Portfolio uses (part 2)

In a past posting I introduced the notion of portfolios in art therapy. In part two I talk in more depth of how they are used.

Initial uses:


All client/patient/artist are presented with a means of collecting and preserving their artwork during their time in therapy. This is a concrete while at the same time symbolic means of saying that : what you say and make is important. YOU are important and I will keep what you make safe for you

In individual art therapy, the actual folio is often a large card-stock folder meant to collect 2D art works usually on paper, or anything flat enough that fits the folder. Anything more is collected in a cupboard away from view.  The portfolio is then stored also away from view, a private space.

For studio based approaches to art therapywhere larger formats and canvases are sometimes used, an individual cubby can serve this purpose. The difference lies mainly in the fact that the end product (the artwork) is often created in a group setting (hence viewed by other participants) and can at times have an explicit end goal: that of being exhibited. It is thus a more ’public’ undertaking in contrast to the privacy of an individual therapy session. Portfolios reflect this reality.

Acts of ownership and belonging

Children and adults may be invited to appropriate the portefolio  by embellishing it, owning the container through their own mark making. This says : this is yours, decorating takes time and spending time on something suggests importance. Children enjoy writing their names in bold sparkly letters, staking a claim to an object but also to a rare space they can call their own in an otherwise adult centered world. I remember working as a substitute teacher (in a past life) and finally getting my own cubby with my name on it. Even as an adult I felt the childlike pleasure of being seen, recognised; it felt I was finally acknowledged by name in this group setting and thus felt I had a place on the team. These are subjective feelings obviously, but important ones; they are small tokens of belonging; a portfolio serves this purpose in an otherwise foreign therapeutic landscape for the new participant.

As a container

the portfolio is an extension of the therapeutic space and provides what we in therapeutic work call ‘holding’: a safe place to collect and explore the good, the bad and the ugly.    


As a potential space (a working through space)

a portfolio contains artworks that document different realities some more difficult than others. A client/artist can go back to these graphic realities and work on changing parts, address what was impossible to deal with at another time, use what was done to make something new. In such work you can change the future by imaginatively reworking the past…. A while back I worked with a young girl of 9 who was going through a very difficult time with her biological family. She had been living in foster care for some time when we met. I remember the beginning of our work : she was like a frightened little animal that needed to be approached ever so slowly while keeping a comfortable distance. Her initial artworks consisted of mixing and smearing paint that inevitably spilled over paper. The paint was applied like cream all over her hands and forearms. She seemed more interested in the kinesthetic feeling than in producing anything that could stand on its own. I kept the paint covered latex gloves that she had initially used and stored them in her portfolio once dry (one was embedded in the thick paint). The first time she asked to see her portfolio, I remember the surprise on her face when she found the gloves. Her eyes sparkled (amused)but she made a face showing her dismay. I should have thrown the remnants of what went wrong in her understanding, but I didn’t because these were acceptable too in the context of her therapy. Prompted by this she then decided it was time to separate what was good from what was not so good. We made a smaller folder that fit in bigger one. She sorted what she liked (the good parts of herself) and kept them in the larger folder and what she didn’t she put in the other. Nothing was thrown away. This young girl who despised everything about herself and her life at the onset of our work was beginning to notice what was good, what she liked about herself; the difficult aspects of her life were no longer overpowering everything (Though family problems were still ongoing she was doing well in school, no longer fighting with peers and was generally calmer and happier).  

Collecting art work

Why do we collect artwork throughout the therapeutic process? And what do we collect?

By now you know that art therapist collect ALL artwork: the good, the bad, the beautiful, the despised and ugly, the crumpled, torn and rejected  … all of it. It goes in the folder.

Art therapists collect traces of the therapeutic process, snapshots,  visual reminders, evidence of the work that is in progress.

As witnesses :

artworks are windows into the psyche and soul. They capture a process, document the therapeutic relationship, provide non-verbal clues into complex dynamics. Art therapists at times take picturesof a work in process; a before, during and after as a means of capturing a trans-formative process, and/or documenting perseverance in a child who has difficulty completing work without giving up when faced with challenges.  Pictures of ephemeral creations are also taken; such as scribbles on blackboards, experiments (color mixing), constructions in the therapeutic environment (yarn draped and attached to chairs) etc. Pictures also serve to document the exception that is taken out of the therapy room: these are creations that were made for a specific therapeutic purpose outside the therapy room: such as artist made journals used to capture thoughts and feelings; symbolic creations that serve in a variety of ways;  gifts that act as relational bridges, etc.   

As a timeline and map

dated artworks provide a means of holding the history of the therapeutic process. They can be reviewed in the order they were created and provide a means of assessing progress, movement, lags and growth. As a timeline they can document the ebb and flow of thematic contents and how such themes evolve over time.   Such a timeline serves as a social and personal art history.

As continuity

Similarly over time, collecting individual artworks creates a body of work that speaks of continuity, of work over time, of something fulfilled. For many children, viewing their portfolio grow in size is a measure of accomplishment and pride »I did ALL this! » even regardless of the quality of the contents. For impulsive and aggressive children who take their frustration out on their things, few if any of what they make survives in their daily lives. Finding an entire series of their artwork endure over the process of therapy is often a revelation; one that reflects a more positive outlook on their capabilities and that tells them they are capable of more than just destruction but also that there are people and places that can withstand their destructiveness.

 As self-objects:

Artworks are creations made by a self and thus an extension of the self. This is why it is so important to treat what a client/artist does with the utmost regard and why it is so important to not be careless when dealing with artwork. What is said about the work, how the work is handled, what happens to it are all ways we can inadvertently tell a vulnerable client/artist that we don’t really care.  It is also important to not dispossess a client/artist of their self-objects, unless  there is a clear informed consent or an agreement that their work is to be used in certain ways (exhibitions or explicitly made for sale purposes for example). It is their work and they should be the ones to have the final say in what happens to it.  

As mnemonic devices

artworks trigger recall, remind one of what transpired, evoke new associations when viewed at a different time. These are useful throughout the therapeutic process. As such they are useful in remembering what was and valuable in contrasting with what is and as such recognising progress that is all too often illusive. This can be viewed through the changes captured in the evolving use of color, space, medium, themes or at times in ways of talking about the work that is in some way more accepting or positive oriented (documenting perceptual changes).

These are some of the ways one can think about collected artworks and portfolios in therapeutic work.

In a third part I will talk about portfolios at the end of a therapeutic process.

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Catégorisé dans Thérapie.

Publié le 26 mar 2011

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2 commentaires à Portfolio uses (part 2)

  1. Marie-Odile Lebeau
    Le 10 avr 2011 à 14:15

    Comment ces méthodes s’appliquent-elles aux personnes en perte d’autonomie qui ont des problèmes de mémoire, auriez-vous des exemples de méthodes à privilégier? J’aimerais en causer plus à fond pour un projet d’intervention et vous laisse mes coordonnées: Marie-Odile Lebeau : marie-odile@sympatico.ca