Open Studio Art Therapy

I currently run a weekly open art therapy studio group at the organization where I work. Many people (and clients here) have never heard of the phrase “open art therapy studio.” Generally, there tends to be some confusion about what makes this type of therapy group different from other groups, and what the “open” part is all about. Below is an exploration of this topic and I hope that it helps to answer some of the most frequently asked questions.

“Closed” vs “Open” Art Therapy Groups

In general, closed art therapy groups refer to groups that are made up of specific clients who have made a commitment to come on a weekly basis. Although some groups allow clients to join during the second or third session, most are solidified by that time. Closed groups tend to have a set amount of time that they will meet (from 4 weeks to a year etc). These groups are often created with a specific group of people in mind such as: cancer survivors, people who are struggling with addictions, or a women’s group. In addition, closed art therapy group art experientials are often more specific – meaning that the art therapist provides a specific art directive for that session. The directive may be the exploration of a specific theme, such as “create an image of what your anxiety looks like.”

Open studio art therapy groups usually do not have a set of specific criteria for who may participate. During most open studios, clients choose the materials as well as the theme of the artwork themselves. However there are also open studio groups in which the art therapist provides the group members with specific art therapy directives.

In my current art therapy open studio group, clients do not have to make a commitment to come every week, and new clients can join at any time. That being said, there do tend to be “regulars” in open studio – clients who show up every week. I always tell new clients that the group composition may continue to shift over time, unlike a closed therapy group. I also remind clients that the same privacy rules apply in an open group as in a closed group. I ask clients to respect each other, and maintain the group’s sense of safety by keeping the personal conversations shared within the room in the group.


The physical layout and setup of the studio space sets the tone for the open studio group. If your space has windows, I encourage letting in as much natural light as possible (provided it doesn’t become blinding during part of the day!) I personally cannot stand fluorescent lights, but sometimes they are the only option depending on the facility. If possible, utilize a lamp or two that give off a warmer light. 
I truly enjoy the ritual of setting out the supplies for that day and arranging them in a way that is enticing and visually interesting. The way you lay out your materials conveys a level of respect for them as well as for the group members. 
Playing music during open studio is a highly individual decision. Working alongside music therapists has given me a deep appreciation for how much even soft background music can influence the energy of the space. People have highly unique reactions to music, and you should keep this in mind when selecting music. Case in point: I once began an open art therapy studio with some music by Tuck Andress. (He is an incredibly gifted guitar player who creates beautiful music). I had selected the music because I personally found it to be relaxing and inspirational. About a minute into the group I noticed that one of the patients was becoming agitated. I checked in with her to see what was going on. She yelled ” I hate this song!” and ran out of the studio. I stared in amazement at my co-leader, who was a music therapist and my supervisor at the time. Later, during supervision she used this incident to remind me about the power of music and the many different ways it can be experienced by people. (The patient did come back to my next group, and I had learned an invaluable lesson!) This is an extreme example, but one that will hopefully make sense when considering the use of music. Often, music can be a powerful addition to art making during open studio – just utilize it as consciously as possible.
Art Materials
In some open art therapy studios, the art supply cabinets are left wide open so that participants can select any material they are drawn to. Other studios are set up to offer a specific set of materials. Think about the experience that you would like to provide and the emotional properties that are attached to certain materials (a detailed post on the significance of art materials coming up!)
During my work in an acute psychiatric unit I had to be more mindful about my selection of materials because of the unit’s rules. For example, “sharps” (exacto blades, scissors, pencil sharpeners) are not generally used in these group settings. If they are used, it is usually done under the supervision of the therapist. Always check with your specific organization’s rules regarding allowable materials. Other examples of materials to check on are: spray paint, certain glues, and permanent markers (which can be abused if inhaled). 
Some people may feel overwhelmed by a plethora of supplies, while others may feel restricted by a limited selection. Experiment with different approaches and see what feels right. What feels right will change depending on the make-up and needs of the group.
I was once told to think of art materials in terms of “food.” Like food, art materials can provide sustenance in the form of creativity. Some people feel compelled to “consume” as many of the materials as possible, and others may show inhibition or “restriction” in their use of materials. There is no right or wrong, but the way in which materials are used most always provides some insight into the art maker.
Group Processing
To process the art or not to process? And if it is to be done, during or after? Or both? Some open studio approaches adhere to a “no commenting” guideline when it comes to the artwork. For example, the Open Studio Project in Illinois encourages sharing of the artwork without group feedback. The artist may choose to speak about their own image, and the rest of the group serve as silent witnesses to the piece. Part of the philosophy behind this method of group process is that the silent witnessing frees up group members to be more present and attentive, and generates an atmosphere of respect and safety. 
In general, my approach to facilitating open studio groups tends to be a blend of methods – consciously chosen to fit the needs of the particular group that day. My preferred style is to allow thoughts and feelings to be shared in an organic way, as they emerge naturally from the creative process. At times I will leave time at the end of group to allow clients to share their work and any feelings that came up for them. I remind everyone that this is not an art class “critique” and encourage others to respond with their feelings and associations, rather than their opinions on the aesthetic quality of the art. Sometimes the sharing is done during the actual creation of the art and unfolds spontaneously.

To the outside observer, there may be a question of “where is the therapy?” That is one of the beautiful things about this type of studio process. A skillful art therapist is able to weave together the different pieces and feelings of the group in a cohesive way; respecting each individual’s unique creation while illuminating the common thread running throughout the group. I am constantly amazed by the power of art and its ability to transform individuals within a group dynamic.

Recommended Reading:
Studio Art Therapy: Cultivating the Artist Identity in the Art Therapist, Catherine Hyland Moon
Art is a Way of Knowing, Pat B. Allen
Creating with Others: The Practice of Imagination in Life, Art, and the Workplace, Shaun McNiff
Trust the Process: An Artist’s Guide to Letting Go, Shaun McNiff

New Paintings up on Site!

It’s been a long time coming, but I have just added images of new paintings (done within this past year) to the galleries on my website.

Thanks to my wonderful photographer husband for taking pictures of all of them! I’m also posting images of all the new work here on my blog.

The images can be seen in the following post:)

Getting unstuck in the studio

“Artists don’t get down to work until the pain of working is exceeded by the pain of not working.”
– Stephen DeStaebler

How true. I know that I’ve gotten to this point when I walk by my studio and stare longingly at my canvases and paint, but am afraid to walk in. When I promise myself that “tomorrow I’ll paint” but find the day passing without picking up a brush. I feel a restlessness inside of me – pent up energy that has nowhere to go. Sometimes the feelings arise as anxiety or frustration. When I was young my parents tell me that they used to send me up to my room to draw for a few hours whenever they noticed that I was in a bad mood, or had too much energy and no direction. They report that I would come back down a few hours later with a smile on my face, and like a whole new person.

With all of that in mind, I have to admit that I’ve been having a very hard time getting back into the studio over the past few months. The longer I put it off, the greater the fear seems to grow. So here I’m compiling a list of ways to get back into creating. They are all methods that I have used in the past. With any luck, I will follow my own advice and get back into my painting rhythm. I hope some of these ideas will inspire you as well, especially if you find yourself creatively stuck from time to time.

  • Un-clutter your creating space, whether it’s a studio, a kitchen table, or a spot on the floor. This doesn’t mean making it spotless! In fact, most inspirational creating spaces have a certain degree of clutter. However, if you have to literally leap across a pile of stuff to land at your easel (true story) then you might benefit from some space clearing rituals. Plus, the action that you take to clean the space up a bit is a very productive activity in itself, which might give you further motivation to just keep on doing (creating) when you are finished!
  • Make the environment more inviting through music. Are there any artists or songs that consistently lift your spirits when you are down? Or maybe there’s some really angry music that gets your energy moving. (A lot has been written about listening to soothing music while creating, but I often find the opposite type of music gets me motivated, so it’s whatever works for you!) Music itself can be a source of inspiration for a painting, poem, or drawing.
  • Try a new material out. Sometimes we expect too much of ourselves with familiar materials. Using a new material (or one we haven’t used in a while) can free us up to be more spontaneous in our exploration. If you’re an acrylic painter, try oil sticks. If you’re a watercolor painter, try using gel mediums and playing with texture. Using collage elements and found objects can also be helpful when we are stuck, as it provides us with an automatic source of inspiration (and may be far less intimidating than staring at a blank canvas).
  • Create with a friend – collaborate. Creating can be a lonely endeavor. Sometimes this is what we seek, but at other times it may be helpful to have the added creativity and motivation from a friend. Creating with a friend is like having a three-way dialogue, between you, your friend, and the object that you are creating. It also can just be more fun that way!
  • Get out and see some art. Or if you can’t get out at the moment, look through some art books or browse the internet to look at art you are drawn to. Sometimes while looking at the art of others, we are re-inspired and remember what draws us to art in the first place. While you’re thinking about getting out, why not consider joining an artist’s networking group?
  • Brush up on your drawing and painting foundation skills. I’m not saying that you have to be classically trained in order to create (not at all!) However, sometimes getting back to the basics (paying attention to line quality, composition, color theory etc.) can be a source of inspiration in itself. Focusing on the basics again can help us get back to seeing with “beginner’s eyes.” Consider taking an affordable art class at a community center or local college. Or, think about buying one of many great drawing foundation books, such as “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” by Betty Edwards.
  • Find a space and time to show your work in the near future, and then work on a body of work for that show. This does not have to be a Chelsea gallery or the Guggenheim! Think outside of the box, and exhibiting in places like restaurants, coffee shops, or friend’s apartments if they have a good space. Often times places like restaurants and coffee shops are happy to have an artist’s work on their walls – it’s free decoration for them, and free exposure for you!
  • Create a small daily goal for yourself to create – anything. This could be as small as creating a miniature drawing a day on a little piece of paper or cutting out one image for collage each day and collecting them in a folder for future use. The goal could be bigger as well, such as paint for 1 hour each day. Sometimes scheduling the creating time into your day is extremely helpful. Look at it as something that you owe yourself – and that is just as important to your well being as the other things on your “to do” list.
  • Stuck without ideas? Here are a few random ideas to get you creating on a little theme: Paint a picture with only white and one other color. Mix the white in different amounts to the primary color and see how many different hues you can make. Create a list of different feelings such as angry, sad, joy, etc…Then pick one feeling from the list and create an abstract representation of it. Create a self-portrait of your “ideal self” as well as your “monster self.” Create a sculpture out of found objects, and then create a drawing or painting of that object – as realistic or abstract as you’d like. Re-imagine and create a piece based on a famous painting such as Picasso’s “Starry Night.” Take an image from a magazine, paste it onto paper or canvas, and extend the image outwards using paint or drawing. Cut up old paintings or drawings and create a mosaic piece (this is great when you have a lot of old pieces you are not fond of but do not want to get rid of – recycle them!) Make an altered book: go shopping at a used book store (the Strand in NYC is great!) and alter the book pages to make it your own, using collage, paint, textures, and cutting to transform it into something new.
  • And finally, here’s a saying that I have found very useful in creating art and for life in general. “Action precedes motivation.” Sometimes we need to make ourselves do something before the actual motivation is there. When all else fails just do it! As you engage in the creative process, inspiration and motivation to continue is sure to emerge.


Here are a few new mandalas from my sketchbook…creating mandalas is helping me to manage my stress, as I adjust from vacation back into school and internship. To create your own mandala, simply begin with any sized circle and draw within the circle. There is no right or wrong!

New sketches

Here are a few new sketches, done during my vacation in the Dominican Republic. This wasn’t an adventure vacation – it was an R&R vacation! So instead of sketching what was around me, I went inwards for imagery. Lately a lot of the images have been of women in various styles…