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Barbara Merkur

On May 13, 1997 1 introduced what I refer to as focusing-using-art to my graduating students of high school where I offer my ‘Experiential Psychology’ course. This was my way of bringing conclusion to the part of my program that deals with the emotions and mind/body integration. This school is an ‘open school’ which attracts students who are either partly employed and therefore cannot attend a full regular program or who, due to low self-esteem or apathy, might otherwise not have completed high school.

I prepared them for Eugene Gendlin’s Focusing and discussed the research he conducted to determine why some clients improved through therapy while others did not, at least not as noticeably or quickly. I explained how his therapeutic approach was built upon a reconstruction of that natural process that many clients were undergoing on their own without any prompting from their therapists.

I emphasized that I was trying to find a way to use the art to facilitate this process and that I was going to experiment with my modified version of Gendlin’s stylized technique to adapt to art therapy (I am a practicing expressive arts therapist who has completed my focusing training). I was hoping that they could help me refine the technique and understand the benefits, if any were evidenced.

The procedure I devised was as follows: To begin they were invited to make a picture of how they were feeling right now (as Laury Rappaport had done, Folio, 1988). I used this to help them get centered and in order to get them settled while we awaited the latecomers. (I dispensed with this for the second class finding it unnecessary overall.) A brief relaxation exercise followed to get them in touch with that inner part of themselves that is sensitive to their feelings, and then the notorious question: “Is there anything that is keeping you from feeling really wonderful right now?”. I then proceeded, one by one to invoke each obstructing issue, their critic, and the background feeling, and asked them if they could represent these issues on the piece of paper which they had prepared at the beginning by folding it into eight equal divisions. Using the pastels I had provided for them, they were to label each issue that came to their attention, either through written words or images. This was to help them gain some emotional distance from these concerns, reducing their potency and size so as to direct them away from center stage. I reassured them that they could keep some with them if they felt a need to - as some already seemed uneasy to give up these identity attachments. I alerted those who might feel uncomfortable with cleared space, to instead concentrate on depicting those situations that occurred during the week that gave them energy (in order to help them fill their ensuing sense of emptiness). This relieved some of their concerns and provided an important option.

I then asked them to get a sense of that space inside (or for those others, for their space that now contained good energy) and then to depict it using the materials (finger-paints, chalk pastels, and oil pastels). Then I asked them to invite one of those things that was expressed on the eight squares onto a space on a new sheet of paper, the paper representing symbolically that cleared space. With finger-paints at their disposal and their excitement of using the bright colors and soothing texture, they were eager to explore how ‘all of that’ settled into that cleared space. Satisfied with the completion of their first murky picture, they were asked to find a word or expression that would capture the essence of that painting. I asked them to continue to elaborate creatively - either with the finger-paint or the other materials - whatever impressions had manifested in their picture; to stay with the feeling; and to continue to label that one and any pictures they made subsequent to the first, allowing that felt sense to get clearer or letting it take them to wherever it would lead. They were to ask, at those times when they sensed that something was feeling different in their bodies in response to what they had painted or drawn, what it is about that issue that made them feel so… (whatever the label word of the particular picture that brought this shift about was).

Many became very involved with this new space and felt a major shift just with this step. Some of them stayed with the good feelings and playfully used the materials to further express this newfound freedom. They were able to feel this ‘new’ sensation not only because they were using the finger-paints but also because many had divested themselves of their inner critic onto the page in the earlier process of clearing space.

Because there were only eight students in a group at one sitting, I was able to interact with each person for a short period of time to see how they were doing and to keep them from getting lost in a myriad of assignments. When a student would experience a new sense of the ‘problem’, I would help that particular student, encouraging him/her to ask of their picture image, what it was all about. Some of them felt a new incentive to deal further with their problem in answer to the response that finally emerged from their inquiry. For those who had no perceptible shifts, many felt empowered merely from engaging their problem with their full attention, something adolescents do not generally do. One student, however, who initially was reluctant to identify his problems, came away realizing and committing to the idea that his problems would have to be addressed at some future time. He felt more hopeful now that he was at least confronting them on the page, instead of denying their seriousness. I then asked those who had some time remaining, to paint how it felt to be with their new awareness and to write about their experience in their journals.

All the students underwent the process at their own pace and in their characteristic styles. One girl, who is a practical left-brain thinker seemed to move forward through the process but unfortunately could not yet connect her moving pictures with any body sensations. Despite the fact that her image transformed from the enclosed screen of her business computer that metaphorically spelled out her confusion, to a picture which expressed “excitement and release”, she nevertheless, could not integrate the change as a physical release of tension. This inability to connect to her body reflects a tendency of hers to cut herself off from her feelings for fear that they might overwhelm her and thwart her overextended motivation. She is a workaholic and perfectionist whose only self-validated feeling is anger, a feeling many of the adolescents found particularly problematic.

By matching a word or phrase to catch the essence of what they had depicted in their art, they were able at each stage to make the shifts that were offering them a new way of being with their particular problem.

The completed processes which I have chosen to present, I feel, indicate the feasibility and effectiveness of this approach with adolescents. The first student is a withdrawn young man who is able to work things through the art much better than through words alone. He seemed very absorbed with the process and wore a confident smile upon completion of all the tasks. Something had evidently changed inside him with respect to how he felt about himself

The second student is a frail young man who has a habit of intellectualizing and one who had been skeptical about my self-growth program throughout the year. The finger-paints proved to be emotionally stimulating for students with this tendency much more than the more controlled media might have been. They somehow gave the student permission to be relaxed and to trust that something would evolve from their art of its own accord, much the way focusing inside will bring a felt sense if one learns to wait for it to come and have the faith that it will This student came away from this class feeling energized from the process. He was able to access the powerful energy of the archaic whale which came into focus in his cleared space. This dynamic energy brought him to some new awareness as he joyfully let it go through his creative process this day.

I have included write-ups from these two students that followed this whole procedure. Shifts were evident from their art, their words, the progression of their art from often closed structures to more open ones, amid from their more confident body language:

Student #1: He wrote: “After composing a list of the issues that were troubling me I was left feeling worse than when I started the exercise. On the reverse side I listed three things that I felt good about as you suggested for those of us who were having difficulty with the first part. I had a sense of relief from replacing my troubles with my more positive feelings. I realized that I needed to feel this relief. From the original list I chose to explore the troubles I was having with the future. I am finishing high school this year and my parents want me to choose a career path, i.e. university or other post-secondary education. I am unable to make decisions about my future. This inability has troubled me for some time and left me feeling lost and directionless. The feeling I get when I contemplated the future is my first finger-painting. I soon began to see my problem more clearly. While focusing on the problem and working with the paint, I began to see that my lack of immediate insight did not preclude a future decision. What I got from my final picture was not an ultimate solution, but a necessary reassurance that an answer will come.”

One week later the above student wrote: “The partial solution I arrived at last week has helped me deal with other immediate problems. Using the finger-paints helped me realize that my lack of future plans was less pressing than some people had led me to believe. It helped that I had the chance to describe this with a friend. I have been better able to focus on immediate problems now. I have a lot of work I must complete before the school year ends. Now that I am not so preoccupied with the distant future I can address present concerns. Seeing my problem clearly has helped me set priorities and relieved some of my anxiety.”

Student #2: This student journaled as follows: “The first picture, my “Free Space” is represented by a whale, which always reminds me of something majestic. Also, the whale is full of energy. It has just dove back into the water and it is heading deeper, ever deeper. The black ‘pillars’ are my inner strength which holds everything up. I felt noticeably better after drawing this picture.

“My second picture is titled “twisted” and it is just a big blob of tightness which is just there. It is incredibly tight and compact, as compared to the ‘free space’. It is like the twisted wreckage of something.

“My third picture is titled “The tree trunk is gnarled”. Gnarled is about two steps up on the twisted’ scale. The picture is that of a tree trunk which is dead. The ‘gnarledness’ is something that I feel in my stomach. It happens when I’m tense. There is yellow which is representative of the sun rising over the tension to reach the stars. I think it is trying to tell me to deal with smaller chunks of tension instead of taking huge chunks which are unmanageable. The black hole is representative of the easy way through my tension. For me, black is representative of ‘nothing new’ which might just be the ticket to dealing with tension. Approaching it as though it were a hole in my life which keeps me from being whole. I felt that I have some new insight into myself, and how tension affects me.”

A few months later I am still trying to assess the value of this entire approach with this adolescent population. It is important to realize that these students were gently prepared for such kinds of intervention through the experiential nature of this class and the progressive way it was structured to lead them past their defensiveness and general apathy to more openness and involvement. The art expression was much like a language that I facilitated in them, something innately theirs but much discouraged through traditional art education. Encouraging this form of expression, which embodies both unconscious and conscious material, is especially amenable for this population, allowing as it does, for them to remain private and therefore safe from being explicitly known by their peers in a group situation. Doing art spontaneously, i.e. without conscious direction, is not seen as threatening or intrusive, allowing the adolescent to relax in a meditative way, unimpeded by restrictive defenses. Using art in this focusing way brought them deeper into the process of knowing their potential and utilizing it in a fresh and self-directed way. In many ways I feel that this is the only way to ease these young adults into accepting focusing on its own merits, a process which I feel offers them, more than any other method, a way of acknowledging and being their real and separate selves, able to engage with others as confident and authentic. (It is important for me to stipulate that anyone doing focusing-using-art with finger-paints, should be warned about the nature of this medium to stimulate kinesthetic memories for those who have experienced trauma.)