Removing Barriers in the Studio

A glimpse of my growing studio inspiration wall

Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.’
~ Rumi

This Rumi quote hangs to the right of the painting easel in my new studio. It’s one of my favorite quotes because it resonates on so many levels. For me, art is love expressing itself in visual form. Like love, the art needs to find a way out, but I am no stranger to building barriers within myself in unconscious attempts to slow the flow of art energy. I’ve written about this in many posts and find that it’s important to acknowledge the ebb and flow of my own creative process. It’s part of why I am able to sit with an art therapy client and nod understandingly while they list ten reasons for not wanting to make art that day. I get it. I really do. I also understand how deeply freeing it can be to acknowledge those barriers and then gently (or brazenly) push through them sometimes.

I’ve lived in many places and carved out areas to make art in all of them. Sometimes I’d set up at a kitchen table, a (slightly mildewy) basement, or on the floor of my bedroom. I took over the second bedroom in our Queens apartment for my studio for a number of years, until the birth of our first son. My fantasies about painting in the same room while he napped are amusing in retrospect. Still, I dutifully set up shop on our small kitchen table for a little while or worked on a smaller scale in my mandala journal while he crawled around next to me.

returning to my mandala journal

In September my family made the big move from NYC to the ‘burbs’ in Massachusetts. It’s an area that we know and love, with the ocean close by, trees, space, and a slightly slower pace of life. The transition was emotional for me, even though it was a change that I was craving. Transitions are always challenging. Each day took on a dream-like quality as I found myself busy with unpacking and getting oriented to our new home and area. In addition, I was in my first trimester of pregnancy and a bit preoccupied with queasiness and fatigue!

One of the most amazing things about our new home is that I once again have a room that I can claim as my studio space. The attic was converted into a beautiful light filled room by the previous owners. It was the most amazing space I could imagine for a studio and yet I avoided it for a few months – even after the boxes of art supplies were unpacked and I could have started using it. I experienced a sense of guilt and also longing every time I contemplated heading upstairs to my studio. It was as if the space was too perfect for me to use. Perhaps a part of me was struggling to feel worthy enough to fully inhabit the studio. The litany of doubts and self-critical thoughts slowly marched throughout my head. This has been a pattern of mine for as long as I can remember. I put the barriers in place (as in the Rumi quote) and they are all of the reasons why art should not be a priority for me. Then, when the pain of being trapped behind those self-imposed barriers becomes too great, I get back to my art! A morning art-making session with an artist and art therapist that I recently met was exactly what I needed to start removing my art barriers again in our new home. We sat in the studio and just chatted while working on our own art projects. After she left, I spent the rest of the afternoon in my studio making art. It felt incredible. It was like coming home to myself.

a corner of my studio

In the first paragraph of Art Is A Way of Knowing, artist and art therapist Pat Allen writes:

‘Images take me apart; images put me back together again, new, enlarged, with breathing room. For twenty years I have kept a record of my inner life in images, paintings, drawings, and words – sometimes haphazardly, sometimes more diligently, but continuously throughout my days as an art student, art therapist, teacher, wife, mother, and artist. My existence was marginal, uncompelling, because my feelings, necessary for a sense of meaning, were missing. Art making is my way of bringing soul back into my life. Soul is the place where the messiness of life is tolerated, where feelings animate the narration of life, where story exists. Soul is the place where I am replenished and can experience both gardens and graveyards. Art is my way of knowing who I am.’

so much painting storage space!

Pat Allen’s description of the role of art in her life resonates with me. Art embraces the messiness and the beauty of our existence. It takes courage to sit in front of a blank canvas without the distractions of everyday life. I realized that part of me was afraid to sit down and provide space for all of the recent feelings and experiences to find their way out through the art. It seems easier to keep pushing them down sometimes. But the first brushstroke has a way of clearing the way for the next, and the next, and so on.

Today during my art therapy group at an assisted living facility we all sat before blank surfaces. The acrylic paint was already beginning to form a slight crust on top from sitting out in the air. I could feel some of the anxiety and hesitancy of the group members to begin, even though they had all come to my art therapy groups before. The familiar mantras at the beginning of group, ‘I’m not an artist,’ ‘I don’t have a clue what I’m doing,’ ‘What should I do?’ ‘Does this look ok?’ I sit there and breathe in all of the insecurity. I encourage them to do the same. Then I say, ‘Let’s begin. Somewhere…anywhere. I promise you that brushstroke following brushstroke will lead you somewhere interesting.’ They begin and after an hour it suddenly seems like there isn’t enough time. Art has a way of suspending time, slowly drawing us away from self-critical thoughts, and revealing pieces of the self. I am inspired by the courage of my group members to trust me and the process enough to dive in each time. In turn, their willingness to create something from nothing has me heading back into my studio at the end of the day – eager to see where the art takes me.

On that note, I’ll leave you with one more inspirational quote. It’s about reframing our relationship to fear and a seemingly subtle shift in perception can make all the difference:

‘Replace fear of the unknown with curiosity.’ (unknown)

So, what are you curious about today?

a new small painting in progress

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! 🙂

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

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!

The Art of Travel

Sainte Chapelle stained glass windows ~ Photo: Sara Roizen
One’s destination is never a place, but rather a new way of looking at things.   Henry Miller
My husband and I just returned from a week and a half adventure in Paris and Amsterdam. I had been to both places before a number of years ago, but felt that I was able to see the two cities with new eyes – as if I had never been before. 
While moving through the streets, cafes, museums, and historical sites I often felt as though I was walking through a dream. I couldn’t soak up enough of the cobblestone streets, the old architecture, and the way the modern life intersected and mingled with the history. At times I fought jet-lag and exhaustion from our seemingly endless walking, and I noticed that my moods were predictably unpredictable each day, with a kind of ebb and flow. This was not one of those relaxing-on-the-beach vacations and each day was packed. However my husband and I (as usual) found a wonderful balance to each day, with one or two sites/activities planned but surrounded by the unexpected and unplanned. If we were on our way to a museum and happened to get pulled down a medieval street for a few hours, that was just as it should be. 
Subway map drawing ~ Photo/Art: Sara Roizen
The opening quote for this post captured the essence of travel for me. It was less about the specific destination, and more about seeing with fresh child-like eyes. A wonderful effect of travel for me is coming home (in this case to NYC) and seeing my own city from a different perspective. My husband is a photographer, and on his way to work yesterday he realized that he was looking at NYC with the eyes of a tourist and visually framing the various scenes that he would photograph if he had never been here before. They were sights that he passed by daily on his way to work, but had taken little notice of before. 
‘The Thinker’ at the Rodin Museum, Paris ~ Photo: Sara Roizen
In the past few days since being back I have been thinking a lot about how I can nurture this fresh way of seeing. I began thinking about the Zen concept of ‘beginner’s mind’ and how I could apply this to my days. One way of slowing down to see things is to draw, paint, or photograph them. To sit down for any length of time in front of an object or scene and really sketch is an automatic way of seeing it more closely.

I also thought about a Julie Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way. I read it years ago, and one of the main prompts that has stayed with me is what Cameron calls ‘the artist’s date.’ An artist’s date is a time you have set aside for yourself (ideally at least once a week) when you do something by yourself and for yourself that delights the inner child and artist within. It does not have to be art related per se, but anything the inspires you and pushes you to try or see something new. It does not have to be time consuming, expensive, or elaborate and for that matter you don’t necessarily have to leave home each time. For example, you could create a small sculpture that is made entirely from recycled items, peruse a used book store and grab a few books that entice you, or sit quietly in a cafe with a type of tea you have never tried before.

The choices are endless, and so are the opportunities to see each day with the eyes of a traveler…even without leaving home.
Notre Dame, Paris ~ Photo: Sara Roizen
Adam soaking up the Louvre with his camera ~ Photo: Sara Roizen
Sacre Coeur, Paris ~ Photo: Sara Roizen
Amsterdam ~ Photo: Sara Roizen
Ferris wheel in Paris ~ Photo: Sara Roizen

Non-Dominant Hand Art

Sun Mandala ~ Sara Roizen

About a week ago I had surgery on my right (dominant) hand to repair a torn tendon. It was the first surgery I’ve had, and needless to say my anxiety was high at times. There was also the fear surrounding my right hand being  ‘out of commission’ for about a month as I heal from the surgery. As an artist and art therapist both hands are usually covered in paint each day, and yet I had been given strict orders not to use my right hand for now. Hmmm…

I made a deliberate choice before the surgery to frame this whole experience in a positive and creative way. The timing seemed serendipitous, since I had been noticing how fast life had seemed to be moving recently – the days all blurring and feeling as though I was not fully present each day and moment. This has definitely slowed me down, as I navigate each day with the use of only one hand! (For example, typing this post is an exercise in patience and stamina without both hands!)

At work my art therapy clients have adapted beautifully and I am noticing how empowering it can be for them to take even more responsibility for the set-up and clean-up of the art therapy groups. I’m also seeing how disarming (pun intended) it has been for new group members who might feel intimidated to begin making art. When they see me drawing or painting with my left hand they often decide to try – and my spiel about the ‘process and not just the finished product’ now seems more poignant. I am also learning to ask for help when needed, whether from other staff or my clients. This is often difficult for me, and it is turning out to be a good learning experience. 

I started making art the same day that I came home from surgery. I just couldn’t stay away! It has helped me to tolerate the discomfort in my hand and to focus my energy on something I love. There have been many theories about non-dominant hand art and writing. Many believe that non-dominant hand writing/art helps to bypass the conscious/logical side of our brain and help us to access the unconscious. I have personally explored non-dominant hand writing as a way to do inner child work and access more primal and raw emotions and experiences. In addition, there are some studies that explore how non-dominant hand work utilizes the brain differently – some believe that it helps to integrate the right and left hemispheres of the brain.
The pieces in this post were all created with my non-dominant hand. I have been using metallic (silver/gold) permanent markers on black paper and also creating water paintings with my new ‘Buddha Board’ (perhaps a separate post on that later!) I am noticing how relaxed I am when creating non-dominant hand art. Creating art usually helps me enter that ‘zone’ that many of you are familiar with. However I’m finding that I’m entering that quiet space (zone) even more quickly in this current art work.

I would encourage any of you to try creating some non-dominant hand art to experience this for yourself! Try it out and then report back here with your observations!

Wishing you a wonderful holiday weekend… 

City Landscape ~ Sara Roizen 
Overlapping ~ Sara Roizen
Cocoon Woman ~ Sara Roizen
‘Buddha Board’ art ~ Sara Roizen
Chrysanthemum ~ Sara Roizen
‘Buddha Board’ Art ~ Sara Roizen
Bodhi Tree ~ Sara Roizen
‘Buddha Board’ Art ~ Sara Roizen

Mind the Gap

It’s interesting how life can gently provide us with daily reminders. The types of reminders I’m thinking about are the ones that serve to bring us back into the present moment, and find us looking at something familiar with new eyes. 
Living in NYC, it’s incredibly easy to get caught up in the hectic pace of city life. For that matter, it’s easy to get caught up in the daily routine and frustrations no matter where you live! A few weeks ago I was standing on a crowded subway platform and waiting to board a train. As I got pushed aside, stepped on, and bumped into I felt my annoyance surface. I glanced down at my feet (in reaction to being stepped on) and something caught my attention. On the subway platform was a painted message to “Mind the Gap.”

I found my mind pausing (just for a moment perhaps) as I pondered this rather straight forward instruction. Sure, there was the obvious message here…watch where you walk, so that you don’t end up tripping on or getting your foot caught in the gap between platform and train! But that wasn’t why I had suddenly paused. These 3 words had gotten me to actually pause and breathe in the midst of a familiar crowded commute. It would be inaccurate to say that my pause encouraged my fellow commuters to pause. In fact, my stopping for a moment caused a few annoyed people to jostle me in an attempt to (I can only imagine) walk through me. Their actions were predictable, however in that moment, my reaction to their behavior was different. My own reaction changed. Instead of pushing back, I let myself melt into the flow of passengers into the train. I might have even managed to smile at a face of two as I took up temporary residence in a corner of the train.
While writing this, one of my favorite quotes came to mind and I share it here:

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. 
   – Victor Frankl

To me this quote points to one of the foundations of mindful living. We cannot control the behavior, feelings, or reactions of anyone else. However, we always have at least a split second between their action and our reaction. That small amount of time is the space between “stimulus and response” that Frankl refers to. I often talk about this idea with my therapy clients, and remind myself daily of the same thing. We frequently feel propelled by years of social and emotional conditioning to continue in the same familiar patterns and ways of responding to people and situations. Perhaps our patterns are so embedded that we are not even aware of the element of choice in any given moment.

In terms of art making, think of it this way. When you begin a painting (staring at a blank canvas) there are countless possibilities available. You can choose any brush in your collection, any color of paint, any type of mark making, any theme, style, technique. In each interaction you have with that surface and the materials, you are making an actual choice. When we are deeply engaged in the process, we might not be aware that we are constantly making choices because we are so immersed in the process. However, we are making choices every moment of the day. Why not harness this creative power, and try to imbue our days with a little more consciousness as we “mind the gap”?

The Invitation (A Poem)

Photo: Sara Roizen 2011
A friend shared this poem with me over the weekend. I was very moved by it, as it seems to go to the heart of what healing work and process is all about. Read the words and explore what this poem might mean for you personally. Please feel free to comment, and let us know about your own associations and feelings after reading this poem.
The Invitation
by Oriah Mountain Dreamer, Indian Elder 
It doesn’t interest me what you do for a living. I want to know what you ache for, and if you dare to dream of meeting your hearts longing. 
It doesn’t interest me how old you are. I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool for love, for your dreams, for the adventure of being alive. 
It doesn’t interest me what planets are squaring your moon. I want to know if you have touched the center of your own sorrow, if you have been opened by life’s betrayals, or have become shriveled and closed from fear of further pain. 
I want to know if you can sit with pain, mine or your own, without moving to hide it or fade it or fix it. I want to know if you can be with joy, mine or your own; if you can dance with wildness and let the ecstasy fill you to the tips of your fingers and toes without cautioning us to be careful, be realistic, or to remember the limitations of being human. 
It doesn’t interest me if the story you are telling me is true, I want to know if you can disappoint another to be true to yourself. if you can bear the accusation of betrayal and not betray your own soul. 
I want to know if you can be faithful and therefore trustworthy. I want to know if you can see beauty, even when it is not pretty every day, and if you can source your life from its presence. 
I want to know if you can live with failure, yours or mine, and still stand
on the edge of a lake and shout to the silver of the full moon, “Yes!” 
It doesn’t interest me to know where you live or how much money you have. I want to know if you can get up after the night of grief and despair, weary and bruised to the bone, and do what needs to be done for the children. 
It doesn’t interest me who you are, or how you came to be here- I want to
know if you will stand in the center of the fire with me and not shrink back. 

It doesn’t interest me where or what or with whom you have studied. I want to know what sustains you from the inside when all else falls away. I want to know if you can be alone with yourself, and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments. 

Photo: Sara Roizen 2011

Playing Small

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we’re liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
 ~ Marianne Williamson


What would you differently if you fully trusted in yourself? How do you shrink yourself in daily life, to fit more easily into others roles for you? Where is the middle path, between trusting in yourself and making ample room for the viewpoints of another?
I don’t have concrete answers to these questions, however I think they are important questions for us to ask. One of the most powerful ways that we can let the inner light out is by engaging in the creative process – through writing, making music, movement, and art making. When we allow our voice to emerge through the creation of something, we are no longer “playing small.” What are some ways that you can manifest your own creative energy in everyday life? Here are a few simple ideas I’ve come up with to get you started:

1. turn off the t.v. for a while and pick up a book you’ve been meaning to read on a subject you know little about
2. plant an herb garden and if you don’t have space outside, find a corner of your apartment and bring in potted herbs
3. desgin a cardboard fort for your pet (or yourself!)
4. recycle old magazines, but before you do – go through each page and cut/tear out images that grab you and create a pile for a future collages
5. if you take the train to work, get off at a different stop than usual and explore a new neighborhood on your walk home from work
6. take a picture a day for a month using your phone or regular camera and create a visual journal of all the images at the end of the month
7. personalize and decorate your work space with pictures and objects that inspire you and energize your space
8. create your personal “bucket list” and have fun with it…are there any items on the list that you could take steps towards now?
9. create an altered book: go to a used book store and buy a cheap picture book that appeals to you and make it your own by altering the pages with collage, painting, drawing, cutting, and anything else you can think of
10. listen to a genre of music that you hardly ever listen to, or that new artist that you’ve been meaning to check out
11. make a mix cd or ipod playlist for each of your friends
12. make a random video with your phone or camera that tells a story without words
13. rearrange the art on your walls to change up the energy and aesthetics of your space
14. buy yourself a candle or incense that you are immediately attracted to in the store and make a ritual of lighting it each evening when you get home from work
15. sign up for a workshop, event, or class that appeals to your creativity and current interests, and pushes you slightly outside of your comfort zone 🙂

What are some other ways that you have infused your day with creativity?

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

Children & Art

At the easel – about to make some hand print art
Painting a group mural
All children are artists. 
The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.
– Picasso 
Discovering new ways to use a sponge brush!
The joy of creating
The studio wall – an accidental Jackson Pollock

This evening I was looking through some photographs from the past and began to smile…
I had stumbled upon some pictures of children who I had taught art to!

Teaching art to such young children is not quite the way I would describe the process. At this stage it is much more about accompanying the child as he or she explores the art materials. Most children are intuitively drawn to the vibrant colors, interesting textures, and other engaging qualities of art making. I was not an art therapist at the time (this was the year before graduate school), but I already had a sense for how powerful the creative process could be for the children as well as their parents. 

Although the class was specifically designed for children, I soon learned that the adults were benefiting just as much from the art experiences. At first, many of the adults seemed to need “permission” from me to create. Most adults had not picked up a paintbrush since they were their child’s age. However, I repeatedly saw how easily the adults began to “play” alongside their children once they felt a sense of safety and support within the studio.

It was not the children, but the parents who often need to be reminded about the “process over the finished product.” I often saw parents innocently putting finishing touches on their child’s art work. When this happened, I often asked if the parent would like his or her own paper to create on. This was not meant to embarrass them, but rather to provide them with an actual opportunity to create their own art!

By just witnessing (instead of altering) the child’s art, we give them the message that what they create has intrinsic value – whether it’s a single hand print on a piece of paper, or a painting that they have worked on for hours. 

Although I now do art therapy with adults, it is the inner child of the adult who I usually meet during the session. The inner child is often the part of the adult who has been neglected, overlooked, or in some cases – abused. For any adult, real healing cannot take place until the inner child has been honored and heard.

Future posts will explore some of the ways that art therapists work with a person’s inner child through art making and exploration. Stay tuned!

“Visiting” artist
Such intense concentration!