Art As Therapy


Today sucked. I’m not gonna even pretend that in sunny Los Angeles, life is a joy. Granted today was not as painful as some other days, but I just about blew out my spleen worrying about shit, life plans, money, my relationships with my adult offspring, my car, whether to stay here or fly away, etc., over which I have no clear idea about how to address. None.

The image shown here is not what I worked on today, but something I created previously as part of an independent study. Over the course of my studies at Naropa, I discovered artistic process as a therapeutic tool for healing. O. M. G. What a life saver!! The image here is that of a person lying down, and a reverse reflection. Normally I would not qualify my art work, but the posture of lying down connects to the overall movement protocol as outlined in my (hypo-) thesis. (More on this later!)

Today, I felt frozen in my seat. I was seated on the couch, working diligently to research non-profits in the Colorado area. For all of its’ late night restaurants, grocery delivery, Hollywood excitement and movie premiers, I loathe L.A. The traffic. The rudeness. The constant clamor and noise levels – cars, horns, car stereos as unreasonable levels, trash trucks 3 times a week, sirens at all hours (praying for these folks!), the beeping of delivery trucks. The smell of the city. The endless light pollution – where the fuck are the stars? My nervous system has finally settled down for the most part – I was a blubbering mess for the first 6 weeks – but after a day in the city it takes a day for me to recover. And that’s only when I drive from home to one location and back. I’m drained. The city confuses me. It drains my energy. This city is like my mother and my attachment style to her – confusing, unreliable, destabilizing, untrustworthy, terrifying, exhaustive.

I miss the mountains. I’m certain when I left CA for CO, I must have felt the same way about the water, my beloved Pacific Ocean. Now, I crave pine trees of every kind, every color, every species; mountains – flat faced, covered in trees, a spectrum of color; HUGE wide open sky – endless skies FILLED with looming clouds, thunder and lightning storms of epic proportions; the rising sun to fill my heart and sunsets that put me to sleep in a sweet cradle of dark blue and glistening stars; blue, blue, blue – blue mountains, blue skies. I almost cry to think I’ll miss the fall and winter of 2016, my first in 4 years. I miss the peace of falling snow.

And so today, I finally caved in to art making. I used a business card from an artist I like and made a replica of her work in my art journal – an outline of a deer and a tall pine, then I cut the image from her business card, and glued it to an envelope, which I then glued into my art journal. I use art journals of every size for a myriad of creativity. I make collage from bits of paper, images from magazines of all kinds – People, O, Time, New Yorker, BuddhaDharma, Tricyle, Juxtaposition, even Elle or Cosmo; I use acrylic paint, oil pastels, gesso, oil paints, water colors, markers, colored pencils, nature based materials – you name it. I didn’t do much today – colored pencils, a few images, and I worked in the smaller journal, but it was enough. It freed something up inside of me. The creativity reminded me of my whole self. Creating just a few pages brought me back to my heart and my soul. The smell of glue grounded me somehow. It brought me out of my worried mind, and back into my body. I could feel my heart beating, hear the sound of my breath and sense my feet on the floor. The grip of fear, concern and worry about my current unknown future began to unwind and loosen their deadly fingers which had been wrapped ever so tightly around my throat, constricting my ability to breathe and even think clearly about anything.

“It is the nature of art to loosen our defenses.” Daniel Blausey, 2014, Naropa.

Shaun McNiff, PhD (2015) is an artist, art therapist, and prolific author of multiple books in multiple languages, which are dedicated to art in therapy, artistic research and the artistic process. He is also a teacher, and a current University Professor at Lesley University in Expressive Therapies, a program he established in 1974 which includes Art Therapy, research and leadership (McNiff, n.d.). McNiff, PhD (1988) focused on “the psychology of art” for his doctoral research in the 1970s (p. 67). In the early ‘80s he discovered that students in his graduate programs were interested in the art making process, it’s qualitative results and their relationship to the art, and not so much the quantitative research. Through the eyes and experience of one of his graduate students, McNiff discovered that “Making art and personal reflections on one’s own creations could be a basis of research” (1988, p.70). His students provided him with the understanding that the process of art making is the research. McNiff defines research as “re-search”, to “search again” (p. 67).

The history of art therapy is long and rich, and there are two approaches within this field. One is that of art in therapy; the use of artistic process in a psychotherapeutic setting with a psychologist or psychiatrist. The other is art as therapy; art used in a variety of settings such as open studios, and often directed by artists themselves. Art therapy began in the 1940s with the work of Margaret Naumberg (1983), an educator turned psychologist who used art with clients in sessions. Her focus was primarily using art as a vehicle within the constructs and process of psychotherapy (Cane-Detre, Frank, Kniazzeh, Cane-Robinson, Rubin and Ulman, 1983). Florence Cane, sister of Margaret Naumberg, was another early innovator and was more interested in the “expression of feeling in art” and was responsible for developing the scribble technique – a method of beginning artistic inquiry (1983, p. 111).

It was during a meeting with Daniel Blausey, my mentor and Core Candidate, Assistant Professor in the Graduate Art Therapy program at Naropa University, that led to the inclusion of McNiff’s theory within my thesis. Daniel pointed out that my work in the art therapy courses had been exactly what McNiff was referring to – art based research into my own childhood experiences and with that, I had begun to make sense of my childhood. Technically, I was not an artist and had no previous training in the methods of art before my arrival at Naropa. I had used artistic process in the past, yes, but I did not understand what I was doing. I was merely reaching out, grasping for something to lift myself from a quagmire of despair. Subconsciously, I had been making attempts to soothe my nervous system, work out mental narratives, find peace in my pain and return to wholeness.

My first experience of making art as a healing process began in 2005 following a bad heart break. I began to use oil pastels and pads of paper as a way to process every emotion I was experiencing, and there were many – love, anger, disappointment, intense loss, sadness and grief, hope and wishful thinking, denial, jealousy, sexual fantasy, spirituality, my dreams, my experiences in the relationship, and more. Images included a wooden cross (gifted to a friend), flowers, a dog in a park with a huge erection, distant airplanes viewed through windows, landscapes, endless images of trees, and self portraits.


One series of drawings represented my initial meeting with this man and how I perceived the energetic quality of my experience with him. In some of them, I am rendered only as a stick figure – small and crumpled – a wounded child drawn in pencil thin line. The series came very quickly and some of it is crude in its technique but the quality of it is pure and heartfelt. The only thing that mattered was getting the images out of my head and body and onto the paper. This was true for me in those moments of concurrently drawing and crying. The emotion was raw and pure, a fine line of clear pain rendered as a stick figure. Matthew Fox (1990), Episcopal priest, well-known author, spiritual theologian, and activist says, “The body does not forget and all art is bodily” (Creation and Art, n.d., p. 4). My series of drawings speaks to the quality of my pain and how it felt to be in my body – alone, afraid, small, incapable of sitting up straight to face my world. They were visual descriptions of the loss I was experiencing wholly in my brainbody and body-mind.

Ciao ~



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