By Danielle Rifkin
Now that about a month has passed since we left CWCC (Cambodia Women’s Crisis Center), it is interesting to reflect on some of the rewarding and memorable experiences I had working at the shelter. For me, being the first person in our group to lead an intervention, was both nerve-racking as well as incredibly gratifying. To see by the end of the day how quickly rapport had been built with the use of art was astounding. From the little boy in the corner of the room initially scared to join the group who finally engaged with excitement, the little girls who covered my face with different art materials every day, and the sweet sentiments shared of how impactful the art process had been all top my list, but the story I want to share with you is the power of personal metaphor I witnessed that revealed itself during an art assessment, and our interactions that followed.
During our time at CWCC, we had a chance to observe Sue Wallingford, our teacher give an art assessment to one of the clients. In the room there was the client, a 14-year-old girl who had only recently came to the shelter, her therapist, a translator, Sue and myself. I can only imagine how intimidating it must have been to be asked to draw in front of the four of us. I consider myself an artist, and I definitely would have been nervous to put my pencil to the paper, but this girl agreed to the challenge. Kai (her name has been changed), a well put together girl with her hair done up in three braids held by a pink bow and glittery manicured nails sat on the couch with a few large pieces of white paper in front of her and a selection of colored pencils, chalk pastels and oil pastels to pick from. Nervously holding her hands, shaking her bracelets up and down her arm, and brushing her hair behind her ears and giggling throughout the whole assessment, Kai was able to create a drawing for us that was abundant in personal meaning.
Sue asked Kai if she wanted to draw a bird’s nest, which is helpful in assessing attachment and the family situation. Here is a link to learn more about this assessment. Kai said she didn’t know how to draw a bird’s nest and preferred to draw a house, tree, and person instead. We believe that Kai had heard that the other girls where asked to do this drawing so she was ready to do that drawing and not the bird’s nest assessment. Sue complied, saying that she could draw a house, tree and person instead. I believe allowing her to draw something she felt more comfortable with first prepared her to eventually be willing to attempt something she was less familiar with. After her first drawing was completed, Sue offered to help her draw a bird’s nest if she was willing, and Kai giggled and smiled with consent.
Kai was noticeably uncomfortable about this new directive, so Sue offered to help her make the drawing. Sue picked up a red colored pencil and Kai followed by picking up a brown one. Slowly Kai mirrored the squiggly lines that Sue was placing on the page to build up the foundation of the nest. Throughout this process she was asking Kai with the help of the translator how big it should be, where it should be placed, and any other details or instructions that would make here vision of it come to be. So even though Sue was helping with the drawing it was Kai’s idea of the nest that was being illustrated. Over the next few minutes they built up the bottom of the nest together. From there the questions continued about what was in the nest and where was the nest, and Kai with hesitation and giggles added the single speckled blue egg and the simple black outline of a tree mentioning she wasn’t really sure where this nest was. When asked if there was a story or if there were any other eggs or birds, she stated “The mother bird is far away and not in the picture.” The final details she added after filling in the background behind the egg were the few leaves in the trees and the hanging piece of fruit.
Because Kai is new to the shelter her therapist wasn’t able to share much of her story, as she was just learning about her herself. Her words however of the mother bird being far away and the single egg in the bird’s nest perhaps illustrates her feelings of being alone and living in a shelter. Her parents are divorced, her father is not in the picture and her mother lives on the other side of the border in Thailand. She is the single egg with her mother far away, and her tree, although present, doesn’t have a lot of details to it. I wonder, though, if her final touches of fruit and leaves were a sign of hope and her resiliency in making the best out of a hard situation.
I left the room with so many questions about Kai, and I was impressed how this assessment did start to tell her story. As the days continued, Kai was incredibly engaged with the art making process during our group time at the shelter, and was there every day and into the night making art with us. One of the last nights she came up to me, handed me the picture below, and said, in broken English, that it was a gift for me. Right away, I thought of the lone blue egg and recognized the similarities to the single sleeping blue bird she was giving me. Later that night I worked on a drawing for her, of a tree filled with blue birds illustrating my wish and hope for her. She had trouble accepting the picture, and I wonder if she felt uncomfortable accepting a gift from me, or if she just wasn’t ready or able to believe she could have a tree filled with birds.
According to Cathy Malchiodi (2010), “metaphors generate description and multi-layered meanings rather than a single interpretation; when it comes to really helping an individual make progress, it’s the metaphoric experience of art expression that sets the stage for emotional repair and insight.”
I believe the personal metaphor that was expressed in this assessment reveals the potential for Kai to share challenging feelings and experiences visually that she might not otherwise be comfortable talking about or taking ownership of. With the help of a tree, nest, egg or bird maybe she can continue to tell her story and begin to heal through metaphor.
Kaiser, J., Deavor, S. (2009). Assessing Attachment with the Bird’s Nest Drawing: A Review of the Research. Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, 26(1), 26-33.
Malchiodi, C. (2010). Cool art therapy intervention #3: It’s all about the metaphor. Psychology Today. Retrieved July 11th, 2013, from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-healing-arts/201008/cool-art-therapy-intervention-3-it-s-all-about-the-metaphor
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