by Sally Foster Rudolph 

The daughter’s voice was quiet and her eyes were tearing up. She said heavily, “I just feel so overwhelmed.” She had been the caretaker for her aging father for 2 years. “I need something for myself too” she further explained.   

It seemed she needed tools and experiences to help her cope with this highly stressful time. Making art can be a vehicle for self-expression, release, transformation, escape, and gaining a new perspective. Her father, the hospice patient, was napping during the art therapy visit, so it was a well-timed opportunity to offer some relief to his daughter. 

Watercolor paints and some coloring sheets of birds on branches were offered as a starting point. She expressed anxiety about how to use the paint. In art therapy the goal is not to make something “right”, “pretty” or “good”, but is a way to embrace the creative process, light up a different part of the brain, and let go of judgement. With this in mind, she was given a short demonstration and she began working. As the daughter painted, she began building confidence as she learned what the watercolor could do. She began to color in all the leaves in the picture, letting the fall colors blend with one another.   

The room became very quiet after about 5 minutes. This is often a magical moment when people become focused, mindful, and noticeably more relaxed as they submerse themselves in a creative project. By the time she had finished filling in all the leaves and her bird, she looked up with surprise. Her body language indicated she was less agitated, and she even appeared to be happier. She acknowledged she felt much calmer. 

Only a week later, the daughter proudly sent a photo of work she made on her own. The watercolor painting was a colorful, lively, skillfully painted bouquet of flowers. She excitedly exclaimed she felt like an artist now and that painting brings her great joy. She reported feeling confident that she would continue to use art as a way to express herself and help her deal with stress. 

It is amazing how quickly the daughter embraced painting, as if she was ripe for it, but didn’t know how to start. She had said she needed something for herself as she filled the difficult role of caretaker for a loved-one on hospice. She found something that will help her through these challenging times, and even bring some joy to life, regardless of difficult circumstances. As she shared the watercolor painting, it was clear that it exuded joy, and her body language and facial expressions reflected some well-deserved relief.

*Sally Rudolph, ATR, LAT is a registered and licensed art therapist in the state of Oregon. She has worked at Care Partners providing art therapy to patients and their families for almost 2 years.