art therapy

Village Shalom, hate crimes and art therapy

UnknownThis art therapy blog is based in Overland Park, Kansas. Along with writing this blog, I have spent the past eleven years conducting art therapy groups at Village Shalom Retirement Center. Village Shalom, as many know, is one of the locations of this week’s horrific hate crime which took the lives of three innocent people. Much of the media attention has focused on what took place outside of the building, but I would like to give readers of this blog some insight into what takes place inside of the building. Village Shalom is one of those remarkable places that is truly filled with love. Trite as that might sound, it is the only way to describe the facility. Dedicated employees spend their days, nights and weekends caring for a generation of people who witnessed unspeakable crimes against humanity. Many of these residents fled their countries of origin in search of a better world in the United States, and then devoted their lives to giving back to the country that took them in when other nations closed the doors to their plight. The irony of a hate crime at this particular location, with the victim being a woman whose life was dedicated to serving others, must not go unnoticed.

The depth of the art therapy groups at Village Shalom, as residents face their own mortality and begin to look back on their 20th century lives, is profound. One topic which we cover often is the existential question of living well in spite of the collective upheaval and shocking atrocities many of the residents experienced during the Holocaust. From their vantage point as octogenarians and beyond, the overall message gleaned from this generation is to choose goodness in the world, to prevent the pockets of evil and hatred from flourishing.This type tenacity is one we should all apply to this week’s tragedy.

In keeping with the goals of this art therapy blog, I will present a small art therapy exercise along this theme. This particular art exercise relates to the current exhibit showing in the Epsten Gallery, (a gallery located at Village Shalom) called, Looking at After: Four Contemporary Artists Reflect on Legacy l A Creative Spark: The Art of Anna Ilona Gondos. This beautiful art show includes art by a Holocaust survivor (who happened to be my husband’s grandmother), Anna Ilona Gondos. As an inmate in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1944, Anna spent her days teaching art classes to children in the camp, using sticks and dirt. The creativity, strength and courage to exhibit this type of hope in such despicable conditions illustrates the ultimate form of resilience. Another piece in the art show is by local artist, Tanya Hartman. In a series of eight giant panels, she writes the line, “What was beautiful today?” followed by something she found beautiful in her day. Her work encapsulates thousands of days of repeating this activity, until she was able to retrain her brain to automatically recognize what was truly beautiful in her day. Tapping into these two ideas, which really boil down to attitude, please find some pen and paper and write the words, “What was beautiful today?” and fill in your answer. Recovering from a trauma such as the one that the Kansas City community experienced this week? Try it for several days, and see how it can alter your attitude toward a positive place.




Art and the systems of your life.

imagesDid you know that you are part of a system?  In our 21st century lives, it is easy to think of ourselves as individuals, and not connected to our circles of people in any way. Isn’t that what the 20th century Western world has led us to believe? Me, Me, Me, and Me. This line of thinking does not really parallel the overall trends in human history, nor what biology tells us about how homo sapiens are wired. Even in the mental health field, the trend over time has been to pathologize the individual, and remove them from their “system” to make them better. As a veteran employee of the in-patient psych world, I can attest here to the high recidivism rates when adhering to this line of thinking.

Let’s think about your system. Please find some paper and a writing utensil and spend a few minutes creating a family portrait. “Family” is a loose term which might mean your family of origin, the current people with whom you reside or even your workmates.  Rather than drawing actual people, faces or stick figures, please draw cogs (like the image in this blog entry) to represent each person in your family. As you assign a cog for each person, please think of how much power or presence they have within the system, and represent this power (or lack of power) with the size of their cog. Think of other emotions or behavior exhibited within the family. Can you stretch your imagination to represent this in the cog you draw for that person? Are the cogs close together and humming along nicely? Are any of the teeth broken, causing the entire system to be shut down? Could you change or fix the system if something is not working? Can you recognize a problem being caused or solved by the entire system working together? If you were to draw separate images to represent your family of origin and your current family as cogs, do you see any patterns that have been repeated?

The bottom line is that we create each other. This simple art exercise might bring up some powerful feelings or insight into your current dynamics. Investigating family dynamics as a system can be an enlightening  opportunity to address a family or individual’s problem. The risk sometimes involves investigating how you yourself might be contributing to the problem. If you find that you have a visceral experience to this art exercise, please do yourself a favor and track down a local art therapist or marriage and family therapist to further explore your raw feelings.

Perception- the art of seeing

photo-66Perception is defined as: the way you think about or understand someone or something. 

How Do You See?

The mosaic pictured is a QR code for this art therapy blog. A few years ago, this mosaic might have just looked like a replica of an ancient one found in an excavated Roman ruin. You might be standing in front of this mosaic at an art gallery, and have found your way to this post via your QR code scanner on your smart phone.

This QR technology allows this mosaic to no longer be just a mosaic, but an interactive, fluid art piece that will constantly change, yet remain the same. Your knowledge of the technology needed to interact with this piece of art makes all the difference, thus altering your perception of its layers of meaning.

QR codes, or “Quick Response” codes have quickly crept into our lives as yet another means to access information. Really, they can be observed as a metaphor for rapid access into another world. In their simplicity, they can reveal something far beyond what can be understood at the surface level.

Using this metaphor of QR codes and smart phone technology, is there anyone in your life whom you are misreading or not comprehending? Can you go back through your day and think of any encounters with others that you would like to revisit? Perhaps you judged someone only superficially?

Can you imagine how different your interaction might be if you had QR technology to access parts of their psychic apparatus? Would you see them differently and at a deeper level? Would you have been more; patient, kind, loving, forgiving etc? When we really open our eyes and hearts to those around us, it becomes clear that we all have natural  “QR technology” to genuinely perceive the world around us. This is the beauty of perception.

Art therapists spend years training to hone their skills of perception, to truly understand their clients and their clients’ artwork. In a clinical setting, traditional talk therapy can move slowly based on the defenses we have built up though language. When art making is introduced, tremendous insight can be gained quickly. Art making, as neuroscience is confirming, can serve as a fantastic partner when exploring issues that have been buried for years in one’s subconscious. The goal is to blend art making, memories, and feelings to assist individuals in growth and healing from their wounded identities.

Mediation and Art Therapy

1348638108_peace-sign-coloring-pages-31     The courtroom is not always the best place to solve a problem. As a mediator in the small claims court in my county, I have witnessed seemingly impossible conflicts get resolved with very creative solutions when cases get booted out to mediation. It turns out that most cases can be solved outside of the courtroom if both parties are willing to hear each other out under the guidance of a great listener. The role of an effective mediator is to not tell the parties what to do, but to empower them to craft their own solution by moving from their positions (what each party wantsto interests (why they want it). Judges don’t take people’s emotions into consideration, but in mediation it always becomes crystal clear that strong emotions often make up the true foundation of most cases.

For today’s art exercise, please think of a conflict you might be dealing with in your life. Write it down at the top of the page. Below this, write or draw about the emotions and feelings you have attached to this conflict. Can you get the opposing party to do the same? These emotions with conflict often involve: pride, shame, jealousy, fear, anger, embarrassment, disappointment etc. Any of these ring a bell? While defending or hiding these emotions in a conflict, we can often get stuck in our “position” on the matter. Once we are more transparent with our interests, an opportunity for creative resolution can occur.

Now take your paper and draw a line dividing the rest of the paper down the middle. On one side, please write or draw about your position connected to your conflict, or WHAT you want connected to this problem. On the other side please write down your interests or WHY you want this resolved. Drawing rather than writing can be a powerful tool to identify complicated issues. Using symbols or metaphor to represent your issues might help you gain a better understanding of the situation. Even stick figures can pack a powerful punch when trying to express your inner thoughts and feelings.

( One example: A barking dog is driving a neighbor crazy.  The dog owner doesn’t care about the neighbor and feels he has the right to let his dog do whatever it wants on his own property. This is his position he feels strongly about. Once he comes to mediation he learns that the neighbor is a soldier who recently returned from combat duty and is triggered by sounds such as barking dogs. With this new information,  the dog owner softens on his position and shows empathy to the neighbor, thus allowing room for a creative resolution to the problem. This type of emotional exploration would not have happened had the case remained in the court room for a judge to sort out. )

Even if you are not yet involving the other party at this point in dealing with your conflict, this exercise will most likely you enlighten you. If you are able to move from your position to interest,  you will be altering the course of the conflict. Try it, and have a peaceful day!

Boston Marathon bombing and art therapy interventions

sherryjacobswebThis week’s bombing at the Boston Marathon is yet another tragic event testing Americans’ sense of resilience. The flavor of comments floating around the media in the aftermath are, “You messed with the wrong city” meaning that Boston is far too strong of a town to let acts of barbaric terror bring it down. This thought process actually is the result of dozens of generations steeped in the collective memory of the American Revolution. The attitude that freedom will be preserved even in the wake of cowardly acts of violence is one we sadly have had tested too often this year. At this writing, the source of the blast is unknown, leaving citizens confused and on alert.

One notable and amazing element to this event which took place in the immediate aftermath was the reaction of people standing close by after the bombs exploded. The video footage showed people running toward the explosion rather than away in an attempt to rescue victims. In a post 9/11 world, all Americans have become the first responders. Many lives were saved due to this visceral and immediate response. In today’s art exercise, we will use the strength of Bostonians and everyday citizens who were present and mimic their resilience through an art exercise.

Please find some pen and paper and take a few minutes to write words, images or symbols all over your paper in no particular order. Let your imagination wander all over the place in your mind, and jot down information about: emotional, historical, social, political issues relating to this incident. Make sure to write the words or symbols all around the paper. This exercise is designed to explore feelings that are often hard to capture in our linear way of speaking and writing. Once you have completed this, leave it for several hours or a day, then go back to it, and circle some words or images that seem connected to one another on the page.

How are you feeling based on the information you jotted down? This exercise can be a great process to explore our subconscious. Can you find someone to share your information with to help you process your feelings? If you have an overall positive outlook, can you connect with the resilient individuals we have witnessed this week? If you are feeling very negative, is there a way to bridge your feelings to those individuals who showed extreme courage this week? If you are looking for more art therapy interventions, please look around this blog and adapt other exercises to this topic.

Because the Boston Marathon attracts such a global crowd, I assume people in most parts of the world might have strong feelings connected to this race and everything it represents. Our hearts go out to the victims and their families.

Mastering Boredom

DSC_0389Snow Day? Free time? Screen time? The catalyst for this blog entry comes on a full fledged snow day in which my city has come to a screeching halt with inches upon inches of beautiful snow. After the initial hours of joy on this type of day, boredom is often the next mood that sets into the average home of homebound individuals. Our latest technology seems to dictate how we march through these kind of days, screens in hand. Before you grab a screen if you find yourself with some free time, can you find some time to just sit? The art therapy exercise today is to just sit without any distractions. Are you up for the challenge?

One of the biggest casualties of our brave new world just might be boredom. We are so over connected and overwhelmed with lack of time in the western world, and our devices most likely are the culprit. The word boredom even has very negative connotations in this era, but this constant distraction to avoid boredom at all costs just might be dampening our creativity.I am inspired by the story J.K. Rowling has shared in many interviews on her moment of inspiration for the Harry Potter series. She was on a train, without any reading materials or writing journals, and the train experienced a several hour delay. While staring out of the window wondering how to pass the time, she shared that the entire series hit her like a bolt of lightning, and had she been engaged in a book or actively writing in a journal, this entire story might not have ever been imagined.

Another source of inspiration to encourage you to find some time to be bored comes from Thomas Edison. Edison had an arm-chair in his lab that he would sit in during the day while holding two balls in his hand, with the balls facing down. When he would begin to drift off into a alpha or theta state of consciousness, the balls would drop with a thud, arousing him into a state of full consciousness. He would jump up and capture all of his thoughts on paper. He shared that this need to stop and just sit without any distractions was a key element in developing his ideas.

Try it. Record your thoughts after sitting.  Good Luck!

First World Complaints


Do you have any complaints today? Before you read on, please quickly jot them down.

The inspiration for this blog entry is from the video (see link below) of people in Haiti repeating first world complaints.  Can you imagine a person in a third world country who is dealing with their basic survival needs hearing/repeating your complaint or validating you and your current predicament? This blog entry is not meant to minimize your gripes, but to use our extremely polarized paradigm of the earth’s inhabitants to re shape your view. Expanding your lens is a powerful tool to put things in perspective and/or minimize their level of seriousness. The statistics are that 70% of the world’s population lives south of the Equator, yet 70% of the world’s resources are north of the equator, leading to some serious “haves” and “have nots”. Our interconnected world makes access to images and other people’s plights crystal clear.

If you have taken any basic psychology classes, you are probably familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The basis of Maslow’s theory is that until the basic needs are being met ( food, water, shelter, clothing),  self actualization is not possible, because so much of our brain space is being used in an attempt to meet those basic needs. There are several other layers to this model between meeting the basic needs and arriving at a state of self actualization. No need to feel guilty if you have these basic things covered.

The path toward self actualization probably includes minimizing the complaining, or if your goals are not so lofty, you might want to consider complaining less if you find your friends or workmates are annoyed by you. We will conclude this exercise with another list, this time writing some things you are thankful for today. Studies have been done on people writing daily thankfulness lists to combat depression, and the results have been surprisingly profound.

Mind Maps and Art Therapy

1206565055109646538keikannui_neuron-interneuron_2.svg.hiSorting out a lot of information? Trying to make a plan but have many options? Mind Maps are a great tool to visually observe all of your options for any given situation. We tend to live in a very linear world due to the limits of verbal communication allowing us to only say one word after another.  As students, most people tend to take notes following this model of linear thinking and transmitting information. Mind maps offer another option and one that allows for a more visually stimulating opportunity to process information.

Please think of a goal, a plan for the near future, or a problem. Find some paper and a writing utensil. If you are feeling extra creative use several different colors of marker or colored pencils. Write or draw your current situation in the middle of the page. Think of several different options for the choices relating to this and begin to draw or write words around the initial image on the page. This mind map might resemble a neuron, a star fish, an amoeba or a sun with rays. Think of the pros and cons of each path, and include this in your information. Think of what each choice will lead to if you continue on one of the paths as a solution to the original predicament.  Maybe assign a color to the different options you are presenting on this mind map. The result should be a visually stimulating array of options and more in line with how our brain really works. Hopefully this technique can help you sort out all of your options to figure out the best path to take to reach the end goal.

It is very easy to not make a plan in many situations, because change and growth often requires tremendous amount of work. Not making a choice though is actually making a choice that you are settling for the status quo. Change can be painful, disruptive, challenging but is always rewarding in the end.

Bullies and Victims- They all need a little love.

photo-36In the wake of the horrific tragedy of Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, tighter gun control policies have been the primary topic on the airways, with little discussion on mental health issues of the gunman. Our nation is still in a state of shock and disbelief as we grieve from afar with the families and community of these young victims, perhaps preventing the conversation from focusing on the motives of a very deranged individual.

At this point, there is speculation of an Asperger’s diagnosis for the gunman, and reports that he was a quiet and socially awkward young man. Assuming this is a correct diagnosis, it is important to stretch one’s thinking beyond the diagnosis and consider the social dynamics a person with Asperger’s often encounters in their life.  As an art therapist working in the trenches of the mental health field, bullying and victimization still is a topic driving kids to commit acts of violence on themselves and others. Sadly, the bullies and victims suffer equal kinds of pain. My guess is that at some point, the topic of bullying might surface relating to the tragedy in Sandy Hook. This post will explore our own connection to bullying and victimization.

Most likely everyone has encountered some type of bullying or victimization in their lives, either at school, within the family, or even in the work place. There are multitudes of books written on this topic, but today we will explore empathy. Can you think of a time you were a bully or a victim? Please spend a few minutes writing or drawing about it. What happened? How did it make you feel? Was it pervasive enough to shape your personality? How did you react to your situation?

If you were the victim, and now have some distance from your bullying experience, can you identify what might have led the bully to behave in the way they did? Were they bullied themselves? Did they have something painful happening in their home life? Most bullies are usually being bullied themselves, and when they finally arrive in a mental health setting and have the layers of emotions peeled back, sadness and pain are often at the root of their actions. Did you repeat the behavior of becoming a victim again in another setting? Bullies are very good at finding a vulnerable person to be their victim. If you were conditioned to be the victim at an early age you might have replicated this behavior over and over in your life. Admitting to this pattern can be the beginning of this journey towards healing.  Finding empathy for a bully/abuser can empower a victim into becoming a survivor.

If you were a bully, can you identify what led you to victimize people? Were you bullied? Can you identify feelings from being bullied yourself? Did you feel empowered when you bullied others? Were sadness and pain at the root of the cause of your bullying behavior? Can you ask for forgiveness to the people you bullied if you still have contact with them?

Sadly, these early experiences, often shape who we become. Carrying the pain around can be debilitating, and is often the root of so much anguish. The question to ask yourself is, are you controlling your emotions or are they controlling you?

Relating this back to the Sandy Hook tragedy, there seems to be much talk about what we can do in our own communities. The common thread running through all of the past tragedies involving innocent lives lost to random acts of violence is the lack of love, respect and attention these gunmen were getting from people in their peer groups. Can you look around your current environment and befriend a person who looks isolated or lonely? This random act of kindness can make all the difference to creating more compassionate communities.


Collaboration vs. competition

Collaboration vs. competition

Which world do you live in: one in which people get along and work together or one in which “survival of the fittest” is the theme? Your answer to this question most likely is an indicator of your current level of happiness.  Please take a minute to find some paper and a writing utensil for today’s art directive. Think of where you spend most of your day. Make an image of a symbol representing you in the middle of the page. Your symbol might represent the role you play in your setting. Please think of the other main people you surround yourself with in your daily environment. Take a minute to think of each person as a symbol. Symbols can be powerful images which translate complicated ideas into a visual concept.  This simple art directive can speak volumes about your current predicament. Is there a main source of stress, or one person altering the mood of your setting? Is there anything you can do to alter the mood or change the dynamics?

If your current setting is one with fierce competition, this might be a source of stress. It turns out that humans and animals are really wired for a world in which collaboration is the guiding principle. In our early 21st century worldview, we might be seeing a slight paradigm shift towards this style of thinking and living, even on the playground and in wildly popular apps like “Minecraft”.  Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” original theme of evolution has really been mangled to fit the needs of a late 20th century line of Western thinking, highlighting the supposed norms of greed and massive income inequality. He did not actually coin this phrase, and felt very uncomfortable with it being connected to his work. Let’s just all be friends….it’s how we are wired.