outcomes in therapy. But I say that a strong therapeutic alliance IS the therapy, and that therapy can’t happen without it. How much a client feels you care always trumps factors such as treatment method.

And so, a deep relationship led to a long Thanksgiving Day conversation with someone that I haven’t seen in a year and a half but care deeply about. And I am thankful for that.

Below is some artwork by kids depicting the therapeutic alliance. I’m the one with the purple hair and glasses.


This child shows how the sun and rain help a flower to bloom (the yellow arrow from the sun to the flower is hard to see, easier if you click to enlarge). What I love about this picture is the blue arrow, her awareness of how important the relationship is to me, too, how our relationship is a circle, and not at all one-sided.

flowers and sun

Flowers are a common metaphor in pictures about relationships.


Cheers! The clinical term may be therapeutic alliance, but often the word friendship better describes it.

friendship juice

Smile though your heart is aching

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Smile even though it’s breaking

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When there are clouds in the sky, you’ll get by

kids art028If you smile through your fear and sorrow

kids art029Smile and maybe tomorrow

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You’ll see the sun come shining through for you…

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If only! All preceding artwork done by desperately smiling children. The truth is in their art. Try and give them whatever they need.

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:


Some art therapy clients benefit from working within a frame. If they have difficulty containing their feelings and behavior and lose control easily, they will most likely have trouble controlling art materials too. So it’s important to provide them with boundaries in the form of materials which can help them to feel more self-contained, organized, safe, and successful.

A frame can be as simple as a circle drawn on a piece of paper, but sometimes an actual physical boundary is more helpful to clients who are struggling with self-control. Cardboard berry flats make great readymade frames or shadowboxes, perfect for both 2-D and 3-D work. They come in several sizes and some even have handles that can be slipped through the holes to make a hanger.




If you have it in your mind to look for frames, you will find them everywhere. Thrift shops are loaded with them. But you don’t really need to spend any money. Any supermarket is glad to have you take those berry flats off their hands and save them the work of breaking them down for disposal. You can also make simple frames yourself. And never underestimate the great possibilities of scavenging. Below: different-sized old white drawer fronts that were left out on the street for trash pickup; a black thrift shop frame; a small corrugated packing box; and donated pre-cut oak tag frames.


Here is the work of a child who was given a paper-lined wooden cigar boxtop to work with. She used paints and Sculpey polymer clay to create her 3-D Rainbow Girl self-portrait.





Bottle jar box can

Bottlejarboxcan was the name of an old blog that I kept for awhile. It got its name from my penchant for constantly collecting all kinds of containers, which I use a lot in my own work.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAContainers also figure big in art therapy. A lot of importance is placed on the establishment and maintenance of a therapeutic container or frame. Therapists strive to provide a place of containment, a safe space to explore, express, and experience all feelings, a relationship of trust and collaboration. This is an important component of all therapeutic theory, particularly for those working with children or others who become easily overwhelmed by affect because they lack internal controls. An important theoretical concept here is D.W. Winnicott’s holding environment.

In the particular context of art therapy, the artwork itself also acts as a container, something outside of the artist that safely holds and reflects emotions. Sometimes providing a concrete metaphor by supplying  an actual container to work with can help a child to feel more safe in expressing difficult feelings.

The possibilities for containers are endless. To bottle, jar, box, and can, add book, frame, nest, teacup, basket, egg carton, or pretty much anything else you can think of. It’s pretty easy to accumulate tons of great containers without spending a cent. Any recycling bin is filled with them.



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