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Art behind Bars

Carol Messing

Incarcerated teens work through their pain using paint and glue. A seasoned art therapist speaks about how art can reach the places beyond words

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

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As we sat around the art therapy table in that prison, deeply hurt and afraid little girls seemed to emerge. And it was those frightened, trembling souls I tried to connect with and nurture through the art experience and discussions that followed

“I want the pink one!

“I always get the green one!”

“Save me a purple.”

I was not in a preschool. I was in a juvenile prison. And yet the claims rang out from these rough, tough girls, ranging in age from 14 to 21, who were taking part in the ritual that began our art therapy sessions. I was intrigued by this behavior, though not surprised by the humanity expressed by each claim.

What were these incarcerated girls claiming in all colors of the rainbow? Small, fluffy pompoms, housed in a little red basket. At the start of each session, we passed the basket around. As each participant chose her pompom, she told the group how she was feeling that day and what she wanted to gain from the upcoming art therapy experience. At the end of the session, each girl replaced her pompom into the little red basket, and told the group what she got out of art therapy that day. It worked like magic.

Why was this ritual so effective with girls who were not strangers to abuse of all kinds, rampant use of drugs, lives of neglect, and ultimately, crime? I can’t say for certain; however, as we sat around the art therapy table in that prison, deeply hurt and afraid little girls seemed to emerge. And it was those frightened, trembling souls I tried to connect with and nurture through the art experience and discussions that followed.


At an introductory first session for each group, I asked the girls to make a collage entitled Planet Me. I collected images, words, and phrases from magazines and placed them in the center of the table. The collage technique was nonthreatening, and the words — such as “your life,” “better,” “beautiful” — were resonant. If a girl felt particularly challenged by working with images, she could always arrange words on the paper to express herself.

Most girls used both pictures and words in their “Planet Me” collages. When they had finished, we went around the table (a large wooden table, very solid and conducive to our therapeutic activity) and each girl spoke about her collage. This was where her self-reflection, her shattered life, her hopes and dreams, were expressed. Some were more superficial than others, but most of the girls seemed to share honestly. We were bonding as a group, and we were usually off to a relatively good start.

The group would meet for eight art therapy sessions, at the same time each week. Prior to starting a new group, I did not investigate the girls’ personal records, because I wanted to get to know each one first and foremost as a person, not as a criminal. I hardly ever knew what crime landed them in prison. Their whole life was so painful that the crime was usually the tip of the iceberg.

For eight weeks, we were on a ship in the rough sea, and it was my job to steer the course in a beneficial direction for all on board. I would generally begin each session with an art therapy directive for each participant to explore. One of the most meaningful directives was to create a mask. The side facing out was decorated with artwork that showed how the teen presented herself to the world or how she believed others saw her. The side that faced inward showed how the teen felt on the inside, how she viewed herself. My office featured a display of masks hanging from the ceiling, along with drawings, paintings, and collages. (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 551)

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