Art Therapy in Juvenile Detention

“Be still my beating heart.”

I know this quote is meant to be about attempting to calm oneself in the presence of the one you love and desire, but I had to repeat it to myself at least 10 times this week as my students created and shared their latest clay sculptures.  I had asked them a simple question… What would your heart look like if it showed all of your life experiences?  Your losses, your triumphs, your good times and bad.  Their responses were honest, raw, and completely individual.

I like to give projects that will challenge my students to reflect on their lives, the choices they’ve made, and the relationships they’ve formed (or lost).  Well, this project idea came to me from a dear friend (also an art therapist in a detention center).  It definitely requires some abstract thinking and willingness for personal insight, so I thought I’d give it a whirl with my 11th and 12th graders.  Now, I’m never one to focus on the appearance of the final “product,” but I was so blown away by my students creations of hearts covered in tombstones to hearts made of brick, cracked down the middle with roses growing out of them, to hearts blasted apart by gunshots, that I had to remind myself multiple times that I am not in a clinical art therapy position. Then, as I started to think more about the assignment, I realized, of course they poured their “heart” and soul into it!  If someone gave me this assignment and as much clay as I wanted, then told me that I didn’t have to share all the details of what it was really about if I didn’t want to, I’d totally be into that!

OK, let me rewind. Since it’s been a while since I’ve written about my beloved job, I’ll do a quick refresher. I work as an art therapist in a tiny school within a Juvenile Detention Center. Middle and high-school students come to my class during the “regular” school day (regular simply has be in quotes here since nothing is either normal or predictable in Detention), and I take role and give grades like a “regular” teacher. The important piece of this puzzle is that my students do not receive grades for the pieces they create. They are merely asked to “take advantage” of their studio time, and to the best of their ability, participate in the art assignments to take their mind off of their stresses, reflect on their lives, and maybe even make something they’re proud of.  In other words, they are “graded” solely on effort and participation.  If they’re upset about something and need to scribble for an hour, that’s ok by me.  Oh! And, one last detail, since my students are incarcerated and I don’t typically have contact with their parents, I can almost never share photos of the artwork they make.  Sometimes I make an example and share that on the blog, but for this project, mine just didn’t even compare to theirs! So, please use your imagination, and forgive my lack of visual examples.

Now back to the project… we’re in the studio and my students each have ball of clay in front of them.  Some get straight to work, and others sit staring, terrified by the messy pile of mush on the table. I see it as a very important part of my job to help with art skill logistics in order to allow the students to express themselves as much as they desire. In other words, get the clutter out of the way so the real work can happen.  For this reason, any time I assign a clay project and a student isn’t quite comfortable with how to begin; I casually provide some easy steps to follow. This calms their minds and lets them focus on what’s important, the subject matter of their sculpture.

I think for this “heart” project specifically, the step-by-step instruction helped break down the walls of defensiveness that rose first by my asking them to make art about their life experiences, and second by their insecurity and lack of experience when it came to working with clay. To start off, I simply asked the students choose a heart they liked (I had made templates of many sizes), and we followed these steps: (A side note: the process below can work with any simple coloring page or outline. The photos pictured with this blog are from a sculpture project inspired by Keith Haring, hence the strange little dog shape!)

  • First, using clay that has been cut straight from the block or has been wedged to get rid of air bubbles, place the clay on a nonstick surface (like canvas or cardboard) and press down hard on the clay until it’s about an inch thick. (See Photo 1)
  • Next, place your picture right on top of your clay. The simpler the picture, the better (This is one reason hearts were IDEAL).
  • Use a wooden clay tool to poke holes entirely around the border of the picture. (See Photo 2)
  • Now, pull of the paper and “connect” the dots, still using your wooden clay tool. (See Photo 3)
  • Next, trace your outline with a sharp/flat clay tool that cuts more like a knife. Cut as deep or as shallow as you’d like, as many times as you need to, to cut out your object.
  • Finally, dip your finger in water and use it to wet the edges of the cut-out object and smooth any rough spots (I always explain to students that little jagged edges can get VERY sharp once the clay has been fired). (See Photo 4)
  • Since you flattened your clay only until it was about an inch thick, you can easily make your object stand upright on a little base if you wish! (See Photo 5)

When I asked my students to answer by a show of hands “Who made something they didn’t think they could make when they walked into this room today?” every one of them raised their hand.  I hope this project idea and these simple steps inspire confidence and creativity in your own studio spaces.  May you sculpt until your heart’s content.

Enjoy, Erin

HeartBlog1       HeartBlog2

HeartBlog3       HeartBlog4 




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