Friday, November 5, 2010

ATx á la carte speaks to this heart

A Flock of Hands
What happens when you put hundreds of art therapists together in a convention center? I found out when the American Art Therapy Association convened their annual meeting this week in Sacramento. I'd been wondering what it would be like to enter a space filled with people who believe that making images and guiding others in the creation of images is a sacred, healing and deeply passionate practice.

One among the flock of hands
Riding up an escalator, I discovered a flock of hands covering vast areas of the lobby. Winding my way through, I found this one, whose message channeled the words of a 12th century saint, Julian of Norwich:"And all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well."

Filled with anticipation, I landed in a room in which several therapists were discussing grief and loss, my sphere of interest.

Elizabeth Stone, an art therapist who lives in France, works with cancer patients. Her presentation told the poignant story of a mother who had died of cancer and her daughter, who was grieving the loss of her mother. While showing us a series of images of both the mother and the daughter's artwork, she described the healing of wounds that reached back through 3 generations.
Art That Speaks, An Exhibition of Art Therapy in Oncology

Following her talk, another panelist noted: "You broke all the right rules." (Elizabeth had made several unconventional decisions in her treatment.)

Breaking the rules became my own theme for the conference. When I'm engaging in art therapy,  I often find myself of two minds. One part of me is working from the "rules;" the theories and philosophies one studies in school. By the book, as it were.  At the same time, the intuitive part of me is receiving ideas and images of what to do next in the session. Over the years, I've learned to weigh what I call my right and left brain options and then go with my gut. Some part of me knows then to trust my heart over the rules and understands that it is more important to nurture the relationship, whatever that is at the moment, than to stick by the book. Nevertheless, I've always been a bit embarrassed about advertising this because I work in an academic institution.

But today I let go of my qualms. A well known art therapist, Linda Chapman, got up and gave a talk on neurobiology in the clinical setting. After explaining the way that the brain receives and processes information, she told us about the case of a violent young man she had as a client. She described her process of "receiving images" as she worked with this teen. During the sessions, she found herself doing a number of unconventional things, including playing peek-a-boo with him. (Part of her developmental repairative work.) Many were amazed and stunned and I walked out of the session feeling validated for my sometimes out of the ordinary approach.

Break the Rules, 9" x 12," ©2010, Hannah Hunter
It's easy to get overloaded with all the "clini-speak" and I was. Fortunately, for we art therapists at a conference, there's a solution: an entire part of an exhibition hall devoted to art making. I headed down there and made this collage.

This week, I heard the first verse of a poem by Galway Kinnell, which speaks of this necessity:

St Francis and the Sow
The bud
stands for all things,
even those things that don't flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on its brow
of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing...


  1. Your words on the event, your art piece and this most beautiful poem speaks to my art making heart. I would imagine overload to come easy in such a vital situation but it is so important to share and support...great post.

  2. Thank you Blue Sky. I just returned from this morning's key note address featuring a speaker from your neck of the woods: Seena Frost! Wonderful to hear her again.

  3. Oh my, what a healing post, I should have have taken 3 mental health days and gone to the this AT conference, too. Sounds like it would have been salve to a nurse's soul, your posts certainly are.

  4. Linda Chapman and Seena Frost were both fabulous. Funny - I saw you, and recognized you, and yet could not place where I knew you from so I didn't approach! So glad you enjoyed the conference too

  5. Amy, I wish you could have been there too--I think that you would have especially enjoyed the communal art area filled with paints, clay, masks and collage materials. Next time...

    Phoenix, How amazing! It was indeed a marvelous conference.

  6. Hi Hannah
    I truly appreciate the way that you communicate the crossover between the work of the academic and intuitive branches of our brains and our gut level capacity to engage in the healing process.

    During my years as Artist in Residence for The Art Studio, Center for Therapy Through the Arts the Ex. Director often encouraged me to follow my intuition in designing workshops that clearly 'broke the rules'. She remarked more than once, "You have lived what art therapy attempts to teach."

    When Art Therapists attend studios that I design they invariably remark at the manner in which my own healing from deep violence and trauma have created a channel that no text book or formal teaching can garner...

    The beauty is that there is room for all approaches and modalities provided they do no harm and extend a 'compassionate hand'.

    You've got it going on ;-)
    Blessings indeed,

  7. Donna, Wonderful comments. I think that sometimes we are in danger of losing the truly magical essence of what makes art therapy work--it's a delicate balance between intuition and theory. It's also been my experience that as you said, one's own hard won experience is one of the best teachers when coupled with theory and practice.
    Thanks for your acknowledgment--it means a lot...

  8. Summing up this educational post with your artwork and this beautiful poem make it the perfect package. I know you use your heart in working with people and being a friend. Thank you:)

  9. Why thanks Beth--your comment makes me think of a time long ago when my two kids were in Waldorf School. The school often described their educational approach by saying that it involved the child's "head, heart and hands." I think that says it all.

  10. So glad to have found a fellow SoulCollager through Laura's blog. Am loving reading your posts, little by little, and your art and SoulCollage cards are as powerful as they are beautiful.

  11. Thank you for coming by--and about SoulCollage--it was inspiring to hear Seena Frost speak at the AATA conference. I'm looking forward to incorporating some of what I learned in my upcoming groups and sharing that here.