Inspiration vs. Stagnation

photo: Sara Roizen

“If I stay long enough in the studio, just stay with the work even if it doesn’t feel great or seem satisfying or directional or conclusive, if I just stay to tend and garden, then my mind gradually yields control to the more automatic labor of painting, and with that comes a sweet spot in the process further down, a worn groove, a sense of ease.”

– Anna Schuleit

Let me paint a picture for you. (And stop me if it sounds familiar):

You’ve been meaning to get back to your creative project. Perhaps it’s a painting you started months ago that is staring at you from across the room. A recipe you’ve been meaning to try but are a little intimidated by. Making a handmade thank you card for your great aunt. Planting some new flowers in your garden. Dusting off your vinyl collection and actually sitting down to listen to an entire album uninterrupted. Writing a blog post. (Is it obvious that I’m also writing about myself here?) 

Here are a few things that might happen instead of jumping right into that creative project:

– You hop on to Pinterest just to grab a little inspiration and 2 hours later realize you’re still following link after link and looking at other people’s amazing projects. Oh, and your toddler just woke up from a nap so no time today for art!

– You decide that the pile of dishes or the toys on the floor are the top priority in the next hour.

– You have a ‘to do’ list, but the thing you are most passionate about doing today somehow ended up at the bottom of the list.

– It seems like too much fuss to gather your art supplies (substitute writing supplies, gardening, cooking, or any other word) and so you switch on the TV to gather a half hour of mindless but (you suppose) relaxation.

I’m just describing a pattern that I often find myself in. And to be clear, none of the above behaviors are bad. For me, it’s more about balance and if I’m honest with myself I can tell when I’m in a period of stagnation brought about by procrastination. There is something to be said for slowing down and doing less. This happens with the seasons, especially here in the Northeast. Nature slows down right about now and with less daylight hours most of us go into mini-hibernations of our own. 

Of course there are cycles of intense creativity and productivity to balance these times of stagnation. However, it seems almost too easy to fall into a habit of not creating. Creating can be anything at all and I don’t place a time value on it. Sometimes it’s ten minutes of doodling or even creating a rock sculpture in the backyard with my son. Or it could be marching up to my studio, cracking open my paints, and facing that gigantic blank canvas in the corner. 

Paint galore…

The inner therapist in me is getting curious and wondering about my resistance to creating. It’s certainly a theme that I continually explore with my art therapy clients. I think there are different reasons that pop up depending on the situation. Some of my themes are: not feeling worthy of making the time and space to create, being intimidated by the process, and placing a higher value on getting other things (like chores) done. Creating can feel like a luxury rather than a necessity. Sometimes I can almost delude myself into thinking that is true. But it’s not. I know this because if I am not making art or being creative in some way, my emotional and even physical self suffers. It doesn’t happen all at once, but I will gradually start to notice that something is ‘off.’ In my mind, it’s like taking a daily vitamin. You don’t realize how much it helps and also enhances your life until you stop taking it for a while. 

Getting back to my Pinterest example…
We all benefit from absorbing inspiration, whether it’s perusing Pinterest, taking a long walk, flipping through magazines, or strolling through a museum. The question is are we spending every second on gathering inspiration but avoiding getting down to our own creations? At this time in history we are surrounded by (and often bombarded) by a constant stream of images, opinions, and advertising. It seems to be increasingly difficult to unplug and go within. I will admit that when I’m in my studio I often feel an urge to hop into my iPhone and pull up a few more images for inspiration rather than sitting with myself in the uncertainty of creation. However, when I can sit in that uncomfortable place for a little while the anxiety is almost always replaced with excitement. It’s interesting how closely related anxiety and excitement can be isn’t it? The amount of energy that I am able to nurture and release when I make art is profound and deeply healing. All it takes is pushing past the stagnation. Doing that is simple, but not always easy. 

There is a humorous quote that many of us can probably relate to from Gene Fowler. He said about his creative process: “Writing is easy: all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead.” 

So while we’re on the subject of writing, here are four of my favorite books on nurturing and making space for our creative pursuits. Each book also addresses the obstacles to creating from a personal perspective. I hope that you check one or all of them out and let me know if they help spark your own creative process. Just remember – read a chapter at a time but create in between! ūüôā

Trust the Process: An Artist’s Guide to Letting Go, Shaun McNiff
Art is a Way of Knowing, Pat B. Allen
Studio Art Therapy, Catherine Hyland Moon
Art & Fear, David Bayles & Ted Orland

Books to inspire your creative process

The Body in Art

Body silhouette example ~ Sara Roizen

‘Each body has it’s art…’
~ Gwendolyn Brooks

A few months ago during our Happiness Art Therapy Group with veterans we used a session to explore mind/body connection. I believe that art therapy automatically lends itself to the physical and bodily realm; the tactile exploration of art materials and the way our hands, arms, and posture all inform the creative process.

A reoccurring theme for many of the veterans I have worked with is a sense of loss in the physical realm. Most of these men and women were at the peak of their health during active service between training, drills, and everyday duties. This was required of them and many of my group members shared great pride in what they were able to accomplish during service. They often reminisced about surviving boot camp and being surprised by how hard they were able to push themselves and their bodies when necessary.

We began this particular art therapy group by exploring how the group members currently felt about their bodies. Were they at odds with their bodies or at peace with them? Which parts continued to serve them well and were there any parts that seemed to be failing them? Many of the members were currently dealing with chronic health issues, recovering from surgeries, and being treated for substance abuse or in recovery.

As we continued to talk about our bodies I handed each veteran a piece of paper with a pre-drawn body silhouette on it. I asked them to imagine that their body had a voice and was speaking to them right now. We then used drawing materials to fill in the silhouette with colors, shapes, and forms that symbolized how the body felt at this moment. I encouraged them to add words to represent the voice of the body. What advice did the body have? Which parts spoke up the most?

‘A-Part’ mixed media ~ Sara Roizen

I decided to create my own body silhouette (top image). Some of my body’s messages included ‘remember to keep my heart open,’ ‘remember to breathe,’ and ‘stretch.’ I also included ‘make more art’ because my body and mind feel it when I have not been creating for a while. Creating art both relaxes and rejuvenates my body and mind.

We finished the group by sharing each finished body silhouette. The veterans expressed surprise by some of the body parts that had ‘spoken up.’ I asked if they sensed any shift in body awareness or attitudes toward their bodies. Several group members said that they were realizing how often they were ‘at war’ with their own bodies instead of being kind to themselves. Some body parts and feelings just needed gentle attention and patience instead of being ignored or punished. Each member took the finished piece with them, to serve as a reminder for tuning into their bodies at least once a day.

A few years ago I led an art therapy group called Body Positive with HIV positive men. We traced each person’s body onto large paper and then they explored the physical and emotional sides of living with HIV through filling in the silhouettes. You can read about that group here:¬†Art Therapy & Body Image

Mandala Journal Evolution

1/29/14 mandala pages ~ Sara Roizen
6/7/14 mandala page ~ Sara Roizen

 

‚ÄúMy mandalas were cryptograms concerning the state of the self which was presented to me anew each day‚ĶI guarded them like precious pearls‚Ķ.It became increasingly plain to me that the mandala is the center. It is the exponent of all paths. It is the path to the center, to individuation.‚ÄĚ

~ Carl Jung

My 16 month old son is sleeping in the next room as I create this new blog post about my continued mandala journal. While re-reading my last blog post I realized that he was only six months old at that time of writing. Ten months later and this current mandala journal keeps growing, but it is almost at the end of the available pages. Time to get a new little art journal, yet I feel incredibly attached to this one. How apt, is it not? As my son grows I reminisce longingly when I see photographs or think about the first few months of his life and my life as a new mother. Yet I am enthralled with his current state of being as well as mine. This is the dialectic of creation as well as parenthood I suppose – looking back with an aching heart, soaking up the present moment, and being curious about the next phase all at once.

1/28/14 mandala page ~ Sara Roizen

My old studio space in our two bedroom apartment is now our toddler’s room. I create at our kitchen table, on the couch, or on the train ride to work. For now I create in little snippets such as my mandala journal, rather than in series of paintings on canvas. Returning to painting on a larger scale is in my near future, but for now I am reminded of how important it is to carve out these small pieces of time and space. I am reminded to ‘practice what I preach’ when I tell my art therapy clients that all it takes is a quick doodle here or there or even stopping on a familiar walk to snap a picture of a previously overlooked scene or object.
It is all of the little moments stitched together that create texture and depth in our lives. So I keep opening up to my process, one circle at a time.

5/28/14 mandala page ~ Sara Roizen
5/25/14 mandala page ~ Sara Roizen
5/7/14 mandala page ~ Sara Roizen
7/9/14 mandala page ~ Sara Roizen

Life Without an Eraser, (or Why I Love Woodburning)

 

Sara Roizen ~ ‘The Family” ~ Woodburning

 

“Life is the art of drawing without an eraser.” ¬† ¬† ¬†¬†–¬†John Gardner

I don’t remember when I first picked up a woodburning tool. It was probably between high school and college. Perhaps I was strolling through an art store and stumbled across the pyrography section and thought ‘hmmmm I wonder what I could do with these tools?”

I do remember stocking up on wooden boxes and spending hours in my room with the incense burning, angst-ridden music playing, and my woodburning pen as I immersed myself in the rhythmic process of burning line after line into the wood boxes. During college I used my woodburning practice as a reprieve from art history exam studying, my slightly verbally abusive freshman year 3-D teacher, and as a way to ground myself when feeling overwhelmed.

I adore the sweet woodsy smell that the burning creates and the way my hands have learned just how much pressure is needed to create a line without overdoing it. I hardly ever sketch a design out beforehand. My usual style is to let each mark inform and create the next line. I never know what is going to emerge. It’s impossible to erase a woodburned line (well, I suppose sanding it down for a long time could eventually) but overall, the lines are permanent. It’s a visceral process and it requires a certain amount of presence and focus – especially in order to avoid burning yourself!

Art Therapy Work
I have not utilized woodburning within my art therapy group practice yet. The need for multiple electrical outlets for the woodburning tools as well as some safety concerns are all part of the equation. However I think that woodburning could be an interesting exploration within individual art therapy work. There is an engaging paradox with these materials and this process. It is both aggressive (burning) and also meditative (intense focus).

 

Sara Roizen ~ Woodburning

In many ways it is a study in dialectics Рthe aggressive energy paired with the need to lean back into the moment. Rushing ahead with these materials will guarantee a burn-hole or contrastingly, a scarcely visible line. Leaning into the line-work with the perfect amount of energy and withholding will create clean and vibrant lines.

Perhaps this process will help our clients to explore the ‘push and pull’ in our daily lives, selves, and¬†relationships.

Tips:
Softer woods such as pine and balsa wood work best for woodburning. The feel you are looking for while woodburning is reminiscent of a hot knife through butter.

Focus on your in and out breath while woodburning. How does the wood smell and how do your hands experience the heat as you create each mark on the wood?

There are many different woodburning pen tips that you can buy. I tend to use the most basic, although you can get decorative tips (that create more of a branding mark).

 

Example of woodburning tools
Sara Roizen ~ Flock of woodburned birds!

Remember how hot the pen can be, and it remains hot for a while after it is unplugged. Do not leave it near any flammable surfaces.

Most importantly, be mindful of the client that you are working with. This is not a process that I would personally use with a new client, a client that is currently self-harming, or someone that is struggling to control more straightforward drawing materials for example. Becoming familiar with the process yourself is also a good idea so that you are comfortable with the feel of the materials and any problems that could arise.

Have you used woodburning in your personal work or within your art therapy work? Interested in trying? Feel free to share your thoughts here.

 

Sara Roizen ~ Mandala woodburning ~ The Tribe

 

Leaves On A Stream

“Japanese Garden” ~ acrylic on wood ~ 36″ x 65″ ~ Sara Roizen

I have often found it useful to offer a short guided visualization or breathing practice before my art therapy groups. In the beginning I offered these exercises a bit timidly, wondering how my clients would react to engaging in some quiet time. Although each person is different, I am finding that for the most part these small carved out practices are embraced.

Most of the places where I work are fairly chaotic at times. The buildings themselves are in challenging neighborhoods and the residents that come to my groups are usually trying to find a balance between engaging in the outside world but also protecting their inner needs and space.

There are not always private and quiet spaces to conduct my groups in and so we work with what we have. We enfold the sounds of people shuffling in and out, the occasional arguments outside, and other everyday interruptions into our work together.

Let Go…
One of the visualizations that I sometimes guide my art therapy clients in:

Imagine you are sitting quietly by the side of a stream. It’s Fall and there are beautiful bright leaves in reds, oranges, yellows, and golds floating downstream. As you become aware of your thoughts, try placing each thought on a leaf and watch as it floats away from you down the stream. There is no need to chase the leaf as it floats further away. Simply breathe in out and place another thought on the next leaf. Observe that there is no shortage of thoughts, for that is what the mind does – it creates thoughts. Thoughts are not a problem. See that the water is always moving and flowing, just as your thoughts and feelings are never still. Relax into the process of letting each thought arise and then let it go.

ink & watercolor on rice paper ~ Sara Roizen

This visualization can be expanded upon utilizing art. You can use real leaves and have the clients write a thought or feeling that they are trying to release on the leaf. Metallic and black sharpies work nicely as would paint or even oil pastel. If there is a moving body of water nearby then group members could actually release the leaves and watch them float away. An alternative is to cut-out leaves on watercolor paper and have everyone write their thoughts on the leaves in washable marker or paint words on with watercolor. After the leaves are completed, submerge the cut-out leaves in a pan or bowl of water and watch as the words slowly dissolve and wash away…

For those of you who incorporate guided mindful practices into your work, do you have any favorites? How might they translate into the art process?

Resist(ance) & Watercolor

oil pastel & watercolor ~ Sara Roizen
¬†“It’s easier to resist at the beginning than at the end.”
~ Leonardo Da Vinci
It was pouring rain as I headed deep into Brooklyn to lead one of my art therapy groups at a residential building for adults living with chronic mental illness. It seemed fitting that I had packed watercolor for the group that day, as well as oil pastels. My thinking was that instead of fighting the rainy day, perhaps we could glean some inspiration from the puddles, soaked clothing, and failed attempts to stay dry.
As I walked to the building, there was a little doubting voice in my head that wondered whether or not the simple watercolor and oil pastel materials would be enough to entice the residents during group. As an art therapist I often find myself wondering if my ‘buffet’ of art materials will feed a hungry group or if they will find my offerings lacking. Each group is completely different and I always remind myself to do the same thing that I encourage my clients to do…trust the process.
As it turned out, this particular group ended up being one of the most attended and lively art therapy groups I had led in a while. My enthusiasm for the process quickly spread throughout the entire group. I did a quick demonstration by showing the clients how to create doodles with the white crayon on the white paper. Once the drawing was done, I showed how layers of watercolor could be added to reveal the white crayon lines underneath. This technique works because oil and water don’t mix – hence the beautiful resist paintings that emerge.
oil pastel & watercolor ~ Sara Roizen
One of the new group members began hesitantly and at first expressed frustration that the art was not matching the vision in his mind. A few of my more seasoned group members gently encouraged him to keep going and not worry so much about the finished product. (Always amazing when a group is in the flow and seems to run itself!) As he started a second resist painting he mentioned that he hadn’t picked up an art material in years. I asked him if he remembered the last time and¬†he said, “when I joined the army I traded my drawing pencil for a rifle.” There was a collective silence and a few head nods from other group members that were veterans.

As this client continued to create, we all noticed that his pieces were becoming less self-conscious and much more fluid. His last piece was an abstract geometrical square pattern and the shapes seemed to leap from the paper. I helped him explore the idea of muscle memory and asked him if he could retrain himself in the practice of art as a parallel to his experience of training for and serving in the army. The connection between the two seemed to appeal to him and I pointed out that in only an hour and a half he had gone from a reluctant group participant to an engaged and more self-assured creator.

Quick crayon & watercolor resist tips:

White crayon on white paper leads to the most striking visual results, but adding other color crayon lines adds very interesting effects!
  • To create a solid and clear line, make sure to press down pretty hard on the crayon. I always tell my clients not worry if the crayon breaks! Having a few extra white crayons in your supply bin can help too.
  • The more pigment/watercolor on the brush = deeper and less transparent layers. To create a crisp visual edge, load that brush up with pigment. For more subtle washes and soft effects, use more water.
  • Many of my group members are not sure what to draw so to warm them up I encourage doodling with eyes closed, picking a shape and repeating it, or having someone else draw and then have them add the watercolor.
oil pastel & watercolor mandala journal pages ~ Sara Roizen
  • This activity appeals to the inner child as well as actual children. I have used this technique in the children’s hospital with patients and parents. The adult can write a ‘secret’ message or create a drawing in white crayon on the paper, and then the child reveals it by adding watercolor, and plenty of opportunity to switch roles too! A beautiful and simple collaborative method.
    ¬†Enjoy this technique! It’s one of the most relaxing and simple techniques I have found and always leads to amazing discoveries.

Happiness Group & The Art of Forgiveness

Beginning a forgiveness box with a quote

To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.

~ Lewis B. Smedes

The holidays tend to bring up complex feelings for many people. Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukah, New Years, and other holidays seem to blend together during this time of year and there is a palpable energy in the chilly air.

This is also a time of year when my art therapy groups tend to get smaller for a few weeks. The holidays are especially triggering for many of the individuals that I work with – bringing up complex feelings and memories. I think part of what makes it¬†challenging¬†is a feeling that this time of year ‘should’ be joyful even if it’s not¬†for everyone. Drug and alcohol relapses as well as hospitalizations tend to increase with my clients and many other tend to isolate in their apartments if they have no friends or relatives to be with. This is part of why I find it important to continue the groups, even if attendance is lower. There are usually at least a few people that make their way to the group and find some benefit and comfort in participating.

In my continuing work with veterans living in supportive housing, my co-therapist and I started a new group called the ‘Happiness Group.’ One of the interesting challenges inherent in working with individuals in¬†permanent¬†housing is finding ways to keep groups interesting. My past work has focused on working with people in crisis and living in emergency transitional shelters. Although the art therapy groups were challenging, I could expect a constantly changing group of clients. In contrast, the groups offered in permanent housing facilities are less transient but the risk of group repetition and lack of interest increase. With this in mind, my co-therapist and I began to brainstorm a new group that might be of interest. Drawing from positive psychology and our own interests, we designed a new curriculum and group called the ‘Happiness Group.’

So far the residents have been drawn to our new Happiness Group and are very engaged. I always highlight the fact that ‘being happy’ is not a pre-requisite for coming to the group. In fact, the group flyers that I created include this description:

We all want more happiness in life. But
how do we create happiness when there are so many challenges and hard
situations we face? This group will give you ideas and tools for creating more
happiness in your daily life, no matter what you are facing. 

Forgiveness box in progress

Our group last week focused on the theme of forgiveness. Forgiveness and happiness might seem like strange companions, yet they are directly linked. Much of our emotional and physical energy can become tied up in feelings of anger and past resentment. Although it’s a long and challenging process, working with forgiveness can free up energy that can be channeled into cultivating more happiness.

In group we spent time talking about what forgiveness might entail and why forgiveness does not mean forgetting or saying that something hurtful was ok and acceptable. Alice Miller said,¬†“Genuine forgiveness does not deny anger but faces it head-on,” and I think this is a good way of understanding forgiveness.

Forgiveness Boxes
Group members shared the people and experiences that they were struggling to forgive. We also explored self-forgiveness, since sometimes we are the ones in most need of forgiveness. My co-leader encouraged the clients to write a letter to someone they wanted to forgive. The letter would not be mailed to the person, but could be used as a cathartic method for addressing and processing feelings of anger, hurt, and disappointment.

For the art therapy piece of the group I set up paint trays, acrylic, brushes, collage materials, markers, and mod podge. I then handed each person a small paper mache box. I asked the group to decorate the boxes on the inside and outside while thinking about a person or a few people that they would like to work on forgiving. The gold and copper paint were a popular paint color and the metallic paint helped imbue the boxes with a certain beauty. While working on the boxes, group members began to open up about past experiences with the people they were working to forgive.

I reminded the group that forgiveness was a process like most everything in life. Feelings about the person might ebb and flow like ocean waves and re-surface even after there seemed to be some emotional resolution. For this reason I encouraged the clients to look at the box as an object that can be opened and closed and therefore visited and put aside depending on their needs.

The last step was writing the name of one or more people (could include self) on a small piece of paper and placing it inside the box. The name could stay in there for a long time, or be taken out and replaced with another name. In this way the names and the box could become part of a small ritual. The safe containing space of the box could hold the desire to forgive and be opened when it felt appropriate. One of the clients shared that she would place her forgiveness box on a small altar in her apartment where she kept a beautiful candle. Her idea was to create a ritual with her daughter of putting in names and taking them out while lighting a candle each day, as a way of processing past family experiences and moving in the direction of forgiveness and healing.

closed forgiveness box

Further Thoughts
When working with individuals who have experienced trauma I find the idea of objects that can close and be opened very useful. Working in this way can help an individual explore past experiences slowly and avoid the chance of emotional flooding. Altered books (future post) are another idea along these lines. Any material and object that creates a containing space and can hold a smaller object are wonderful to work with. If I could get my hands on some nesting dolls to alter that would be very interesting too!

Creating art objects that can be used repeatedly in a personal ritual adds another opportunity for healing by engaging in the creative process. Individuals can make visual reminders that inhabit their living space.

Check back in the coming weeks for more posts and ideas from my art therapy groups, and as always please feel free to share your own thoughts and experiences here.

Breathing Space Collaboration ~ With Veterans





What art offers is space – a certain breathing room for the spirit.                    ~ John Updike

Collaboration
I have been collaborating with another therapist for the past number of weeks and providing art therapy groups for veterans living in supportive housing. One of these groups is a smoking cessation group (or smoking ‘sensation’ as one of our clients calls it!) The other therapist leads the first half of the group based on a psycho-educational curriculum that includes ice breakers, basic information, and coping strategies for trying to quit smoking and manage stress. During the second part of the group I lead the clients in an art therapy experiential that is designed to compliment and build on the theme that week. 

This is the first opportunity I have had to directly collaborate with another therapist in group therapy and it is a wonderful experience. As an art therapist contractor I am used to working very independently – going to different locations and running the art therapy groups on my own. This is a unique learning experience and allows us to shape the groups in a way that speaks to clients on many different levels.

One of the core foundations of smoking cessation (or trying to modify any unhealthy habit) is finding alternative coping strategies and ways to manage stress and difficult emotions. Many of us instinctively reach for something when we are trying to escape difficult emotions. It might be a cigarette, cookie, glass of wine, or the tv remote. These habits become so ingrained that they are largely unconscious actions, designed to keep the difficult feelings at bay for a while longer. Much of our group focuses on alternative ways to channel these emotions productively – through things like art, movement, and mindfulness-building skills. With this in mind, my co-therapist asked a yoga teacher who specializes in teaching simple breathing techniques to come in and co-lead two groups. 

The Experience
The yoga teacher explained that there are simple ways to relax through mindful breathing and that she would share some of her favorite methods. She encouraged us to sit comfortably in our chairs and to close our eyes. 

Before closing my eyes, I glanced around the circle of individuals. There was the yoga teacher, the other therapist, a peer specialist, and the clients – all veterans.  I was looking forward to being a participant in this part of the group. At the same time I was very curious to see if the clients would be able to tolerate sitting still, focusing on breathing, and if any of them would comment on the incense, candles or soft New Age music playing in the background. I had my doubts but was cautiously optimistic. Sitting with the feelings and sensations that can arise during meditation, yoga, and breathing practices can be intense for any of us, and almost all of these veterans struggle with symptoms related to PTSD along with other mental health and substance abuse issues. 

A few minutes into the guided breathing the room was completely quiet except for the soft music and the yoga teacher’s rhythmic voice. I felt my shoulders relax as my mind grew quieter. There was a palpable feeling in the room that felt very different from the usual energy there. Glancing around the circle again I noticed that many of the client’s faces looked younger and then realized that it was because everyone’s face was relaxed instead of tense and furrowed. 

An entire hour passed as she led us through breathing techniques and gentle yoga stretches, but it seemed like no time had passed at all. A few of the veterans commented on how they could have kept sitting for another hour and just breathing. I was struck by how much we craved this breathing space. It can be especially hard to find this quiet space in such a big city and many of these veterans approach daily life from a survival mentality, which makes complete sense based on their long history of traumas. We spent a few minutes talking about ways to take a breathing space – no matter how short or long it was. The yoga teacher reminded us that a breathing space could be as simple as taking three conscious breaths before responding to a person or situation. Or it could be a more formal and slightly longer practice during the day. 

Art Therapy ~ Mandala Breathing Space
For my part of this group, I asked everyone to transition to the art table as quietly as possible in order to maintain the quiet energy. I encouraged each person to try and stay aware of their breathing and pay particular attention to their in and out breaths as they painted. I then handed out thick watercolor paper to each person. On each piece of paper I had pre-drawn a circle in white crayon that was barely visible. I asked everyone to use the watercolor and fill in the entire page with washes of color and any other forms or imagery. As the group painted away, each person began to see an emerging circle, that stood out under the color washes, no matter how many layers of paint were added. 

‘Moon Window’
acrylic on paper ~ Sara Roizen

After a few minutes all of the group members were asking about the circle and seemed to be enjoying the process of painting while the circle (mandala) remained. I explained that since crayons were made of wax, they resisted the watercolor and therefore anything drawn with a crayon would repel the watercolor away from it.

After the crayon and watercolor mandalas were finished we spent time talking about the art process and relating it back to the yoga and breathing experience. The theme of carving a breathing space out came up again and was symbolized by the crayon drawing that emerged no matter how many layers of watercolor were added over it. Clients talked about ways to create healthy boundaries in life to protect some time each day for slowing down and going inwards rather than always reaching for outer distractions. The watercolor layers were paralleled to life’s layers and all of the daily experiences that can feel like a burden at times. We discussed that the key was to remember the breathing space circle even when life seemed too complicated, because the breathing space was always there to return to. I encouraged each veteran to display their art piece in a place that could serve as a daily reminder to create that time and space.

Further Thoughts
By pre-drawing the circle in white crayon I was providing the clients with a containing space to create within and around. At times I will have the client draw the circle themselves, but in this case I wanted to create the pre-existing breathing space for the group, much like the yoga teacher had set up the chairs in a circle before the group began and set the stage with candles, incense, and music. The idea is to help clients to gradually internalize the safe breathing space for themselves and this could be explored in a future session by having the group create their own contained shapes to paint within or create circles for one another.

Any time we work within circles the structure creates a kind of ‘breathing space’ and a wonderful visual metaphor for slowing down, going inwards, and centering for a while. I can envision working outside in the garden with the veterans and creating a mandala using natural elements such as rocks, leaves, and sticks. Another idea could be to create a semi-permanent mandala breathing space if the location/facility allowed for it where clients could go any time they needed to take a few quiet minutes. This could be outside or in the corner of a quieter room with less foot traffic. 

To create a portable breathing space reminder, small surfaces such as artist trading cards (wallet-sized paper) could be created during group with circles and visual reminders to pause and breathe. The group could also create bracelets (which are of course wearable circles) as a daily reminder as well.

There will be more blog posts to follow that explore my collaboration and work with veterans. Stay tuned!

‘City Sun’
acrylic on canvas ~ Sara Roizen

Feeding Your Demons (some art)

“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light,

but by making the darkness conscious.”

(Carl Jung)

 

‘Kali Dance’ acrylic & mixed media on canvas
Sara Roizen

For those of you familiar with the movie ‘Labyrinth’ (1986) by Jim Henson it’s a wonderful story and rich with relevant metaphors. It was one of my favorite movies when I was growing up and I still love it.

Here’s the basic plot: The heroine Sarah races through a dangerous labyrinth to reach the goblin castle and rescue her baby brother from the goblin king before the time runs out.¬†She runs around in circles, gets lost, takes the wrong paths, gets into trouble, and almost gives up several times. The final scene in the labyrinth is when Sarah reaches the goblin king. He tries to distract her from her purpose by offering anything she desires – including his kingdom. Sarah refuses to be distracted and thrown off course again by his offers and promises. She finally remembers the words that she had forgotten and as she faces him directly she says ‘you have no power over me.’ The instant she speaks these words, the goblin king loses his power and his world of illusion crumbles around her. (And spoiler alert: she gets her baby brother back).

That particular scene immediately came to mind as I sat down to write this post. You see, lately I have been thinking a lot about what it means to face our feelings head on rather than running in the opposite direction. (To be honest, I’ve been running in the opposite direction from writing this post for a couple of weeks now). Finally I’m sitting still and writing it.

I am becoming increasingly aware of how much energy it takes for me to run through my own inner labyrinths. What does that look like in everyday life? For me it might be avoiding the one phone call that could bring me some answers. Looking at my sketchbook¬†longingly¬†but deciding that I have ‘more important’ things to do while the baby naps. Nodding my head in agreement to something someone says when my heart is saying the opposite.

These outer forms of avoidance are not actually the core issues I’m exploring. The underlying forms are the raw feelings that might be exposed once that last protective layer of avoidance is peeled back. They are the feelings at the heart center of the labyrinth. They might be feelings such as fear, anger, or even joy.¬†What are the possibilities for healing and personal growth when we do the incredibly counterintuitive thing and sit still with our feelings, when everything in our being is yelling at us to get up and get distracted? Certainly society provides us with an endless buffet of distraction entrees…it is almost too easy to feast on all of them, while the part of us that needs to be fed is actually starving.

In her book Feeding Your Demons, Tsultrim Allione explores our inner demons and proposes that instead of starving them (running from them) that we actually give form to them and then feed them. She writes:

“Normally we empower our demons by believing they are real and strong in themselves and have the power to destroy us. As we fight against them, they get stronger. But when we acknowledge them by discovering what they really need, and nurture them, our demons release their hold, and we find that they actually do not have power over us. By nurturing the shadow elements of our being with infinite generosity, we can access the state of luminous awareness and undermine ego. By feeding the demons, we resolve conflict and duality, finding our way to unity.”¬†(from ‘Feeding Your Demons’ by Lama Tsultrim Allione)

“Hungry Ghost II” acrylic & mixed media on canvas
Sara Roizen

The author devotes a chapter to working with our demons through the art process (which of course immediately peaked my interest). Much of the healing takes place when we give form to the demon rather than allowing it to remain in the shadows. Once an image has been created it is possible to dialogue with the demon, ask what the demon needs, and then ‘feed’ the demon with our attention and compassion. This is truly about feeding a part of the self that has been neglected. The quote at the beginning of this post by Jung speaks to the transformative power of making the ‘darkness conscious.’ When the darkness inside is made conscious it cannot have power over us.

The art pieces in this post are paintings that I created while meditating on my own inner demons. They were uncomfortable to begin and messy to create. A part of me wanted to cover up the images that emerged and paint something ‘prettier’ or easier to digest. The first painting “Kali Dance” was a visual meditation on the fearsome goddess Kali. She gives birth and she destroys. Visually she is horrible to behold and yet in mythology her sword cuts through ignorance and fear. When our inner Kali aspect is embraced we have the power to transform ourselves and move through obstacles rather than dancing around them and wearing ourselves thin. The energy that is invested in avoiding our fears and unwanted feelings is then freed and can be channeled into our creative lives.

Children often spontaneously draw scary figures such as monsters. They have a natural inclination to take internal experiences and give them visual form. This is a wonderful way to connect with children and find out more about their inner worlds in a playful and non-threatening way. As adults we can benefit from the same explorations through art. If we have the courage and the proper support we can give form to our inner demons, look them in the eye, and have a conversation. They are after all, just misunderstood aspects of the self. As Rumi writes in the poem below, Welcome and entertain them all!

 

“Hungry Ghost I” acrylic & mixed media on canvas
Sara Roizen

THE GUEST HOUSE

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
“The Dream” acrylic & mixed media on canvas
Sara Roizen

Transforming Life’s Messes

 

Barn’s burnt down –
now I can see the moon.

 ~ Mizuta Masahide
Debris Mandala

It’s been an interesting (read: stressful) week here in our apartment. The entire roof of our building was being replaced, despite the forecast calling for thunderstorms.

The baby was napping and I was prepping my lunch when water started pouring in through the light fixtures in our apartment. Water began to drip through scattered cracks and down the walls in each room. Overhead (we’re on the top floor) I could hear the workers furiously running across the roof and throwing tarps across the exposed roof. The next day I was walking by the bathroom just in time to hear and see debris falling from the removed skylight and landing all over the floor. My first thought was ‘it would have been nice if they had given us a heads up before removing the skylight.’ My second thought was, ‘wow, I’ve never seen open sky from our bathroom before and it reminds me of James Turrell’s Meeting installation piece.’

James Turrell’s ‘Meeting’ installation at PS1
A rectangular cut-out of the museum’s ceiling

A few minutes later I grabbed a broom and began sweeping up the bits of debris in our bathroom, while¬†occasionally¬†glancing up to make sure the sky had temporarily stopped falling into our apartment. It had already been a stressful two days and it felt as if my body and mind were braced for the next¬†unforeseen¬†issue to arise. However as I swept up the fragments I noticed that the motion of the sweeping was beginning to relax me. I gradually pulled the fallen objects into the center of the bathroom and a circle very naturally began to form out of the debris. I found myself caught up in the process of sweeping and creating this circle and my frustration and busy mind began to ebb. Before sweeping the circle up I snapped a quick picture of it with my phone (see top image).¬†I walked back into the family room and shared the photo with my bemused husband while referring to the picture as my ‘debris mandala.’ Both of our moods were lightened a little in that moment. Our apartment was still a mess with water leaks and more debris to fall, but there was something a bit beautiful about it. A beautiful disaster.¬†Lately I’ve been exploring the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi in my work as an art therapist and as a new mother. I am not an expert or scholar on wabi-sabi philosophy by any means. From my understanding so far though, wabi-sabi is a way of relating to the world and finding beauty in imperfection while embracing the inherent impermanence of objects and life itself…finding beauty in the crumbling leaf, a crack in the wall, the chipped cup, or the debris on our bathroom floor.

Beauty can be coaxed out of ugliness. Wabi-sabi is ambivalent about separating beauty from non-beauty or ugliness. The beauty of wabi-sabi is in one respect, the condition of coming to terms with what you consider ugly. Wabi-sabi suggests that beauty is a dynamic event that occurs between you and something else. Beauty can spontaneously occur at any moment given the proper circumstances, context, or point of view. Beauty is thus an altered state of consciousness, an extraordinary moment of poetry and grace.       (Leonard Koren ~ Wabi-Sabi: For Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers)
Blue Circle ~ Photo: Sara Roizen
 I am particularly drawn to the idea of finding beauty by changing our point of view. Each day that I spend with my baby provides me with a unique change of perspective as I observe the objects that he is naturally drawn to. A skeleton leaf dancing in my hand is as fascinating to him as a $30 baby toy. He does not discriminate. He holds everything in his eager and open awareness.
In thinking about my art therapy work with clients I am realizing that so much of my work focuses on gently showing them alternative perspectives and helping to expand their ability to tolerate so called ‘mistakes’ and art that they have deemed ‘ugly.’ Clients that frequently attend my groups smile at my broken record phrases such as ‘there are no mistakes in art’ and ‘take a deep breath, sit back, and see if you can find a creative solution for what you are referring to as a mistake.’ A while back one of my clients spilled paint water on her paper by accident. She was furious (anger¬†management¬†was one of the issues we were working on) and began to swear as she jolted out of her seat. I had a moment of anxiety myself as I quickly assessed the likelihood of her storming out of the room. While looking at the spreading paint water puddle, I became increasingly interested at the shape it was taking though. One of the other group members must have observed the same thing, because she remarked on how neat the color puddle was. I watched as the angry group member glanced again at her ‘ruined’ painting and raised an eyebrow. I could feel the tense energy dissipating as she sat back down. I asked her if she would like to use the accident to create something different and then showed her how to make ‘ghost prints’ from the puddle by pressing pieces of paper directly on top of her original piece. She returned to the first piece later on and continued to work on it, but not before creating a mini-series of ghost prints – playful pieces that captured her inner resiliency as well as creative flexibility.
It’s not always easy to pause when one of life’s messes enters our lives (or the lives of our clients). It can be uncomfortable to sit in the debris or sit with someone else in theirs. But sometimes digging around in the mess for a while is what is required. And it can be beautiful too.
“The world is mud-luscious and puddle-wonderful.”
        ~ e.e. cummings