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Art and Art Therapy: “Are we there yet?”

Peggy Carstensen, LCPC, ATR

The question that comes up a lot in the therapeutic setting and for anyone creating a work of art is the difficult decision of completeness. “Am I done? Are we there yet? Am I better? Does this look finished?”

While the subject of completion is typically answered based upon functioning level, goals met, and overall life satisfaction when it comes to therapy, I am not sure it is ever crystal clear. Some clients have short term goals, while others desire lifelong support. But for all clients, there comes a time when the client or clinician pauses and asks whether enough has been accomplished.

This decision around completeness is yet another way healing and creating artwork parallel one another. For my own art making, most of the time I say I am “done” with a piece of art when I reach a point where I just can’t stand to look at something for one more minute. Often I feel like I am impeding my progress by continually reworking something. Other times I start a piece over a few times, and I decide, “This might be as good as it’s going to get for now.”

A recent powerful example of art therapy at work was an exercise during which I asked my client to create her solar system of support. In the past she listed the characters in her life , those whom she could open up to and those who created controversy. I told her I wanted to see them. The image didn’t need to be fancy or take long or be perfect in any way. She started drawing her universe, and I asked if she minded if I also created an image based on what I imagined when she shared with me about her network of people.

My client and I worked for a few minutes until she was ready to show me her artwork. She pointed out who was where, why they were certain colors or in particular spots on the page. I pointed to one planet in her solar system that was an outline of a circle with no color and no other objects nearby. Compared to the other planets, this one was much simpler. I asked, “Who would that be?” Her response was, “Oh, that was a mistake. I drew myself and then realized I hadn’t made room to put my son as close to me as I wanted to, so I redrew myself with him over here.”

That “mistake”, as we discovered when digging deeper, represented so much more. That planet with less negative energy from other planets swirling around, with less complicated layers and without the responsibility of taking care of another planet, was her former self. There, safe in the corner, away from the exhausting, stressful influences, was her pre-child identity. She was able to explore the profound changes in herself and her choice to depict her child as the sun in her current universe in a way that may not have been possible without the art.

Art Therapy gives us the ability to visually reflect on progress. We can also verbally circle back to previous conversations and insights made or moments that clearly display improved communication or boundary setting outside of session, but rarely can we view our feelings and state of mind visually transform. Seeing my