Expressive arts activities scare me.  Many of them are derived from psychotherapeutic practices, and those scare the hell out of me.  There are certain cans of worms that are just begging to be opened, and I figure if I work with expressive arts activities enough, those cans of worms are eventually going to be opened.  As they should I suppose. 

People come to expressive arts for lots of different reasons.  Some people want to enrich their counselling, healthcare or teaching practices.  Others think the arts are a great basis for exploring and expressing the self.  And others just want to play and develop the creative process.  Some just have things to say, and need to find ways to say them.  I want to help people tell their stories, and the expressive arts world offers an abundance of fun and rewarding strategies for enhancing creativity and expression.

To help others utilize expressive arts, for whatever reason, you have to do some of the therapeutic stuff, the internal explorations.  For me, that’s always a personal challenge, particularly doing that out loud.  In front of people.  I’m an avoider – naturally inclined to leave those cans of worms closed.  And I’m reserved.  I feel quite comfortable expressing myself in writing.  It’s safe.  It’s solitary.  As for the other arts – not so comfortable. 

Last week I did some of that work with uncharacteristic courage.  I danced without inhibition.  I did theatre games without fear.  I told stories aloud and be damned my sieve-like memory and drifty focus. 

I felt good.  I wasn’t tackling nagging cans of worms like some were.  I was just doing.  Expressing in ways that are usually most uncomfortable for me but this time they weren’t and it felt really good.   

And then there was the sand tray. 

Sand tray (or sandplay therapy) is best known for its use by psychoanalysts and play therapists in creating a safe “world” in which to symbolically represent one’s internal self.  The client will choose from a variety of miniature figures and toys and create a scene or world in a tray of sand.  The client and/or the therapist will then interpret what is symbolically represented in the tray.  Expressive arts practitioners utilize sand tray for freeing and creating stories, and all the interpreting is left to the person making the world.  The expressive arts practitioner may ask questions designed to open or highlight certain elements and/or characters and/or objects in the story.

I’m usually one of the ones who are happy to let others take the “action” role in these types of activities, but when it came time to experiment with the sand tray, I jumped in and said, “this stuff scares me, so I should do it.”  I approached the activity with what I thought was a blank slate.  I wanted to assemble and place the figures and toys without thought, and come up with a story completely off the cuff, and enjoy playing with my imagination and exercise my [very limited] improv muscles. 

As it happened, there was nothing ridiculous about the world I created in the sand tray.  The themes are not new.  I told an old story of searching.  Looking for home.  Searching for place, and space and solidness and not finding it.

What’s new is the interpretation.  It’s a story is about mindfulness. Being mindful of the things that are driving the search, and recognizing the places you’ve already been so you aren’t walking in circles.  It’s not a story about the end, real or anticipated.  Really, there’s nothing futile in searching and not finding the pot of gold right away; there is nothing to be gained in trying to see the end before you get there.  As I wrote in a story years ago – it’s like jumping to the end of the book, when the story is right here, right now. 

Funny, that particular story is one that I told aloud last week.  I told that one because I know it, am familiar with it and I could then focus on the challenges of telling of it aloud.  That’s what I thought.  Uh oh. 

On we go, me and my cans of worms.  I think it’s time to get off the main road.


To learn more about sand tray, click here:


One of the internal “snapshots” I carry around with me is the picture of me at around ten, in my grade five class with the other kids and our teacher, Mrs. Chavis, dancing to “Joy to the World” (Jeremiah was a Bullfrog).  We had a dance in our classroom for an hour or so every Friday afternoon.  Sometimes we square danced; sometimes we’d pick songs from the stacks of 45s some kids brought in.  The kids with the afros had the biggest and best stacks of records, mostly Motown; most of us just had a few.  But our favourite song to dance to was Jeremiah was a Bullfrog.

Vivian Chavis approached learning with a strong combination of creativity and discipline.  She was no softie – nobody got away with nonsense in her class.  But she also had a well placed sense of humour, and us kids knew it.  To this day I can hear her hearty, high pitched, musical laugh. 

Mrs. Chavis taught us to be aware, through strict daily attention to current events and history.  Four years later on my first day of high school, I was the only person in my history class who knew that Mao Tse Tung had recently died.  I was the only one who knew who Mao Tse Tung was, in fact, and I’m sure I must have sat there in that Grade 9 history class and thought of learning about the Chinese Cultural Revolution in Mrs. Chavis’s class and the big dragon “float” we made to parade around the school on Chinese New Year.

Mrs. Chavis always let us propose creative ways to express our learning.  Once, Helen, Patty and I created a “Game Show” to practice question drills, during which we tried to give one good natured kid a whipped cream pie in the face.  Another time we did a history project that we presented on a home-made television set, made out of a box and a roll of brown paper.  Along with dancing, we had weekly choir singing, where we sang Harry Belafonte songs and old African American spirituals. 

Mrs. Chavis, nearing retirement, had hair that was fast turning white, offset with thick, black rimmed glasses.  She wore heavy, plain polyester dresses every day.  With those she wore sensible walking shoes and thick, taupe coloured nylons, which didn’t exactly match her African American skin.  My Mom, who was also a teacher at our school, said she would go into Mrs. Chavis’s classroom after school and find her colleague reclined in her chair with her feet up on her desk, laughing about some grade five related fiasco or other.  My Mom said she begged her not to retire until my youngest sister reached Grade 5 and could have her as a teacher.  Jane did end up having her, and Mrs. Chavis retired not long after that.  She died only a few years after that.  My Mom who later learned of the health problems Mrs. Chavis was having at that time, always felt guilty for begging her to stay on. 

Vivian Chavis gave me many things; most importantly my ability to think and learn creatively.  30 years later she arose in my own studies in education, and I looked to her as a model when writing my own teaching philosophy.  She is no doubt behind my continued desire to know, and my lifelong interest in news and current events.  She got me interested in the big beautiful world, and what history teaches us. 

And she forever lives on in that internal snapshot of the sixty-something, grey haired, polyester clad lady with a big laugh dancing to Jeremiah was a Bullfrog with a bunch of ten year olds in a classroom on a Friday afternoon.

This morning on the bus I’m reading one of the several books on personal writing and memoir I’m carrying around for inspiration in planning lessons for my class.  A kid in his late teens sits next to me – he’s not unlike one you typically see on that bus route bordering Scarborough, dressed in a bright red basketball shirt, matching his hat and expensive looking runners, and an i-pod in the pocket of his baggy jeans which is likely filled with hip hop and rap music. 

I can tell he’s reading the pages of my book, and eventually he asks me in a soft spoken voice what kind of “exercises” the book is referring to.  I tell him it’s a book about creative writing, and then I tell him about this particular kind of writing.  And then I tell him about my class, and the kinds of things we do in it and why.  He likes the idea that doing creative play and exercises can help one to get the story down onto the page, and he’s impressed that one of my students this semester is 92 years old and taking classes.

After a short while he gets up to leave and says it was nice talking to me.  I return with same, and watch him walk down the street, appreciating his curious and open mind.  I wonder if he’s had the slightest inspiration to tell a story.  I hope so.  That would be really cool.

Creating a doll in collage is a great way to convey a picture of the inner “YOU” at present.  You might be surprised at who reveals her/himself!  Knowing that, how could you resist trying?

In which a collage doll comes together. 


The results are always surprising.

Clear a comfortable space.  Start by focusing on a theme or personal vision.  Browse through magazines and newspapers, or other materials at hand and cut out whatever speaks to you.  (Remember, you’re not married to the pieces.  Just cut them out.) 


When the piece (in this case a doll) has revealed itself to you (and it will), arrange it together in a journal, on a sheet of cardboard or whatever. 


When the arrangement is right, mark the placement of major sections with pencil.  Podge the back of the pieces and carefully secure them to the page. 


Make sure all the edges are flat.  (It’s kind of like wallpapering – get all those bubbles out!)  Apply several coats of podge over the entire thing.  


Before this creature was even born, I envisioned her in a window, so I expect she will be cut out and further embellished with stuff that sparkles in the light.  Stay tuned.

learning challenge

31 December 2008

It’s almost too late to participate in Lani Gerity’s “free spot” contest, but never mind.  Her online course is an affordable and convenient way to learn about Expressive Arts and try some activities that will get you participating in some creative play – and maybe seeing things from an entirely different perspective!  Make 2009 the year in which you’ll make the act of doing something nice for yourself a regular priority.  C’mon – give it a try!  Let’s make a doll together!

At the very least – click here and enjoy Lani’s blog!