I was six years old running with a wild pack comprised of my thirteen cousins, equal parts boys and girls, at our Grandmother's farm in upstate New York. As our mother's drank coffee and chatted and our dad's played poker and tried to solve the world's problems me and my kin were not only allowed, but required to play outside and amuse ourselves. We were not supervised, which by today's standards seems unthinkable. I am not one to romanticize the past – my male cousins were unruly boys and I found them twenty-five percent fascinating and seventy percent frightening. I was a partially undecided.
We would play tag and hide-and-seek for hours and hours. Periodically, my grandmother would monitor us from her post on the farmhouse porch. She was tough - being one of the original founders of the Ladies Garment Workers of American Union – you didn’t mess with her, but she gave out just as much love as she commanded respect. When my grandmother felt that one of the children was too rambunctious with a wave of her arm and a two-finger-in-the-mouth whistle she would pluck the culprit from the pack as if he or she were “out of the game.” It was time to “color on the porch” which was furnished with paper, crayons, coloring books and pencils.
For many of my cousins this was seen as a punishment – being called away from the fun to do sissy things and be quiet. To me it was a gift. I loved to be called to the porch to draw and color. The activity has such a calming effect on even my most out of control cousins and I got to do what I do best: use my imagination. Being free from any impending harm was just a plus.
My grandmother didn’t know from alpha and beta states of the brain or how mindfulness helps reduce chronic pain, insomnia and blood pressure – no one did quite yet. At a time when art therapy was coming into its own and counselors increased their use of expressive art in session Grandma knew that creativity and focused attention defused a volatile situation. I doubt she realized that the act of creating art is healing in and of itself. Perhaps the reality of having an emotionally absent father or a depressed mother or being bullied in school were softened or even forgotten for some of us. I know my awareness shifted away from some of the hard realities of my young life. We were kids creating something out of nothing – surrendering to complete immersion in the creative process.
As a counselor in training, a writer and artist I use the healing power of creative expression in my work. Some of my clients are creative professionals, but I think the benefits of such a pursuit may actually be greater for those who haven’t found their creative voice yet – those who may be creatively and emotionally stuck. Maybe “calling them onto the porch” might be a good idea. Such interventions encourage reframes and fresh perspectives. As well as comforting an overactive ten year old the creative process can quell an untamed adult mind. I highly recommend Samuel T .Gladding’s “The Creative Arts in Counseling” as a source for expressive art interventions. And I can’t help but wonder if Mr. Gladding spent some of his childhood time simply coloring on the porch.
Susan Jennifer Polese is a counselor in training, a personal coach and a freelance writer. Her areas of interest are mindfulness, divergent thinking, and creativity in counseling.