Nature As Co-Therapist

November 6, 2015

(10) Comments



“The self expands through acts of self forgetfulness.”
~ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Sun streaming through red, orange, and yellow leaves against a deep blue sky. A sketchbook stretched out in my lap. My baby taking a nap inside. This was how I spent an hour yesterday during one of the most beautiful New England Fall days I’ve seen in a while.

As I sat there utterly absorbed, I felt a sense of peace and fullness. I was outside by myself, but there was a palpable sense that the art materials and nature were my companions. Perhaps I briefly entered that ‘flow’ state, that has been described by writers such as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I describe flow as an experience where the individual is completely immersed and focused in the present experience. Although I think that flow can be experienced in many activities, it seems that creative and self-expressive pursuits lend themselves to this type of optimal focusing. For me there is a loss of self-absorption when I am in this state. As the quote above describes – it is an act of self-forgetfulness. Forgetting the self is no small feat – especially in this day and age.

I believe that forgetting ourselves for even a minute actually brings us closer to our truer selves. Spending time in nature and creating art in nature is one of the simplest yet most powerful ways I have found to let go.

In his book Trust the Process: An Artist’s Guide To Letting Go, art therapist Shaun McNiff devotes a chapter to creative collaborations with environment and nature. McNiff’s own work draws deeply from observations and times spent in nature. He also encourages readers to explore directly making art with nature. Rocks, leaves, sticks, mud, and grass are all examples of nature’s raw art materials. McNiff writes:

“The deep satisfaction gained from this type of environmental art is related to an absence of possessiveness and self-consciousness. There is no thought given to taking something home with us. The creative act is pursued solely for its own sake within an ephemeral context. The virtues experienced by working directly with nature help us to create in a similar way when we are in the studio.”

In my personal art work I often incorporate rocks, found sea glass, and sand into my mixed media paintings. I have been inspired by my walks along the ocean and the dynamic and ever changing relationship between the water and the land. I will often embed the natural elements into layers of texture mediums and I utilize palette knives and layers of color in my process. In my recent drawings, I keep returning to the wave motif and imagery. The swirling eddies and crests of the ocean provide constant fluid ideas.

From the Sandstone Series Sara Roizen acrylic, molding paste, sand, rock, & sea glass on canvas
From the Sandstone Series
Sara Roizen
acrylic, molding paste, sand, rock, & sea glass on canvas

Art Therapy & Nature

I have brought many of my art therapy groups outside when the weather allowed for it. At one of the supportive housing locations in Brooklyn, the veterans that lived there had a beautiful back yard that included seating, a community garden, and even a mama cat and her kittens that were being cared for by the residents. No matter what emotional state the group members were in, being outside immediately provided an expansive yet relaxed quality to the group. I was always amazed to observe as everyone’s body postures shifted from guarded and hunched over to reclining and letting shoulders drop as we made art and talked. At other shelters and housing facilities there was not a space outside to create art in, or the neighborhood was not safe enough to provide a secure group environment outside. In these locations I found other ways to incorporate nature into my groups such as bringing in found natural objects such as rocks, sticks, and leaves. These pieces of nature became the inspiration for drawings and sculptures. Bringing simple house plants into the group and having members paint and decorate the pots was another way to bring nature in from the outside. Painting pots might sound overly simplistic, but it is the act of making something special and creating a unique container for nature that imbues the act with meaning. In addition, giving the clients a living plant to care for added another layer of meaning and ritual to their daily lives. The plant served as a transitional object that lived with them and bridged the days between each group.

During my art therapy work with chronically ill children, the children were not able to leave the hospital due to medical constraints. Being inside for a prolonged period of time is hard enough for adults, but even more challenging for children. Some of the children had not been able to go outside for months at a time due to extended stays. In addition, many of the children could not be given actual pieces from nature to work with because they could only use materials that had been sterilized and/or never used by someone else. With these patients I focused on the qualities of the weather and the seasons to help provide a sense of natural rhythms. We worked with collage imagery from nature and spoke about favorite seasons, activities based on the time of year, holidays, and related family rituals.

Collaborating With Nature

There are countless ways to collaborate with nature directly and indirectly. Here are some examples to get the inspiration flowing!

  • Collect smooth rocks and pebbles and create an outdoor stone mandala either individually or as a group process
  • Paint or draw on stones and leave them in different outdoor or indoor locations. Imagine the delight that these found stones might bring someone else as they are going about their busy day!
  • Trace leaves or found pieces from nature to create an overlapping abstracted drawing. Use black and bold lines to trace and then fill in each section with paint to create a stained-glass inspired piece.
  • Sit outside on a windy day with watercolor and paper and let your hand capture the feel of the wind or sit by a stream or the ocean and let the water current guide your own mark making.
  • Paint or draw directly on leaves. They can be used to collage with or coated with mod podge and incorporated into a mobile.
  • Collaborate with a garden and create small (or large) sculptures to place throughout the garden. You can also place figurines and other small found objects around the garden and create an ever-changing scene. This could be a wonderful process to explore with children as well.
  • Trace shadows from overhanging tree branches and plants by sitting directly under a tree on a bright day. The shadows create beautiful, intricate, and abstract patterns.
  • Gather natural objects from outside and bring them inside to create a small altar in your home. The altar can change seasonally and as new materials are found and added.
  • For those of us living in areas that get snow in the winter – an obvious idea is to sculpt with snow! Adding sticks, pinecones, and other materials adds another dimension to the snow.

This is a rich topic and I will continue to explore the integration of nature, art, and art therapy in future posts. In the meantime, here are a few links that might interest you as well.

Faith Evans-Sills creates striking mandalas using nature:
Faith Evans-Sills Mandalas

Art therapist Amy Maricle’s post on utilizing nature for anxiety relief:
Mindful Art Studio

Jason deCaires Taylor creates incredible underwater sculptures that continuously morph as animals, coral, and other sea life interact with them:
Underwater Sculpture

Andy Goldsworthy is famous for his amazing direct collaborations with nature:
Andy Goldsworthy

Artist Nils Udo also utilizes the earth and elements of nature to create evocative work:
Nils Udo

Artist & art therapist Hannah Klaus Hunter incorporates leaves and pieces of nature into her rich and layered monoprints:
Hannah Klaus Hunter – The Shift Series


Sara Roizen – fern drawing


  • Amy Maricle

    Wow, Sara! I’m in love with this post. Thank you so much for all the wonderful art making ideas. I’ve been wanting to draw tree shadows! Your post makes me want to realize some of the outdoor installation dreams I’ve been having. And I always love Andy Goldsworthy references. Have you heard his interview with Terri Gross? It’s wonderful. Thank you also for including me in such an esteemed list of artists. You honor me.



    • ats

      I am honored to know you, Amy. 🙂
      I will definitely check out the Terri Gross interview – thanks!

  • Veronica

    so impressed to see this article. I am pursuing my Eco-Art Therapy Certification and it good to know that using Nature and Art as Guide, Counselor, and Coach are being implemented. Bravo.

    • ats

      Thank you! What an amazing certification to pursue…
      I would love to hear more about your journey. It is an amazing integration of the two modalities!

  • Amy Farber

    Love this post…you write so well and have such great ideas…love reading it.
    And, love YOU!

    • ats

      Love you!

  • Jessi Cross

    I really love this post! I am inspired to bring more of nature into my art therapy work, and you offer some wonderful ideas as to how to do so. I live in the desert, so you have my wheels turning re: ways to include the desert’s power and beauty into art therapy directives. Thank you for sharing this.

    • ats

      Thank you Jessi!
      How amazing that you live in the desert…
      So many ways to draw inspiration from the natural landscape. I cannot help but think of Georgia O’Keefe (one of my earliest influences with painting) in terms of painting directly from the desert landscape.

  • Sally Swain

    How beautiful. Thank you.

    • ats

      Thank you for reading!

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