A.R.T. is an acronym for Access…Release…and Transform. Coined by Barbara Ganim, author of Art and Healing, it refers to the three stages of the expressive arts and is the cornerstone of this creative work.
Laura Tryon Jennings is a professional artist, arts educator, and expressive arts facilitator. She uses A.R.T. to help children and families process profound losses and move through the grief journey to a place where they can find joy again, while still honoring the memory of their loved ones.
Laura works with grieving kids ages 4 to 17 in her studio in Marshfield, Massachusetts. She also facilitates group programs at Cranberry Hospice in Plymouth, MA and at Hope Floats Healing & Wellness Center in Kingston, MA.
“Art taps into that side of the brain that can be hard to access, and is a way to get to those feelings in a more concrete way,” Laura explains. “It helps to narrow down what that feeling is. Is it anger? Is it frustration? Is it sadness? What is the actual feeling?”
Laura finds that by drawing out a feeling, it releases emotions —and makes the feeling more tactile in order to transform it.
“For me, it’s like a magic pill,” she says. “It can’t change the circumstances of the death—you can only change how you feel about it, which in turn means how you’re going to react to it. And so, what the expressive arts piece does is it bypasses the cognitive side of the brain, right to the place where you really feel, and can figure out a way to be more calm and at peace with the loss.”
Getting Down to Paper and Paint
Laura stresses that there is no right or wrong way to do this work and that you do not need to be an artist to express yourself through art.
She says that sometimes a whole family does a piece together, such as a large mandala.
“We’ll use markers or pastels or paint. Everyone in the family gets their own section and will put in something that is representative of a gift of remembrance they received from the person who died,” she says.
Laura may ask children to paint something that makes them feel safe and happy or is a special memory of doing something with their deceased parent.
A very young child painted a rainbow because she remembered seeing a rainbow together with her parent.
A 10-year-old boy remembered his dad in the yard, mowing the lawn.
Laura says the little boy loved the smell of his dad coming in with a sweaty T-shirt on after cutting the grass. And so, he drew a picture of his dad pushing the lawn mower.
Laura will give bereaved children a variety of art materials to make “Safe Place” or “Things That Make You Happy” boxes to cheer them up when they’re having a tough day.
A group of teens did paintings in one of Laura’s workshops of a memory that made them feel good about the person who died. She recalls a girl, who was about 14 at the time, doing a painting of when she felt the freest and most at ease. She was an actress and the painting represented her being on stage.
“Both her brother and father had died and she imagined them in the audience, watching her,” Laura says. “She had 13 boxes in the painting that were supposed to be seats. I asked her if 13 meant anything to her and she finally realized her brother and father died when she was 13, but she didn’t consciously think of that while she was painting.”
Laura acknowledges that people may be in different places in their grief and therefore “one size doesn’t fit all.”
Sometimes children are feeling really angry about their loss. In such a situation, she incorporated movement to help a family in which one of the five children, a twin, had died. She gave the kids permission to release their anger, physically, (without hurting anyone) and then invited them to get out their red and black pastels and really let loose and release their anger onto paper.
“They ended up with chalk all over their bodies,” Laura recalls. “But that’s OK, it washes off. During the ending circle when everyone went around and shared, they said they were feeling great. The mother said to me afterwards that this was the first time she saw her kids smiling in about eight months.”
Laura also works with individuals at her studio, often over several sessions, and will sit down and do a drawing together with them. For example, she asked an 11-year-old girl how she felt when her mother died.
“I did a centering visualization and asked her to imagine what it was like when she learned that her mother had died. I drew along with her to share how I felt when my mother died.”
The transforming piece came in when Laura asked the girl to do a drawing based on the question, “How are you feeling about your mom’s death?” and then asked her to do another drawing in response to the question, “How do you want to feel on a daily basis?” in order to help her move forward in her grief journey, without, Laura stresses, trying to take away her feelings of loss.
Art can also just be about having fun, Laura points out.
“I think all art is expressive anyway,” she says. “Sometimes it’s just about taking a grief break. Sometimes when kids come to the studio, it’s about painting something that makes them feel good.”
Parents can do art projects together with their grieving kids, but Laura suggests they stick with positive prompts. They can ask questions like, “What were some things you learned from (mom or dad)? Let’s draw a picture of what that looks like.” Or “Let’s draw happy memories of things we did together.”
Laura says she loves doing A.R.T. with children and families.
“I get to see the process, I get to see how it helps,” she says. “I’m so grateful to be able to do this. I see it working all the time. Some kids are a little bit tougher to reach, but on the whole, even if they don’t recognize it in that moment, later when they get home, they’ll say they had this epiphany—it came to them.
“It’s really fulfilling,” Laura says, to be able to facilitate and help someone move their sadness out of their body and transform their feelings to recognize things they didn’t recognize before.”
Learn more about Laura Tryon Jennings and her work with bereaved children and families at her website: www.ltryonjennings.com. Ask your local Hospice if they offer programs for children that implement the expressive arts.