15 Minutes of Writing

I wrote a post yesterday that I can’t access, so I’m starting over with another 15 minute writing exercise. I have found that using a timer is quite interesting and magical, in that you can see how much longer 15 minutes is than it seems. When you exercise, 5 minutes can seem like an eternity. I think writing and drawing for 15 minutes in the morning is like a kind of mental going to the gym.

I’ve been obsessed with various art materials over the years. I’ll discover or rediscover something and then use it a lot and get into getting more of them. I’ve been obsessed with pens for a long time, first Retro 51 writing pens, and more recently, all kinds of art pens. I usually get random art supplies thinking people who come to my studio for therapy or supervision or hang outs will use them. Sometimes I discover something because a patient picks it out to use. A few years ago I got a few paint pens. One night someone in my supervision group started using them and I was really impressed and thought, “How is it I had little interest in these? Look at the cool stuff this person is making!” So I copied them and started using the paint pens. Of course I needed more than just a few metallic and primary colors so I ordered more. Then I looked into other brands and also got into different size nibs. I mostly liked the medium nibs at the time because they get paint in them quicker and you don’t have to struggle so much with them. Getting into the paint pens got me re acquainted with metallic markers, the cheap ones I found at Walmart years ago that are better than Sharpie metallic markers. One time I was in a session with someone and they opened one of those markers and there was mold growing on the tip. That was the weirdest thing I encountered with a pen. I hadn’t ever seen mold on a marker.

I also bought a lot of gel pens because so many people like to use coloring pages in sessions. The Japanese jelly roll pens have always been my favorite because they really are great quality. Recently when I started drawing 15 minutes a day, I got re acquainted with very fine pens. I had tried them out a few years ago and dismissed them as being too annoying because they are hard to use and take a while to build up any color. Then I got some supplies from the Sketchbook Project. Once in a while they send free supplies with the sketchbook or with some other project. Recently I got some thin nib pens from them and tried them out in my 15 minute drawings and got hooked. The Sketchbook Project over a year ago sent me some pens and pencils and one of them was a Letraset Aqua marker. I used it a little and then left it for a long time. I recently picked it up again and got obsessed so I ordered a set of 12 in off colors, like peach, light lavender, light brown. These are great markers as they are a cross between brush pens and illustration pens. Like those, they have a dual tip, but one tip is fine but not really thin and the other looks tapered like a brush but doesn’t flex the way a brush tip does. Unlike illustration markers, they are watercolor like the brush pens, so they are kind of a paint pen and have a wash quality. They come with a blender pen and you can layer thinner pens on top of the marks you make.

I started writing about art making and art supplies in more detail a few years ago when I started writing personal narrative pieces about art and life. I’ve noticed that it seems like a good subject for my writing because it’s something I’m really into and writing about materials seems to bring up other interesting topics.

I recently got rid of a bunch of old canvases. I had made paintings in oil on them in the early 2000s.

Quick Post About TOAST!

I did not post last week so this post will be for last week! I have the Tribeca Open Artists Studio Tour (TOAST) coming up this Friday evening, Saturday and Sunday, so I have been busy getting ready for a big mass of people to be coming to my studio.

I am posting a few new “Scribble Drawing Collage Self-Portraits” from my latest series of work that I will be showcasing at the open studio tour this weekend…

To view more of this series or more of my artwork, you can visit my artist website at http://www.natashart.com

Is This Art My “Art Therapy” Art or my “Artist ‘Real'” Art?

This post is probably mostly of interest to other art therapists and those who are curious about art therapy and its connection to “Real Art” or “Fine Art”. There is also a big topic of “High” Art vs. “Low” Art and so called Outsider Art vs. “Fine” Art… Labels labels labels. We like labels when they help us define and differentiate, and we don’t like them so much when they limit us…

So, to begin with, for people who don’t know much about “art therapy” or “art psychotherapy”, there are usually two roads to becoming an art therapist, or two “Main” roads. One is the person who majored or minored in Psychology or took a bunch of psychology classes in colleges and got interested in becoming some kind of therapist. This person finds out about art therapy and realizes s/he also has a creative side and is interested in art making and how it impacts psychotherapy, so this person continues on the road to learning more about what art therapy is, and becoming an art therapist. Along the way, this person may have had his/her own personal therapy or even sought out an art therapist to try out art therapy as a patient. Some of these people skip going to therapy as a patient and end up in some art therapy graduate program after s/he has taken the extra art classes that are prerequesites to starting grad school in art therapy. Those who skip being a patient themselves are usually encouraged to go to therapy and at some point in their time as a grad student start therapy with a therapist, art therapist, psychoanalyst or some combination of these… This person may enjoy art making and even have a media s/he prefers working in but has not really identified as an artist before becoming an art therapist… There are many variations of this type of road towards becoming an art therapist, not in the scope of this post, so I don’t mean to have this description seem limited.

Then there is the other road, that of the “Artist” who then becomes an art therapist. Some of these people are what is called a “wounded healer”. S/he may have gone through therapy of some sort at some time in his/her life and had much more experience being a “patient” than some other art therapy students and art therapists. In any case this person usually finds out about art therapy at some point in his/her career as an artist and decides to obtain training to be an art therapist because of his/her experience as an Artist and Patient or as an Artist who is interested in the healing professions for some reason. Perhaps s/he has found art making to be transformative and healing, whether or not s/he has experienced the therapy process. So this person if need be, takes the psychology courses they may not have taken in college as prerequisites for going to grad school for art therapy…

OK. So now you’re in some art therapy graduate program. You might have gone through some training by attending some sort of Art Therapy Certificate Program to see if art therapy is for you or you just dove right into grad school. While in school, no matter what the philosophy of the school is, and there are many different kinds of art therapy programs with many different philosophies, slants, approaches. Where ever you are studying, at some point in some classes, you will be asked to make art. Some might be art directives from the teachers to get across some points on the subject they are teaching. You will probably make art in supervision class, either what’s called “Response Art” responding to your work with your patients at your internship or art work in response to a classmate’s case presentation. In some programs, there is a lot of art making that takes place in your training in the classes themselves. At the program I went to, my favorite class was my first year “Materials” class, in which we learned about all kinds of art materials and their uses with different client populations. The class was a place to do a lot of “experientials” which basically means you learn through experience of using the materials in your own art work in class and at home for class assignments. As a self identified “artist”, I loved the class as it was the class with the most art making in it, and I learned some new techniques and ways of using art materials that I considered useful both in my own personal art work and in the art I made with patients or witnessed patient making.

During graduate school at some point, the phrase “art therapy” artwork or something like it comes up and is understood to opposed to the concept of personal art work or art work that you are in process of making as an artist. I went to grad school many years ago, and a lot has changed since then. At the time, I continued to have my own art studio outside of my home, and I continued to have my open studios and continued to exhibit my work in various settings and to pursue exhibitions to further my career as an artist. I made this same distinction in the sense that most of the time, as far as I remember, I was working on some series of paintings or drawings that were very different from what I made in classes and at my internship. However, I also remember making some things that I thought of as my “regular” art work even though it was made as a class assignment. I also remember being surprised that so many of my classmates did not like making art in our classes. Even in the classes that involved more lectures than actual experientials, I would be drawing in my journal anyway, as I find drawing helps me focus on what the teacher is saying. Even these days, when I attend some sort of Professional event, such as a talk or conference, I usually draw pictures as I’m writing notes in order not to lose focus on what the speaker is saying!

Anyway, at some point in studying art therapy and then beginning to work as an art therapist, I saw there is a kind of division that exists between what people term their art therapy art work and their “actual” art work that they make at home or in a studio in solitude. I did not go to art school, but my first exposure to making drawings and paintings on paper was a very unique class that I have described more in another post, so my first experience of making art was in a room with a lot of people in it, including grad student assistants to the drawing professor as well as the professor. After I graduated college, I had the great fortune of having my first art studio, a very tiny studio but my own. I immediately began paintings that involved having friends sit for me while I painted. These were more than simple portraits, but I think, looking back at my very young beginning artist self, I see that I liked having people in the room while I made my art. Along the way, I eventually developed a taste for solitude and spending time making art alone. However, I see now that I began the process without a need for solitude and that making art among others or with others was very comfortable for me, so making art in classes at graduate school did not seem so different from making art in my studio or at home. I also along the way, probably during grad school, developed a liking for making art while watching TV, even though I always had an art table at home and an art studio seperate from home in which to make art.

As I developped my private practice, I noticed this split between art therapy art and so called more “personal” art, though maybe the art therapy art is more personal as the person is more loose and open while making it. However, I have always had art therapy grad students as patients over the years, as they sometimes want to try out art therapy as a patient, and I very much enjoy working with all kinds of students. With these art therapy grad students, they either had great discomfort making any art in my presence despite what they were doing in classes and would prefer to talk in session and make no art, or they would be quite comfortable making art in session with me, but tended to see the art they made in our sessions as their “art therapy” art, which basically means they would not think of putting any of their “art therapy” art in an art exhibition, while they might have work they were making on their own at home or in a studio that they would consider as art to put in their portfolio or an exhibit. They looked upon the art they made in school and in supervision much the same way.

Probably not everyone makes such a strong distinction in their work. However it is made enough that the topic has caught my interest and brought up questions for me as an artist and art therapist. Is there a difference between the two kinds of art? For me the blurring of the distinction began in my own therapy a number of years ago when I began bringing scribble drawings and other more “unconscious” drawings to my therapist. I noticed that a theme started emerging which I then developed in my “regular” art work. However, I still kept this sketchbook of therapy art work separate from my “regular” art work. At the time I was working with a great therapist who was not an art therapist but who enjoyed free associating with me about the drawings that I would bring in. Many of them I did on the subway on the way to therapy. A while ago with a different therapist I decided to try the same thing, with scribble drawings and bringing them in to therapy. However, this time what happened was quite interesting for me in terms of the complete blurring of the boundaries between these two types of art works that we art therapists tend to make. The sketchbook was started with making traditional scribble drawings, some of which I have exhibited in this blog. I would make a scribble with whatever I had on hand, pencil, pen, sharpie, etc. and then try to find people, heads, animals, fish, or something “representational” inside the scribble. Then I jumped to continuing that process and adding collage from magazines. My first scribble drawing with collage was a kind of bridge between the traditional form of scribble drawing and something new that began to emerge. I think the photos I’ve posted here show some of this transformation process.

Then something new happened. I continued to add collage from magazines, but I started going over the initial scribbles and making them darker and filling them in next to the collages. I think of these as a kind of “meta” scribble drawing, as suddenly the marks of the initial scribble, instead of being deemphasized in service of creating some kind of image with some of the lines, became emphasized on their own as ovals and curved lines which I then began to fill with collage elements. It progressed further to the point where I began seeking two kinds of images in random magazines. The first was patterns that resembled scribbles or marks or other kinds of black and white dotted circular patterned collage pieces that went with the repetitive drawing and filling of the scribble lines with tiny circles. This is what I see as the “abstract” “meta scribble” portion of these new works on paper. The other kinds of images started to develop repetitions, and I noticed I was looking for specific images of actual things, to be very specific: arms and hands disembodied, other body parts, animals, especially elephants, owls and birds, fish, peacock patterns, and also such things as light bulbs, dolls, strangely drawn faces, and I’m not sure what else will join this list. I also brought back a drawing of a face that was used in work I made a few years ago, so that some of these scribble collage works had drawings of this “face” that is probably thought of as a kind of self-portrait. Often I also find figures of females that are put in with everything else and often they seem to be watching the entire image or dreaming it. Words cut out from magazines have also emerged in some of these works.

It is beyond the scope of this post to discuss the ideas of Outsider Art versus Fine Art and other such topics, but I think these works represent the closest I have ever come to merging my “therapy” drawings with drawings I put up in my studio as part of a series of works I am engaged in. In fact earlier today, for the first time, I took a bunch of these Scribble Collages and put them up on my studio wall. In taking them out of the sketchbook and putting them on the wall, I make the leap from the personal to the Personal Art I Want The World To See… The other sign of this transformation was that I went from the small sketchbook to a larger one and challenged myself to do these pieces on much larger paper. This happened in the same time frame that I began to actually work on these drawings in my therapy sessions on the suggestion of my therapist even though my personal therapist is not an art therapist. So this is uncharted territory for me… To be continued…

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Art Therapy as Food

The holiday season is here and that means trouble for people with any kind of eating or food issues. Holiday dinners and tons of holiday parties which seems so cheerful and fun for some, for others can be big triggers. If you’re in some recovery process of relearning healthy eating and trying to follow a good schedule of meal times and eat nutritionally well, this is a time of many challenges. It’s a good idea to try to be flexible with yourself and allow yourself to eat more and eat things you don’t normally consider healthy rather than fall into the trap of self-punishment or get caught up in obsessing about food and body. It’s also a great time to focus on the non-eating activities of the holidays. Make your own wrapping paper or make your own cards. Make a holiday card to send out to family and friends. Make a fun photo or art calendar for 2012. If you like singing focus on the songs and sing a longs at the parties you go to. Enjoy dressing up if you like doing that…If you go to O.A. meetings talk about this season and your struggles with it tripping you up and any worries you have about getting into old bad habits/and/or destructive behaviors… Just a few suggestions for this time of year that itself is a big trigger for many.

I mentioned some art activities in the above paragraph but this post is meant to try to focus on art therapy and the question, Why is art therapy so effective at helping people with eating disorders as well as body image issues, food and exercise addictions, obsessive thinking about food, weight, body, etc.? Unlike other types of “obsessions” and “addictions”, such as alcoholism and drug addiction, when a person has issues around food and eating, s/he cannot simply avoid food, grocery stores and restaurants for obvious reasons. Triggers are everywhere and food and meal planning are necessities for becoming healthy. One has to change one’s relationship to food altogether and then rigorously watch out for and identify triggers and then have a plan for how to deal with them. For re-learning how to eat, how much to eat, what it feels like to be full, etc., cognitive behavioral therapy techniques can work very effectively to help a person manage their day to day life and find the difficult balance between being observant and watchful of one’s behaviors and familiar feelings or lack of feelings that trigger self-destructive behaviors around food and exercise. Just being able to call your therapist or some other helpful person when you feel challenged and scared you’re going to “relapse” is of course very useful. I have had many patients who reported that calling me when something difficult came up was very helpful or even knowing that s/he could call was also helpful. Speaking up when you’re feeling vulnerable is always helpful and can really get you through some bad moments if you know whom to talk to and can get in touch with him/her.

So where does art therapy fit in? To battle an eating disorder like bulimia or binge eating or anorexia and other related issues, one needs to learn more than ways to avoid unhealthy behavior. Besides becoming armed with ways to identify triggers for unhealthy behaviors and learning to identify one’s feelings rather than using food to literally stuff one’s feelings or cut off from them, you have to learn ways to notice when you feel a self-destructive impulse coming in, what was going on in you and what can you substitute the unhealthy behavior with, ie. learning about self-soothing. Any disorder or issue involving dissociating, getting out of one’s body, etc. can be very much helped by activities that bring you back into your body. A major part of the art therapy process in working with trauma of any kind involves using art making to learn or relearn self soothing.

Art making in the presence of a therapist or in a group with an art therapist can be healing in many different ways. There are many different forms of art making that are soothing to most people. Being given a blank piece of paper or a canvas has been shown to actually increase anxiety and trigger self-criticism in many people. So one must pick particular art making activities that are able to decrease anxiety levels and can even help a person get back in his/her body. Making a mandala with oil pastels or watercolors, which involves tracing a circle or filling in a circle that the therapist has already pre-made for the session is a very popular and tremendously healing activity. Not only are mandalas soothing, as a symbol for the self, the mandala can give one information about one’s feelings about oneself. How you treat the boundary of the circle is of course important. I have found that having people do the mandala with their non-dominant hand can release a lot of worry about how it will look and decrease perfectionistic tendencies. For some, the lack of control of the non-dominant hand becomes too frustrating to be therapeutic, but this seems to be in a minority of cases. Making the mandala on black or colored paper is also a useful way to reduce anxiety and increase excitement about the task, just by being stimulated by the color of the paper or soothed by its darkness. Mandalas are very useful for identifying one’s body energy in the here and now. For example, I have done workshops involving doing a quick mandala at the beginning of the session, followed by some form of meditation exercise, and then a much longer time to make and complete a second mandala. People are always pleasantly surprised to see that their energy at the beginning (often more chaotic or too controlled or else a minimal effort to complete the picture without much satisfaction), has completely changed from the meditation and the art making at the end of the session. The two mandalas can be compared and give a person an actual blueprint or “emotional x ray” of what was going on in their bodies at the beginning of the session, and how changed their energy feels by the end of the session, usually descriptions include “more grounded”, or that the picture feels “more whole”. At some points in treatment or recovery or self-care, it can be useful to do daily or weekly mandalas and then write a few words about one’s feelings and thoughts. put it away and look at your mandalas later as a group to see what changes may have occurred.

Other soothing art making activities involve collage, beading, and decorating boxes as well as making dolls or decorating and covering/painting pre-made dolls. For some people painting is incredibly soothing. The metaphors of art therapy in direct relationship to food are interesting in themselves. The materials and the media are a different form of food which can literally be used for symbolic filling up. If the art therapy session is highly structured with some form of directive and structured around time to make art and time to process, this structure can help a person feel more regulated and grounded. Most impulsive unhealthy behaviors are performed when one is not grounded in one’s body and in some kind of anxious or compulsive state or fughe state. Meals in themselves are what structures the day for many people, and when there is no structure to when one eats, one can get easily caught up in feeling out of control. There are many art directives that are helpful for all sorts of aspects of recovery and regaining a healthy lifestyle as well as a healthy relationship with one’s body. Identifying and making pictures of different forms of hunger: emotional hunger, mental hunger, physical hunger and even spiritual hunger. Just describing and identifying these states is helpful. However as in most cases with art therapy, having an image to play with, observe and help organize oneself is highly useful. It is a great tool for measuring progress in therapy; to have something tangible like a body of work over time — what better way to actually see self transformation/

Of course there are all kinds of directives and activities (the art therapy “menu”) specifically geared around confronting and dealing with eating issues. I have named only a few above. Positive self image collages are another great art activity that is fun, non-threatening and promotes thinking good thoughts about oneself. Making affirmation boxes, a great transitional object for you to bring home and add to on your own. For some people that I have worked with, doing a body tracing by lying on the paper and having the therapist trace around your body and then filling it in in any way with whatever materials there are at hand is very useful in working on these difficult body image issues. Again, this is even better if you are in long term therapy and do one every couple of months or so to be able to compare the different images and notice what has changed for you. This is one of those activities that is best done when you have come to trust your art therapist and are ready to grapple with difficult feelings, even trauma memories, that can surface while filling in the body tracing. This is a prime example of why our training in working with trauma is so important. It is also a great activity to do with pregnant women in a group or individual session.

Besides the structure and the helpfulness of particular directives, non-directive forms of art therapy also work well. I have had patients with eating disorders who enjoyed having choices of what to do and figuring out on their own what they liked, being able to explore my art studio and feed themselves. What can replace walking into a deli or grocery store hell bent on buying certain foods to fill an empty hole inside that one is barely aware of?  Walking into the art studio/office and taking in the visual stimulation. The atmosphere may be overwhelming at first, but the excitement of just picking out a material and playing with it is hard to describe in words and hard to pinpoint in terms of feelings. I get the same feeling in art supply stores, but there is a big difference between an art supply store and an inviting healing creative space. (I knew I was on the right track with my studio when  a father who had no interest in art making suddenly picked up a piece of cardboard and started painting! freely with all sorts of colors; his kids who had been focused on their own projects of course rushed over and asked for cardboard so they could imitate him!) As an art therapist, I can say that there is nothing like the satisfaction of having a patient who has been talking to you for months suddenly out of the blue pick out some art materials with no encouragement, suggestions, or pushing from me. It is delightful to witness!

Certainly the art materials and art making can just function as a good distraction from obsessive thinking about food and body. Havi ng an hour of respite from one’s own intrusive thinking is not only worth while but provides hope that this experience can be repeated, both in the studio and at home. So there is a lot to be said for allowing for discovery and choice of media, especially with people who are very aware of how “in control” they feel from moment to moment. In some cases, consuming the therapist’s materials can replace bingeing. There is a delicate balance between feeding oneself emotionally and spiritually in a session and working on mindfulness, versus mindless consuming and using of art materials that can be perseverative and imitate unhealthy behaviors outside of the studio. I try to stay mindful that any substance or activity has healing properties when used in a mindful prescribed manner versus when the material, activity or person is abused or addictively consumed to fill an empty hole. As therapists, we can sense sometimes during, sometimes after a session, whether the session has been a healing one or a “filler”; it is not so bad to have some sessions be fillers once in a while anyway.

This is only a mere blog post, not meant to be an exhaustive discussion of the merits of art therapy for  people with eating disorders and related challenges. Please feel free to share your experiences as a therapist or patient…

As a side comment, I was thinking tonight about the challenges of being a therapist and eating healthy meals. A lot of us work through the dinner hour and come home exhausted and starved with no energy to cook a proper meal. It can become a major family issue; how to have meals with partner and/or child/children all together and at regular meal times. I try to have extremely moderate goals, such as, let’s try to have a family meal at least once a week, not too great I admit, but I get home late several evenings a week and then there are other schedules besides my own to accommodate. This is going into a new related topic, probably good for next week’s post…