“Creativity is contagious.
Pass it on.”
– Albert Einstein
I believe that any form of art making in a group is a collaborative experience. Even if each group member works on an individual piece, the shared group energy is contagious in a way that often brings about growth, new ideas, and shared experiences.
With that in mind, it is often exciting to encourage my art therapy group members to work directly with one another at times. I have used collaborative art making in many work settings – in shelters, day treatment programs, with Palestinian and Israeli teens, in adult creativity development workshops, and currently with my clients in a psychiatric hospital.
On one unit in the hospital I work with adults with chronic and persistent mental illness. Many of these individuals have schizophrenia and severe bipolar disorder. When the illness is at its most extreme, it can make it incredibly hard for these clients to connect with others in a meaningful way, if at all. One of my primary goals in art therapy groups on this unit is to help people connect socially and emotionally with peers and staff. Art therapy has proven to be an accessible yet powerful way to build bridges for communication.
Round-robin art is a method where each person starts with a piece of paper and draws or paints on it for a minute or two, before passing it to the person seated next to them. Each piece is added to and then passed on again. Depending on the number of participants, the drawings or paintings can go around several times, or just once until the original piece is back to each person. (It’s helpful to have everyone initial the back of the starting piece to keep track).
Last week I wanted to try a round-robin art therapy group with my clients in the psychiatric hospital. I had assessed the atmosphere on the unit and milieu, and felt that although people were experiencing a range of symptoms that day, it might be a safe and nourishing time to attempt my round-robin idea during group.
As my clients filtered into the room and took seats around the table I wondered if my idea was a good one. Some people were staring vacantly into space, and others looked at me with somewhat guarded expressions. One individual was self-dialoguing softly at the end of the table without making any eye contact. The fact that everyone seemed to be in such different mental and emotional spaces actually helped solidify my desire to try the collaborative art making. I was curious to see if it would gradually help connect the group members in some way.
I gave each person a piece of paper and reminded them to write their name on the back. I placed an array of drawing materials in the center of the table – mainly colored pencils, gel pens, and markers. Then I told everyone to begin drawing on their paper. After about 2 minutes I told them to pass the drawing to the person next to them. I let them vote on which direction they would pass to, and they chose left. I said that if anyone felt uncomfortable participating, they could sit with us and draw but not take part in the shared drawing experiment. One man decided to work on his own piece instead, but his presence was a strong part of the group and he seemed to enjoy observing the round-robin as he drew an individual piece. The room was incredibly quiet as the round robin art commenced. After a few passes to the left, people slowly began to talk and comment on the evolution of each page. Many were pleasantly surprised to see what was unfolding in their original piece and delighted to see drawing elements that they would not have thought of. The mood lightened as people laughed and complimented one another on the continuing process.
We did this for about half an hour, and once everyone had their original piece back I asked the group to put down the drawing supplies and take a look at how far their piece had come. I also asked everyone to title their piece, if anything came to mind. An interesting conversation unfolded about the differences in the pieces. Some drawings very open in space and feeling, while others were crammed with imagery. A few pieces looked like only one artist had worked on them, while others clearly had the unique marks from several artists. Some of the mark making and symbols had been repeated by others, while others had taken off in completely different directions. Each piece was full of energy and fascinating intersections between artists.
This was not an art therapy group where people processed on a deep level and opened up about their past. But that wasn’t the goal this time. This was a group that helped bring disconnected individuals together, in the creation of a shared experience through shared art making. The little things that shifted, such as increased eye contact and some light conversation were clear signs to me that the art had (once again) worked its magic.
I found that over the remainder of the week, the clients that had participated in this group seemed more comfortable opening up during subsequent art therapy groups. They had established a new baseline for communication and had gained a certain amount of trust in the group process.
I would love to hear some feedback from you now! Have you tried collaborative creating in your groups? What types of collaborations? Murals, round robin art, chain poems, dyad drawings? What has worked and what has been a struggle?