Tis’ the Season for Peeps!

Here we go again- thinking up crazy ideas for the annual Washington Post Peeps Contest! (http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/magazine/peeps ) The deadline is this Monday, the 25th, and we are in it to win!

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We have our idea (but you will have to wait to see what it is!), now we just have to figure out how to make our Peep masterpiece.

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A couple years ago when we created our first Peeps Diorama (Peeper Fever) the kids jumped right in, helping to construct the scene and dress the peeps. Although very different from our first entry, I think this year’s diorama is going to be awesome and the kids are going to have a great time making it!

Wish us luck!

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Oh, the Places You’ll Go!

 In the last month a couple of patients have come into the clinic wanting to make paper airplanes and boats. Using common materials, the patients become sophisticated engineers as they create planes they hope will successfully soar across the clinic and boats that will float in our sink.  Our role as art therapists is to play safety crew making sure the path is clear before take- off and landing!

Ready for take-off

Ready for take-off

 The goal first and foremost is- does the plane fly? Does the boat float?  Sometimes hours are spent just perfecting the design through trial and error. The process of refining the design, changing materials and sometimes starting all over again offers an opportunity for kids to learn resilience and gain confidence.  

Floating the boat

Floating the boat

Making airplanes and boats also allows patients to think about travel and where they might go if their creations could carry them there. Describing the journey, the destination, what and who they would bring with them provides valuable insight into the inner world of the child. For the patient, exploring where they might go helps them imagine a place outside of the hospital and gives voice to the curiosity that most kids have about the world.

Paper airplanes also have a contagious quality. Often, when one person in the art area is creating a paper airplane others come over to join in. As patients share the art table, folding paper airplanes together, friendships can take root.  This is especially valuable for the patients who cannot go to school due to their treatment.  

 paper planes

Being Present

Often, as I hand materials over to my patients, I find myself wondering what they are going to make.  It is easy to get caught up in the final product- what something is “going to be” and what it will look like “when it is all done”.

That is why recently, when I handed a young patient a ball of clay and she replied, “Thanks, I am not going to make anything” she gave me a good reminder of why art making is so helpful in the first place. In our art space, just playing with the art materials is exactly what some of our patients need to be able to do.

A pioneer in the field of art therapy, Edith Kramer, believed that the process of making art, not just the creation of a finished work, could be very therapeutic. She advocated for art therapists to place equal value on the creation process as on the final art product. She trusted that therapeutic value can come from manipulation, exploration and experimentation with art materials.

As this young patient manipulated the clay she laughed and talked about how she enjoys the feel of the clay squishing through her fingers.  She described the color and smell of the clay and watched it change consistency as she saturated it with water. She also expressed how relaxing it is to just play with something, without any intention of making anything. The benefit for this patient came from just being in the moment. Encouraging our patients to use art to be present is an essential process, which allows them to recognize and experience their feelings.

New Year’s Resolution: Make More Art!

I recently spent some time reflecting on this last year and realized that while I worked hard as an art therapist, I neglected my “artist self” by not taking enough time to create my own art. As a resolution for 2013, I am going to try to make time (hopefully every day!) to engage in the creative process.

While this may seem like an easy resolution to stick to, making art is not always an easy or pleasurable task. It can be very agonizing to find the right composition, complimentary colors or to work within one’s own artistic limitations.  It takes courage to start a painting on a blank canvas, flexibility to adjust to a new art material, and confidence to know when the artwork is complete.  These are all parts of the struggle and joy that can go into making art.

As an art therapist, understanding the challenges of making art gives me an appreciation of the incredible work that I ask my patients to engage in every day. Engaging in my own creative process reconnects me to my intuition and feelings, and it often helps me to more deeply connect to my patients’ experiences at the art table.

A little space at home for art

“Look Mom, I’m Sewing!”

Recently, our patients at Georgetown participated in Operation Sock Monkey, creating hand- sewn sock monkeys to donate to kids affected by Hurricane Sandy. Many of the kids had never picked up a needle and thread before so this project provided an opportunity to learn a new skill.

One little girl was especially excited as she learned to sew for the first time. She called her mom over to watch her make her tiny pink stitches.  As she sewed the first leg of her sock monkey she exclaimed, “Look Mom! I’m sewing!”.  Her mom took pictures and there were many “Oos” and “Ahhs” as we all shared in this exciting first-time experience.

As an art therapist (and someone who loves to sew!) it was a joy to witness and share in this little girl’s first experience of sewing.

 

The Art of War

Going through a long term medical treatment can at times feel like a battle. Not only the disease itself, but also the ups and downs of treatment, the medicines, and the blood draws, can feel like an assault to the person going through treatment. For children this can be difficult to process, but art can allow them to make sense of this experience. For some patients, the medical experience finds its way into play and artwork in the form of battles, swords and protective armor.

Recently, a patient created a submarine equipped with toothpick guns and protective force fields made from pipe cleaners and paper clips. Another patient made a protective shield using mosaic tiles and foam core. Both works of art express the patient’s need for protection, feelings of vulnerability and the experience of medical treatment as a battle.

                                       

The Art Space

The art space is a really important part of the experience of the families and patients who come to our clinic. The space helps to transport the patient from the sterile environment of the hospital into an artist’s studio; the art table providing respite from the examination table. No medical procedures are allowed in the art space!

It is also a place where patients can display their artwork- placing their own mark on the landscape of the hospital they spend so much time in. For our kids, the presence and consistency of this space, filled with paintings and pottery, can also be very comforting.  For our parents, coloring with crayons or the smell of Play-doh can bring back happy childhood memories. This space is a kind of sanctuary that makes the medical work the kids and their families do manageable and enjoyable.

One patient invented an orange “monster” called “Bob,” whose portrait hangs proudly on the art closet door. Many kids see him and create their own versions of Bob—indirectly exchanging ideas with patients they may not even know.

We discovered just how keenly aware our patients are of the art space when one of our clay pieces, a tiny green and red dragon, was taken home after living on our shelf for the past year. In the days following the dragon’s departure kids would walk into the art area, look around at the many little objects and paintings and ask alarmed, “Where is the dragon?”  Apparently, he had become the unspoken mascot of our art space! As the days passed more kids continued to ask us where the dragon was and we soon realized that we needed to create a replacement. Here she is guarding the artwork…

Pinch Pots

Each year in October we invite the Georgetown nurses to create pinch pots during one of their monthly administrative meetings. Many nurses come to the meeting excited by the opportunity to create art.

 

Pinch pots are very simple and are created using a technique believed to be 12, 000 years old- one of the first ways that people formed clay objects. The repetitive pinching of the pot and its circular shape can make the creation process very calming.

For our nurses, the creation process stirred up conversation, provided a space for relaxation and allowed for the creation of beautiful pottery!

Art for Relaxation

In the world of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology the kids and their families have to spend a considerable amount of time in the hospital. Sometimes a visit entails a blood draw, an infusion, a scan and at times even surgery. Understandably, the hospital can become a place associated with fear and worry. Fortunately, art can provide a respite from this anxiety.  One very simple way to use art to relieve stress is to color a mandala.

Mandala is the Sanskrit word for circle and these ancient and lovely designs have been the foundation for prayer and meditation throughout Asia for centuries. Even in the West the mandala is found in the stain glass rose windows of churches. The power of the mandala lies with its circular shape, which is believed to be centering and able to produce a calming effect.

Recent studies conducted within the field of art therapy have supported these ancient notions- showing a link between coloring a mandala and the reduction of stress (Van der Vennet & Serice, 2012; Schrade, Tronsky & Kaiser, 2011; Henderson & Rosen, 2007; Curry & Kasser, 2005). In art therapy colors, lines and shapes drawn within the circle can be used to represent feelings. The circle can then, metaphorically, become a container into which these emotions can be safely placed.

As an art therapist, I often suggest coloring a mandala to patients and parents who appear to be struggling with the anticipation of a procedure or are feeling overwhelmed by the hospital experience. Mandalas are also a great way to engage teenage patients who might feel venerable or intimidated, but want to engage in the art making process.

You may want to give it a try! To get started you can draw a large circle on a paper (tracing the edge of a bowl is helpful) and create your own design. You can also find some free mandala coloring templates at: http://www.coloring-book.info/coloring/coloring_page.php?id=209

 

Footnotes

Curry, N. A., & Kasser, T. (2005). Can coloring mandalas reduce anxiety? Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, 22(2), 81-85.

Henderson, P., & Rosen, D. (2007). Empirical study on the healing nature of mandalas. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 1(3), 148-154.

Schrade, C., Tronsky, L., & Kaiser, D. H. (2011). Physiological effects of mandala making in adults with intellectual disability. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 38(2), 109-113.

Van der Vennet, R. , & Serice, S. (2012). Can coloring mandalas reduce anxiety? A replication study. Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, 29(2), 87-92.

 

How Art Therapy Found Me

My journey to art therapy was a winding road and then a final “aha!” moment. I was the recipient of art therapy before I ever realized what it was. Growing up primarily overseas, coupled with the normal angst of adolescence, lead me to rely on art making as a way to cope with, explore and understand my experience. I journaled, collaged, painted and sculpted my way through high school and then went on to take many art classes in college. I saw art as a way of life, but was not certain if it could ever be a way of making a living. After college I went into the world of fashion design, which I enjoyed for several years. Although I didn’t know it at the time, the parts of that work I enjoyed the most were some of the foundations of art therapy- creating, collaborating, and sharing ideas.

I finally came upon the field of art therapy a few years ago when a family member was hospitalized for a long period of time. The months spent at my love one’s bedside, hearing the experiences of the neighboring patients and getting a window into the world of healthcare got me thinking about how I could use art as a tool for healing. After some research I had my big “aha!” moment when I found the incredible field of art therapy.

After a lot of hard work, I graduated with my M.A. in Art Therapy from The George Washington University and have been privileged to work for Tracy’s Kids since May 2011. Often staff and parents will say to me, “You have the best job ever” and I certainly agree!