by Lou Storey, LCSW, LCADC
I can’t even draw a straight line!”
“I have zero talent!”
“I’m no artist!”
“I’m so bad at art it’s embarrassing!”
As a clinical social worker and artist, I have run art expression groups in an assortment of mental health care settings. Variations of these statements can be expected when people find themselves confronted by the task of making art.
The group is advertised as an opportunity for self-discovery through visual art, regardless of experience or proficiency in the arts. Despite this disclaimer, most of my group members begin the group with a degree of discomfort, reluctance, and sometimes even dread of making art. They express feeling unworthy of the activity, citing the fact that they are not artists. This attitude begs the question: is the experience of making art a privilege reserved only to the artist? And then, likewise, is making music meant exclusively for musicians, dancing for dancers only, poetry and prose for the writer alone?
Not all that long ago in our culture, creative pursuits were more commonplace. People kept personal journals, painted watercolor studies of their gardens, sketched while on vacation, and repurposed objects like spools and used bottles into toys or functional items. Social gatherings could include playing musical instruments or singing around a piano with friends and family. These self-generated arts, often born of necessity and limited access to more formal or professional products, was part of our cultural fabric
Today, what was formerly self-generated is now experienced as highly accessible commodities—consumer goods, packaged and highly processed for our passive consumption, but not our active participation. As we begin to compare our efforts to these polished products, we may feel that we come up short. But is this evaluation fair, or is it one-dimensional, focusing on the final product alone while ignoring the value of all that the journey of creativity can offer?
Creating a Net of Safety
Social workers are responsible for “being where the client is”—an adage that reminds us to take into account what the client is thinking and feeling, and to make that the foundation from which clinical activity begins. But if clients are in a place where they may believe they have no mastery and are feeling vulnerable to failure or even ridicule, we need to implement some action toward movement in more positive and secure directions. A therapist friend of mine who runs groups once said that she works to “cast a net of safety” over her clients, creating an atmosphere conducive to free expression and creativity.
After many years of responding individually to the insecurities involved in art making, I began to see a repeating pattern to these behaviors and some consistent themes emerging, as well, in my response. Examining this pattern revealed a set of underlying principles from which I drew up a simple list of statements that addressed those areas of uncertainty and self-doubt. I call that list the “Creativity Pledge.”
At the introductory group session, I will ask the new members, “What are your feelings about making art?” This immediately elicits an enthusiastic response of negative self-deprecating statements. These declarations are so predictable that I have with me a pre-prepared set of file cards, and as each statement is made, I hold up the corresponding card, the text of which is a perfect match to what was just said. The group responds with delight, as if I am a magician doing a fancy card trick. There is no magic to my act, but rather, recognition of the degree to which the general population has been disenfranchised from their own artistic creativity. I then distribute a one-page handout of the Creativity Pledge.
I acknowledge and affirm my right to creative pursuits, such as singing, dancing, making music, art, poetry and performance, and will value my curiosity as a motivator, rather than stymie myself through a judgmental notion of “talent.”
I understand that each of us is unique in what we create, and I will respect that uniqueness, especially my own, by not comparing my artwork in a negative way to anyone else’s artwork.
I will recognize my creative pursuits as a journey and will pay attention to and value my thoughts, feelings, ideas, choices, changes in direction and discoveries that occur throughout my creative process, knowing that the end result is just the tip of the iceberg.
As we begin to read the Creativity Pledge, I raise my hand, as is done when making a pledge, and ask the members to do so as well. This elicits some chuckles. Anything that lightens the mood is welcome in the group. The pledge offers each group member license to abandon the self-defeating, apologetic, and judgmental dialogue-tapes and instead focus on simply enjoying the opportunity to exercise some creative energy, play with color and materials, and explore possibilities.
Themes Blending Art and Life
The goal of the art expression group is not to make art, but rather to explore the many facets of how we experience life. Art making, art history, group discussions, and contribution are the tools that we use for this exploration. Each week introduces a new theme referencing a recognizable element of art and linking it to aspects of life. The first group begins with the creation of a personal mandala. The Sanskrit word “mandala” translates to “circle” and represents wholeness and connectedness in life, ranging from the micro-sized spinning of atoms and cells to the macro-sized ringing rotations of planets and galaxies. As a group, we examine how our lives navigate within circles of friends, family, and community. A personal mandala can reflect upon and give insight into the many meaningful ways we are connected to our world and offers a compelling first art expression group experience.
Other weekly thematic units of the art expression group, linking art to experience, include:
Personal World—Personal Boundaries explores landscape painting, examining how artists through the centuries have been creating landscapes that speak to their own personal vision of “a place.” Examples from art history include the swirling and ephemeral seascapes of J. M. W. Turner, or the fanciful and spirited worlds created by the German artist Paul Klee. Group members are invited to imagine their own personal place, and to consider how we each are the creators of our own world.
Support Systems—The Elements of Art recognizes the ways in which our lives are in need of support from a variety of sources, both internally and externally, just as art is supported by visual and tactile elements such as line, tone, color, space, shape, pattern, and texture. To begin a drawing, we make choices of material, style, and approach. In life, we may do the same, recognizing, sustaining, and utilizing our support system for positive outcomes.
Chronicle Art—Witnessing History invites the group to observe the recounting of history through art. Some examples include Norman Rockwell’s The Problem We All Live With, illustrating a moment from the 1960s American school integration, or Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, depicting the loss and horror of the bombing of Guernica in Northern Spain. Members are invited to consider their own histories, their journey through public events as well as personal milestones and life passages, and to choose those they wish to capture elements of on the page.
Portraits—The Roles We Play investigates the art of portraiture through examination of the many roles we play in life. What can we learn from the ancient portrait of a young man painted on a Roman urn, from da Vinci’s enigmatic Mona Lisa, or from Vincent Van Gogh’s penetrating self-portrait? In portraiture, the artist makes the decision of what roles and characteristics will be expressed. Group members create lists of the various roles they play in life (parent, child, friend, taxpayer, gardener, chocolate lover), and working from that list find ways to illustrate their feelings and thoughts surrounding those roles.
Word Art is prevalent in our culture, from printed advertisements to product packaging. A classic example of Word Art is the iconic “LOVE” painting created by contemporary artist Robert Indiana where the letters L-O-V-E are used as a device to create a compelling and dynamic design. Constructing a compilation of words that have personal meaning and significance, group members play with conveying value through selections in color, shape, and form, as well as expressing meaning inherent to the word itself.
Logic and Emotion—Geometric Design and Balance gives attention to both feeling and logical thought to maintain effective functioning in the world. Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) posits that we have an emotional mind and a logical mind. What would each of those minds look like if illustrated? When emotion and reason work successfully together, a third entity, the wise mind, is created. Keeping this concept as a paradigm, group members recall and then illustrate, through geometric structured patterns and contrasting asymmetrical free flowing markings, personal moments when emotion and logic were at odds but found eventual balance.
Other weekly thematic units connecting life experience to art using a variety of perspectives include: discovering the personal voice in poetry, appreciation of humor and whimsy, reviewing the seasons in relation to lifespan, framing and reframing life stories, and others.
Members may create as many pieces as they desire, and if they find themselves inspired to move in directions that differ from the initial theme, all creative efforts are appreciated. Members are also encouraged to suggest themes and new avenues of art expression to investigate. The weekly artistic accomplishments are stored in individual portfolios made from oversized poster boards that are simply folded horizontally in half.
Art Expression Group Portfolio Review
The last session of the art expression group involves reflection and assessment of time together as a group by reviewing the contents of the art expression group portfolios. The group begins with each member spending some time looking through his or her artworks and reflecting on which pieces hold strong personal meaning, with the goal of choosing a selection to share with the group. Members present their art and share their thoughts and feelings. The other members are asked to be conscious of their own feelings in regard to what is being said.
As each member finishes his or her narration, other members write out their reactions to what was presented and the notes are collected in an envelope. Each art expression group member will leave the group with not only his or her artworks, but with an envelope of heartfelt responses from fellow members that speak to his or her importance as part of the group.
As the group facilitator, my hope is that the group members will continue their journey of exploring the world through art expression, build confidence in their relationship to art, and continue to feel free to play and create through any and all forms of art.
The groups are not without their challenging moments. Once, in the first session of an art expression group, during the part of the creativity pledge that affirms the “right to creative pursuits such as singing, dancing, making music, art, poetry and performance,” I was confronted by a group member who exclaimed, “You’re an artist. This is easy for you to say. What if I told you it’s okay to sing out loud, would you be able to do that right now?” The challenge was intuitively a good one, as I immediately experienced fear of failure and embarrassment that no doubt paralleled their own apprehension of art-making.
“Well,” I said, taking a deep breath as the group leaned forward, eager to see how this situation might play out, “I would consider doing so, with the support of the group.” I was remembering back to the last time I’d really enjoyed singing, a journey that took me far back into childhood. With some trepidation, but willing to give it a try, I began, “Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream.” At this point, I gestured to the table, inviting others to join in—and they did. Soon, we had several spirited rounds going. The net was cast. Creativity was now safe to join us.
Lou Storey, LCSW, LCADC, is in private practice at Meaningful Therapy Center, LLC, in Red Bank, New Jersey. He is an adjunct professor in the graduate social work school at Monmouth University. He is also an exhibiting artist.