Category Archives: metaphor


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.

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


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