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Art Therapy

30 November 2011


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A  Glimpse  into Moments during Art Therapy Sessions in
Scoil Iosa, Convent Primary School, Ballina. Co Mayo
( all names in this article  have been changed and faces blurred to protect identity) 

Children at art class

 Children at Art Therapy

They come charging down the corridor to the art therapy studio.  The school rule advises walking, but when eight 7 year olds in First class sense the muse in themselves and know well the session time limit of 45 minutes, speed matters.  They fill the chairs and place the easels. There is a brief recall of their recent school tour by minibus to visit farmyard animals and a reassurance from me that "your picture is the best picture for you,'' then  they are tuned in. " What part of the tour did you like best?'' Paint it!  Art therapy is one place where the child /adult artist is in control. They lead, I follow. Their work is not criticised, to do that is tantamount to criticising them. A little girl starts painting wheels, then an engine is loosely put in place, then many windows are added in the trailer and they are filled with blocks of coloured paint.  As she paints, she calls out to her pals to come and see how she has painted them! And who sits where? 

Hay Diving

Hay Diving

Tom paints a semi-abstract piece entitled "hay - diving for chocolate bars'' which the farmer has kindly put in place.  Their fun and joy are palpable.  Another artist paints three lambs, standing mystified at this invasion of their pasture!   What matter if one lamb has an extra leg with which to jump and frolic?   Then it is story time – a time to own their art pieces and for them that is akin to saying "look at me! look what I can do?'' They assist in cleaning up the mess and someone will surely ask if there is a sweet to cap their pleasure! There is no choosing a first or second - everybody is a winner.  Art therapy is all about process, not product.  I love to pore over their art pieces again for myself and to marvel at all the steps the young artists put in place to achieve the finished piece and yes! I enjoy the occasion again. 

Some children come by themselves where parents/guardians agree that a need exists.  At 8 years of age, Don felt much responsibility on his shoulders mingled with anger after a parent's tragic death.  He often chose clay and he constructed large 3D forms, often with him climbing on top.  Because he rarely managed to join the pieces together properly, his construction invariably collapsed.  The process confirmed his own vulnerability.  It is easier to talk about the art piece than to talk about oneself. Art is a tool to communicate, neither better nor worse than verbal therapy, but it is easier for a child who may not have the language for verbal therapy. 

The Volcano
The Volcano

One day Don asked for a large sheet of paper and a biro instead of a pencil, and he drew and drew! To me it seemed a colossus, a massive statement about himself and his world.  He had so much to "carry'' in order to survive, he had to be the colossus, to be invincible. The picture was filled with emotion and the studio was a safe place to explore feelings without being judged. The colossus gave him permission to have his anger, to say and use language that would not be accepted elsewhere.  He invited me into his story. In accepting the invitation, he knew I would not abandon him.  Moya, an eleven year old girl who was noticed by her mother as having some issue,  needed space and time doing art therapy.  Working with clay by herself, she formed and re-formed it until finally it seemed as if the image of a volcano grew in her!.  We 'played' with it.   We noted its depth, its thick hot spewing contents, its rumblings, its surroundings.  The 'play' part was necessary as focusing on herself would stop the flow. Finally, at the end of the session she was silent a while.  Then in a small voice she said  "sometimes, I feel like a volcano.......'' Pent up feelings of frustration and anger were powerfully expressed, and transmuted. We returned to the volcano many times in the following sessions.  There is more to the image than meets the eye.  With clay one goes from formlessness to form.  Art sometimes signals problems or releases emotional blocks, then learning follows. Being there for them, giving them a special time for them to use for uncensored self-expression, implies that I CARE  FOR THEM.  For me, discovering art therapy 14 years ago was totally providential.

 childrens art

 Childrens Art



Phyllis Surlis RSM
Phyllis Surlis RSM studied Art Therapy at Pratt Institute, New York from 1995 - 1997 and she got an M.A. there in 1997.


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