The Art (Therapy) of Collage

The creation of an art collage from the soul is an inner journey that allows your soul to speak to you. Your soul’s voice can be heard through the images, feelings and insights that surface…

                 ~ Kathleen Carrillo

Collage as an art therapy technique is a versatile, engaging, and evocative (yet often playful) approach to working with clients. I have used collage with children and adults from all different backgrounds. It can be appealing to individuals with or without any prior art experience. When working with a group of more resistant clients or any group that is hesitant to start making art, collage is often a non-intimidating introduction to art therapy and creative expression.

I believe that part of what makes collage an effective medium is that it utilizes aspects of free-association and play. Each person selects images based on what they are drawn to, even without a conscious understanding of why they select a certain image. I encourage my clients to use images that ‘jump’ out to them from the pile, rather than trying to select photos that fall under a certain category. In many ways, this type of collage-work has parallels to exercises such as free-association writing, where the person just writes without editing their thoughts.

In the past I would bring in piles of magazines and lay them out on the table, so that my group members could flip through them and cut or tear out the images that appealed to them. Over the years I have found that this approach often results in my group members spending more time reading the magazines and getting distracted by waiting for a magazine until someone else has put it down. My observation was that this held up the creative process and broke up that feeling of ‘flow.’ Now I have an ever-growing collection of images that I have pre-cut or torn out of magazines. 
(Hint: Ever feel non-productive while watching your favorite TV show? Just grab a pile of old magazines and start cutting out pictures while you watch :-).

My clients have commented that they prefer this approach because they enjoy exploring the piles of torn out images just as much as flipping through the magazine and they still decide which images to select and how to cut them up (I encourage them to cut them or tear any way they choose). I’ve observed that their choices seem to be more spontaneous with this method and they approach the image treasure hunt in a playful and engaged way. 

Ideas

  • I have found that photography magazines are an amazing source for powerful and diverse images. (Good thing I’m married to a photographer who lets me cut up his old magazine issues!) I also use my old art magazines because they are full of inspiring images and clients also enjoy exploring the work of other artists. Magazines such as National Geographic and Time work well too.
  • Be culturally sensitive- try to provide a diverse array of images, especially when including photographs of people. (Another great reason to use photography magazines, as many of the photos will be from all over the world).
  • Don’t shy away from intense images. I don’t include any images that might be insulting or overly provocative, but it’s important to include imagery that can represent the entire range of human emotions and experiences. As you can see from some of my client’s collages on this page, many of them gravitated towards ‘charged’ imagery, but it was exactly the collage they needed to create that day.
  • The images can speak for themselves, however some individuals find it helpful to add a word, phrase, song lyrics, or poetry to the piece (see the orange collage above). I’ll often ask my group members what they would title the finished collage, and if they come up with a title I ask them to write it on the back of the piece. This helps to frame the experience and is a good way to wrap up the group.
  • I encourage clients that are comfortable to share their collage with the group during our processing time. My general guideline is to ask other group members to absorb the person’s collage first, before sharing any feedback. Then instead of giving an opinion on the piece, I ask group members to speak about the collage as if it was their own – focusing on what the imagery would mean to them if they had made it. This opens up dialogue and also models a way of communicating that connects rather than divides.
  • My overall approach is to be non-directive with collage work. I have found that the theme usually creates itself as the group progresses. However, if I sense a higher level of anxiety or if the energy of the group feels more splintered I will sometimes provide a more concrete directive such as ‘create a collage that shows us how you are feeling today’ or ‘create a collage that represents your future goals.’ Sometimes concrete directives are very useful in terms of problem-solving techniques. For example, since I work with clients that are actively using drugs and alcohol, I’ve had them create two collages – one that illustrates the ‘pros’ (payoffs) of continuing to use drugs, and a second collage that illustrates the ‘cons’ of continued drug use. Clients are often surprised to see the finished pieces, and the collage can then serve as a visual reminder each day that helps to frame their goals and choices.
There are countless variations on collage – including collage combined with painting, collaging onto 3-D surfaces such as masks, and creating large group collage pieces. Experiment and enjoy!

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