Express yourself

Lisa Mitchell

Photo By Larry Dalton

Sometimes people in talk therapy get stuck. People can feel as though they haven’t connected or reached an understanding with words. “Art therapy,” says Lisa Mitchell, “is the use of art to help people reconnect with unconscious parts of themselves or parts that are too difficult to understand.” Through creative expression, she said, “they can re-integrate and live with feelings, parts, experiences that they were walling off or protecting against.” Mitchell initially earned an undergraduate degree in psychology and thought she wanted to be a fine artist. She spent five years making what she called “cute, ceramic clay sculpture,” but she found aesthetic criticisms to be too attacking and personal. She didn’t want to change her art, which “wasn’t going to be anything more than an expression.” Eventually, she found she could incorporate both artistic expression and psychology into a career in art therapy. She now runs The Art Therapy Studio in Fair Oaks.

Your Web site says you don’t need to be able to draw. Would someone with a little drawing experience be able to derive more benefits from art therapy?

It depends. For people with experience or art training and for people with experience around judgment and art, it is really hard. We have to spend a lot of work on what it’s supposed to look like. There is no “supposed to.” And so, experienced artists have an agenda that they find that it’s really healing to let go of. And creative people who aren’t experienced with art have this idea that they have to make something look like something in order for it to be good. And that’s not the case, either. So, it’s more about what we carry with us as opposed to the training associated with art. When a lot of people come in, we call it “art injury": Their kindergarten teacher told them, “No, no, no. You stay in the lines, and the grass is green.” And then they come in here, and they say, “It’s freedom in here. It doesn’t matter.”

Do you use specific exercises or techniques for someone coping with a specific issue?

I have favorites. Generally, I’ll ask somebody to draw a bridge when they first come in, so that they can see where they’re going, and they can see where they are now. And we can have that be a reference point. I use a lot of boxes, because they’re good containers. And they can talk about what’s going on inside and what’s going on outside. And the inside stuff can be safe in there, as containers, as holders.

If someone is dealing with depression, I often want to see it in all different ways, so I’ll ask them to show me in collage. I’ll ask them to show me in paint. I’ll ask them to show me in marker. And eventually, what we begin to see is that it’s not all depression in there, and there are some lighter colors, and we can work with those lighter colors to balance the depression.

Is there a general exercise you would recommend for our readers?

Absolutely. It’s on my Web site [No. 1, problem solving, at]. It’s very enlightening. I did it when I first opened my private practice here. I needed clients, and I wanted creativity. And I wanted this to be a lively place, and I was in a spot where I didn’t know if I could make it. … And then I could visualize that there were flowers, and there was light, and there were people making things, and artwork flooding the shelves and all that kind of stuff. And so, the “in between” for me was that I needed to put flowers in the picture in order to get there. And so, sure enough, I went out and planted these beautiful [flowers] out in front. And somehow it clicked that there was that vibrancy and that light, and people started coming, so it worked for me. And I still tend to those flowers like they’re part of tending to the business.

Once a client has intellectually identified the source of painful feelings, how can art therapy help them integrate and heal these feelings?

That’s a nice question. I think that the most amazing thing about art and bridging the intellectual with the actual integration is that it is an experience. It is not a thought process. It’s a kinesthetic experience, and my whole theory is that we have experiences that are experienced “in.” Whatever happens to us, whatever occurs in our lives, is experienced “in,” and you can only transform that experience if it’s experienced “out.” And so, talking on an intellectual level is not experiencing “out,” but making art about it is experiencing “out.” And often, people find that it is not all bad, like the depression, that it is not all black, that there is maybe a little speck of yellow in there.

I also like the example of “The Scream.” It’s on shower curtains these days. People buy that. They think, “Whoa! That’s totally cool.” That’s one of those expressions that is hugely laden with feeling. It’s terror, it’s angst, it’s fear, and yet it is absolutely compelling and beautiful. And so a client does something like that, like “look at my depression,” and all of a sudden it’s a piece of art with color and texture and line. And there’s a recognition that—wow!—there is some value, even to that expression. There’s richness, and there’s depth, and that’s about living.