Studio art materials in the 21st century

Studio art materials in the 21st century

When we imagine an art studio in a school or an art therapy studio, the image that will surface is an easel, paints, papers, and perhaps clay. Nevertheless, since the 20th century, the forms of expression in the art are so diverse!  These days, any material can be part of creation.

Although we notice this in galleries and museums, we use mostly traditional materials in art therapy and educations. 

Catherine Hyland, a prominent art therapist and thinker says:  

Because materials are the constituent components through which meaning is made and communicated in the context of art therapy, the therapist’s understanding of material theory is a significant aspect of professional identity. What do materials mean? What are the theoretical bases upon which art therapists determine the specific material or media to provide a given client, or the array of material and media options offered from which the client might choose? How does the art therapist interpret the significance of the client’s material and media choices and ways of using materials?

Moon, Catherine Hyland, ed. Materials & Media in Art Therapy Critical Understandings of Diverse Artistic Vocabularies.

The Good Enough studio, Nona Orbach

Any material and object can express emotions, thoughts, associations, archetypes. All materials have an inner language and can be a metaphor and a bridge to our soul. Such an approach is an abundance of resources that can greatly assist us in therapy and education.

Offering materials that are not traditional can also reduce the tension around drawing and painting. Most clients I have met expressed discomfort around this issue how well they draw. It is hurt in the self-image people carry from childhood. It interferes with the flow in treatment and teaching and expresses a feeling of low self-esteem. Thus, an open studio with unusual materials, objects, media to choose from will convey permission and inspiration to express oneself.  

Thus, beyond traditional materials, we should suggest a variety of materials that represent the world today.

What do you collect, and how do you sort it all?

I sort the collected items into two main categories: industrial and recycling materials and natural materials.

The recycling and industry category will contain sub-families: the metal family, plastic, glass, and wood. This category will also include different strings and wires from the industry. 

The Good Enough studio, Nona Orbach

Every therapist and teacher will collect items she feels more connected to, as there is a personal choice. I know about art therapists who have carpentry and mosaic spaces because it’s based on their personality.

In my studio, the plastic appears in limited doses. I suggest small containers, lids, toys fragments for assemblage.

I don’t have any polystyrene and do not buy glitter anymore. Ecologically it seems problematic to me, and we can do without it.

In contrast, as a paper lover, there are three drawers with plenty of types of paper.

The second category, the natural materials, will include seeds, branches, stones, shells, bones, feathers, etc.

There is also a sub-family among the materials collected, and these are the objects with a history and story.   

I recently got a gift: a box of reddish-brown wood residue barrels of wine, dismantled and turned into a yoga studio floor. It’s a multigenerational story of wood. I may not share it with any clients, but I’m keeping it inside me as a treasure. 

The Good Enough studio, Nona Orbach

In this old cake mold, I collected metal objects that were not working or were part of something else. They will perhaps have a second life as part of an assemblage.

The Good Enough studio, Nona Orbach

Buttons hold very powerful stories. Every button has a story. Each button was attached to the garment that belonged to someone. A button can hold significant memory if a client has a family history of immigration, the Holocaust, and separation.

Matter or objects communicate in an internal language that relates to our body and the unconscious. They represent more than the concrete object; they are inner mirrors.

The use of objects and materials that are not traditional frees the creator. To a person who expresses tension around creation, I will propose at the first meeting to select anything off the shelves, whether he will do something with it or not. 

  • Pick up what your hands want and put it here on the table.

A sense of relief usually accompanies this process: here is a way of expression that does not require any skill.  The very choice, the order of assumption of the objects, the composition, that’s a story. I’m treating it as a picture of a sand table. And then we’ll look together and slowly see what that does mean. I’ll take the table because this job is like the first dream in analysis or the first object chosen for a sand table. The meaning will become clearer down the road.

This comprehensive approach to materials can allow creators greater comfort and openness in therapy and education.


The Good Enough studio, Nona Orbach

I had a client who found a rusty window mesh rupture and started exploring it.  There are many ways to understand this material: its flexibility, transparency,  its warp and woof, and also being a metal object sends us to Jung to elaborate.

He said he wants to make a series; I suggested he look for old windows this week, and I will do the same. To our next session, he brought some rusty nets he had found and begun working on his series.  

My request for him to look for mesh had a therapeutic purpose and a practical one as I did not have enough and was not sure I would find any.

Later on, I thought it might be a good idea to occasionally offer certain clients to look around for materials that speak to them and bring them. I also encouraged them to share and leave some material on the general shelves, not just in their drawer.

I see in such an intervention a therapeutic and social value. 

In this education, it is advisable as the procedure of the studio – that children will bring materials that they also love for the common good.  We all design together in a studio reflection created from the materials collected by other participants – representing different faces.


Here and Here


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