Relational Aspect of Art

By Kasey Connors

In my previous blog about art therapy, I shared how art in and of itself can be therapeutic but that it takes a person who has been trained in psychotherapy and the nuances of how art can be used effectively, to help someone open up and share their internal/external world. Doing arts and crafts can be therapeutic due to having a finished product which can encourage feelings of accomplishment and having an image to hang and share. The other aspect of art therapy is providing a space and the materials for the client to choose what to do with the art materials and have a sense of self through the process of making art.

Over the last year of working with Family Guidance and Therapy Centers of Southern California, I have struggled in promoting therapeutic art within my sessions. I think a big portion of that struggle has been my limited experience of art expression and autism. My experience in doing art therapy has been with neurotypical middle schoolers and my own personal use of art as a therapeutic tool. At the middle school, I did have one group of girls on the spectrum where the focus was socialization. I had very limited knowledge of autism and took on co-leading the group strictly in the aspect of providing a safe environment for these girls to share and for me to have more of an understanding of autism.

Looking back, I find that the socialization was promoted through art making, and the relational aspect it provided – not only relationally between people, but between the art and its creator. Conversation focused around our choices of colors to use, interacting with one another to pass a paint color, brush or water and cleaning up. We discussed the hope of what it would look like at the end and the possible outcome of it not looking how we wanted and if that was “okay.” Having these benign and surface type conversations opened up the door for other topics (granted the girls were occasionally put on the spot to come up with an overall discussion topic) allowing for a connection between the girls and creating a place where they could open up and feel validated of their feelings, hopes and dreams.

Two of the biggest differences between my work in that middle school group and the clients I work with now are: age and verbal communication. Currently, the majority of my clients now land in the ‘under 11’ category, many of them non/pre-verbal or working on verbal expression. I find myself needing to rely more on being in tune with body language, subtle shifts in facial expression, and varying vocalizations. It is safe to say that my schooling did not prepare me to create, witness and process art with someone who may not have the verbal ability to do so. Surprising, as creating art is very much non-verbal but processing the art has been (in my experience), very verbal. So, I find myself in a place of presumption.

Art provides a space for collaboration, joint attention, creativity, imagination, self-expression, and confidence. But in my limited experience of doing art with children on the spectrum, I overlooked the need to be more assistive in helping the child discover their creative potential through teaching them by providing a more structured framework.

The main focus I took away from both my undergraduate and graduate work in art therapy is to not presume what the image is, how the person feels about the image or what the use of colors represent for that client. I currently find myself in a dilemma when making observational statements when creating art with a client and being overly conscious of how and what I am saying, for fear of getting it wrong. Therefore, as a therapist, how can I provide my clients with meaningful experiences using art therapeutically and how can the art process be broken down to fit into tiny little data boxes?

My thoughts about the creative process has been being able to express externally, how you feel internally. As a therapist using art – and as an artist myself, that has been my understanding of art therapy, and I am shamed to say that I lost track of the process of getting there. It is a process in itself to manipulate the materials and look at the marks on the page as more than just marks. Just by providing/collaborating a name for a mark can help a child recognize that they are in control of making different marks. Having language to describe a mark can help increase motivation to continue exploring, connecting marks and having a connected experience with someone else. Furthermore, I lost track of the process each of my clients may need to take to reach a point of doing art for the enjoyment of creating.

In my previous blog, my main focus was that just in creating something is therapeutic. But what happens when creating causes anxiety, frustration, uncertainty? Many of these hurdles are aspects that my clients are dealing with. They are also hurdles that someone who is neurotypical deals with when creating art, so in that light I find myself thinking of experimentation and teaching. I have become focused on there being a product for my clients to have/share, that I have forgotten the importance of experimenting and becoming comfortable with the materials and the marks one makes using those materials. Now, to help my clients find more enjoyment in creating, I keep these ideas in my forethought:

  • Showing my clients how to use each item
  • Sharing in their possible curiosities
  • Providing opportunities to use the item in a different way
  • Expanding upon trying something new
  • Creating an environment for inquisitiveness
  • Relating
  • Being silly!

Art provides a space for collaboration, joint attention, creativity, imagination, self-expression, and confidence. But in my limited experience of doing art with children on the spectrum, I overlooked the need to be more assistive in helping the child discover their creative potential through teaching them by providing a more structured framework.

I want to focus more on guiding my clients to overcome hurdles (anxiety, uncertainty), using art and teaching them about their own creative process (ie. helping them organize and name their scribbles/marks, guide them by creating a mark such as a ground line or other mark to help them organize). My hope for my clients is to work through the uncertainty and anxiety of creating art and guide them to the cathartic qualities it provides, enabling them to find new ways of expressing and understanding themselves and the world – ultimately feeling the relational aspects art creates. By being witness to their process and creativity I can be a source of security, providing interpersonal repair and help develop a sense of confidence.

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