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Cool Art Therapy Intervention #3: It’s All About the Metaphor

Art therapy secret #3 revealed: Think metaphor

The intervention coming in at Number 3 on the Cool Art Therapy Intervention list is not so much a medium or method, but a more of a core value for art therapists -- the power of metaphor in reparation and healing. If you remember your high school English classes, a metaphor is something used to explain or describe something else. Simply stated and in the context of art therapy, art expression and the art making process become visual metaphors used to describe something else, including perceptions, experiences, beliefs or emotions. The ultimate goal of most insight-oriented art therapy is to help the individual develop a visual language for the purpose of communicating personal metaphor through drawing, painting, sculpture, collage, photography, or other art media.

The use of metaphor in psychiatry and psychology has a long tradition going back to psychoanalytic theory. Freud frequently used metaphor to formulate and explain his ideas; historically, the field of art therapy adopted the psychoanalytic framework as its way of approaching visual metaphors in client-created art expressions. In recent years, more contemporary approaches such as dialectical behavioral therapy [DBT] employ metaphor in the form of analogy, anectdotes, myths, and stories. DBT includes using metaphor to open up "dialectical thinking" with the intent of helping clients create new meanings and of introducing new behaviors or possibilities. In essence, the use of metaphor in art therapy shares the same goals for outcomes, using visual metaphor as the vehicle.

Some might argue that visual metaphors are really symbols [images that represent something else by association, resemblance, or convention] and to some extent that is true. In art therapy, symbolic meanings found in self-created artwork can be important; over the years, most of my clients who have experienced trauma often include and repeat symbols pertaining to abuse, crisis, and recovery in their art expressions. Symbols tend to call for interpretation, however, and in my experience, interpretation rarely brings about significant change, recovery or relief. On the other hand, metaphors

generate description and multi-layered meanings rather than a single interpretation; when it comes to really helping an individual make progress, it's the metaphoric experience of art expression that sets the stage for emotional repair and insight. So think of it this way. If you make a painting of a snake and you simply define it as a sexual symbol, you will invariably miss other aspects that you might discover through metaphor. Try to describe the texture of the snake's skin, what kind of environment it lives in, what it's average day is like, or what it would say if it could talk, or even make another painting of it; you'll start to illuminate the metaphoric qualities and personal meaning of your art expression.

On occasion an art therapist might offer a specific metaphoric task to stimulate imagination, conjure up memories, or direct focus to a particular topic. Over the last decade, some of the more popular metaphoric directives in the field of art therapy include 1) draw a person in the rain (impact of the environment or stress on the individual); 2) draw a bird's nest (attachment and bonding issues); 3) use clay to create an image of yourself as an animal (personality projection); and 4) make a picture of a rosebush (oneself in an environment). Art therapist Rawley Silver devised an art-based assessment that she believes capitalizes on metaphor through a simple drawing task. The task is to select a couple of images from a series of "stimulus drawings" [line drawings of various people, animals, and items] and then draw an image based on the drawings selected. The person subsequently develops a narrative to describe the image, adding verbal metaphoric communication to describe the image. According to Silver, everyone perceives the stimulus drawings differently and uses them in idiosyncratic, metaphorical ways that can reveal personality traits and worldviews.

I use these directives and others with children and adults on occasion, if and when it seems appropriate. Why? Because under the right circumstances, the inherent metaphors in these directives make for great clinical interviews and conversation between client and therapist, especially if the individual is having trouble getting started. A well-chosen metaphor can stimulate imagination, storytelling, and projection via the image created.

Although "drawing a person in the rain" might be helpful in the short term, ultimately it's self-created visual metaphors that lead us to a deeper understanding of ourselves. Archetypal psychologist James Hillman suggests that in order to find that deeper understanding, we should first admit our "lostness" in the presence of the image, whether it be an artwork or the content of dreams. In reality, my art therapy clients come to treatment not only admitting they are lost in their journey to understand themselves and overcome life's challenges, but also searching for meaning, particularly through art and imagination. So just how do you find meaning and metaphor in your drawings, paintings, or collages? That's the subject of Cool Art therapy Intervention #2 in the Top Ten countdown.

© 2010 Cathy Malchiodi, PhD, LPCC, LPAT

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