Drawing out workplace issues through art therapy

Picture this: a long, winding road leading to a log cabin overlooking 100 acres of woods. In the backdrop is the home of some of Canada’s greatest paintings and sculptures. This idyllic setting, only miles from bustling downtown Toronto, houses an innovative enterprise unique in Canada — the corporate art therapy program at the McMichael Gallery in Kleinburg.

The McMichael program, “The Creative Edge,” is the two-year-old brainchild of Marianne Carman, art therapy program co-ordinator. Few people are familiar with the concept of corporate art therapy, and if they have heard of it they often have misconceptions, she says.

“Often people think art therapy is for kids, that it is too far out or that participants must be really disturbed.”

Carman describes art therapy as “a visual way to express oneself.” Even if people are not artistically inclined, they reveal their feelings in their pictures.

Merely talking can often result in over-articulation of an issue or conversely, in not being articulate enough. Through art, a person may be able to look at their feelings objectively, putting issues in a different light, says Carman, whose background in art therapy includes an undergraduate degree in psychology and art history from the University of Western Ontario in London. She also attended Concordia’s art therapy program in Montreal and the Art Institute of Chicago.

Putting art to work

How does this process apply in a business setting? The program is designed to meet the needs of businesses that want to improve team-building, increase staff creativity, allow people in the organization to better understand each other and their roles, apply conflict resolution or “just relax, have fun and re-charge their batteries.”

Art therapy is the opportunity “to understand what makes people tick and how they position themselves in the world,” Carman says. “No picture is ever the same and it is very refreshing to see people creatively.”

The art can reveal more than meets the eye and can really unravel what an employee may be feeling. She recalls a picture a secretary drew of her work situation.

“It was just a flower and I initially thought how superficial it was until she gave her explanation. She said that her boss was the flower and she was the dirt which supported his growth.”

A typical session

After a brief orientation to the McMichael Gallery, Carman describes to participants what art therapy is and lays down the ground rules around confidentiality. Maintaining a policy of confidentiality also contributes to a safe environment for expressing feelings. Participants are assured that there will be no judgment of their ability to produce a work of art.

One of the first exercises to loosen up the group consists of each person doing a picture of their most stressful day on the job. After about three minutes, they are asked to pass it to the next person, who will continue the image. Eventually it gets back to the original person in quite a different form from the way it began. Having to work rapidly loosens the group up.

The participants work at one large table if the group is small, or eight to 10 to a table if there are 30 or so involved. This lessens the sense of having to produce an original individual artwork.

Participants are provided with a variety of media to work with: watercolours, acrylics, pastels, charcoal, pencils and chalk, just to name a few.

When the works are completed, each person talks about their piece, then Carman comments on the objective qualities she sees based on their use of space, colour, perspective and how long it took them to get started.

“Sometimes a person will paint a picture of themselves as successful and powerful and yet they draw themselves as very tiny even childlike.” When this objective observation is drawn to their attention, they are sometimes surprised. At this point the members of the group can add their comments “based on what each person feels they see in the painting, not from the point of view of being an authority on the work.”

If the session includes the afternoon, the group often works on a collage of images, clipped from business magazines like Fortune, attempting to portray the philosophy of their company as they see it. Alternatively, the group collaborates on a board game like Snakes and Ladders or Survival to show how people in the company get ahead or tumble down.

At the end of the day, the participants do an evaluation of the program. At the employers’ request, Carman provides managers with some of the general themes she has seen emerge in the group’s work over the day, being careful to ensure there is no breach of personal confidentiality. For example, observations can include what the employees see as the positive aspects of the organization or their wishes for what could be different.

The program also “levels the playing field” in that everyone can participate. Often in a typical seminar setting, a few people do most of the talking and the rest remain silent. But in creating pictures, everyone participates and no one is judged on their efforts. The emphasis is on the process of creating the art and what it represents, not the quality of the end product.

Carman hopes participants will have an “ah-ha” experience, where they find something in the picture they had difficulty understanding or expressing before. She observes that “drawing a picture of the ‘biggest strength’ in a corporation can be more challenging than saying it in words.” Often issues that employers suspected might be troubling employees come into better focus after the discussion about their art. If someone’s picture seems to reveal a deep disturbance, Carman treads very carefully and does not “push the issue.”

In planning how best to serve the needs of a company, individualized programs are designed specific to each workplace. The employer reviews suggestions for the session, which can be either two or four hours in length and be run as a one-off event or as a series over several weeks. Cost for the two-hour workshop is $1,400; the four-hour workshop is $2,200. The ideal size of a group is 25 to 30 people.

Cathy Pettit, senior manager of strategic sourcing services for the Bank of Montreal said the corporate art therapy experience helped to define and illustrate the objectives and goals of her newly organized team “in a light-hearted way.” Feedback from her staff was positive although “some of the more self-conscious might have been more reserved in their praise.” A picture the group drew to represent the desired outcome for the team is framed and hanging on the wall at work.

How did the McMichael Gallery come to pioneer this program? The gallery began an art therapy program for cancer patients in 1995 and later expanded it to involve troubled youth and people living with HIV or AIDS. Carman says, “it was a way to give back to the community.”

Along the way, she noted the corporate groups who were coming to the gallery, renting space, touring — and looking for programs for their employees — and recognized an opportunity to raise funds to help support the community-oriented programs and to raise the profile of the gallery for sponsorship of its exhibits. The result is a cross-fertilization of talent and energy among the gallery, corporations and the community.

Marianne Carman can be reached at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection at (905) 893-0344, ext. 204 or visit www.mcmichael.com.

Lorna Harris is the assistant editor of CHRR’s companion publication CLV Reports, a newsletter that reports on collective bargaining and other issues in labour relations. She can be reached at (416) 298-5141 ext.2617 or [email protected]

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