Book Scene – A Child’s Garden of Art Therapy

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by Stuart Mitchner

The most effective art therapy book I know is the Audubon Guide to Wild Flowers. My son must have been eight when he began looking through it, fascinated by the bright images, especially the more exotic flowers. The Audubon became his book of choice at bedtime. It wasn’t long before he wanted to make up his own guide. We found a large bound book of blank pages, gave him crayons and marking pens, and he spent many happy hours following the Audubon model. First he drew his idea of the flower, gave it a name, and then a description like the ones he knew. These were all his own inventions. Not only was it more satisfying, and more do-able, for him to make up the flowers, rather than trying to copy the real thing, his small motor disability gave him no choice. Simply trying to copy the image would have led to frustration, as happened in school where most kids could at least draw some identifiable semblance of an assigned object. In this case, neccessity truly was the mother of invention, for once he gave up the obligation to replicate the image, he was free to dive into the riot of color he’d discovered in the Audubon guide. An insensitive teacher would have made him feel at fault or inferior for not being able to keep up with his peers. Fortunately, he had one or two teachers who lived up to the Greek definition of therapy: therapeía “to be attentive” — and not judgmental.

61olFdB263L._SX345_BO1,204,203,200_Finding Release or Relief

If you look for art therapy online you find the usual stories of artists whose work helped them overcome personal adversity. Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose version of a field guide was the copy of Gray’s Anatomy he studied while recovering from a childhood accident, ran away from home at 15 after his mother, who had encouraged his art, was committed to a mental institution. Putting his psychosis on canvas helped Edvard Munch survive deep depression and nervous breakdowns. One look at Van Gogh’s palpably alive paintings and art appreciation becomes psychoanalysis.

Whether children are dealing with mass shootings and terrorism and the ensuing paranoia or with the loss of a parent or sibling, they could presumably find release or relief in art therapy. Indirectly related to my son’s use of plants as an outlet is Sophie Leblanc’s Art Therapy: Extraordinary Gardens: 100 Designs, Colouring in and Relaxation (Jacqui Small $19.99), which celebrates the “enchanting world of the garden, where birds, insects and flowers unite to form 100 beautiful illustrations for you to make your own. From Eden to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, any garden is a symbol of peace and pleasure.” The point is to be creative within a provided template, to “let your imagination wander” within the secure confines of the book where children (and adults) can “rediscover the simple, yet calming pleasure of observing nature at its finest” in the form of “hedge mazes, incredible topiary, elegant romantic gardens and friezes of evocative tulips of the Taj Mahal.” The adversary is not clinically specified but described in euphemisms like “the stresses and distractions of everyday life.”

The Paris Approach

If adults can find something therapeutic in Ernest Hemingway’s Parisian memoir A Moveable Feast, which has been selling remarkably well in Paris since the November terrorist attacks, a book like Secret Paris: Color Your Way to Calm (Little Brown $16) might be helpful for children shaken by the catastrophe. Another book by Zoe de Las Cases (not a person, apparently, but a shop) is just out this month: Paris Street Style (Potter/Ten Speed/Harmony $16), in which “The coloring book is reinvented in a brand new journal format.” The idea is to make therapy companionable, you can take it with you, and use it to illustrate day to day moments “wherever you’re off to,” using “whimsical, full-page patterns, cityscapes and street scenes, feminine silhouettes, and stylish essentials.”

Offered through Barnes & Noble are Color Therapy: An Anti-Stress Coloring Book (Running Press $15) by Cindy Wilde, Laura-Kate Chapman, Richard Merritt, who is also, with  Hannah Davies and Jo Taylor, among the editor-authors of Creative Therapy: An Anti-Stress Coloring Book. Both publications are part of an international coloring book series. Again, the purpose is to relieve stress, “lift your mood and focus your mind.” All you have to do is “just start coloring and doodling.”

An offering with a New Age twist is Rebecca Bloom’s Square the Circle: Art Therapy Workbook (Booklocker $13.95), which features mandala coloring sheets and activities created to help adults, teens and children dealing with anxiety, depression and PTSD. The idea is to get beyond “verbal processing” to “image-making that safely allows the body to tell its story.” Using the eight limbs of yoga as a guide, you learn Ahimsa, to “practice non-violence toward yourself,” creating images that “don’t need to be pretty or even make sense,” but that “just have to be true and hopefully allow for more discussion to arise.” The second yoga concept is Dharana, “to allow yourself the time and space for inner awareness” and to use “these concepts of mindfulness as a powerful centering technique.” These exercises can be used “alone or in individual counseling.”

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Best Sellers

The adult coloring book phenomenon is the elephant in this particular art therapy room. For instance, Joanna Basford’s wildly popular Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt and Colouring Book (Laurence King $15.95), and for people in “today’s busy world” the pocket-sized Mindfulness Series by Emma Farrarons, featuring The Mindfulness Coloring Book: Anti-Stress Art Therapy for Busy People (The Experiment $9.95).