Tag Archives: family

Art for the family, by the family

13 May

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.


Works cited:

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.


Recognizing opportunities for art making in “non-artsy” families

13 May

“My family is not artsy.” This was the response of a close friend of mine when I questioned his belief that while art making might be helpful for some families, it wouldn’t be helpful for his family. When I pressed my friend for reasons why, his instinctual response was that his family is not “artsy”. I interpreted this response to mean that he believed his family was not experienced enough with the creative process or art making to comfortably or effectively engage in it.

I do not think my friend is alone in this belief. In my experience “artsy” families, are families that engage in art making the most, and often these families exhibit parents, grandparents or other family members with notable experience engaging in art making. The resident family artist (or artists), regardless of whether they make art at the professional or amateur level, can be a facilitator for engaging the entire family in the creative process as it pertains to any number of creative activities (crafts, visual arts, music making, dancing, story telling, writing etc).

For families with members with limited experience in the arts, the creative process may be less evident and/or less explored. In any case, I still believe the arts and creative process can be located at work to some extent in most, if not all families. By shifting perceptions about what family activities, projects, and practices involve the creative process, art making could be better understood and expanded/improved upon within families.

Candy Chang’s street art speaks to an important lesson; community art( and perhaps family art) need not be defined in textbook terms. Many of her projects, utilize street art techniques, for the purpose of creating and improving pathways for communication to take place within a community. In her project “I Wish This Was” Chang made fill-in-the-blank stickers that said “I Wish This Was _____” and posted them on vacant storefronts in New Orleans. Community members who passed by the empty lots wrote in suggestions for utilizing the space. The project created a physical space for constructive community input. Not only was input encouraged, but it was also made visible to other community members.

Another project “Before I Die” originated when Chang “painted the side of an abandoned house in [her] neighborhood in New Orleans with chalkboard paint and stenciled it with a grid of the sentence, “Before I die I want to ______.” The wall acts as an evolving visual and poetic work of art. By creating the art in a public space, Chang once again encouraged community engagement. Change was not interested in only her own personal response and reflection on the theme “Before I die”, instead Change writes, “It’s about remembering what’s important to you and learning about the hopes and aspirations of your neighbors.”

Chang’s aforementioned projects exemplify how artful approaches to communication and investigation; encourage participation and creation within a community. Projects like these might serve as models for art making within families.

If communicative and the investigative processes are recognized as platforms for a community to engage in the creative process and vice versa, then integrating the creative process into the family structure becomes less daunting. For example, instead of relying solely on verbal discussion, in a setting like a family meeting or off-handed conversation, to communicate family goals, the creative process can be used to engage in collaborative and deeper communication on these subjects.

I tried to explain this concept to my friend (in much fewer words), when he asked “Why not just talk about things?” My response was to reference findings from Dance movement therapists, involved in family therapy. In therapy settings verbal communication and intervention often enforce ineffective patterns and roles in the communication process. The introduction of creative movement as a means of non-verbal communication is effective at breaking these patterns, “re-choreographing”,  so to speak, family dynamics. (Untying the Knots)

Family therapy that revolves around visual art boasts similar advantages. “The visual record helps non or less verbal family members participate. It allows the family members to reach the deeper levels of being that are only possible through experiential understanding. Restructuring communication patterns makes it possible to balance the family system in a healthy fashion.” (vii)

When pressed for what this might actually look like in a family I offered the following imaginings:

– A wall is designated as a space where family members can collaborate and post visual art they have made, writings, found images and texts.  The wall becomes a space for an evolving work of art that suites the families needs.

–  A family starts the practice of taking a follow the leader walk. On this walk each member of the family is given an opportunity to lead the rest of the family through movement. The movement explores the space of the walk as well as the preferences and tendencies of the family member leading.

– A family purchases second hand instruments, or makes their own instruments out of materials around the home and schedules sessions for learning about and experimenting with music making.

Our culture’s emphasis on specialization, relegates “artsy” activities to professional artists, and discourages people that do not consider themselves to be primarily artists from engaging in art making. I believe that by changing the discourse around who should make art and what qualifies as art, more families could access art making as an important avenue for communication and investigation within families.

Learn more about Candy Chang’s community art:



works cited:

1 Christina Devereaux, “Untying the Knots: Dance/Movement Therapy with a Family Exposed to Domestic Violence,” American Journal of Dance Therapy 30, no. 2 (2008).

2 Christine Kerr and Janice Hoshino, Family Art Therapy: Foundations of Theory and Practice (New York: Routledge, 2008), vii.

Alana Herro, “Fellows Friday Q&A with Candy Chang,” TED Blog. TED Conferences LLC. http://blog.ted.com/2011/07/29/fellows-friday-with-candy-chang/.