Written by Jae Eun (Jane) Song and co-edited by project participants, Willow and Kate.
Adolescence can be viewed as an opportune moment to move a family into a new level of development (Riley, 1999). Young people and their parents’ active engagement in negotiating and (re)defining identity can generate a timely opportunity for exploring, reconstructing, and making meaning of the intergenerational family narratives of adverse life experiences and resilience. Art therapy, with its capacity to deepen people’s self-understanding and to enrich and give pleasure through the making and viewing art, provides a valuable process through which to negotiate these potential changes.
These ideas underpinned a collaborative community-based art therapy program developed for teenager Willow and her mother Kate that sought to explore how individual and family mosaic-making could facilitate symbolic representations of participants’ life stories and intergenerational family values, as well as promoting participants’ wellbeing. Through a series of one-on-one and family art therapy, invaluable insights were illuminated on how the participants experienced mosaic-making and what meanings they ascribed to their overall experience of the art therapy program. I participated as a researcher and art therapist in the program. Willow and Kate had been recruited through a collaboration with a community-based family services program. Together, we met regularly from March to July 2021 at Willow and Kate’s local community centre.
Willow was a bright, articulate, and confident 17-year-old young person with autism. Kate was a caring, humorous, and creative woman who was a passionate teacher and devoted single mother. Willow and Kate introduced themselves as people who enjoyed creative arts and crafts. At the outset of the program, they expressed curiosity about art therapy and enthusiasm for learning mosaic-making. Willow and Kate shared with me that they viewed their participation in the program as taking a meaningful step towards better mental health and wellbeing, as well as enriching their relationship.
The art therapy program was facilitated over two phases. The first phase entailed Willow and Kate participating separately in six individual art therapy sessions, whereas in the second phase, Willow and Kate participated together in six family art therapy sessions. In the program, I co-participated in artmaking and shared my artwork with Willow and Kate, which helped foster a more collaborative and power-equalising atmosphere. The art-centred nature of this program reflected a collaborative and participatory ethos of a community-based art therapy approach. In this model of practice, people who engage with art therapy are conceptualised as participants and the art therapist as the co-participant and facilitator. Accordingly, a more egalitarian relationship between the therapist and participant is intended. This approach of participants and facilitators working together as equals in research studies is also a feature of other CAWRI funded projects, including Feral Pedagogies.
Throughout the program, Willow and Kate engaged actively with the artmaking. They used various materials and dialogued with me and with each other about their artmaking experiences and the artworks. Art served as a valuable medium for creating a comfortable atmosphere where a relationship was developed between Willow, Kate and me. It also stimulated new insights and provided an opportunity for Willow and Kate to learn new artistic skills. Typically, we embarked on artmaking as we arrived at each session. While artmaking, we conversed casually to touch base about each other’s week, celebrate positive events, and talk through any challenging events that Willow and Kate were concerned about. Before each session ended, we reflected on our artwork and the process of artmaking. It was an opportunity for us to integrate what we thought, felt, and sensed in our interactions with each other and with our art during the session. In their individual art therapy sessions, Willow and Kate sometimes shared stories of their past and ongoing challenging life experiences, such as difficult intergenerational family events and their impacts, as well as experiences of mental ill-health and conflict in their parent-teenager relationship. At those times, art and the relationship we had established among ourselves were helpful supports, offering ways to express and contain painful emotions evoked by reflecting on those experiences.
When Willow and Kate transitioned from their individual art therapy to family art therapy, we encountered some challenging moments that arose during brainstorming, negotiating, and making decisions about the creation of a joint family mosaic. Tolerating moments of tension and resolving different opinions that created discords at times felt somewhat similar to navigating the tensions and disagreements in their parent-teenager relationship. Likewise, the process of negotiating roles, highlighting each other’s strengths and collaborating by working on their joint family mosaic seemed to reflect how Willow and Kate cared for each other and made their ‘teamwork’ work, not just in the program but also beyond it.
Through their joint work, Willow and Kate completed a mosaicked birdbath that enabled them to take home a physical reminder of their joint participation in the art therapy program. The image mosaicked onto the birdbath was designed collaboratively by Willow and Kate. Kate suggested developing a symbol that represented growth as she anticipated a new season of multiple transitions for the family. Willow quickly responded by drawing an image of goldfish and lily flowers in the pond to reflect the theme of growth. Kate and I contributed to the cutting and gluing of the tiles. Willow, who enjoyed grouting, led the process for us. With all three of us cleaning and polishing off extra grouts on the surface, the final colourful image was revealed. Seeing the image emerging from the grouted surface was a rewarding moment for us: there was a shared sense of excitement, pride, and appreciation, and we celebrated the completion of the mosaic.
When reflecting on their experience of mosaic-making in the program, Willow and Kate remarked that the grouting process seemed to “cover the mistakes and imperfection.” Then, they chuckled as they said, “Well, we could make a saying: apply grout when there is a problem!” Willow also described the mosaic-making process as “putting different pieces together to make them whole.” These reflections by Willow and Kate seemed to speak poetically to their intergenerational family stories in which numerous moments of joy and challenge were interwoven and held together by their strong family values.
Facilitating the community-based art therapy program with Willow and Kate created enriching experiences for both the participants and me. There were numerous relationship-building and learning opportunities, as well as the fun and challenging moments that arose from mosaic-making individually and together as a family. Additionally, the program offered an opportunity for Willow and Kate to re-affirm their love for creative activities. In fact, Kate said she wanted to look for a community-based arts and craft makers’ group in her neighbourhood so that she could continue to join with others and participate in creative activities. The moments of facilitating the community-based art therapy program with Willow and Kate are also pieced together in my memory to “make them whole”. They were an invaluable opportunity to learn from witnessing generative and reparative actions Willow and Kate had taken through artmaking.
Riley, S. (1999). Contemporary art therapy with adolescents. Jessica Kingsley.
Thumbnail image: Willow and Kate’s joint mosaic (in progress).
Header image: 'Four elements: water, wind, fire, earth', representing Willow’s interest. Mosaic by Willow.
Jae Eun (Jane) Song is a registered art therapist, counsellor, PhD researcher at the University of Melbourne, and lecturer in the Master of Art Therapy program at La Trobe University. Jane's doctoral research explores diverse desires, interests, and needs that motivate young people with adverse life experiences to participate in art therapy, and aims to expand theories and methods that are grounded in the participant's perspective.
This program was partially funded by a PhD top-up grant from the Creative and Wellbeing Hallmark Research Initiative (CAWRI) at the University of Melbourne.