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


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

Mandala Journaling (When Words Escape Me)

first pages of my mandala journal ~ Sara Roizen

“Come out of the circle of time
    And into the circle of love.”
        – Rumi

I started a small mandala journal as a way to continue making art in the very early days of being a new mom. Now, 6 months into being a mom I am still turning to my mandalas as a path for centering, self-care, and mindfulness practice. There were many early morning hours holding my baby and the mandala journal in my lap – meditatively drawing as I listened to his soft in and out breaths. 

mandala journal ~ Sara Roizen

I realize that it has been a while since posting and I was reflecting on some of the reasons. Yes, there’s the obvious ‘new mom/no time’ reason that most everyone understands. But in reality there is always a little time for writing if I carve out a few minutes here and there. I’m realizing that the greater reason had to do with how challenging it has been for me to gather my thoughts since giving birth. Perhaps this is part of why I was hesitant to begin a new blog post. I try to convey myself as clearly as possible through my posts, yet here I am looking at words as I type and just noticing how strange they look on the screen. The amazing transition into motherhood and this life-altering journey has left me a bit speechless at times. 
mandala journal ~ Sara Roizen
Cue the ‘aha’ moment music (if there is such music)…

While struggling through this blog post I realized that my intention with this post was to share and reinforce how important the art-making process continues to be in my life. So, if words are escaping me at the moment – must be time to make even more art! 
Art has accompanied me through every stage of life and this new stage is no different. Art has been a constant companion through the ups and downs, the known and unknown, the articulate and less articulate days as well. Perhaps my energy has been a bit tied up in trying to move through the world in the old pre-baby way, whereas the potential lies in embracing this new terrain and way of being. Perhaps I can look at this time of non-linear thinking as a time to delve even more deeply into the creative, spontaneous, and ever-shifting flow of life as a new mom, artist, and art therapist. 

Each mandala becomes a a visual response to the moment and I am struck by how naturally they arise. Many of these recent mandalas appear womb-like to me and seem to be incubating feelings and ideas, and yet they speak for themselves without words. 

I have found an interesting parallel on the theme of wordlessness with the last few art therapy groups I have led. There have been longer stretches of silence as group members worked on their art recently. During my last group one of the clients commented on how quiet it was and I asked her how she experienced the silence. She shared that it felt good and completely different from how ‘loud and crazy’ it usually was in the shelter environment. As art therapists we use words quite often at opportune times to help process the art, experience, and help frame certain themes that are emerging. However, at the core it is often the art-making process itself that opens up space for healing and self-knowledge. There are moments when too many verbal interventions may derail the creative process or take focus away from the deeper work that is really going on. 

mandala journal ~ Sara Roizen

The deeper work that is going on for me at this time seems to be about taking this creative and unknown plunge into new motherhood. And there aren’t a lot of words that can quite capture this moment in time…good thing I have my art to speak for me. 

A final quote that seems fitting:

“Logic will take you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.” 
    – Einstein

mandala journal ~ Sara Roizen
mandala journal ~ Sara Roizen

Art Therapy Perspectives Interview

“Dreaming of Hokusai” Sara Roizen

I’m excited to share that I was recently interviewed on the blog Art Therapy Perspectives by Victoria Scarborough. 

Victoria is an art therapist, and her blog is devoted to interviewing other creative arts therapists from around the world to share their experiences and provide readers with new insight into the field.

The interview was broken down into two parts and you can click on the links below to read:

Art Therapy Perspectives Interview ~ Part 1

Art Therapy Perspectives Interview ~ Part 2

We covered many areas during the interview including my path to the field of art therapy and populations I work with, my approaches as an art therapist, favorite self-care techniques, the integration of my artist and art therapist identity, sources of inspiration, and my hopes for our field as we continue to grow.

I really enjoyed the process of thinking about and answering these questions and it provided me with a framework for reviewing and exploring the past number of years I’ve been in the field. In addition I gained more insight into my evolving hopes and plans for my career as it continues to unfold.

A huge thanks to Victoria for creating her wonderful blog. It is an invaluable source of inspiration and connection for creative arts therapists and everyone that is interested in learning more about our field. There are many fascinating interviews on the blog and it illustrates how varied creative arts therapists are in the places we work, the populations we serve, and our creative paths. Read up and be sure to share with anyone else that might be interested!

More Artist Trading Cards in Progress

Artist Trading Card ~ Sara Roizen ~ 2013
Artist Trading Card ~ Sara Roizen ~ 2013
I’m working with a variety of materials, from pen and ink, to watercolor, collage, paint, and the incorporation of found objects.
Artist Trading Card ~ Sara Roizen ~ 2013

I’m noticing that I am intuitively drawn to nature-based imagery in many of these little cards – leaves, wave motifs, abstract flower shapes, and the moon. Being in nature has always had a transformative and recharging effect on me. Therefore, while exploring the theme of gratitude, change, and kindness it seems natural that this type of imagery is surfacing in my pieces. In addition the theme of change is a powerful and innate aspect of nature in terms of the seasons, cycles of growth and decay, hibernation and new life.

Artist Trading Card ~ Sara Roizen ~ 2013

While writing this post, I realized that a trip out of NYC (even for just a day or weekend) is called for!
Time to soak up some nature, fresh air, and center myself outdoors. And of course…more inspiration for ATC’s and other creative ventures.

Stay tuned. 🙂

Artist Trading Card ~ Sara Roizen ~ 2013
Artist Trading Card ~ Sara Roizen ~ 2013


Artist Trading Cards (ATC’s) & Building Community

Getting started on some ATC’s!

“They always say time changes things,
but you actually have to change them yourself.” 
– Andy Warhol

It’s hard to believe that 6 months have flown by since the 6 Degrees of Creativity 2 workshops began. I was thrilled to be one of the 6 art therapist instructors as well as a participant in the other workshops. What struck me most about this experience was the creation of community and artistic collaboration. Each participant in my workshop brought a unique and beautiful voice to the process of creating and exploring texture and mixed-media. In addition, the level of encouragement and inspiration during these workshops supported me in my ongoing process to carve out art-making time and space.

In the spirit of continued community building and creative exchange, Gretchen MillerHannah Klaus Hunter, and Beth Rommel have created a collaborative project called Pocket Change: Creating Change Through Small Creative Acts.
Follow this link for details and to participate: Pocket Change
A quick summary of the project from the site: 
Participants will create 4 ATCs and will get back 3 from others who are participating in the exchange. Our swap’s theme: Pocket Change is all about how simple and small acts can create and instill kindness, gratitude, and change. For your ATCs, think about the power of your mini artworks as a means to express and share a positive image, message, or intention with others and the world.
I eagerly signed up for the ATC swap and began playing in my studio this afternoon. Like many, I’ve been watching the popularity of ATC’s rise in the past few years and was drawn to the small size of the cards (2.5″ x 3.5″) and the idea behind creating them. You can make your own ATC surface or buy them very inexpensively at most art stores and craft stores such as Michael’s. Since measuring precisely it not my strong point and I was excited to dive in right away, I bought a few packs of pre-cut ATC’s at Michael’s. I chose a few different types of paper as I plan to do some mixed-media as well as drawing. 
ATC’s beginning ~
Collaging with paper Tibetan Prayer Flags

As I began to set up my art materials, I explored my associations to the words kindness, gratitude, and change and also thought about how transformative this past year has been for me on many levels. Going into 2013 I am looking forward to expanding upon all of the positive growth and experiences from this past year. 

I decided to grab any materials that spoke to me and ended up with chunks of peeled acrylic palette paint, some Tibetan Prayer flags that I have received in the mail, decorative paper, skeleton leaves, and some other small found objects. 

I enjoyed working on the foundation for a number of cards at once. As usual I worked intuitively with the materials and imagery. I looked around my studio for mod podge but couldn’t find it, so I ended up using the Elmer’s clear glue (best find of the year!) I used a small palette knife to spread the glue and then covered each collage with a thin layer of the glue as I would with mod podge to serve as a protective layer and sealant. 

The beginning of 2 more ATC’s

I was aware of how different it is to create on a small scale. Although I found myself working rather quickly at times, at other moments the small size helped me to slow down and become more familiar with the details. The other paradox was that the ATC’s seemed rather delicate while I was starting them, but when I returned later to look at them I was struck by how durable they felt. 

As these ATC’s were drying, I decided to begin some pen drawings on my bristol paper cards. I was drawn to the use of mandalas and repeating circles. I had recently read a quote by Mother Teresa that inspired my imagery. She once said, 

“I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.”

I was drawn to this imagery of ripples…interlocking circles and the way that we are all connected. It also looped back directly to this project’s theme of building community and change through small creative acts. We never know what one smile, word, or act can mean to another human being at the time. A small act may create a ripple effect that builds momentum and starts the process of positive change. 

I will share the finished ATC’s in a future post! Until then, happy creating and perhaps you’ll join us in this wonderful project!

Starting some mandala ATC’s

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. 


  • 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!

Top 100 News!

After being nominated a few weeks ago, I just found out that Art Therapy Spot blog was included in the current Top 100 Counseling Resources on the Web here:

Masters in Counseling: Top 100 Counseling Resources on the Web

I’m thrilled to be a part of this list and even more excited that creative arts therapy sites feature so prominently in this compilation of therapy and counseling resources.

Let’s keep up the momentum – spreading the word about art therapy (all of the creative arts therapies) and spreading knowledge about this incredible field!

If You’re Feeling Blue…

I often post inspirational quotes about art, creativity, and life in general on my Art Therapy Spot Facebook page. Over the past few months I’ve seen how many people seem to enjoy the little inspirational reminders every few days and it always puts a smile on my face to see these quotes being shared with others. Part of the reason I do this is because I think we can all use these pauses in the midst of our busy lives. It’s easy to get stuck in autopilot mode, multi-tasking, and to lose sight of the bigger picture.

I noticed that this quote attributed to an 8-year-old named Hannah Cheatem was a very popular one and since sharing it I’ve been using it as an exploration tool as I move through my own day and with my art therapy clients. She said: “If you’re feeling blue – try painting yourself a different color.” 

This quote is a reminder of how naturally children are able to think outside of the box when approaching life situations. Most children have not yet been overly conditioned by society, other’s expectations, and patterns of behavior. Adults (myself included) may find it challenging to create flexibility in our daily routines and ways of perceiving the world around us. Even more importantly, we may view ourselves in a rigid way and have difficulty grasping the fluid nature of our moods, feelings, thoughts, and ways of being. Here’s an example of what I mean:

A few weeks ago I was leading an art therapy group at the emergency transitional shelter where I work. My clients are homeless adults who are living with HIV, mental health issues, and substance use. These individuals have lived through many traumatic experiences and are usually in crisis mode by the time they come to live in our building. They are needing to reestablish basic living essentials such as a safe place to live, medical and psychiatric treatment, and financial resources.

One of my group members is a woman who has made art therapy groups a priority every week. From our conversations and what she shared with the group, I learned that she had been struggling with severe depression for years and had expressed some suicidal ideation. This is always taken seriously and her case manager and other staff members had already drawn up a safety plan for her and continued to monitor her closely. 

Over a number of art therapy groups, I began to see her open up during the hour and a half. She began as the quietest member and became one of the most verbal. She was able to articulate her thoughts and feelings beautifully and simultaneously had insightful and supportive feedback for the other group members. I noticed a change in her affect as the weeks progressed – from the way she sat up straighter in her chair to the increased smiling and easy laughter. 

However, when I would do an informal check-in with her regarding her current level of depression she would seem to catch herself and say something like ‘well I’m still depressed all the time, and always will be.’ At first I would just take her comment in and reflect back my understanding of her statement. However during one check-in with her during group I deliberately had her pause after her comment. I shared my evolving observation that her affect (smiling and laughing) during group no longer seemed to match her self-reported feelings of depression and hopelessness. My observation clearly caught her off guard for a moment as her face reflected back surprise. She then shared that what I had said did resonate with her, but that she was so used to feeling depressed that it was hard to imagine seeing herself in a different way.

This interchange opened up into a fascinating and powerful conversation about how she labels herself and tends to limit herself this way. I was sure to acknowledge that her past and present depression is a real thing. The goal is never to invalidate a person’s feelings and experiences. A feeling is never wrong. However, the therapeutic balance is in validating her feelings and then also (gently) helping her to expand her self-definition to include being someone who can also have fun, engage in creativity, and even enjoy herself. The sadness and the happiness are allowed to exist in the same holding space. As her therapist, one of my goals is to show that I can hold both of these emotions for her within the group setting. The longer term goal is to help her trust that she can hold these different states of being herself and that one state of mind does not negate the other. Both states of
mind simply exist at different times, and sometimes even

The art therapy process helps my client to create physical objects that become proof of her ability to work through a variety of creative methods and problem solving, to be flexible in her approach, and to become aware of how varied her moods and styles are. This is one of the reasons that I encourage my clients to experiment with different and non-familiar art materials and ways of working. It helps them to strengthen an inner trust of the process when they see repeatedly that they are capable of responding to the art object within the moment, even without any prior training in art. 

A powerful component of group art therapy is that the group can serve as a larger form of validation for the individual’s creation, mirroring back their appreciation for the art created and interacting with one another in a way that they are not used to in the outside world.

Although this particular group tends to be more non-directive in nature (open studio art therapy), there are many art therapy directives that can be helpful to explore in terms of helping someone become more flexible in their self-definition. Creating self-portraits is a powerful method of self-exploration, especially if given the opportunity to create self-portraits over an extended period of time. These can be symbolic, abstract or more realistic. They can be done with drawing materials, paint, collage, sculpture, or photography.

Here are a few of my previous posts to check out if you are interested in reading more about art therapy and self-identity exploration:

Art Therapy & Body Image
Art Therapy Techniques: 3 Self-Portraits
Mask Making & Art Therapy


Textural Abstract Landscapes

One of the finished textural pieces:
sand, sea glass, shells, molding paste, & paint

Last week I led an art workshop for a fantastic group of teens from Temple Shaaray Tefila in NYC. These teens are participating in a program called Gateways and Tents, which is a partnership between Shaaray Tefila and Ohel Avraham – their sister temple in Israel. Some of the teens will be traveling to Israel soon, and in March a number of the students from Israel will be traveling here to NYC. One of the program goals is to help the students explore their sense of Jewish identity, think about their relationship to Israel, and engage in creative team building experiences. 

With that in mind, I was asked to create an art workshop that would be engaging and get the teens to start thinking about the land of Israel, on a physical and emotional level. After brainstorming with the program director Hope Chernak, we decided that a very ‘hands on’ painting workshop would be wonderful and I decided to utilize my background in creating textural multimedia paintings to share a new way of art making with the group.

I began with a brief powerpoint presentation, where I shared some of my work with Israeli and Palestinian teens from a few summers ago. These powerful images of artwork helped inspire the group and also introduced them to some of the current issues in Israel, as well as ways that art can act as a bridge between groups of people. To read more about my work in this program and see some of the art click here: Artsbridge Blog Posts

Next we moved into the other room, where tables had been set up with a whole ‘buffet’ of art materials. I gave the teens a brief demo on how to work with a few of the molding pastes (acrylic texture mediums) and then gave them the directive to ‘create an abstract landscape that reflects your current thoughts, memories, or ideas about the land of Israel.’ I encouraged them to think about Israel symbolically even more so than literally and to trust the process as they experimented with the different materials. 

A ‘buffet’ of 3D materials to create texture:
shells, rocks, sea glass…

I was stuck by how quickly the teens began creating and how fearless they were in their textural explorations – not to mention how inventive! The pieces that they created on canvas were overflowing with originality, personal symbolism, and beautiful textures.

A few of the teens worked with a paintbrush but the majority of the time was spent molding and shaping the texture mediums and objects with an assortment of palette knives. Painting with a palette knife is a very immediate and engaging way to manipulate materials and often helps the artist to loosen up and ‘play’ with the process more.

Some of the students created multiple layers – scraping away areas that they didn’t quite like and then adding on more to shape it differently. One of the most powerful things about art making is that it helps us to become more accepting of so called ‘mistakes’ because we learn to work with the image until it feels right for that moment. This is why I often tell people that there are no mistakes in art. Each mark on the canvas leads to the next, in the same way that each life experience moves us to the next. Similarly, I’m sure the teens and their sense of Jewish identity will be shaped by their time in Israel and the experiences leading up to it. It is my hope that they will continue to utilize creative mediums (drawing, painting, writing, music, dancing) to explore and express their evolving identities.

I’m looking forward to creating more workshops and exploring this theme…
Enjoy some more of the creations from the workshop below!

One of Hope’s canvases!
Another finished piece, exploring the elements:
shells, rocks, molding paste, & paint
One of the pieces, reflecting land and water using many textures
including pieces of pretzels and chips!
Gel medium applied with a palette knife
and acrylic paint
All of the finished paintings!