Lessons Learned from Improv and Art Therapy: Part 1

Art Corner

I tap Harriet* on her shoulder until she raises her eyes to meet mine.“How are you?” I say loud enough for her to hear.“Half left, half right, otherwise fine,” she says.“Would you like to come to art?” “Yes!”
This is our weekly ritual before the open art therapy group I facilitate on her floor of a retirement community. Harriet is a woman of few words, but I soon found out after starting the group about a year ago that she is a very prolific artist when provided with materials. At first, she arranged cut pieces of brightly colored paper into abstract collages. She seemed to enter a state of flow while she worked, and seldom spoke during the group. In recent months, Harriet began experimenting with other art materials and methods, including working with colored pencils, found objects, and clay. Other Art Corner group members also work fairly independently, each intently focused on the artwork in front of them. I make art as well during the group, to promote a non-hierarchical atmosphere and to create response art as a nonverbal method of witnessing art processes. During a recent group, I looked around the table and questioned whether making art side-by-side was enough to foster a sense of community. Were we a group, or were we people who happened to be sitting at the same table?

Response Art

Rather than intellectualizing, I looked to my own art process for the answer. I began to move my pencil on one of two small pieces of paper in front of me. I drew a person’s profile, who appeared to be staring at the small blank page to the right. I almost began intellectualizing again as I wondered what to draw on the blank page on the right, when I heard one of the lessons I’ve learned during improv classes in my head. I looked at the person I’d drawn, and asked myself what that person was feeling. Then I drew another person’s face on the other sheet of paper, creating a facial expression in response to the first, just as I would let my scene partner’s emotion affect my own in an improvised scene.
Harriet looked over at my two drawings of people, then at her collage of paper and clay objects. She spoke: “You’re into human beings! I’m into mess!” Harriet then silently arranged all of the group members’ artwork on the table, so that it formed one large collage. The two profiles I’d drawn framed her “mess” as if it were a conversation between the two of them. Another artist’s drawing of a smiling sun was positioned above. Suddenly the group felt cohesive, rather than simply people working autonomously around a table.

Improv as Self-Care: More Than an Escape

Self-care is an important way that people in caregiving fields can avoid burnout.  My favorite self-care practices are collaging, yoga, and taking weekly improv classes. Improv is not just an escape from the daily challenges that come with my job. As I’ve learned about improv over the past seven months, I’ve found the “rules” of improv complement my practice as an art therapist, as they do many fields and did in the Art Corner session I described above. In my next article, I will further explore the ways I have found that practicing improv has enhanced my art therapy practice with aging adults. For more on expressive arts therapeutic practices, see Erica Hornthal’s Dancing Through Dementia series, Christy Schoenwald’s take on art therapy versus arts and crafts, and my past articles on creative writing as therapy and exhibiting artwork. Thanks to Elyse Baylis for editing this post, to my improv teachers and classmates, and to admitchell08 for the photo.   *Names were changed for the client’s privacy.

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