Lisa Mitchell

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Art Therapy Directives, Interventions, Invitations




Create a “Who Am I” Weaving

Read the full article about integrating parts of self here.  The video explains the trickier parts of weaving objects into burlap.

Here’s what you need:

  • burlap–9×12 or the size you would like your finish weaving to be.  (You can buy all kinds of burlap at your local fabric store inexpensively.  Make sure to pick a natural color that looks appealing.  Sometimes the color looks a little pukey!)
  • scissors
  • paper clip or wire to create your “needle”
  • weaving elements like yarn, fabric strips, magazine images or words, sticks, matches, popsicle sticks.  You can collect anything that has a flat, linear type shape.


If you’d like to watch a short video on how to actually do the weaving part, please visit my blog here.


1. Write down or talk about aspect of self that you’d like to represent.  This is not “What I like” (though this kind of discussion may lead to clarification about parts of self because different parts like different things).

2. Remove portions of the burlap warp and/or weft (see video) in order to weave in elements that represent parts of self.  Vary the direction of weaving.  Decide on proximity for the various elements.  (For example:  Does the younger part’s representation need to be near the nurturing part’s representation?)

3. When you are finished spend some time looking at and appreciating the whole piece.  While varied, it is likely complex, sophisticated, validating.  Think about aspects of self that you ignore and cut off.  Really take a look at how you’ve been able to integrate them in your weaving.  Celebrate this integration and explore how you might be able to do this in “real” life (as opposed to in your art).

Weaving Past and Present


You can weave the past and the present to find flexibility and release yourself from anxiety producing rules.

 Read the article about how rigid rules get established, and an example of how this invitation worked with a client.




Here’s what you need:

  • magazine images
  • scissors
  • glue
  • drawing paper


 1. Think of an experience from the past from which you extracted a rule for yourself.  Ideas:  I decided to never do ________because_______happened; Whenever_______ happens, it’s always bad, therefore I must avoid______; This worked_______which means this is the only way I should____________; I have to be _______way or else ______will happen.

2. Choose an image that represents this past experience.

3. Think of an experience from your present.  Try for a positive experience to start or a way of seeing yourself that is positive.  Ideas:  A recent success, a recent feeling of contentment, a recent encounter with someone that felt good, something you did that you enjoyed, etc.

4. Choose an image that represents this present experience.

5. Talk or journal about each image.  What memories, stories, rules do each bring to mind.

6. Using your scissors, cut apart each image—keeping the piles separate.  Let yourself be intuitive here—make cuts anyway that seems right.

7. Find a way to combine the images.

8. Glue them onto a piece of paper.

9. While viewing your new image, talk about the way in which the pieces of each individual image relate to one another.  How do they influence, support, change one another.

10. Talk or journal about your new image.  What is it inviting you to see differently? Change?


As usual, I love to hear how your weavings go.  Please email me and let me know!

OpenheARTed Art

I’ve been trying to come up with art activities that can teach openheartedness.  I like this one because it involves collage, words, mindful handwork, and self reflection.   For my three rules for working with teens and more on openheartedness, come on over to the blog:  OpenheARTed Art for Teens

When I’ve done this activity with teens and their parents, it’s been so moving.  The parents melt into their openheartedness, and the teen finds that key that they so desperately need.



Here’s what you need:

  • Wax paper
  • Scissors
  • Glue
  • Colorful scraps of paper and/or magazine pictures
  • Small collage items (sequins, buttons, thread)
  • Markers or a rubber stamp alphabet
  • Embroidery thread  and a needle


 1.  Cut out two matching pieces of wax paper in the shape of a heart.  I’ve been using a template made out of plain paper and then traced, but this isn’t totally necessary.

2. Using colorful paper scraps, collage items, and magazine pictures, create a representation that shows “what others would see if they could go deep inside your heart and see your essence—your heart at its purest”.  This should be small enough to fit inside the wax paper heart.

3. Add a word or words to go with the collage.

4. Glue the word and collage onto one of the wax hearts.

5. Glue the second wax heart on top of the first wax heart.  (You now have a sandwich.)  The glue should be sparse around the edges—just enough to keep it secure while you sew.

6. Hand stitch around the edges.  You can make a simple running stitch or a whip stitch or both.

7. Create a hanger thread on the top by making a loop of thread that hangs from the V of the heart.


While sewing, think mindfully about the ways that others can see your heart at its purest.  What do you do? Say?  How do you act? How often, when, with whom?

If it feels important, show your heart to a family member.  Ask them if they recognize your open heart.  When do they see it?  What do they see you do? Say?

Practice doing and saying the things that reveal your open heart.  Allow yourself to share with others and experience the connection that happens.

embodied compassionate presence


“Presence is the portal to everything we cherish:  wisdom, intimacy, responding to others in a way that is true to ourselves.”  Tara Brach


Tara Brach’s voice lulled me into trance-land.  Her serene face and elegant neck were focal points of beauty.  In the company of 400 other people, I was transported to the center where presence and compassion, safety and comfort, suffering and possibility merged into one moment.  The Omni Shoreham Hotel vibrated with potentiality, and Tara Brach’s turquoise shawl embraced us with the wonder of it all.  And then, I promptly fell asleep.  And then, I went to lunch.  And then, I just had to go take a nap.  And it was all okay.


There were Tara’s words—a message to herself, “It’s okay sweetheart,” said out loud while gently pressing her hand to her heart and tilting her head slightly to the left.   They were the real message that came through—all the way to the end of my hour and a half nap.  These words and this gesture were what I needed, because, as Tara explained, we have a tendency to turn on ourselves.  “This feels bad” and “I am bad” have a tendency to go together.  And when we turn on ourselves that small gesture of compassionate presence allows us to be okay with the feeling and come back into presence.


I think of all of the times that I’ve heard friends and clients tell about their suffering while simultaneously turning on themselves.  Self judgment and shame are regular characters in these suffering stories.    Many times, I get drawn into the trance and try to offer my compassion as the buffer.  This isn’t a useless thing to do, but now, I see how much more important it is to invite that small gesture of compassionate presence to live inside the one who is suffering.


I’ve been experimenting with this idea.  In conversations with clients I’ve started to understand how much we tend to locate that compassionate presence outside of ourselves.  Often, it is grounded in very specific external situations.  Like my napping.  Or the feeling of being wrapped in a warm shawl or blanket.  A complete list of conditions that create this soothing comfort is often at the ready.  Hours to read quietly, art making without an agenda, walking in nature, specific foods and drinks, music to set the mood…….for each person the specifics are important, exact and external.


As long as compassionate presence is located externally, it is also outside of our control.  We can ask for it, wish for it, long for it.  Sometimes it will come.  Sometimes it will not.


But when compassionate presence becomes embodied, in the sense that it is an internal experience/sensation/state, and it is grounded in a small gesture (like Tara’s hand on her heart),when suffering comes and we judge ourselves for it,  all we have to do is recognize that we’ve turned on ourselves.  And then, with that small gesture, as Tara suggests, “we can come home, over and over again.”


As an art therapist, I have many nonverbal different ways of helping a client elicit compassion and soothing.  Through their art, clients can often visually interact with fear or suffering and find ways to transform it once the feeling state has been artfully expressed.  I use these kinds of invitations when clients need to work through traumatic events and find a different way of holding these events in the memory centers of their brains.


With Tara’s invitation to find and embody a compassionate gesture, I was inspired to figure out a way that the gesture could be translated into an art form.  And once solidified with art, the gesture could be applied to any number of artfully expressed feeling states.  Slightly different than transforming or altering, this gesture has the potential to allow a client to consent to the moment of suffering without turning on herself.  And, in turn, this would invite the wisdom, the intimacy, and the ability to respond with truth and love.


I’ve been working with clients to list all of the external conditions that create a feeling of comfort, compassion, and/or soothing.  People from the past, activities, specific sensory experiences, anything that assists them in feeling soothed.  Once the list has been made, I invite the client to imagine herself immersed in the experience.  To really feel with her whole being what it is like to soak in the comfort.  And, as clients do this, they can begin to notice how this feels in their body.  They can locate it as sensation and awareness internally.  This awareness becomes the starting point to create an “embodied compassionate presence” piece of art.


So, I guess it was no mistake that I saved the art mats people used at my recent Creativity Workshop.  (Yes, I presented at the very same conference that Tara Brach did—can you believe it??) They are “flexible cutting boards” that you get at the Dollar Tree—2 for $1.  They are perfect for this kind of invitation because they are see through but have a rough finish so that paint can actually stick to the surface.


When clients use this mat as the surface for their artful expression of their “embodied compassionate presence”, it can then be placed on other art as a way of soothing it without changing it.  If a client expresses the sadness and grief that comes out of the conflict with her spouse, she can invite an artful expression of that suffering, come into presence with it, NOT turn on herself and make herself bad, AND lay the compassionate presence over it as gesture of kindness.  It is an artful way of saying, “It’s okay sweetheart”.


You too can create an embodied compassionate presence with art.


Here’s what you need:

  • flexible cutting board (found at Dollar Tree)—this is basically like a placemat, thin, clear plastic with a rough surface
  • acrylic paint in various colors (the small craft bottles are inexpensive at Michael’s)
  • paint brush


 1.  Spend some time making a list of external conditions that elicit the feeling of being comforted or soothed.  Read the paragraph above to help you walk through all of the steps.  For an additional final step, try to discern a verbal phrase that emerges out of this experience.  Something along of the lines of Tara’s, “It’s okay sweetheart.”

2.  Once you have the full experience located in your body, attempt to represent it with color and line on the cutting board surface.

3.  It’s helpful to put a piece of white paper under the cutting board surface so that  you can see your painting more easily.

4.  If you have trouble getting started, just go for color—what color matches your experience or sensation? Start there and don’t worry about form or making it look like a recognizable something.

5.  Remember to leave clear space—don’t paint the entire surface.  This way you will have places where you underneath art can still show through.

6.  Find an old piece of art that represents an expression of suffering.  Or make a new piece of art that expresses your current conflict or struggle.

7.  Lay your “embodied compassionate presence” on top of the struggle while saying the compassionate phrase that goes with it.

8.  Let the two exist together as representation of tending and befriending the struggle, but remaining in compassionate presence with yourself.

9.  Maintain a deliberate practice of utilizing your embodied compassionate presence.  Keep it at the ready and use it often.

shifting focus

When the struggle to accomplish a goal seems too hard and overwhelming, try this!

Here are a few simple steps to follow.

  1. Think of the goal that you have been working on. Visualize it. Talk about it. Know it in your bones. Now draw what that looks like as a finished project. How will things be/look/feel when you have completed this goal.  Don’t worry about how realistic your drawing looks– it’s the expression that counts.
  2. Now consider your present situation.  Where are you now?  Be truly honest with yourself and draw an image that represents this current state.
  3. Now lay down the drawing of your present situation, then place five sheets of blank paper in a row, and then the goal drawing last.   In five steps, illustrate how you can get from the present to the goal.   Don’t worry about finding the “right” way.   There is no right way.   Simply draw and see what you discover.

Look closely at your five in-between drawings.   Make sure that each step flows naturally into the other.   You may find that there is a big leap between one drawing and the next.   For example,   if you are looking for a path in one drawing, and all of the sudden you find it in the next.   Or, if you are caged in one drawing and then you break free.   Ask yourself how that leap occurred and add another drawing that depicts the answer to your question.  You may need to add more pages in order for the steps to flow and make sense.

Tell the story of your drawings to yourself or someone you trust.   This story may have important clues to the idea of how to shift focus in order to support your endeavor.

In the example above, this therapist was struggling to get her private practice going.  In her first drawing, she represented the struggle with red and black and indicated how bold and overwhelming it felt.  To her left, she included the pastel colors that represented the ease that she really wanted in establishing her private practice.  With her final picture, she surrounded herself with good feelings and ideas for the future.  When looking to complete the exercise by filling in the pages between the two drawings, she noticed that she was over-focusing on the struggle, and not looking at the goal.  She began her shift in focus by drawing herself looking at the goal and remembering what it is she’s trying to achieve.  This was a huge a-ha for her.  And, once she began to look at the goal (by shifting her focus) she was able to represent strengths, things she’d already done, and resources that she could utilize in her process.

A small shift, but a very, very important one, this therapist was able to see how changing her focus could lead to much more than she ever thought possible!

Now, it’s your turn!  Let me know how it goes.


vulnerability zoom

Vulnerability #1


Vulnerability Zoom #2


Vulnerability Zoom Final

I think it is such a beautiful thing to witness that moment of recognition and connection.  When a client arrives at a place in their art where there is utter truth and complete bareness.  When the compassion for  pureness and innocence fills every corner of the room, and a tilt of the head conveys absolute resonance.  “Here I am.  I feel it, see it, sense it. “ When we arrive at this place, hanging out here requires tenderness, compassion, and tolerance for all that this experience evokes.  So, yes, it is intense vulnerability for both therapist and client.

Sometimes, finding the signposts or the door to vulnerable expression is not that easy.  We have sentinels, deflectors, limiting beliefs, etc that mix up the signals and cause disorientation.  So, I decided to try and use the art as a treasure map.  And, taking one clue at a time, trust that it would guide the work into that place where creativity, change, and innovation happens.

Using an old “Zoom” technique, I invited clients to think about compassion and vulnerability, and then to paint anything that came to mind.  Once the first painting was complete, I invited them to do successive paintings that zoomed in on the “most vulnerable place in the painting”.  When we finished the session, we had a map that led to a place of great tenderness and vulnerability.  There were emotions of great sadness and loss, and experiences of surprise and joy—even bliss.  What clients found, when they were able to use their art as a guide and to embrace their creative expressions of vulnerability were treasure troves of connection.  Truly beautiful.


Here’s what you need:

  • Drawing or painting materials (chalk, tempera paint, oil pastels)
  • Large sized paper (24 x 36 is good)



 1.  Start by talking about vulnerability as a positive thing.  It is something that allows connection, creativity and innovation because it sits in the emotional and unknown space.  When expressing vulnerability, remember that it is essential that compassion is very present.  Vulnerability is not a bad thing that should be judged or criticized.  By its very nature, it is tender and thus needs to be treated like a special treasure.  Remember that any time we go toward vulnerability there will be doubt and anxiety.  This is okay.  The unknown and anxiety are both hallmarks of creativity.

2.  Draw or paint whatever comes to mind for the first of the series. 

3.  Identify where on painting/drawing #1 the most vulnerable part lies.  Point it out to someone or just out loud to yourself. 

4.  With the most vulnerable part from #1 in mind, start painting/drawing #2.  Imagine that you are zooming in on this part—like a telephoto lens might do.  Allow it to form in whatever way it wants.

5. Repeat step 3 and 4 until you feel you have arrived at a point where you can stop and say, “Here I am, I see me, I feel me, I sense me.”

6. Make a bridge between your last painting/drawing and your life experiences.  When do you share this vulnerability?  How?  Who would recognize it?  Who would you like to have recognize it and how could your share it?



Build a Gratitude Tree


Shipping tags come in many difference sizes and a few shapes. They all have cute little holes for string or ribbon. Some come with their very own string. The circular ones are rimmed with a cool frame of aluminum. The rectangle ones have reinforced holes that inspire confidence in their strength and ability to endure all kinds of artistic treatment. In all, shipping tags are brilliant haiku. Concise, compact, contained, creative.

Over the years, I’ve built gratitude trees in my office and my home as a source of collaborative thanks.  When I’ve invited visitors and clients to create a tag that depicts gratitude and then to hang it on the tree, there has been a sense of collective goodness.  As tags accumulate, clients become inspired by others’ comments and want to create additional tags of their own.

The tags are just sooooo much fun! And, the collaboration between clients is exciting and inspiring.

It’s super easy to create your own gratitude tree (or branch—whatever you want to call it). The application is pretty universal. I’m going to hang one in my office this year and bring one to Thanksgiving Dinner (because I’m always in charge of the craft activity).  I’m thinking that a family might have one in their entry way. Or a classroom, or a staff break room, or, or, or…… Just think if you saved the tags from year to year!


 Here is what you need:

  • A large tree branch
  • Spray paint (if you want to change the color of your tree branch—it really made a big difference in mine. But, I know that this is “not natural” and the spray paint is terribly un-environmentally safe.)
  • Shipping tags—you can get these at Office Max.
  • Ribbons for attaching the tags (unless you just want to use the strings that they come with)
  • Permanent markers for writing statements of gratitude.
  • Decorative stuff for the tags—paint, colored paper, magazine images, gold leaf, glitter, etc.


 1. Paint the branch. If you are spray painting, please be sure to do it outside. I found that 2 coats are really more effective than just one.

2. Hang the branch. I used fishing line and little eye screws.  You can also find a big vase, fill it with pebbles, and then stick the branch in so that it stands upright.

3. Create the tags. Decorate and color any way that seems fitting. Gold leaf and gold paint seemed to be very fitting with my therapist group.

4. Write an expression of gratitude on each tag. The more specific the better. “I’m happy to be alive” is really wonderful. But, “I am filled with appreciation when I braid my daughter’s hair”, or “ Every time my trainer makes me do lower ab work, I am so thankful that my body can do it” are more specific and grounded expressions.

 5. Hang the tags on the tree and celebrate as it becomes full.

I’d love to see pictures of the gratitude trees that you start. And I’d love to hear what people are thankful for.  Eventually when there is a gallery on this site, it’d be great to have pictures to share.


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