Let me begin by saying that there is not a lot written about art in terms of family. There are some examples of art created about families and family structure. There is also a small amount of research about art created by families undergoing arts therapies. Both are useful for individuals trying to navigate their own family, and families trying to navigate their place in time, space and society. The value inherent in both of these types of family-related art is something that continues to be slowly, researched and recorded. However there is almost no literature about informal (as in not guided by a licensed therapist) art making that occurs within families today.
Art about family
The value of examining art, from societies past and present, that deals thematically with family, is supported by the work of cultural critics, anthropologists and family art therapists alike. In their book, Family Art Therapy: Foundations of Theory and Practice, Christine Kerr and Janice Hoshino write that “examining historical family images is relevant …because archival images elucidate those human values and associations applicable to the evolving theme of family within Western culture. “ When a family unit or individual within the family has the opportunity to experience art that has been made about families over the course of human history, they receive a glimpse at the chronology of the family through “time, differentiation, social unrest, and states of familial closeness and distancing.”1 Exposure to work about family as it has existed in various cultures, times and places provides a framework for families of today to compare and contrast with “their own family’s emotional process.”
Two contemporary artists that have engaged in making work about families, that stick out in my mind are:
Stephan Koplowitz, “Thicker than water”
I’ve never seen Koplowitz intergenerational, dance theatre piece, but the reviews I’ve read make it sound like a piece that is exemplary in capturing contemporary family life. “Mr. Koplowitz has created a layered, splintered portrait that is hard to look away from.”2 Rather than create shock value, or capitalize on family ‘drama’, the piece focuses on the mundane and ordinary interactions of a family of four, through text and movement.
More about the work: http://www.nytimes.com/1993/10/04/arts/dance-in-review-349593.html
More about Koplowitz: http://www.koplowitzprojects.com/
Paula Vogel, How I Learned to Drive
This memory plays was one of the first works of performance art I encountered that dealt abstractly with familial themes. The memory play explores sexual abuse within family, in a nuanced and layered way. It was recently revived at 2econd Stage Theatre in New York City.
More about How I Learned to Drive: http://www.2st.com/component/option,com_plays/task,viewPlay/id,157
Art (therapy) for families
In addition to criticism of works of art about families, a small amount of literature exists about the use of art making within the setting of family arts therapy. (Note when I use the phrase art making, I refer to ephemeral process-oriented art experiences, like dance, in addition to art that results in an art product, like visual art)
Dance has been used as a means for helping individuals in families with a history of domestic violence. In one case study family dance practice, facilitated by a movement therapist, helped a mother and her two daughters significantly improve their ability to communicate individual needs, and explore and amend familial roles.
“By using their own bodies in the movement process to affectively attune to each other’s body cues, the family worked towards restoring and expanding each member’s capacity for self-regulation while gaining an embodied sense of non-verbal empathy for one another.” 3
In studies that looked at art therapy centered around visual art, it became evident that engaging the entire family in art making “facilitates needed energy for families that appear deadlocked in anger and hopelessness. Families seeking treatment are often entrenched in failure and impotence…art making promotes not only needed energy for the family but may allow the family to experience a sense of accomplishment as they engage in art making… can be liberating and highly perspective.”
It is clear that in so far as it has been studied family art making unlocks experiential understanding of individual families for individual family members. Both ephemeral and permanent art processes and products are opportunities for family-wide self-expression. Both of these outcomes are appealing for families dealing with small problems, who aren’t in crisis mode, as well as for families that benefit from professional therapeutic services. So why is it that there is so little literature that connects family art making with problem solving family issues and building stronger family connections (outside of “audience” and therapy spaces)?
Further inquiry into these modes of engaging the family in art making can only help families become better communicators and more connected to each other, their family history and future goals. More research, as well as more information about the process of family art making needs to be available so that families can access and apply this information to their own families.
1 Christine Kerr and Janice Hoshino, Family Art Therapy: Foundations of Theory and Practice (New York: Routledge, 2008), 2.
2 Jennifer Dunning, “Dance in Review,” New York Times, October 4, 1993, http://www.nytimes.com/1993/10/04/arts/dance-in-review-349593.html.
3 Christina Devereaux, “Untying the Knots: Dance/Movement Therapy with a Family Exposed to Domestic Violence,” American Journal of Dance Therapy 30, no. 2 (2008): 67.
4 Christine Kerr and Janice Hoshino, Family Art Therapy: Foundations of Theory and Practice (New York: Routledge, 2008), xv.