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Cool Art Therapy Intervention #9: Family Sculpture

Family sculpture—bringing family relationships to life in clay.

When psychologists or marriage and family therapists hear the term "family sculpture," an expressive technique invented by experiential family therapists David Kantor, Fred Duhl, and Bunny Duhl often comes to mind. They think of a nonverbal method whereby a family member is asked to physically place other family members in positions in relation to one another—a three dimensional, in vivo arrangement of actual people.

Virginia Satir, psychotherapist and author of the classic Peoplemaking, also had each family member "sculpt" the other in a similar way. Satir believed that it was easier for families to accurately see their situations rather than just talk about them. Contemporary drama therapists as well as dance/movement therapists, who often use expressive means to facilitate interaction between individuals, would certainly support her assessment.

The family sculpture technique of Satir's time reflects Gregory Bateson's and Murray Bowen's ideas about systems theory of the period; family therapy as a movement and distinct field emerged from this concept. In contrast to psychoanalysis, the emphasis of family therapy is more on how humans exist within systems such as groups, communities, and cultures. In essence, family therapists tend to view change through the lens of the systems of interactions between family members and that relationships are important factors in psychological well-being.

Family art therapists have developed a cool variation of the original family sculpture technique, translating it into an intervention involving simple modeling clay or Plasticine [a non-hardening clay that comes in several colors]. Simply put, a client makes a clay representation of each family member—mother, father, siblings, and any other close or influential family members. The goal is not to make a realistic image of each family member, but rather an abstraction that reflects that individual's personality and role in the family. When all the sculptures are complete, the client arranges them in relation to each other, reflecting relationships and interactions. In order to give you a better idea of just how this intervention looks, take a couple of minutes to watch a role-play with family art therapist Shirley Riley and a volunteer.

In my experience, family sculpture is an expedient way to symbolically bring a client's family into the session without the family actually being there. The client also does not have the added pressure of addressing family members directly. The figures—even the simplest lumps of clay—become the mouthpiece for family messages and provide client and therapist with a visible set of relationships.

The family sculpture as an art therapy intervention has always fascinated me as a method of getting to know my clients. It's a relatively easy means for them to communicate the stories of their lives, from family of origin to the current family configuration. It's also a good example of how art complements a family systems approach to intervention, mainly because art and families have something in common—they are ultimately defined by both their inherent composition and the relationships between their parts.

If you missed the introduction to this series, I recommend that you read it to get the background for this post and learn more about the criteria for why this intervention is "cool."

@ 2010 Cathy Malchiodi, Ph.D., LPAT, LPCC.

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