An art psychotherapist who is currently staying at home with her young daughter, Jen Berlingo blogs about children’s art at Paint Cut Paste. Join me in getting to know her and make sure to read her tips for talking with children about their art.
***Note: Readers will have a chance to win a set of three nesting orb kits at the end of the interview.***
JEAN: So, tell us, what exactly does an art psychotherapist do?
JEN: the american art therapy associaton defines art therapy as "a mental health profession that uses the creative process of art making to improve and enhance the physical, mental and emotional well-being of individuals of all ages." i am dually trained in counseling psychology and art therapy. i view my role simply as a witness and guide accompanying people along their healing journey. while holding a safe, sacred space and unconditional acceptance, i invite clients to create art and reflect upon the art in session. art provides a safe container for emotional content that arises, and it often allows more direct and efficient access to unconscious parts of one's self than talk therapy alone can provide. a trained art therapist helps the client to navigate the metaphors inherent in the materials and pieces of art that come in the service of the client's search for meaning, self-awareness, and wholeness. i say more about this on my professional web site.
JEAN: I’d love to hear a bit about your background – how did you get into art therapy?
JEN: ever since i was a child, i could articulate that i wanted to work "with art and with people" when i grew up. in my undergraduate studies, i was a communications major, which seemed like a way to translate this passion in the business world. once i graduated, i applied my education in the realm of new media and got into the internet industry at the height of the dot-com boom in the mid 90s. after about five years of working long and thankless hours in new york city, i wasn't feeling fulfilled in my spirit whatsoever.
i left my "successful" job in search of that spark again. i took art classes, and did a lot of researching and soul-searching. as a lifelong creative spirit, i understand the healing potential of art firsthand. finding my true self again in the art i was making during that period led me toward my vocation. i then studied for three years at a buddhist-oriented school in boulder, colorado, called naropa university, in a unique, experiential program blending clinical counseling psychology, art therapy theory, studio art, and contemplative practices such as mindfulness meditation. in my internship and after graduating, i worked with individual adult clients in a private practice setting. i put a pause on my practice when my daughter was born so that i could be at home with her full-time.
JEAN: Can you tell us about your decision to blog about children’s art?
JEN: i feel so blessed to be a stay-at-home mom to an incredibly curious, creative, and expressive little girl. ever since N was old enough to squish dough, art-making in some form has been a staple in our daily routine. when she was almost 2.5, we were delving into many cool art projects.
i wanted to share the creative processes that were organically arising in my house with others, as friends had already been asking me for ideas. as a former internet geek who's been regularly blogging for nearly 10 years on my personal site, blogging is a medium i naturally gravitate toward. i knew that i'd be one of trillions of artsy momma bloggers out there, which was intimidating to me at first, but i realized that i might have a unique viewpoint to offer. unlike most art blogs i read, Paint Cut Paste focuses only on art kids make themselves and generally does not feature my own creations. as much as i love being at home with N, i've also been missing my career, so Paint Cut Paste helps me to bridge that gap a bit in inspiring others to welcome art into their lives.
JEAN: Do you find yourself using your art therapy techniques in your day to day life with your daughter? What about with yourself?
JEN: yes, i definitely use my training in day to day life -- specifically, the mindfulness part of my training has been essential in making the transition into parenthood. it is a little tricky for me to tease out which art therapy "techniques" i use, as my approach to art has become a part of who i am and how i interact with the visual world. techniques are endless -- many just arise out of what the moment requires. my perspective on art is a constant in my daily approach to engaging in the creative process with my daughter and with myself. this perspective includes the idea that art externalizes one's inner world for the purpose of transformation, healing, and learning about one's self. each time we make art, we have the opportunity to rehearse, reauthor past experiences, sublimate shadow material in an ego-syntonic way, and to build self-esteem by putting something new into the world that has never before existed.
JEAN: I love your post about talking to kids about art! I'd never heard of the idea of asking (to take one of your examples), "if the duck [in your painting] could talk, what would he say?" I'm intrigued and would like to try that out with Maia next time it seems appropriate. Do you have any other tips that would be easy for us non-art-therapist parents to use with our own children?
JEN: thank you! i loved writing that post because it helped me to make it clear, even in my own mind, how to approach N's art in a healthy and productive way. i am not engaging in therapy with her by any means, but i do wholeheartedly believe that art is inherently therapeutic, and that she is growing and gaining self-awareness through her participation in art making. my tips for parents and caregivers along these lines are basically these:
- research and choose developmentally appropriate materials for your child's age and skill level in order to foster confidence while also inviting them to stretch and grow just a bit.
- let your child create their own pieces of art without making uninvited marks on their art work
- take the time to reflect on, gaze upon, and/or talk about each piece of art with your child when it is finished. some things you can use as a springboard for conversation are: "what do you see?" "what color catches your eye first?" "tell me what's happening in this picture." "if the duck could talk, what would it say?" and you can actually have your child talk TO the piece of art and observe the dialog that follows.
- approach each image with a humble curiosity: the artist is the expert on the meaning of their own art
- if you find yourself wanting to interpret someone else's art, check your biases and own your interpretations. you could say something like, "when i look at this, it makes *me* feel..." also, instead of saying "that must be a rabbit!" or "is this a rabbit?" try to say, "this figure over here reminds me of a rabbit." it's a subtle difference in being mindful about your speech, but it is very empowering for your child.
- don't be afraid if you see dark material in your kid's art - art is a healthy place for it to be expressed. if you see that the content of your child's art involves something you deem negative, sit with that feeling (sadness, fear, loneliness, anger, etc.) with your child while talking about the art, respect that there is a reason for the image to have come, and if it fits, ask the child *if* the image might need something in order to "feel better" to help support the child's inner resources for problem solving and/or self-soothing.
- treat each finished product with respect and care when displaying, storing, or transforming the piece
i expand upon most of these points in the blog you are referring to - let's talk about art.
JEAN: What are some of your favorite art activities for young children?
JEN: because i'm not so much the crafty type, my favorite activities are those that evolve naturally (usually from the child's idea) and evoke genuine self-expression, often in lieu of a useful product. i most enjoy offering an array of materials on the art table, then following N's lead and supporting the creation of her ideas as much as i can. in the art therapy world, this is known as the "open studio model." (see also here)
i also love anything using natural materials. some of my favorite posts we've done are those that include a nature walk and then incorporating found objects into a child-centered art project. for example, some of the art activities i've had the most fun with were:
- our nature's stained glass
- the twig vase
- N's medicine wand
- the autumn leaf garland
- the interested things board
- and the one that i saw you did, as well, making impressions of natural objects
JEAN: I’m always looking for more creative blogs – will you share some of the ones you especially like to read?
JEN: when i sip my genmaicha in the morning, the staples in my daily rss feed read are:
- the artful parent, of course!
- 5 orange potatoes
- pink & green mama
- chasing cheerios
- rhythm of the home
- salt & chocolate
there are LOTS of others i subscribe to, "like" on facebook, and stumble upon, as well!
JEAN: Thanks, Jen! I especially love your tips for parents!
Readers who leave a comment to this interview by Friday, June 4th at 12 midnight EST will be entered into a random drawing to win a set of three nesting orb kits. Kits include three wire orbs and enough nesting material (yarn, ribbon,etc) for your child to fill the orbs.
Annette Standrod wins the set of three nesting orb kits. Congrats Annette!
I too am an art therapist who is on "Pause" to raise my two girls Bay(3) and June(2). I enjoy seeing them create and having that art therapy eye(and ear) to learn more about them.