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.

Visual Listening: Can you hear your client’s art?

Jun 7, 2017 | 1 comment

Do you know how to listen to your client’s art?

Active and reflective listening are crucial elements to every effective therapeutic conversation.  When we bring art into the therapy session, we must add visual listening to the list of important components that support the therapeutic relationship and encourage our client’s self discovery.

I remember learning active and reflective listening in my pre-counseling class.  It was a bit painstaking and I felt a bit robotic.  We were instructed to pair up and role play.  It went something like this:

Therapist: “What would you like to talk about?”

Client: “I could talk about how awkward I feel in this role play.”

Therapist: “So, what I hear you saying is, you’d like to talk about how awkward you feel in this role play?”

Client: “Yes that’s what I said.”

Therapist: “Can you tell me more?”

Client: “That’s the problem, I feel awkward because I really don’t know what to say.”

Therapist: “So you feel awkward and don’t know what to say.  That must be difficult.”

Client: “Yes, it is.”

Therapist: “Can you tell me more?”

Client: “Not really, I’m not sure what else to say.”


It was slow and methodical–and yes a bit robotic.  But we learned building blocks of an empathic conversation that are now second nature.  And, since we were able to practice so early on in our education, we got good enough to add in more–be a bit improvisational and reflective of our personal styles.


As an art therapist, I also learned visual listening as a crucial element to every effective therapeutic conversation.  Basically, when I think of visual listening I imagine that the client’s art is an additional being, worthy of being heard.  I also listen very closely to my clients’ visual descriptions of their art and work to reflect these ideas in my therapeutic dialogue.


Sometimes when I train therapists to begin to use basic art invitations in their work with clients, this visual listening feels as robotic and basic as active and reflective listening did in pre-counseling class.  It takes practice to achieve a rhythm that sounds natural and feels authentic.


It can go something like this:

Therapist: “How was that for you to paint?”

Client: “It felt really free, I love the cool colors I used.”

Therapist: “So those cool blues and greens are colors you love and when you were using them if felt really free?”

Client: “Yes, like water flowing.” (Moves hands in wave motion.)

Therapist: (Moving hands to mirror wave motion) “I can see that flowing, free feeling. Can you tell me more?  How is it to see that water flowing in your painting?”

Client: “I love it.  I don’t feel that enough.  It takes me to the beach and the vast ocean.” (Closes eyes for a second in a relaxed repose.)

Therapist: “Your painting really embodies something you love and crave.  I can see how relaxed it is for you.”


Here are a few small hints to work with when practicing visual listening:

  1. Reflect/mirror physical movements that your clients makes when talking about the art.
  2. When reflecting for your client, use the identical words that your client used when referring/describing the art. Don’t translate or interpret.
  3. Don’t ask a new question without reflecting your clients answer to the prior question.
  4. Stick with the art, keep bringing the conversation back to the art, don’t abandon the art–its a worthy being in the room with you.
  5. Try to really experience your client’s art–not the story, not your interpretation–from your client’s point to view.
  6. Look at your dialogue as your art–you are co-creating a beautiful moment with your client.
  7. Relax–creative questions come from your curious, relaxed mind.


A good rhythm structure to think about:

  1. Question from therapist
  2. Answer from client
  3. Reflection, validation, empathic comment from therapist
  4. Question from therapist
  5. Repeat


Once you practice visual listening, it becomes a beautiful, collaborative piece of therapeutic work.  It’s worth it–for both you and your client.

If you’d like to learn more about bringing art into your work, I have two great options for you!  Artfix teaches you to partner with your creativity and see therapy as your art form.  CreateFest gives you 12 wonderful creative activities to try and bring into session.   Both are online courses that you can begin at any time and finish at your own pace.

how not to get beat up by your inner critic

Sep 17, 2013 | 7 comments

fridge art

I just wanted to make something beautiful. 

Now that my article is in print, the hardest part is dealing with my inner critic.

The article is not beautiful or stunning or moving.  It doesn’t touch me in a meaningful way.  It doesn’t evoke imagery. It doesn’t have a nice cadence or pace.  It’s not even inspirational. 

“That’s what happens when you let yourself be put in a box.  You should have seen it coming and you could have been more prepared,” my inner critic sings songs in her ugliest voice. 

 Pow! Slap! Tsssk! 

So, what’s an artist/writer/therapist/trainer to do?

I thought I’d share because I truly value when others talk about their struggles with creating. Read More… »

the art of drawing someone in

Aug 16, 2013 | 4 comments

Full Engagement

Fianna is two.  She knows the art of drawing someone in.  I announce, “I’m going downstairs to make the bed.”  Her teeny hand slides into mine, her huge blues lock onto my face and she insists, “Me help.”  I feel the sweet tug of engagement as she and I begin our simple mission.


In another memory, Jasper Rose, my eccentric art history professor at UC Santa Cruz approaches my introverted bubble.  I was 19 and I had retreated from the party to the fireplace in order to watch the others celebrate the psychology chair’s new appointment.   He flashed a haughty smile, raised his drink and said, “Ms. Mitchell, I’ve come to draw you out!”  I was melted by the warm thread of connection, and we embarked on a lovely conversation about creativity.


The moment of engagement, when we go from disconnected to connected, is precious.

It’s both a drawing in and a drawing out.

And, it all adds up to one delicious experience of Flow. 

When we understand when and how it happens, we can appreciate it, participate in it more fully, and teach it to others.


how to be creative: give up the pursuit of certainty

May 23, 2013 | 6 comments











This weekend…….

Return to a place in time

Before certainty became a goal.

Find those moments of delight

When your wide eyes brightened at New-ness

And your fast smile greeted the Unknown.


Look back to when wonder

And surprise

And not knowing was

Affirmation of life.


When the littlest things—

Your doggy’s tail,

Your prism’s sun rainbows,

Your lullaby’s lilt…

They drew you in.


Each time their arrival

As wonderful as the last.


Throw away the rules that keep you safely bound,

Throw your paint, your words, yourself—

Abandon your rutted trail,

And set out to uncover a hidden path.


Wake up!

Snap out of it!

This is serious!


Find that place in time

And welcome Not Knowing as your new goal.

Ask yourself,

If Not Knowing is my new best friend;

If Uncertainty is a sign that I am up to something good;

If Creativity is the very thing that affirms my humanity;

Why, for heaven’s sake do I still pursue certainty?

Why have I let Knowing be such a bully?


Let Certainty go.

Embrace Not Knowing.

Affirm your creative life.

getting off the hamster wheel and into your creative groove.

May 16, 2013 | 2 comments


My great aunt, Barbara Morgan, was a well respected American photographer.  The summer I turned 16, after a family dinner, I heard her tell the story of how she collaborated with the great modern dancer, Martha Graham. I’d like to offer you her story, because if you have a tough week (like this one has been for me) it might help.

Her story is inspiring and it always reminds me of that momentous summer when I learned that creativity requires space, showing up, and a whole lot of letting go.  Read More… »

what difference does creativity make in therapy, anyway?

May 9, 2013 | 13 comments

When the day arrived when I was going to have an actual conversation with Rich Simon, editor of the esteemed Psychotherapy Networker about his invitation to write for his publication I was equipped.  I had a cool list of activities therapists can do to become more creative.  I had a full blown categorization system for therapists to identify their biggest stuck place in their creative process.  I had a philosophical treatise on why therapy is an art not a craft.  I was armed and ready.  My passion was juiced and I was finally going to talk with the man himself who could single handedly propel my career.

I said part of my spiel.

He asked, “Who cares?”

(Granted I was prepared for this one too, because my dear mentor, Lynn Grodzki, had told me that this was going to be his question.) Read More… »

OpenheARTed Art for Teens

May 3, 2013 | 1 comment


In my office, I see the symptoms of a teen epidemic.  With my pre-teen clients, I see only glimpses of the developing problem.  But with the teens, I am witness to the fallout of a tragic event.  Every teen who comes through my door has a closed off way of being, they’ve abandoned the art of opening their heart to others.  It is tragic and painful.  When a teen shuts off openheartedness as a way of being, I see they are no longer candid and frank, kind and warm, sincere and generous.  They stop disclosing intentions and thoughts clearly.  They suffer and so do their friends and family. 


Openheartedness can fall victim to the unnecessary cruelty that happens between 6th and 7th grade girls.  It can be obliterated by abuse of any kind.  It gets restricted in the face of judgment and criticism, unrealistic expectations, and even teasing about appearance, weight, grades, talents, interests, mistakes.  Openheartedness is fragile. Read More… »

artists value mistakes…why you should too

Apr 25, 2013 | 2 comments

Afraid of making mistakes?

Frozen because you might mess things up?

You might want to look at mistakes the way an artist does……

The inconsistencies, the defects, the variations…..that’s what we pay for when we buy a handcrafted item.  When we find that “one of a kind” piece of clothing or salad bowl, we treasure it because its “mistakes” remind us of the fact that it has been imbued with soul by the artist’s hands.

We value hand painted yarn, hand knit scarves, hand rolled cigars, hand carved serving spoons, hand embroidered accent pillows, handmade soap……all things made or embellished by hand.  We don’t place extra value on these items simply because they were made with someone’s human hand (though that is part of it).  We value the evidence—the inconsistencies and variations that no factory machine is capable of leaving.  This is evidence that with the prized defects, your item is unique. Read More… »

the art of incubating, the defeat of procrastination

Apr 11, 2013 | 3 comments

On Monday, I found an abandoned goose egg.  None of the squawking sentinels at the pond beat their wings aggressively when I reached down to rescue the egg from its poor excuse of a nest on in the sand.  That’s how I know it was abandoned.   It’s big and beautiful.  For the rest of my walk, I began to hatch plans to borrow a friend’s dremel tool and use the egg to make these really cool oval frames I’d seen at a recent craft fair.  My daughter and husband had different plans for the egg.  Into their makeshift incubator the egg went.


On Tuesday, I found another abandoned goose egg.  Once again, no dog sized bird came a-claimin’.  This time it was at the water’s edge–too cold for any sweet pre-baby to be happy.  But, into the “incubator” it went.


Monday’s egg represents incubation.  Tuesday’s egg represents procrastination.  Same object, same symbol, probably same goose mama—yet I have a totally different relationship with each. Read More… »

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