Clinical Therapist Sarah Duncan, AMFT – Process, Performance Art, Fall 2018

During our bi-monthly art therapy supervision, therapists working toward art therapy registration as well as board certified and licensed art therapists explore the use of art materials in treatment to support our client’s mental health.

We use art to aid clients in processing and exploring emotions through visual means, engage our clients to sustain attention and delve into metaphor to separate the person from the problem. We allow for opportunities to utilize a client’s found creativity for problem solving and mastering skills, and discover the sensory experience of creating art to ground the client and practice self-regulation.

Not only is our supervision to further our understanding and practice using art in therapy, it is also a space for the therapists to engage in experiential learning and utilize art for our own processing and self-care. We use art to check in, reflecting upon our week and mental status, problem solve and come up with solutions to better serve our clients, and allow moments of Flow.

Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, known for his contributions in positive psychology, coined the psychological concept of Flow as “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p.4).1

During this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, and in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, finding these moments of Flow are essential in supporting our mental wellness. It has the ability to calm our sympathetic nervous system that makes our hearts beat fast and feel as though we are in immediate danger. Flow can calm us from the stressors of our daily life and empty or expand our minds from racing or cloudy thoughts. As a budding art therapist, dancer and creative, I choose to tap into my artistic identities for self-care. The best part about it is that everyone has the ability to connect with their creative and artistic self.

You say, “But Sarah, I don’t have paint, a canvas or ample space to choreograph my masterpiece.” Now this is an opportunity to get creative. Many of us who are art therapists have access to paints, paper, crayons, markers, etc. But we are also experts in creating something from the materials right in front of us. As we provide mental health services through Zoom, it can be an impossible task to engage our clients with the materials we typically use in the office, school or the field. We join our clients to see what materials they do have and brainstorm how toilet paper rolls, pens, scissors and string can create characters that evoke emotions and tell a story.

Not only can you use the many cardboard boxes that may arrive at your or your neighbors’ doors, go outside and see what you find! Create a labyrinth out of rocks and sand. Build a crown out leaves and sticks. Experience the sensation of mud as one would use clay. Create paint out of coffee, tea and juice from beets or other fruits and vegetables. Take old coffee cans and water jugs to create monsters, rocket ships or a container to hold your worries. Use water on the sidewalk to create vanishing works of art. There are endless opportunities when you let your creativity and imagination run wild without judgment.

For my self-care, I explore movement and dance. It could be with or without music, creating site-specific work utilizing objects and furniture within my home or outside.

Explore your sense of creativity. Use music, drama, art, dance or a combination of all to let yourself experience moments of Flow on your own or share the moment with others.

Below are testimonials and ways art therapists use creation for self-care!

“Art making is a way for me to reset and center myself. It’s something I can do that’s just for me. The hardest part for me is making or finding the time to create. I think about creating constantly, but I don’t always give myself the time to do it. One thing this quarantine has given me is the gift of time. I’m no longer rushing here and there, sitting in traffic or using the excuse of being too tired once I come home after a long day. Creating during this time has been a huge relief for my mental health as it allows me to get out any feelings or thoughts I have, whether it’s through a scribble or a collage. Ultimately, the art is for me, whether it makes sense or not. It’s a way for me to reconnect with my inner self and to let the rest of the world melt away.” – Alexandria Seelye, AMFT, Clinical Therapist working toward Art Therapy registration

Art-making out of recycled material. Madoka has created her turtle mask out of a tissue box! Adding levity into our daily lives with mask making. It is also a way for kids to engage in conversations about their feelings and thoughts through characters. – Madoka Urhausen, LMFT ATR -BC, Program Manager, School Based Program

“Making art, especially during this quarantine, has helped me feel productive and purposeful. Sometimes I create with a finished product in mind and sometimes I listen to a podcast or the news while I let myself create whatever comes up for me. At the beginning of the quarantine, my family and I got news that one of our dogs was not doing well, health-wise, and did not have much longer. I set an intention to take a photo of my two dogs together and create a piece of art from that photo. This process has allowed me a comfortable way to sit with and express my feelings. More so, I’ve been using art-making as a way to practice mindfulness and record how I’ve been feeling on a day-to-day basis. In a time when there is little to do, this practice keeps me grounded in a routine and encourages me to be curious about how each day brings up new or recurring themes.” –Monica Morales, AMFT, working toward Art Therapy registration

“I view my art practice as making things that are an extension of myself. I can look at this piece of myself and make meaning of it. I can look to it for answers of what I need. I can view it as a release of things I needed to let go of.” – Colleen Stafford AMFT, Clinical Therapist working toward Art Therapy registration

“When I create art for self-care, I prefer to use watercolor paints since this is my favorite art medium. I find myself getting lost in the flow of the painting process. Watercolor paint allows me to let go of control since you don’t have as much control with it as some other art mediums. I am able to enjoy the process and allow for ‘happy accidents.’ I also use art as self-care in the sense that I am imagining and painting images of places that bring me feelings of joy and calm. I like to paint images of Hawaii, which allow me to feel like I am there while I’m painting.” – Jackie Carlson, LMFT, ATR, Clinical Therapist


Sarah Duncan, AMFT is a Clinical Therapist in The Guidance Center’s School Based Program where she helps guide children and families struggling with mental health conditions or abuse toward positive and productive futures. She is especially passionate about deepening relationships with young children and their parents through art and play to promote secure attachments and foster healthy expression. Before joining The Guidance Center team in 2019, Duncan worked with 0-5 year-olds and parents as an MFT Trainee. Duncan earned a Master’s Degree in Marital and Family Therapy with a Specialization in Clinical Art Therapy at Loyola Marymount University


1Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York, NY: Harper and Row.