Review by Barbara Petterson, LMFT
I recently attended NorCATA’s Conference, The Nature of Art Therapy: Connecting Art, Culture,
and the Natural World. It was wonderful to spend a weekend with art therapy colleagues from Northern and Southern California in the beautiful natural environment of Asilomar. The weekend included 11 workshops and 9 papers, a keynote address, wine and cheese reception, marketplace, silent auction, dessert reception, meals together, and impromptu walks on the beach with old and new friends/colleagues.
Saturday morning I attended Einat Metzl and Brooke Bender’s workshop “Creativity and Resilience in New Orleans Post Hurricane Katrina and In Talca, Chile after the 2010 Earthquake: A Comparative Study and Its Application for Art.” Metzl and Bender, from Loyola Marymount University, studied the role of creativity in the process of resiliency in surviving natural disasters, as well as cultural considerations in the recovery process. The workshop began with an art directive in which we explored our experiences and interests relating to natural disasters. I was reminded that we all have experience with natural disasters, even vicarious, and that all recovery processes have common elements. The presenters described conceptual frameworks for understanding creativity, including Torrance’s concept of elastic thinking, Dollinger, et al’s concept of openness and expressiveness, and Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of “flow". They also presented models of resiliency, including Masten and Powell’s description of it “ordinary magic,” or the ability to bounce back from risks and adversities. The presenters richly portrayed the two communities and how each used the creative process to recover from natural disaster. In their art, New Orleans Katrina survivors created individual expression on the themes of loss, adversity, survivorship, and the personal ability to bounce back. In contrast, the Talca survivors did not focus on individual expression, but on making crafts together in groups to sell to benefit community members in need. Both communities have strong communal cultures that support healing, and I found it moving to learn about their strengths and processes of recovery.
Saturday afternoon I attended Ari-Asha Castalia’s excellent workshop “My Dad is a Beagle and My Mother is an Otter: Deepened Understanding Using Animal Image Portraits.” Ari-Asha began by highlighting the pre-eminence of animal images in human culture and describing how she uses pre-cut collage images of animals in family, individual, and couples’ therapy. She noted that these images allow enough distance for safe exploration of feelings and family dynamics, and that individuals from any culture can find themselves reflected in them. Ari-Asha then presented vignettes from her clinical work to illustrate the power of this technique. She then gave participants the opportunity to use pre-cut animal images to make art about our families-of-origin, current families, or other relationships. I was surprised at how evocative this activity was for me and other participants. I gained clarity about a current family situation and felt validated in my love for my family. Ari-Asha ended the workshop with a discussion of ways to use the images further in therapy, as in asking the client, “What kinds of things does this animal remind you to do?”
Late Saturday afternoon I attended Deborah Sharpe’s paper: “The Altered Book: A Process and Symbol of Transformation.” After a full day, it was wonderful to sit and take in the many beautiful images of altered books and techniques for making them that Deborah had gathered.
Saturday evening, Pat Allen delivered her keynote presentation “Earth, Art, and Therapy: Open Studio Process to Explore Sustainable Practice.” Her presentation was full of rich concepts, which she noted are still being developed. Pat’s workshops, her book Art Is a Way of Knowing, and this presentation have a common thread: her intent to find ways to connect with “the creative source” which she sees as underlying everything. Pat discussed plagues facing us and our planet (extinction, pollution, dwindling resources, etc.) but shared the belief that if we work with the earth, it will share the way to healing with us. She pointed out that this process requires atunement on our part, to nature, our selves, and each other, as well as openness to co-creation. Pat shared images and examples from her own life, depicting her journey from Chicago to Ojai, as well as her recent art on this theme. I look forward to continuing to benefit from Pat’s sharing of her ongoing process of deep engagement and discovery.
Sunday morning I presented my workshop “Gerotranscendence: Connecting Elders to Nature, Within and Without.” We started by introducing ourselves, sharing our names, a quality of nature we admire, and a movement that expresses this quality. The group reflected these back to us. I then presented on gerotranscendence theory, a positive theory of aging that suggests that many older adults experience a shift in perspective away from rationality and materialism to a viewpoint that is more transcendent and connected to the cosmos (Tornstam, 2005.) I shared artwork made by my older adult clients as well as comments they had made about their work. Following this, the participants spent time outdoors observing things that are old, then returned and made individual response art. We ended by sharing experiences, thoughts, feelings about old age and gerotranscendence theory, and our response art. I was deeply moved by the beauty of what each person shared, and heartened to spend time with other art therapists interested in connecting with the aging process and work with older adults.
The Conference was grounding, stimulating, calming, and rejuvenating. I’m grateful for the experience of co-creation with the environment of Asilomar and everyone there. END.