Joan Stanford, author of “The Art of Play,” has graciously written a guest blog for Adventures in Art Therapy! Read ahead for her wisdom and insight about the importance of expression through artmaking.
The universe is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.
I recently attended the NORCATA (Northern California Art Therapists Association) conference in Berkeley and just watched A Beautiful Remedy, a documentary on PBS about arts in medicine so am feeling very connected to the healing power of art expression. While I have worked with various populations (and for several years in the local public schools) I now work mostly for and with people without a client/patient designation. I offer play shops and creative retreats. My intent is to invite anyone to explore with playful art making and through that to connect to themselves, to others and to the world around them with more authenticity and compassion. My book, The Art of Play, released this June, relates my story: how I, a busy innkeeper, wife, and mother found my way to expressive arts and how that opened up a whole new world.
Many of the people who play with me have not touched art materials since preschool or elementary school. Some were more actively engaged previously in some “artistic” pursuit but abandoned that as their adult working lives took over and, now, jump at the chance to reactivate those interests. Others are just curious. Some consider themselves totally “non-creative” but want to see if they can discover something new. Of course, signing up is completely voluntary so that is a huge plus. We have all encountered resistance when clients are mandated to work with us. But my playmates bring their own fear-based resistance. Facing a blank page creates anxiety for most of us. Being asked to trust the process, to let something emerge from within is not easy. That is why I use the word “play.”
We begin with conversation; they may say why they came and what they hope for from the experience. I always stress that play is experimentation—there is no judgment, no mistakes. I offer total permission with the hope that the carefree child part will join in with a sense of curiosity and excitement. We do some warm-ups to stimulate free association, to activate imagination. This allows a shift—visibly sensed—from the outer world to the inner that the safe space provided facilitates. Safety allows risk-taking and the experimentation necessary for discovery. I display a variety of art materials to entice engagement of the senses by attracting the eye and piquing interest.
Self-expression through art making is a birthright of all and evident in the first traces of human existence. I want to help make the process accessible and available so people have a tool for introspection that they will turn to as easily as journaling. When we allow imagery to speak to us we learn something new. Images are our first language and evoke feelings, memories, and associations that our analytical left-brains may not have access to.
My personal practice is creating spontaneous collages in a small six-by-six spiral bound journal. I paste the collage on the right side, and then record the conversation on the left. I might ask, “Who are you?” or “What do you want me to know/remember?” Sometimes I create the collage in response to something happening in my personal life or world events.
After the Paris shootings I did this:
And, later, after the Orlando shootings:
When strong feelings of grief, sadness, helplessness, or anger overwhelm me, the page is a good container. As I create these, the energy is released and can be transformed.
Another more playful image:
People I work with often cannot commit a lot of time or space to playing with imagery so this is a doable option. Tearing words and images from magazines is easy and can be done anywhere—even on a plane. No fancy materials are needed so there are fewer excuses, less avoidance. The words that come are surprising, often poetic and insightful.
As I just read, “The world speaks to us. We just need to learn how to become better listeners.” —Steven D. Farmer, Ph.D.
Hopefully by stressing the playful nature of this powerful work I can invite the wider population to try expressive art making. I know for me it is the key that unlocks insight, healing, and joy!
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