Lisa Mitchell

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Susan Orr (1941-2018)–Art Therapist and Mentor. Her trust in art lives on.

Sep 15, 2018 | 22 comments

When someone so passionate and creative and beautiful believes in you, it means everything.

Susan was my professor first, and then my art therapist.  In class she handed a thin strip of paper to each of us.  She held the strips fanned out in her hand and walked around the classroom to personally deliver the message.  I read my strip.  It said, “Try Trusting the Art” in a fancy font printed in all caps on a dot matrix printer.  She could have said it directly with words, but it was powerful and special to receive Susan’s hand delivered, four word poem.  It’s been 27 years, but I still have that strip of paper. It’s thick with the scotch tape layers I’ve used to post it on every desk I’ve used since the day I pulled it from the group of gathered strips in her hand.

Her therapy room was filled to the brim with supplies.  She was frugal and conscientious about waste, so the paper was mostly found paper—cardboard boxes, backs of paper pads, miscellaneous piles of mulberry and vellum probably scored at a garage sale.  She was a curious and non-directive art therapist.  She watched with caring eyes; so attentive, non-judgemental, mostly silent.  In my workshops people always ask, “What do you say or do while your client is making art?”  My answer is always, “Listen and Watch.”  And then I say, “If you’ve never had someone attend to your art making in silence with full non-judgemental presence, it’s hard to imagine.  But the experience is profound.”  And I’m talking about how Susan did that for me.  I had heard people criticize her for going too slow in her work with clients.  Her pace was perfect for me.  Her confrontations were nudges in the form of an art invitation.  She didn’t psycho-educate or intervene or give homework. She let the work unfold.  She trusted the art implicity.

Those days I was caring for my 12 month old and grieving my father’s early and tragic death.  I was fresh out of graduate school and my internship was intense. On one of my visits I was frazzled and made the comment that I just couldn’t stand being cooped up inside.  Susan suggested we have our session outside in her courtyard.  We brought the paint out and a large piece of paper and I felt myself expand while my art breathed in the open air.  Spontaneously, I divided the paper with a representation that depicted two parts of me.  One side was the organized, competent mother and intern part of me.  The other side was the emotionally distraught, depressed, traumatized part of me.  I was trying to make the case that these parts had to stay separate and that no one could know about the distressed part.  I told this to Susan.  “I can’t let people know how messed up I am.” Susan wondered aloud, “What would it look like if you connected the two parts?”  I did.  Actually, the colors did it themselves.  I felt like her invitation was magic.  Something inside chinked together like granules of sand being compacted neatly.  Each facet turned to fit with the neighboring granule’s edge. The moment was a turning point for me.  I felt integrated.  I felt the possibility that I didn’t have to cover up or hide.  I felt known and seen.  I felt the power of art to do all of that without needing words to explain it.

There’s another moment that I replay sometimes.  It’s not as nice a scene as the patio art therapy moment.  Susan had a show at one of the galleries in the R street Foundry.  It was many years after she was my therapist—maybe 7 or more.  My husband and I had gone to a cocktail party at one of his colleague’s houses in midtown.  They lived in one of those Victorians with a front porch as big as a living room and a back kitchen that still had the original black and white tile on the counters.  They were midtown chic and happy and collected art.  It was a regular event to go to Second Saturday.  They fixed appletinis.  I’d never had them before and loved the sweet tart liquor.  I was fairly drunk when we arrived at the gallery.  Susan’s show was stunning.  She had used oil pastels to layer textured cloud formations onto wood panel.  Each piece was a representation of a Rilke poem.  I’d never seen texture made with oil pastels in this way before—it was almost like a clay relief.  And her colors were vivid.  And she’d typed out the poems to stand with each piece.  I would have liked to read and absorb and admire them,  but I was drunk. And then when she noticed me and we hugged, I was still drunk.  I garbled something to her that was a congratulations for her show, but it meant nothing because I was too far gone to make a heart connection.  She turned to greet others and do her hosting.  I felt ashamed.  Like I hadn’t come in an honoring state. Several months later I went to her open studio and did spend time with her oil pastel works.  I am happy I got to take them in there in a sober state.  She was gracious and spent time explaining her method of crushing up the oil pastels and then layering them to form the textures. Whenever I remember that gallery moment, I feel like a child who failed a parent in some visceral way.  But she didn’t hold it against me.

Fast forward another several years, and I’m in Susan’s backyard studio choosing jars full of miscellaneous art supplies to take with me to Wind Youth Services.  She was closing her art therapy studio doors and wanted me to have as much as I could take.  I took her jar of corks and her sand, and her artichoke jar full of thread.  I took a rectangular basket full of vellum—I think it was the same vellum that we used sometimes in therapy at her other office by McKinley park.  I took a large collection of clay tools—dirty and well used.  I took a sheet of homemade paper that measured about 3 feet by 3 feet.  I took more jars and a collection of oil pastels and chalk. I took two ceramic bowls that she’d made that held shells and washers.  Part of this gifted collection went to Wind and part to my own studio.  I felt like it was a sourdough starter that had been grown and nurtured for years and was now my responsibility to keep alive.  I felt as if her supplies fueled the growth of my studio and my practice with just the right energy or sentiment or wisdom—or all of that.  Later she mailed me a hand painted card wishing me the very best in my new place and practice.  I keep it, along with the bowls as some of my cherished possessions.

I wrote a piece about Susan in my book.  It credits her with teaching me to trust the art.  What it doesn’t say is that this learning reaches for deeper than the art.  She trusted me in my work.  She sent me clients, she gave me supplies, she told people how good I was.  She saw the crumbled, depressed me and still trusted me.  She believed in me which helped me believe in myself.  I occasionally had thoughts about needing to go to coffee with her or to tell her what she meant to me.  When I left Sacramento I thought I might say goodbye to her and thank her.  I never did.  And I don’t regret that part, because i am certain she knew.  She held me just like I held her.  She didn’t need to know her role in my life because that’s just who she was.  A believer, a truster, a teacher of deep levels.  I won’t’ miss her because I figure ours was an ongoing relationship without having any contact.  And now that she’s dead, that won’t change.  But I do honor her today.  And I hope I have done her sourdough starter justice.  I hope that I have passed on the leftover art supply collection to good people so that it will live and thrive the way she deserves it to.  I will nurture the thread that I still keep and soon it will emerge into something new and powerful and full.  It will embody the trust that she taught me to hold—on a strip of paper, in my art, in life.

Goodbye Susan Orr.  Thank you for your belief in me.  It made all the difference in the world.

“Goodbye private practice”–My recipe for a GOOD goodbye

Jun 26, 2018 | 23 comments


Closing my doors

After 16 years in private practice I’ve closed my doors.  From my initial decision — to the months of transition — and now the actual closure, it’s been a profound process. (If you missed my initial announcement, you can read more about my transition here and here and here.

Historically, I’ve been terrible at goodbyes.  I’m the person who doesn’t show up for last sessions.  I’m the person who will say, “We’ll see each other again, so this is not goodbye.” I was tempted to pretend that my last therapist group was just the final week of an eight week series.  I wanted to shoo everyone out the door and tell them not to be sad. But I didn’t.   And I think I got this last goodbye right.  I want to share it, because in the process I’ve come up with a simple, magic recipe for a GOOD goodbye.

Here’s my recipe for a GOOD goodbye:

  1. Write to this prompt then share. Today marks the end of…………..
  2. Write to this prompt then share. Today marks the beginning of…………
  3. Give stuff away or receive the stuff—depending on what side of ending you are on.


We did this during the last therapist groups I facilitated at my art therapy studio.  Like I said, it turned out to be the magic recipe.

Step one: Write about what is ending.

When we acknowledge the ending of something, I now know that it really helps if we can articulate what is ending.  This goes beyond the usual expression of emotion—the sadness, the grief, the disappointment.  This has us say in our writing (and then out loud) what it is that will no longer be.

Here’s a sampling of what I wrote and read for the groups.

Today marks the end……

Today marks the end of the door chime that announces the arrival of an open-faced, open-hearted beauty who is ready—ready to dive in, express, explore, create.

It’s the end of sitting around the painted on, glued on, cut into Ikea tables—the lousy chairs whose pillows slide and many end up using them as back rests instead of seat cushions.  No more sitting around, checking in, “finding the thread” as I’ve come to call it—so that the last meeting slides into the present–into our current experience and we add on, more unity, more expression, more art.

It’s the end of the shelves crammed full of art junk and art mediums.  The stacks of oil pastels that are now stumps, broken and peeled.  The jars of matchsticks and broken windshield glass and old buttons from my grandmothers’ collection are no longer necessary for the creative chaos that they lend to the décor.  No longer needed for the inspiration.  Not even for that last finishing touch on an altered shoe or book or doll. 

Today marks the end of guessing which lotion someone used during their trip to the bathroom.  And the gratitude I feel when they re-enter our creative circle, freshened, massaging the fresh scent of lemon or sage or lavender into the hands that have been only moments before immersed in paint or chalk or glue.  It’s the kind of gratitude that puts me in touch with love for that person, so visceral, and for the moment of gathering and willingness to “go there” with me.  The gratitude that says thank you to something greater that has coached me here—to a place where these gatherings can happen and others can love themselves, their art, the expressions the way I do.

Tonight I will set the alarm like always.  I will lock the door behind me.  And I will marvel at what we’ve done here.  Today marks the end of The Art Therapy Studio.  The end of 7985 Park Drive.  But I guarantee, it is not a dead end.  I will carry it with me.  And you will carry it with you.  And in that way—our creative process, our love, our willingness to dive in will go on and on and on.

Step Two: Write about what is beginning.

There’s a band called Seminsonics whose song, “Closing Time” is quoted all over the internet.  The lyric goes, “Every new beginning is some other beginnings end.” When I realized how true this is, that you can’t have an ending without a beginning just like you can’t have day without night, I knew I had to add this to my goodbye recipe.  Even if there is a transition period after the end, where you don’t know what’s coming for sure, there is a new and different something.  A beginning (no matter how unclear) starts the moment the ending happens.  So we wrote about the beginning.

Here’s a sampling of what I wrote and read for the groups:

I hear, that in Japan, they use the term second spring to describe when you feel foolish and childish and do things your responsible adult you wouldn’t do.  For me, it’s when you shut down your life work in order to start something new—without knowing what that new thing is, without knowing where it will take you, without knowing much of anything.  The perfect example of a second spring is buying a herd of guanaco and not knowing the first thing about handling or caring for wild, exotic animals.  But I’ve done it.  Today marks the beginning of fully embracing my second spring.

Today marks the beginning of packing up the studio, taking down the art, finally emptying the tea basket and calling it good.  It’s the beginning of a long haul—a month of moving boxes and pets and the herd to another state.  The trailer might not be bought yet, but the movers are on stand by.  They know about beginnings—from the inside out—all that personal stuff crammed into one small area, hauled long distances without the owners.

Today marks the beginning of a relationship with my rhythm to create that I’ve never been able to fully live.  It’s the beginning of mornings that begin with a question, “What do you want to make today?” It’s the beginning of finding my thread and sticking to it—because I’m curious or because it feels good or because I know there is something there that I just can’t let go of.  It’s the beginning of learning my style again, hearing the words that want to line up on the page freely—all at a pace that feels right, internally calibrated, luxuriously earned.

I remember a time between high school and college where I marveled at the idea that I didn’t have any project with a deadline. I felt free and completely untethered.  I could think thoughts that didn’t have to relate to the topic or the research or the problem I was trying to solve for my professor.  I could think thoughts that were random and happy and follow them without aim, without discipline, without dictation.  I’ve been happy in my life—alot.  But when my thoughts were free in that gap year—I think I was happiest. 

And so today marks the beginning of thinking my own thoughts—not for a client or a class or a book or a blog post. It’s the beginning of knowing myself from a new perspective—like from the fingertips on up to the hands and so on.  It’s also the beginning of having time to notice those fingertips and how it feels to touch luxury fiber as it spins itself into yarn. Or how the computer keyboard feels after days and days of writing for my own curiosity. Or how my muscles feel after the longest farm work day I can stand.

Today marks the beginning of a life change.  A second spring, as they say.  It’s the beginning of something wonderful.  I’m all in.

Step Three: Give stuff away and/or receive

I thought I was complete with the writing and sharing.  But it turned out that the recipe required another step.  I wanted to share pieces of my studio.  And all the lovely people came and picked up art supplies by the bag load.  Shelley picked out all kinds of mixed media stuff for her Project Flourish group to make collage.  Gloria hauled away the butcher block art table and chairs.  Jamie took the painting panels.  Barbara found a ceramic bowl I’d made in graduate school and held it to her breast, she will cherish it.  Lyla has the life-size frame for a photo booth prop and a lot of other good junk.  Renee took the broken windshield glass and divided up the acrylic paints with Colleen.  And Kim brought her daughter Lily who picked out her very own hole puncher.

I felt like parts of the magic were dispersed like dandelion seeds in the wind.  And that feels right.  Others will continue the work with clients, in their home studios, maybe even with each other.

I read this John O’Donahue poem as send off.  It’s one I have read to myself and to clients forever.  I hope it inspires you for your new beginning…whatever that may be.

Blessing for a New Beginning

In out-of-the-way places of the heart,
Where your thoughts never think to wander,
This beginning has been quietly forming,
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.

For a long time it has watched your desire,
Feeling the emptiness growing inside you,
Noticing how you willed yourself on,
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.

It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the gray promises that sameness whispered,
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent,
Wondered would you always live like this.

Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground,
Your eyes young again with energy and dream,
A path of plenitude opening before you.

Though your destination is not yet clear
You can trust the promise of this opening;
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is at one with your life’s desire.

Awaken your spirit to adventure;
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm,
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.

–John O’Donohue

Business advise from the end of a successful practice.

May 14, 2018 | 29 comments


We can learn from people at the end.

When people are at the end—end of life, end of a relationship, end of a long hard project—they have a unique viewpoint that can only be gained from having lived through it to the very end. I’ve always listened a bit harder to the folks who are generous enough to share their view from their last stop.  When we pay attention to their wisdom, we benefit. So, since I’m at the end of a successful private practice, I want to share something that only now, 2 weeks away from closing my doors, I have come to understand clearly. (If you missed my initial announcement, you can read more about my transition here and here.)

I didn’t come to this understanding all by myself.  As is often the case these days, the combination of art and writing helped me arrive at this beautiful conclusion.  I want to share it with you in hopes that it inspires you to build your work-life so that it feeds you, heals you, and sustains you. Just like mine did for decades. Read More… »

Becoming Yourself in Life and in Therapy: What Yalom Teaches Us Once Again

Nov 14, 2017 | 4 comments

Teaching therapists about relationship

Aside from what my clients have taught me, I’ve learned more about being a therapist from Irv Yalom than from anyone else. The teaching stories in his books are told with a voice of deep respect and real love for his clients and for the process.  He keeps close tabs on his internal processes and often shows up from behind the analyst’s veil to self-disclose in a deeply vulnerable way.  Yalom has guided me, through his books, to invent therapy anew for each client and to be courageous in this act.

While his newest, and self-proclaimed last book is a memoir– not a book of therapy stories–it is indeed a touching act of self-disclosure.  In Becoming Myself, he does for us, as he does for his clients.  He makes himself real.  This is a gift he’s given us. We get to see inside his family history, his mind as he developed radical new ways of teaching young therapists, and to hear his few life regrets and thoughts on dying. Read More… »

The power of holding art in your hands.

Oct 27, 2016 | 9 comments

Hope Filled Postcard Art Exchanged


I got HOPE in the mail and I held it in my hands!

I signed up for Gretchen Miller’s Creative Deed Art Challenge thinking it was a fun idea to be a part of a postcard exchange.  The theme was HOPE which made it feel comfy and cozy.  I made three postcards, infused them with HOPE, and addressed them to Australia, Maryland, and Iowa.  It felt good.  I liked thinking about my hope-filled art cruising around the country and finally landing in someone’s appreciative hand.  I enjoyed following the Facebook images of the others’ who were creating postcards and gifting their hope to the world.  I thought to myself, “This exchange thing is wonderful.  I want to do more.”

Then I started receiving postcard gifts of my own in the mail.  Through the mail slot–real paper, real art, from real people popped through and landed on the floor with such grace and beauty.  To my delicious surprise, the very same people to whom I’d gifted a hope postcard had made and sent me one of their postcards.  We were now linked.  Joined in our endeavor to spread hopefilled art and in our appreciation of one another’s wish to connect in this way.  When I first received each one I traced the texture and line with my fingers and truly honored the handcraftedness of the postcard.  I have carried the three cards with me in my planner and feel buoyed by their presence in my daily schedule. Read More… »

What the Balinese do for anxiety.

Aug 18, 2016 | 7 comments

My 2 week writing retreat in Bali with Laura Davis was an adventure, a vacation, and a profound education. I’m certain I will have many things to share as my experience becomes more integrated. But one big take away from Bali cries out to be told, honored, and even implemented here in the States.

The Balinese practice Bali Hinduism which is a unique mix of Hinduism and Buddhism. They bring strong beliefs in animism and naturism to their daily practices and make it a priority to relate to all things and beings as one. The Balinese are stunningly beautiful people. Their faces aren’t pinched with worry. Their attention isn’t a mile ahead or on what’s next. They are engaged in the moment and their wrinkles are smile lines and crows’ feet mixed with the evidence of living in nature—fully, every day. Yes, the Balinese have struggles. I heard stories of domestic violence, gambling addiction, conflict between tradition and contemporary values, and inhumane treatment of the mentally ill. But, their daily offerings practice gives me ideas about what’s missing in our culture when it comes to coping with anxiety. Read More… »

3 cool truths about effective therapists

Jul 6, 2016 | 2 comments



Here’s an email conversation I had with my assistant……

Tara:  There were irritating clicks again on the recording of your teaching call.  It’s pretty bad, did anyone complain?

Me:  Again?!!  That’s so awful.  We have to fix it. And, no, no one even mentioned it.  Isn’t that weird?

Tara:  Actually, your students are the nicest bunch I’ve ever worked with.  They are pleasant and appreciative and really easy to help.

Me: I absolutely love working with therapists for that very reason!  (In my thoughts, “Therapists are such beautiful people, I’m so fortunate to get to work with them.”)

Tara works with many different kinds of people, so her feedback is the bomb!

Not only are we pleasant and appreciative and really easy to help.  There some other super important things that make us such great helpers.

Here are 3 cool truths about effective therapists

1. Therapists are insatiable learners.

We are seekers and we strive to continually add to our tool box of skills in order to be effective with our clients.  Bill Doherty, (Psychotherapy Networker, May/June 2013) talks about the particular kind of learning that is necessary for us to keep getting better.  He says of the most admirable therapists, “They continually change and develop while holding onto the core of who they are as therapists. They’re interested in new models and new evidence, but not in serially reinventing themselves with each new fad.”

Continuing education has to hold our interest. We are hungry for education about important concepts, but we won’t be swayed to forget about what makes us unique as a therapist.  We love training.  We love to learn new approaches.  This is how we refresh ourselves and our work. Read More… »

My conversation with Irv Yalom and my letter of gratitude for his new book, Creatures of a Day.

Mar 29, 2015 | 4 comments

Creatures of a Day by Irving Yalom, My letter of gratitude for this fine book.Irv Yalom’s new book Creature of a Day has spurred all kinds of important and creative thoughts.  I read the book, attended his talk, and then called him up for a chat!

Here’s what transpired…..

Here’s the audio of our conversation where he tells me what he hates, gives me insight about his relationship to risk, and appreciates my own writing endeavors.

Here’s an open letter of gratitude that I’d like to share in hopes that you will be inspired to read Creatures of a Day.

Dear Irv,

This letter is a declaration of gratitude for your newly published book, Creatures of a Day, our recent phone conversation, and the artful legacy you’ve bestowed upon the field of psychotherapy. In the era of fast technology and mass production, your attention to relationship and the handcrafted nature of therapy is a life line.  In all of your 50 years as a psychotherapist, you didn’t sell out for clinical blueprints and formulaic approaches.  Instead, you opted to stay true to what you knew–the here and now, the importance of the therapeutic relationship, and your own internal thoughts and experiences as essential elements for your work with clients.  Creatures of a Day waves a flag and asks us to take notice.  It invites us back into the mystery of our work and reminds us to celebrate our humanness.  Your masterful story telling allows us to see you and your clients in action, mistakes and vulnerabilities included, and shares pivotal moments that will provoke thoughtful learning for generations of therapists.  So thank you for this. Read More… »

How to have a better relationship with risk. Because every session is an act of courage!

Jul 25, 2014 | 7 comments

How much risk can you stand?

Think about it.  If we were to quantify the amount of risk taking that happens in our offices every day we’d come up with an astoundingly large, heavy, perhaps unwieldy, measurement.  All that unknown.  All that vulnerability.  The stretching, the leaps of faith…it’s really gasp worthy.

Our clients are doing such brave things, and when you add that up, it’s a ton or more of risk—excavating their interior lives, facing the unfaceable, unveiling secrets they can’t even utter to themselves.  Really, our clients’ courage to risk what they do is breathtaking.

Plus, we’d  have to count our own risk taking.  Each and every session is a mystery adventure.  We don’t know where it’s going to start and we don’t know where it’s going to end.  And yet, we strap on our courage and jump in—hour after hour.

I like to think of us as painters.  We have our studio set up—office in order, complete with policies and ethical guidelines.  Our painting tools are in place—well learned theories and techniques at the ready.  We know when we are going to start and that approximately 50 minutes later we are going to stop.  We’ve done this act of “painting” hundreds and thousands of times before.

And yet, we have to face the blank canvas.  We have to find a starting point.  We have to begin the act of engaging in the creative process.  And no matter how many paintings or sessions we’ve done before, the one right in front of us represents another risk.  Another act of courage. Read More… »

8 lessons from the trail that apply to art, therapy…..and life.

Jun 27, 2014 | 9 comments

Mt. Tallac TrailWilfred Mitchell was a bull of a man. He was a psychologist and a professor and had the emotional intensity required to be good at this kind of work.  Many have described him as gruff and angry, and had the misfortune to be on the receiving end of his unrealistic expectations.  I knew him as Grampa Bill. To me he was a silver back gorilla who took all of his physical strength and melted it into tender and loving protection.

Grampa Bill was the one who taught me about hiking and white water rafting and the great outdoors.  As a teenager, on those amazing summertime adventures, I loved spending time with him.  I loved the mountain air and chili out of a can.  I have always said that Grampa Bill taught me to love nature, but only recently have I realized those trips taught me so much more about life and art and even therapy.

At the end of July, I’ll be climbing Mt. Whitney (the highest peak in the lower 48 states at 14, 505 ft. elevation) as a way of walking in my Grampa Bill’s footsteps.  (He impressed all of us by climbing Mt. Whitney in his 70’s.)  I’ve been training for this big climb, and the lessons I’m gleaning from the trail are invaluable.  Read More… »

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