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Genograms Made with Natural Objects in Art Therapy

What is a genogram?

A genogram is a diagram illustrating a person's family members, including how they are related. Genograms often include the medical history as well. Making a genogram allows people to step back to consider their family with a bit of distance and without judgment: to broadly view inherited patterns of behavior as well as medical and mental health issues running through the family. Genograms are helpful in family and couples therapy. A genogram is diagrammatic: it makes visible the complex map of a person's social context.

How does an nature informed art therapist use genograms?

Art therapists are trained to use genograms in creative ways with clients if it is thought to be helpful in therapy. They help therapists understand and find strengths (& challenges) in a person's community. The way a person arranges their family within their larger community says a lot about a person's life relationships that extend from learned family patterns of behavior.

How to make genograms?

Above is an example of a community genogram made with natural materials. It is arranged as a tree with a sturdy trunk and roots. Each branched area of the tree represents people in the author's life. The family groups closest to the person were represented in the trunk. The core family was represented by the nuts within the red berry circle at the base of the trunk. The roots are represented in the leaves curling toward family members on each side. In a nature informed therapy session, a client is invited to select and assign meaning and metaphor to different natural objects. The placement of each social group is as important to notice as assigned object meanings and metaphors in a genogram.

While a genogram might be made outside with found objects, this genogram was made indoors and the natural objects are placed on a tablecloth and wood floor. Nature informed art therapists must be flexible as they respond to each client's familiarity with the natural world. If a client is not interested to work outside, ask if there is an interest to work with natural objects inside. If this seems of interest for a client, the natural objects may be made available for a client to select, arrange and combine for their personal genogram. Any natural object must be considered as safe in therapy. This means a nature informed art therapist is knowledgeable about the natural objects used, and materials are also sustainably sourced from permissible areas outside.

Natural objects used in art therapy have textures, colors, shapes, and scents that inform the choices a client makes when forming the genogram. This can richly contribute meanings arising from the selection and placement processes and enriches later discussions. When working on the floor or outside, the genogram might be built in an intimate way, or it may become large-scale. If working on a tablecloth (as seen), it can be easily folded up and moved back outside as a session ends. Talking about how human's change and shape the natural world as a part of the living web of life forms and reciprocity might also be a discussion in therapy. A client's genogram becomes a helpful reference to deepen understanding toward one's identity in relation to family and community concerns.

About the author:

Renee van der Stelt (she/her; MFA, MA, LGPAT) is an art therapist in Maryland who works individually and in small groups. Her art therapy approach is person-centered, relational, and strength-based. She specializes in Nature Informed Art Therapy: this includes the use of ethically sourced natural materials when meeting indoors or outside, depending upon client needs. Before becoming certified as an art therapist, Renee worked as an artist, educator, and mentor in a low-residency MFA program. She has two years of experience working as an art therapist.

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