Exploring the Psychological Function of Art – Two

An Interview with Mariajose Fernandez, MS, LMFT, Sunday January 17th 2021

This week we are continuing to explore the psychological function of art with MJ. I was hoping to understand some of the experiences I had while studying and teaching art. I knew when we began this conversation it would most likely become two blogs. I decided to divide the conversation into how she uses art in her work as a Family Therapist and then talk about some of the dots I connected while listening to her speak.

Overwhelmed

Ruth

I recently posted an article on The Blog called Overwhelmed. It was about an experience I had while drawing. The process of really getting into my work while I was going through a difficult experience led me to some profound conclusions. As I recall, I had been asked by several of my friends to speak to a mutual friend about her drug and alcohol addiction. I was super hesitant and very unsure of what to do. But as I processed the situation while drawing, I concluded I absolutely had to act. The end result, was an intervention the family had with the help of a counselor. My friend ended up going into a 28-day program.

I was always curious as to the role that the work I was doing at the time had in helping me see the inner conflict I was having and the resolution I found once I saw things clearer.

When you talked about asking your patients to draw their situation so they could externalize it and then deal with it, I think that is what inadvertently happened to me. In the attempt to put my past behind me I wasn’t living authentically. And because all of the conflict took place in a church setting, I was afraid of being genuine. Unfortunately it is common in too many churches, people live with a façade of being a good person, as opposed to being a real person. I hadn’t always been afraid to be open and honest with people.

Teaching in the Homeless Shelter

We’re starting with the idea that in both of our experiences there are beneficial aspects to creating art.

There are more situations I’ve run across, that I shared, and I was wondering if we could discuss them?

MJ

Yes.

Ruth

The first one was when I taught art at a homeless shelter. The women were amazed how the classes made them forget about time, because the time passed so fast for them in class, they forgot about their problems.

I sent you the article that explained about forgetting about yourself called, The Key to a Good Life? Lose Yourself in Something. And I believe that the author put it in the realm of self-care. That wasn’t a word that was used back then, and I was surprised by the women’s reaction. And I’m thinking now had I understood that dynamic and I would probably have known that these women didn’t understand how they could use self-care in their situation. And I’m sure that there was a desperate need for self-care. Their situation was very stressful as they lived with so much uncertainty.

It feels like a missed opportunity for me as I look back. And I think that’s one reason I wanted to have this discussion because I don’t want to miss those teaching moments. Hopefully, the women took that discovery with them and were able to use it in their lives.  

Self-care

MJ

You are right, self-care was not widely discussed until recently, so what we can do now is make sure we implement it and know we can help others by showing them how art or anything they enjoy can be self-care that helps them relieve stress.

Adult Art Classes

Ruth

The next situation was similar. I was teaching classes in Plano and my students were older adults. They called the class “my time”. I shared with you that one woman was in a very stressful job situation and she used my classes to relieve stress. It’s something we talked about but then again, I feel like it’s a missed opportunity. Had I understood it a little bit better I might have facilitated the class differently.

Let me explain. When I decided to teach, my goal was to help my students become better artists. I just assumed that’s why they came to class. There is a lot of teaching that I have to do about fear and what is being successful in art, those kind of things. There is a motive that they have, they want to improve, and I try to remove the obstacles that keep them from improving. I try to give them a more relaxed mindset that takes the pressure off them and allows them to explore art. Because I think that’s a better way to approach art.

But what I missed is the self-care aspect of it. Since it’s something that you use, I was wondering if you could give me some guidelines when I am teaching as to how to approach my classes really in a whole different way. I guess there needs to be a balance between helping them improve their art and really taking advantage of the therapeutic effects of art. There is that word again. I mean understanding the psychological function of art.

How to Better Approach My Classes

MJ

Yes, using art for self-care and studying to be a better artist are two different things. Although I could see both working together within a student.

When I need to ask that type of question, I find that saying, why do you want to take the class isn’t a good way to word the question. “Why” questions tend to put people on the defensive. Instead, I would ask, tell me, what do you hope to get out of the class? Leave the question open ended and let them share their expectation. It will give you better information to assess their needs. You will be better able to give them the type of instructions they are looking for.

Ruth

OK, great because thinking that I need to teach someone to be a better artist when they really just want to relieve stress and enjoy doing their own thing, is really very different. Knowing this now will help me explain better what a class is for. I do love teaching teens who are trying to get into school and need a portfolio. That is different from a class that really is geared to encouraging self-care. I would love to teach both types of students, but maybe in two different classes.

My Inner Conflict

There were two other experiences I had that were a little bit deeper but just as surprising. The first one was at the end of my marriage when I had gone back to school. I was taking art classes and having to spend a lot of time drawing. During that time many issues came up within me that I couldn’t ignore and  I became aware of issues as I drew. Becoming aware of what was going on with me, I realized I was being verbal abused even though I did not have the word for it at that time.

My question about it is, what was going on? Some of the art therapy classes in Dallas offer self-discovery classes. I think there’s a line that needs to be drawn here because I don’t think I would try to teach a class where this would happen. I think it’s more if I have a student, a serious student that has a similar experience, how can I help them? This questions relates a little to the situation I was involved in when I wrote Overwhelmed. I needed to help someone get help.

MJ

I think that goes back to art being a way to externalize your problems to get it out of yourself so you can look at it.

Intervention

Ruth

So, right off the top of my head I would want to refer a student who was externalizing conflict to someone like you. But I also know from working as a youth leader in a church that that can be kind of a precarious situation. I’ve been in a situation where I’ve had to speak with the parents about some issues that I became aware of, but I had to do it under the guidance of the pastoral staff. We proceeded with great caution. It worked out and the family was very grateful that I had intervened.

Exploring the Psychological Function of Art – Two

And I’m going to add the last situation that I shared with you because it’s very similar. I was working with youth, in an art group. What happened and I believe it was because of the connection that I had with them through art. The students were very open with me almost immediately and shared problems they were having within the family.

I’ve seen a trend within myself and in my students that being in an art setting brings inner turmoil to the surface and conflicts become apparent. It’s definitely something that I wouldn’t rush into. Should I come across this in a student, who obviously has some issues going on in their life that their art seems to be bringing it up in them. How do I get them help? What are some guidelines, because it’s a very touchy issue.  

Intervention Protocol

MJ

When dealing with these types of issues when you discern that intervention needs to take place there are ethical standards you need to be guided by.

You need to be aware of the policies in the school or organization you are in and follow their guidelines. Speak to those above you and let them know what you are dealing with. Should you need to speak to the parents frame it like this: As I have been teaching your students, I have seen in their work something that I need to discuss with you. Tell them, this is what I see, fill in the blank. If the child has shared something of concern with you, tell them, this is what was shared. Tell them you wanted them to know what is going on. Tell them you are not a therapist, but that you have a list of resources that you can give them. Close with saying it might be beneficial to look into this situation.

And when dealing with those to whom you are accountable, emails are the best way to communicate because they leave a paper trail. Document everything you do. I say this because of an experience I had where my concern was not heeded, and the child hurt himself. I was able to show how many times I tried to get the parent to get the child help.

Let me tell you this and I am very serious about this. If a child is harming themselves or you think that they may be suicidal, that trumps any kind of confidentiality that may be in place. You must report, you must act. You may have to call the authorities, CPS, the police. And again, leave a paper trail, cover yourself while doing everything you can to get the child help. As you are following the directive of others your documentation should read, per your request, I fill in the blank.

Art and Self Esteem

Ruth

MJ thank you very much for that input. Unless I had gone through it myself, I wouldn’t believe that things like this come up, but they do. Art is a very powerful medium and it’s helpful to understand how to navigate situations that may arise.

I think something that I’ve noticed as I’ve taught and it’s something about myself that was true as a child, I was extremely shy. I would say 9 out of 10 of the students that I taught we’re the same way, very quiet, very sensitive, and I think because of that, easily hurt. Maybe they don’t understand how to help themselves or defend themselves. I always try to be extremely encouraging and uplifting because I know they need it. But I also know that art is a way to help them navigate things, because they’re good at it and it can give them a greater sense of self-esteem.

I’m so glad you so graciously listened to me and answered my questions. I got so much out of it. I just wanted to thank you and I wanted to say I hope you got something out of it too.

MJ

You know I was just thinking as we were talking, I’m always the one listening. In my job, that’s what I do. I listen to people. It was very nice to be on the receiving end and be the one that’s talking. I love my job, I love what I do and I really don’t talk about it that much. It was very refreshing to be able to share with you how I use art in my work.


Biz News

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References

The Key to a Good Life? Lose Yourself in Something

The Art Station

What Is an Intervention?

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