In art therapy and artistic expression, we often use symbols to represent our life experiences. In contrary to words, symbols allow us to describe our experiences in more holistic way. Hinz (2009) describes that the use of symbols have healing functions. Symbols help us make sense of our life experiences and expand the understanding of who we are. Decoding symbolic meanings of your image is a key factor for your personal growth.
What is it like to use symbols in therapy sessions? One of the examples is using a tree as a symbol. Answer this question for me: If you are a tree, what kind of tree would you be?
When I ask this question to my clients, they all have different answers----A bush. A cherry blossom tree. A peach tree. A young tree. A flowering tree. What’s important is to explore what these trees represent and how clients relate to the trees they draw/paint. For example, a client chose to paint a peach tree because he saw himself as someone who was giving---a fruit tree provides nourishment to others.
For me, I would choose bamboo. Bamboo is flexible. As it grows, bamboo secures itself into the ground firmly with roots. With roots and flexibility, bamboo tolerates storms and winds well. Sometimes I am like bamboo. Other times I am not, and the image of bamboo is a source of aspiration during those times----it reminds me that I can be flexible and stay grounded if I try.
"Youth and Maturity," Gelatin prints with gel ink pen, 2020.
Not only identifying a tree as a representation of yourself, you can use it as an inspiration and learn from it. What is it that your tree is trying to tell you? Using bamboo as an inspiration, I decided to make a card for myself.
First, I painted a bamboo leaf and cut it out. I also painted the back.
Then I decided to use a separate piece of paper to write out the message for myself and wrapped it in the leaf. When the message is not openly displayed, it feels more special. It becomes more personal.
Art therapy Activity: A tree as a self-portrait
(1) Ask yourself—“If I am a tree, what kind of tree would I be?” Create an image of yourself as a tree. You can use any drawing or painting supplies.
(2) After you finish creating the image, observe it. What do you notice?
· What types of tree? What qualities does it have? Young/old? Tall/small? Thick leaves/bare branches? Fruits?
Where is it planted?
What are some similarities and differences between you and this tree?
What do you like about the tree? What do you dislike?
Is there anything you wish to change about this tree or its surroundings?
In art therapy sessions, an art therapist will guide you to examine the connection between the image and yourself. How you relate to art is how you relate to yourself. Sometimes you can understand what’s happening to you better when you understand the meaning of the image in front of you.
Reference: Hinz, L. (2009). Expressive Therapies Continuum: A framework for using art in therapy. Routledge.