Sunday, December 21, 2008

Solstice and Hope

I’m watching the snow outside through the window from inside on the couch. I’m spending the day in my bathrobe as I recover from a virus. It happens to be Friday, my day off, and it’s snowing like crazy here. If I felt better I might bundle up and go outside to enjoy the experience. “Enjoy” is the wrong word. I don’t like being cold. It brings up a lot of sad feelings from the past. Winter in general is a hard time for me with its darkness.
2 Days Later… I’m starting to think about hope. My health has returned and some energy came with it. The sun is peeking through the clouds and reflecting brightly off the snow left behind by the past week’s weather. Still friggin cold out there, but there are moments of beauty – especially if you are out of the wind.
It gives me hope. I recently had the pleasure of attending a speaking engagement by Evan Handler. You may remember him as the bald, Jewish love interest of Miranda in the series, “Sex in the City.” Turns out he is a cancer survivor and also a fine author as well. (See: “Time on Fire" and “It’s Only Temporary”). He was on a book tour and came to Ann Arbor as part of it. I have read his first book and I’m on the waiting list for the second one from the library.
One of the notions I came away with from his talk was this: There is no such thing as false hope. Mr. Handler claims that false hope is an oxymoron. Handler was frequently being admonished by his doctors against false hope. He had a type of leukemia that at the time had a 90% fatality rate. Mr. Handler understood this to mean that a full 10% of people with his disease would be cured! In his description of the experience it seemed as if the doctors were trying to protect their own feelings, rather than those of their patients. The doctors had lost many patients. Evan Handler’s doctors expected their patients to die. It was hard for them to retain hope for individual patients in their care.

I can’t solve the mortgage crisis alone or rescue the auto companies in Detroit – though my tax dollars will be earmarked to this end for the foreseeable future. But I hope all will be well in the financial world. I hope the stock market stabilizes and grows again. I hope our work continues to joyfully sustain us. I hope our health stays solid.
Hope is defined by Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary (mine from high school) as “desire with the expectation of fulfillment.”
My hope looks like this: We will have sunny days again. The days will get longer from now till late June. At the solstice I am reminded that natural light really does affect my mood. I need and want more of it. Hope is back with tilted axis of the earth in its orbit.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

World Class

I am lucky enough to live near a city with a world class art museum. The Detroit Institute of Arts. I’ve been going to the DIA since I was a baby. It was a place my mother loved to visit and she would sometimes take me. My mother was in high school when Diego Rivera was painting his famous “Industry” murals in the DIA courtyard. She watched him at work on the scaffolding after school.

The DIA became a second home to me. I hung out there a lot as an adolescent. I was an art student at Cass Tech, and the Art Institute enriched my studies as much as it comforted me with its familiar sights, sounds, smells, lights, and shadows. Returning to the DIA now comforts me just as much.

My favorite things today included a wonderful black and white photograph of Andy Warhol visiting Detroit. I saw photos by Andre Kertesz and Henri Cartier-Bresson. There is currently a special exhibition, “From Monet to Dali,” from the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art. Included were some truly luminous Monet paintings. Reproductions don’t do justice to the light captured by Monet. I could hear the sounds and feel the air and smell the summer captured in his paintings. They felt alive to me. Although I was surrounded by people, even jostled at times, it felt like I was the only one there. Everything fell away around me when I stood before these thrilling works.

It was a wonderful day. I love visiting the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Whole Mind

From another book about the brain, “A Whole New Mind,” by Daniel H. Pink, I have culled the following: Roger W. Sperry (Cal Tech professor, Nobel Prize winner in medicine) reshaped our understanding of our brains. In the 1950s Sperry studied patients that had had surgery separating their brain hemispheres (as a treatment for epilepsy). He discovered that the established hemispheric dominance/subordinance theory of the brain was flawed. Yes, our brains are separated into two halves. But as he put it, “The so-called subordinate or minor hemisphere, which we had formerly supposed to be illiterate and mentally retarded and thought by some authorities to not be even conscious, was found to be in fact the superior cerebral member when it came to performing certain kinds of mental tasks.” In other words, the right wasn’t inferior to the left. It was just different. “There appear to be two modes of thinking,” Sperry wrote, “represented rather separately in the left and right hemispheres, respectively.”

The left hemisphere reasons sequentially, excels at analysis, and handles words. The right hemisphere reasons holistically, recognizes patterns, and interprets emotions and nonverbal expressions. Human beings are literally of two minds.
*We need both / ALL / parts of the brain to function at our best.*

Contrary to some 1980's beliefs about right brain - left brain functioning, high levels of creativity require an integration of right and left hemispheric functioning which, with repeated exercise, results in an increase of the micro neural pathways in the corpus callosum. If you think about that for a moment, then you can clearly see the benefits of an art centered approach to therapy.
I’m just sayin…

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Neuroplasticity - The Brain Changes!

I’m spending more time reading about neuroplasticity. I am just wrapping up “The Brain that Changes Itself,” by Norman Doidge, M.D. and Bruce Perry, M.D., Ph.D.’s book, “The Boy Who was Raised as a Dog.” Both of these doctors’ books report new knowledge of the brain’s insults and its astonishing ability to recover. These are cutting edge discoveries.

Many of us suffer losses and trauma in our lives. Some are quite severe. Our brains, our neural networks, record these events. Physical changes take place in the brain as we learn. Neurons grow and connect. We make sense of our traumas however we can. Over time our protections, understanding, behaviors, and experiences lay down even more neuronal paths. Things change. Not always for the better. Sometimes we become sensitized. We may learn unhealthy habits (addictions) to help us cope with painful memories. Some of us have brain systems that become "stuck" – such as in anxiety disorders or other OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders) – where we are compelled to organize, straighten, or check incessantly. There is help available. Although a neural connection can’t be erased, new learning can take place that can work around the existing impairment. Sometimes we need help to create new learning to help us recover.

Art is uniquely suited to addressing areas of entrenched pain or dysfunction. At times art making may work similarly to free association in psychoanalysis. You may start by drawing a recurring dream and begin to describe the picture and discover more about what your dream is telling you. Art can be a safe way of processing preverbal trauma. Maybe your image is just color, line and shape. Maybe it’s a lump of clay that represents how Depression has you feeling cold and lifeless. Maybe it’s a decorative box that holds your secrets. Or a book you bind together yourself with pages you can open and close, show or keep private.

The metaphors and meanings are as individual as you are. As you spend time with your art making you will be engaging in new learning. This is a good, good thing.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Rag Doll and Professional Identity

Just back from the AATA Conference. That’s the American Art Therapy Association’s annual gathering to learn and share. This year it was in Cleveland. It’s expensive financially, in time, and trouble. It’s inconvenient, always coming just before Thanksgiving. It’s an enormous hassle. This year it was a bit easier because we could drive. And I learned so much. Okay, I know, a rag doll doesn’t seem like much. But it’s not just that I learned how to make a rag doll. This doll is practically a fetish, a voodoo creation. It is inspirited, I might say. Inspiration. Breathe in.
The doll was made with INTENTION. [The intention has to do with my professional identity.] Okay, so how does a rag doll evoke or invoke identity? Oh I don’t know HOW, but it does. I find myself thinking about my professional identity as I wonder about the color choices. They’re not colors I normally like. They are plain. They clash. I wonder about the sparkly bits. I had “sparkle envy” at the table where I worked and the person across from me generously gave me a piece of her sparkly fabric. I quickly placed a seashell on her waistband as I raced to finish the piece and remembered wampum as I did. Shell was used for money, called wampum, by some Native American tribes in New England. I will add the face later. Or maybe I won’t.
Here is a craft (you should have seen the materials flying!) that can make a huge mess. I was anxious as I tried to figure out how to assemble the doll. I have never been a fan of dolls and couldn’t understand why I signed up for this workshop – and paid extra – to learn how to make it. I felt frustration. I didn’t get it about how to connect the figure to my professional identity or anything else.
Yet, now that it is done it carries a quiet energy. It embodies competence, knowledge that I have my sparkly bits, regardless of how much it may show to others, and my value is firmly fixed. I’m wild about my doll.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Students' Choices

I heard something on the radio about students gathering around the University of Michigan campus on the night following the presidential election. You’ve got to hear this.
After I heard this bit on the radio today I started thinking about what we all were doing when we were college age. “We” being my cohort that came of age in the late 60’s and early 70’s. But really, we were so appalled by what was happening in Washington that we dropped out. Rather than fight the establishment we just quit. For one thing, it was the easy road. We thought that living an alternative lifestyle would revolutionize the future by example. Oh boy, were we ever wrong. For myself, it never occurred to me that actually JOINING the establishment might make the country a better, safer place. Those in power were, after all, corrupt and mean spirited. Governing was dirty work. I never could understand that old Byrds song, “I Wanna Grow Up to be a Politician.” Dude, that’s the last thing I’d ever want to be.
But my point is that because so many of us dropped out and did not participate in what seemed like a rigged race and a corrupt system, we allowed the vacuum to develop at the top. Nature abhors a vacuum, but lunatics apparently love it. They jumped right in and hijacked reason and integrity. The bad news continued until this day.
I was so cynical and hurt from all the years of disappointment in our elected officials (many of them, not all of them) that I dared not even get my hopes up for victory this year. And yet I am so relieved and happy about the election. I feel like that frozen, frightened place inside can soften and reawaken.
Obama referred to himself as a “mutt” today (in reference to the future White House puppy) and it got me thinking, too. I believe Barack Obama’s very existence is about bringing disparate things into a cohesive whole.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Right Now

I’m watching the sky go gold as the sun slips just out of sight. What a pretty day this one is. I know it will be dark, rainy and colder tomorrow. I know. I know. How am I ever going to get through the dark time of year? When it’s dark I don’t want to go out. I would rather lock myself in my room and read under the blanket. I lean strongly toward hibernation. But I digress. Today is glorious. Clear and warm (still nearly 70 on Nov. 6!) I find the leaves stunning. They glow as if they are lit from within. In another couple of weeks they will all be on the ground, but now they remain half suspended, tumbling red, gold, amber, purple flecks through the blue air. I could be in a twisting kaleidoscope.

Ann Arbor does a cool thing. The city comes and collects leaves for compost. You don’t even have to bag them. Just rake them into the street and twice in the fall the trucks comes by. A bulldozer pushes the leaves into a great pile and another truck collects them, followed by a street sweeper. Whatever I don’t use for my own compost piles (I have 2 going, plus gardens to enrich), and whatever has not been mulched with the lawnmower to feed the grass, gets raked into the street. It’s a wonderful event. Next spring we can buy finished compost for our gardens, either by the bushel or truckload.

Right now the sunset I’m watching is viewed through the lace skeleton of the bare trees across the street to the south. The tree outside the west window is still half full. Stopping to write about it has caused me to notice both trees more clearly. Drawing or painting it will anchor the moment in even better. It’s about mindfulness. Noticing that today is gorgeous even though tomorrow is predicted to be cold and rainy.
Let us celebrate our moment of joy. We have a new president-elect! And let us not fear the future. Regardless of the predicted hard times ahead, it’s beautiful now.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Stealth Art

So here’s what we were talking about earlier today. Living within your means. You know, not buying things you don’t have to have. Small house. One small car to share. Enough, but not extra. Can we live like that? What about the occasional treat? And what about art and music? How life sustaining is art? How critical is it to make art? Where is art time on the “gotta have it” scale? I think I probably talk about art more than I actually do it. I always like to do art, but I don’t do it as much as I used to do. I used to spend maybe 10-15 hours a week in the pottery studio. Maybe even more. How come I don’t do that anymore? I can’t come up with a good reason. I remember hearing an addictions counselor explain one time that we don’t have to make up rules for things that aren’t a problem. We don’t, for example, say, “I’ll only have one glass of milk today.” The way we might say “I’ll only have one glass of wine.” Usually drinking milk isn’t a problem and we don’t need to set artificial rules about milk intake. I keep trying to talk myself into going to the art studio and finding reasons I can’t go and then feeling bad about not working on clay art. Sometimes I have to sneak art in under my own radar. I call it making stealth art. I can do it casually, on my lap. It can be knitting. It can be teabag imprints on paper. Later on I can go back over the tea art and doodle-outline shapes that present themselves in the dried tea blot stains. The ultimate teabag Rorschach. Yes! Stealth art. Wow. Looka that. Looks like Shamanic Power Animals to me.

Saturday, October 25, 2008


Blogalicious. I’ve been trying to get all experty and technical and then I threw it all away. You know how I keep saying, “don’t forget to have fun?” I was forgetting to have fun. Thank you to all my lunatic friends for reminding me to take myself less seriously. So here’s a picture of part of my recent project. It’s an invention just begging to be made real.
Here’s how it works – each person wears an aluminum foil hat (well, yes) and each wears special goggles. There are transmitters and receivers and through these the participants can experience each others’ hallucinations – audio, visual, olfactory, kinesthetic. It’s a bonanza of sensory input! Imaginary? YOU make the call.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Travel and Mindfulness

We just took a trip across the country to visit our daughter. She’s our only girl, and she lives far away and it’s a long time between visits. I loved being there with her and I miss her during the long dry spells apart. Whenever I travel I find that new experiences have a way of grabbing my senses. I focus more on each moment. That’s what art is about. Mindfulness. You don’t have to travel to practice mindfulness. Stop and take it all in. Breathe. All mindfulness requires is to give up the fixed ways we have learned to look at our world. Observe your thoughts without being critical. Examine a leaf in fall color. Draw a picture. Or pick up a camera and record the moment.

The first thing I did when we got home was go to the dentist. Nothing else is quite as riveting as being in the dentist’s chair. Oh yes, it gets my attention.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

What is Art Therapy and Why is it Important to Work with an Art Therapist?

What I know about art:
art is fun
art can be messy
art surprises
art tells a story
art can keep a secret
art is curious
art is poignant
art saves lives

What is Art Therapy and why is it important to work with an Art Therapist?
Art Therapy is making art with a person who is educated about how art and your psyche relate. Working with a real Art Therapist (there is a master’s degree and nationally recognized credential for this field!) makes a difference. Because art making is so powerfully transformative huge shifts can come very quickly. It is important to know how to contain big feelings as they come up. Some of us need containment and some of us are so numbed out and our feelings are so shut down that we need help to become MORE expressive. You might not be aware that some materials could be triggering to those of us that are carrying scary memories.

Q. If I don’t even know what I’m feeling, how can art help me?
A. Some materials can stimulate your creative juices and bring up your energy. With art therapy you might find dreams changing. You might become more aware of your surroundings. You might find your relationship with yourself and your past is changing. As you gain more control in your art you may find you gain more control in your life, too. A good Art Therapist will know what materials and interventions are appropriate for you as you work together.

My personal philosophy about art making is this: I believe that we are made of the same creative stuff that created the universe. The energy of creation is in every molecule of us. Therefore, when you stimulate creativity in one area of your life (by making art, dancing, writing a poem, knitting, etc.) other parts of your creativity are also stimulated. When we do something creative we begin to heal in thousands of unseen ways because we are tapping into that original creative source from which we are made.
There is much more information about Art Therapy out there. Please visit my website,

The above blog was taken in part from an original post by Susan Boyes January 3, 2008 on

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

I Love Making Art

Center for Creative Growth is starting a blog. Welcome to new readers joining us for the first time.

I love making art. Whether I am coloring alongside a client, throwing clay on a potter’s wheel, or blotting tea bags onto watercolor paper – it feels good to me. Making art allows me to slow down my mind chatter. Why is this useful? Balance. It’s all about balance.

I recently read a book, “My Stroke of Insight,” written by a neuroanatomist, Jill Bolte Taylor, PhD. While studying the anatomy of the brain at McLean Hospital, she awoke one morning to discover she was having a stroke on the left side of her brain. She managed to call for help and survive (and to recover from!) both the stroke and subsequent brain surgery. Able to observe and report her experiences from the view of a brain scientist, Dr. Taylor provides insightful clarity about the right brain and left brain phenomena. This book is a jewel. It supports my claim that right brain activity deserves our respect and nurturance.

Art Therapy is a strong tool in the support of hemispheric balance. Use it to your advantage. And don’t forget to have fun.