Thinking about how I use art objects in my NYC therapy practice, I recall that when I was growing up, I was very sentimental when it came to objects. I would hold onto seemingly useless items and, like a magpie, store them in old, colorfully painted cigar boxes. I would save a ticket stub from a concert, a matchbook from a restaurant, or a soda can tab from a friend. Years later, when it would be inevitably time to do some spring cleaning or a major purge before a move, I would spend some time with these objects and have an intensely visceral experience, vividly remembering what I was doing at the time, who I was with, and why I kept them.
The Power of Objects
Years later, as an art therapist, I know that my experience was not an atypical one. In fact, these things that I was holding onto were in some ways transitional objects for me–physical representations of these positive experiences, and, more importantly, positive people I shared these experiences with. When I was feeling sad or isolated, I could easily go to my bookshelf and see boxes of physical proof that I was loved and valued by important people in my life.
A “transitional object” most commonly refers to objects used in early child development. The physical item, such as a blanket or stuffed animal, is an extension of a young child’s primary caregiver. It is a reminder of all of that caregiver’s good stuff–their love and caring–and it can soothe the child when they are upset or have to spend time away. However, transitional objects are not just for young kids, as evidenced by my own experiences as an older child and adolescent.
Art Therapy As Transitional Object-making
Giving physical things meaning and forming an attachment to them is something that is interwoven into our culture. If someone wins an award, the medal they receive is no longer just a piece of bronze, it is a celebration of their hard work. When someone receives a gift, it is an expression of the giver’s love and affection for the receiver. Objects are inherently relational and act as an extension of the relationship as we pass them from one human to another.
The use of art in therapy offers so much opportunity to utilize how positive relationships can extend into physical form with objects. As the therapeutic relationship grows and deepens, the art pieces created in session (or even as homework outside of session) can symbolize that relationship and the therapeutic process. Simply put, artworks can become transitional objects in themselves. The physical art can be taken home and can represent the therapy and all of the good that the therapist sees in the patient.
Art can act as a snapshot of how the artist is feeling in that moment or represent directly something that patient needs more of outside of session. For example, if a patient is seeking help on feeling stronger and more grounded, we might ask during art-making: what does that look like? How can that be represented? What is preventing them from feeling grounded? Throughout the art-making process, they can begin to internalize the strength they are working on representing while potentially learning new things about what gets in the way. When the piece is complete and brought home, every time the artist looks at the piece they can be reminded of what they are working towards and their progress and growth. It can help them to be inspired to continue to manifest their strength and grounding outside the therapy room.
Take the Therapeutic Relationship With You
Sometimes an actual physical object is not even needed for this to be accomplished. Here at Tribeca Therapy, something we often say to patients is some version of “take me with you.” This essentially means that when the patient walks out of the door and re-enters the outside world, they should try not to forget our relationship and what we have built. It is not so dissimilar to the young child and the transitional example above: “Take this stuffed doggy and remember that Mommy/Daddy/Whoever loves you and will see you soon.” Feeling the support and growth from the therapeutic relationship will help to offer strength for whatever the person encounters until their next therapy session.