How do materials communicate feelings and thoughts?

How do materials communicate feelings and thoughts?

Materials are patiently waiting for us to provide them with a verbal voice that will elucidate how actions and matter represent emotional and cognitive transformation. I believe this is essential for our future generations of art therapists.

Here is a story from my new book: 


An art therapist in her late twenties enters my studio with a brown school bag for our first supervision session. As we walk from the door to the center table, she swiftly glances around, sits, and immediately takes out a sizeable notebook and a file of printed formal papers.

She has sharp facial features and striking large eyes. She tells me the university she studied at and where she works. She has no questions about the way I work or the studio, and seems to be in haste to share “a problem with an eight-year-old girl who has tantrums at school and home, as I told you on the phone.”

She picks one of the formal papers out, clicks on her pen, and reads out loud what the school psychologist says about the child. Different phrases such as “object relationships,” “aggression,” and “tree-house-test” fly through the air. I do not feel–see the girl she wanted to talk about at all. She did not bring any artwork to share, and it is not even on her mobile as images.

I am not sure why she chose an art therapist for supervision.
I ask her if she would allow me to know more about herself and the girl through materials, as after all, this studio environment presents us with so many choices. I say: “If you could describe this little girl, what material would she be? Go around the room and pick anything you feel might describe her, choose intuitively, anything is fine.”

She walks around and stops her tour at the sand tray shelves, kneels, and picks out a few dark stones. She displays them on the white surface table and gazes at me. After a long silence and deep breathing, she says she is surprised by her own choice.
As I wish for her to stay longer in the nonverbal phase, I ask her if she would like to respond to the stones through any material with another short artistic reaction. She gets up again and faces a shelf of art materials. She asks: “What is this black bottle?”
It contains Japanese ink, which is a composite of oils, water, and burnt trees. She takes the ink and a few brushes and dilutes it into several grays and portrays the group of stones with smooth strokes on a Japanese paper I suggested.
The paper absorbs the different range of ink hues she created in the palette. An expressive painting of five shapes is drying on the table.

After a long pause, she says: “I like this ink.… Oh, I chose five stones…. It is the number of her family
members…. Mine too. What are these stones anyway?”
“Lava stones,” I reply.
The ancient magma stones holding the memory of fire and time are perhaps echoed in the painting with a substance—Japanese ink—that similarly holds within it the memory of fire and burnt wood. Perhaps it is a metaphor for the integration we are looking for.
Are we getting closer now to the quality of the tantrum?

I am continually searching for the organic interrelations my clients have with the medium they chose. Their choices of materials are like the “words” of nonverbal communication: they suggest a multilayered scene, unfolding in a bodily manner, that gently leads us into the world of metaphors and culture and awakens dormant memories. A nonverbal process enables many metaphorical possibilities to evolve. Such perspectives do not reduce the client into a label; the process is not a flattening but an opening of perspectives, like shining light through a prism rather than through a window.

I believe an art therapist is expected and needs to listen to such whispers and tones; as we noticed above, they are deep and useful metaphors and poetic truths. How did this young art therapist know to choose those precise stones from such a large variety? How did she choose the Japanese Ink from all that was there before her? How did she make the links to her client’s family and hers?
In the session described above, we could also see how, too often these days, psychological terms are suggested which eliminate our artistic knowledge or view by providing quick conclusions. Why do we privilege these linguistic products of knowledge—medical terms— over other forms? Have we lost our trust in the process and its materials? Have we forgotten that our deepest roots are anchored in cave drawings and working with flint tools?”


    The Good Enough Studio, 2020, Nona Orbach

All images are by Nona Orbach

About Ink and Sumi

Materials are a language


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