A Research Paper By Tiffany Purn, Career Coach, UNITED STATES
For this assignment, I initially intended to do a research review on the use of creative practices and tools in coaching. While I did find some research (see references below), I found relatively little that related to the field of coaching, specifically. So I decided to take an interdisciplinary approach and to interview someone who’s studied art and creative practices and to ask her about her experience with these tools and what might — and might not — translate to coaching.
I got curious about whether art and creative tools could translate to coaching because often coaching relies largely on verbal exchanges (and what a coach can see or hear from a conversation). And yet we know that visual tools (i.e., the photos in FlipIt), for example, can help us and clients access different parts of our brain, or our experience, very effectively at times. The effectiveness of using different methods and tools is reinforced by the work on multiple intelligences of Howard Gardner (Harding, 2006).
Coaching, like art, thrives just outsides of one’s comfort zone. Art and creative tools (metaphor, poetry, movement) can be used to help people express, build personalized maps, find new ways of looking at challenging situations, and manage the space between old and new (Ramos-Volz, 2018). A research review suggests that there are coaches using drama techniques for team coaching (Dassen, 2015), poetry for self-reflection and mastery (McCartney, 2018), metaphor (Seto & Gardner, 2018), and exploration of creativity in groups to help foster growth mindset and creative confidence (Fumoto, 2016).
Exploring Integrating Creative Tools in Coaching
For coaches who are interested in exploring integrating creative tools into your practice, I recommend reading Lily Seto and Tina Geithner’s, “Metaphor Magic in Coaching and Coaching Supervision” as they explore how to contract as a coach, and the potential of creative tools like Metaphor Magic to help facilitate neuroplasticity. They propose an example of a coaching model and process based on the ICF coach competencies. The coach competencies they specifically reference include: maintaining coaching presence; powerful questioning; listening; reflection (providing observations where relevant); maintaining an awareness of the systems in which clients operate; facilitating perspective shifts; evoking greater understanding, awareness, clarity, and possibility; enabling insight and learning; and supporting clients in identifying and developing strategies to help them make their desired changes (Seto & Geithner, 2018).
Visual Artist and Art Therapist Living Interview
Jenny Boyce is a visual artist and art therapist living and working in Portland, Oregon, United States. My interview with her follows.
Interview with Jenny Boyce, October 22nd, 2021
Tiffany Purn: Can you start by letting us know a bit about yourself?
Jenny Boyce: My name is Jenny Boyce. I got my master’s degree in art therapy counseling and I’ve been a therapist for 11 years now. I completed my graduate degree in 2009. I focused on trauma and healing trauma with people. Relational trauma is kind of my specialty. And I use attachment-focused EMDR, brain spotting, parts work or Internal Family Systems, and art therapy.
Creative Tools in Coaching Focusing on Art and Creativity
Tiffany: Just a few things! So for this interview, we’re focusing on art and creativity, specifically as a potential tool in coaching. Do you think art and creative exercise could or can be a useful tool in coaching? Why or why not?
Jenny: I do think art and creativity are a huge part of being human, and so can be used in every part of life. I am a visual artist. And so that’s the kind of creativity I bring into my work. And, yeah, I think it helps people un-edit themselves in a way. It also gives them a reflection of themselves in a language they’re not always familiar with, which can be helpful.
Tiffany: What do you see as the value of un-editing?
Jenny: So, we’re used to talking, we’re used to words, and talking and words use a part of our brain that often isn’t as connected to the sensory parts of our brain, including emotion. And so when we speak in words, or we speak through visual language, different things can show up. So, it’s kind of like, when we use words we can lie to ourselves a little bit with words, but it’s a little harder to lie with an image.
Tiffany: You might see something different with somebody you’re working with that comes through visually, that they didn’t share in words. Is that accurate?
Jenny: Yeah. Do you know that old saying, an image is worth 1000 words? There’s a way that you can express something through an image that isn’t always easy to put into words.
Tiffany: Have you personally ever used art in the context of coaching rather than therapy? Or do you know anybody who has?
Jenny: I think my work includes coaching as you defined it: exploring the present and looking forward, for sure. And I use art with it that that way, but other than that, no, I don’t know much about coaching or other coaches using art.
Tiffany: You were just talked about visual imagery. What’s your sense of what kind of art or creative practices could potentially translate well to coaching?
Jenny: One thing that comes to mind immediately is that often, in art therapy, we will have people draw how they feel. We’ll just use lines and shapes and colors to express how you’re feeling right now. And sometimes we use a body map: drawing an outline of a body and then using lines, shapes, and colors to express what sensations you’re feeling in your body. And if a person is feeling a lot of activation, or anxiety, depression, it just feels bad.
Then I ask them to connect to a time when they felt calm, or resilient, and to notice how they feel in their body after drawing that. That’s one exercise that I could see using. Certain art activities are my go-to, and that’s one of them. Then I’ve also asked people to create or draw a little creature that represents the part of you that feels — for example — shame, or stuck, or depressed or hopeful, or that helps you get through certain situations, or is effective at what you do. Just to separate from that part a little bit, get to know it better. We can even then have a little dialogue with it.
Tiffany: What have you seen people learn from doing something like this that you believe they wouldn’t have learned to process verbally?
Jenny: I think using a tool like this helps to separate us from something. Especially if it’s big feelings, someone gets to separate from it a little bit and look at it. And sometimes that takes it from being this cloud around them to putting it in front of them as something that they get to control and manipulate, which can be a relief. And sometimes too, I think, when you’re exploring resilience, it can strengthen the awareness of how someone feels in their body. And so it can be something they can use to move easier. I think you’re taking a risk when you create. People get to see that, oh, I can take that risk! I can do it, and something comes from this risk.
In art therapy, we focus on the process, not the product. And so that helps them let go of those judges that sometimes come with making and creating and that can feel good. Instead, they learn to see themselves from a different perspective. So, this is more therapy-oriented, but I like having someone draw or make their family in abstract shapes. And then place them on a piece of paper where they see how they’re all in relationship to each other. This gives a lot of information to people about their families and the system they live within. Sometimes the art is surprising. Sometimes when you draw your depressed part, it’s like, oh, that’s how it looks.
Tiffany: Have you seen people take this learning from creating or taking a risk and apply it to their life?
Jenny: I think that especially with risk-taking, this strengthens people’s trust in themselves. And that is such a huge part of learning to navigate the world: trusting ourselves. To know that we will do the right thing. Or we might take the risk and not always do the right thing, but at least we do something.
Tiffany: Is there a certain process that you always follow when you’re exploring art or a creative tool with someone?
Jenny: I think initially, I’m explaining that we’re making art for the process of it and not for the product. I tell people just to send their little judges to the waiting room. Or, now that we’re on video, to just have them hang out somewhere else. We don’t need them right now. To then just start with making a mark, if they’re working 2D. Or with collage, just pick images you’re drawn to. With clay, just start to play. Play is a really good word, I think when it comes to creativity, and the art therapy process. So front-loading that information, to help reduce inhibitions around creativity, which we all carry.
Tiffany: Are there any connections between art and creativity and neuroscience, positive psychology, and/or growth mindset that you see?
Jenny: Anytime we’re using something related to the body, or our senses, we’re accessing a different part of the brain than when we’re talking. And at least in therapy for healing trauma, you have to access those sensory parts of the brain to heal trauma. Because that’s where it’s stored — it’s stored as sensory information. And so accessing this is key.
When we were talking about risk-taking and problem solving, is a big part of this is accessing our creativity. And so those exercises are growth-oriented, strengthening. And then positive psychology. Coming back to self-reflection and self-trust, I rarely have somebody create and then feel bad. Like, almost always, it feels good to make something. I can’t even think of a time when I’ve had somebody not feel good. Oh, that’s not true. I can. There have been surprises that have been jarring for people at times. Revealing more than they’re ready for sometimes. But for the most part, when we make something, it’s calming to our nervous system. I think that expression, being able to express something bigger than what we can put into words, and feeling seen calms our nervous system. I don’t know the all-brain science behind that stuff, but I would love to.
Tiffany: You were mentioning connecting to the sensory parts of our brain earlier. What do you understand about how drawing something, for example, connects the sensory part of our brain?
Jenny: Well, some people say the right side of the brain. But I know that it’s your whole brain that is active when we access the sensory parts. [The right side of the brain] is just a way to language it more than actual truth. But yes, I think the whole brain is working (when we access the sensory parts), which is part of the healing. Often, at least for my work in trauma, these little bundles of neurons that are in a little capsule are not integrated into the rest of the brain, like most memories are. And so you have to activate all the different parts of the brain to integrate those memories. Working with the body, and awareness about what’s going on in your body, there is this top-down flow that’s happening. And then also, the body is constantly sending information to the brain. That’s called bottom-up. By using language and images together there is a left-brain, right-brain thing happening. You’re tapping into parts of your brain that you don’t usually and you’re strengthening them. And that’s always a good thing.
Tiffany: How much of your work with art and creativity is coming from your connection to art?
Jenny: Good question. Yeah, I think part of the reason I got into art therapy was that in my 20s, I did this thing called process painting. Eva Gold was one of the people who started it. It’s getting tempura paint and big pieces of paper and just starting to make lines. And then seeing where those lines take you. That was very enlightening for me to see what creatures and scenes popped up in my art and how they were a reflection of me. I became interested in that process. And then that got me in the art therapy, eventually. Still, today, drawing or any kind of visual art feels like a way for me to help understand myself or concepts better.
Tiffany: How would you say that these creative processes have helped you or changed the story of who you are?
Jenny: I think it’s that self-reflective piece, understanding myself better, and also it’s a way of loving myself. Putting in the time and energy to explore me through art. It’s accessible. I don’t need somebody else there. I can just do it on my own. If there’s a way that I’m struggling I can look at what is that what’s getting in the way? Is it perfectionism? Is it that I’m trying to think about this experience in terms of how other people would see it instead of just how I see it? I show where I struggle.
Tiffany: I’m hearing reflection, self-compassion, and a bit of distance and perspective. And with perspective, being able to see something different. Is that accurate?
Tiffany: What skills do you think a coach would need to have to be able to effectively facilitate a creative process with somebody?
Jenny: That’s a good question. I think the biggest one is staying centered in yourself and allowing for people’s process to be whatever it needs to be. I think that’s the biggest one — being okay with being quiet because there’s a lot of silence during art-making. Modeling that silence is okay for the client because it doesn’t feel comfortable for people at first. Also, familiarity with the media is a big one. Because depending on the media you use, some media is uncontrollable, like paint and clay. And then some media is controlled, like a pencil. The media can trigger stuff for people and so that was a big part of learning in our therapy program. Understanding different media and what these evoke. For example, if you give a person that’s already feeling out of control paint, they’re probably going to feel more activated. And if you give a person who struggles with feeling inhibited pencil, they can feel challenged. If you gave a person who struggles with creativity pens, they’ll probably be scared, because they need something that can be more mutable, something that can be erased. That’s why already having an image like a collage is great for people like teenagers or people who are scared to create because the images are already there. They just put them together. It’s important to have used the media yourself.
Tiffany: Are there any media and or tools that you’ve found to be more accessible to all?
Jenny: Yes, college is especially great. I have pre-cut collage images. I go through magazines and pull out images, or have other people go through magazines and pull out images that I wouldn’t necessarily see. And then I have them ready in drawers of categories like people, places, things, and animals. People can just pull images that resonate with them, they don’t have to go through whole magazines. And pastels are good. Pastels are a nice mix of messy and controlled. I lean on these two media more than anything for 2D. And for 3D, Sculpey. Because it’s colorful, it’s pretty resistant, and it’s not as watery as clay. You can make it into something more permanent, which is exciting for people. Those are probably my three biggest tools.
Tiffany: So a pencil for one person might work well for one person and be maybe activating for another person. I’m curious, are there some people that you wouldn’t introduce art or a creative process to at all? Do you feel like, for some people, it’s just not the right thing?
Jenny: It’s about if the person is interested. If they’re interested, it’s generally a good tool. I haven’t come across anybody that wants to do it that it hasn’t been good for. But I do think being aware of the media and how to use this media with different individuals is important.
Tiffany: Are all of the people who come to you already interested in using art or creative tools based on what they know about you? Or do you have to check in with them? And if so, how do you check in with them?
Jenny: Some people come to me specifically for art therapy. And then when we do art therapy, generally they’re pretty ready. With other people, I do a free 30-minute consult with folks who are interested in working with me. I mention art therapy as a tool and we talk a little bit about it. And then, during sessions, I say, well, this is something we could try. We could, you know, body map this feeling? Or, would you be interested in making this as a little creature or a feeling and seeing what they say. I’ve had some artists come to me we do a lot of art therapy. I’ve had other artists come and say, oh, god, art is the last thing I want to do. Often kids are super open. Kids and teens are way more open to art therapy. It’s just about what the person wants. It’s a pretty gentle tool, for the most part, which is what I think makes it a good coaching match.
Tiffany: How do you concretely introduce the tool? How do you prepare someone, or what else might you say or do to help them feel comfortable?
Jenny: I’m back in person two days a week in my office, and right next to my chair is my big shelf with all my art supplies on it. It’s like my co-therapist. That helps. I introduce people to the different media. That is a part of what has made online harder to do art therapy. But, for people who are coming to me with doing something like that in mind, they often have their supplies and we can pull on those. Virtually it’s generally more 2D work than anything. That’s just the supplies. Sometimes the supplies will lure people in. You know, all the pretty colors.
Tiffany: So there’s a range of responses people have to do something like this — you’ve already spoken to that. But are there some responses that are more common than others? I imagine you have to be open to anything that comes up. That’s important. But have you seen a pattern? A pattern to how people respond once they’ve taken this risk, or once they’ve tried a creative process?
Jenny: Yeah. I think often people are surprised by how good it feels to create. Especially if they can get their little judges out of the way. And part of that is the self-reflection that they get to experience. The other common response is how anchoring it can be. So if you’re working on learning a new skill or a new way of thinking, you can then match that with making art that’s reflective of that [new skill or way of thinking]. Having a visual to carry with you into life is much more anchoring than words. Having something helps anchor it into our bodies gives the person something to think about.
You know, like working with these little creatures. First getting to know — how does that feel in your body? Similar to body mapping. I do a lot of body mapping to help people feel in their bodies. That lets them know, for example when they experience a feeling in life, oh, that’s that feeling. Over and over in research, being able to label our feelings is one of the best ways to manage them. Body mapping helps us do that. And then also, it helps us to separate from [these big feelings]. Over and over in research, this [naming, separation] is what we see about what works. In every single modality that’s effective, there’s a separation piece. Getting to witness, instead of feeling overwhelmed. And the art helps do that to the images help do that. For example, oh, there’s that depressive feeling. That’s what it looks like. Asking what is it trying to tell me now? Or what do I need it to know from this? All that helps. And anchoring the process in our bodies.
Tiffany: You said before we started that you’re most excited about trauma-informed work. What excites you most about art and creative processes? How does it help people move through trauma more easily?
Jenny: Thinking about that makes me tear up. I’ve been doing art therapy for, you know, 11 years. I’ve learned all these other tools, and art therapy is still my favorite. I think it’s because it’s so personal. It’s powerful. It’s gentle. It’s very personal to me, but it’s very personal to other people too. They get to own what they’ve created. And for some people, that is a new experience. I love the feel of art supplies. I love the colors. I love the shapes. I love putting stuff together. I love watching people get to experience that. Yeah, it’s my absolute favorite modality in therapy.
Tiffany: I imagine that personal connection and that love of art and creativity is part of what helps it work for you and for the people that you work with?
Jenny: Yes, very much so. With all the modalities, I think it’s really good to sit on the other side of the couch and experience it yourself. All of them. You got to know your way around the media to do it.
Tiffany: What would you recommend to a coach who wants to get more familiar with a media or a process?
Jenny: The art therapy school at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, United States does workshops that anyone can access. They’ve done things like doll-making workshops, mask-making workshops, and art therapy in schools, which is like the basics of really accessible, short exercises that you can use with kids. And I think too, just playing with the media yourself.
Tiffany: My final question is, what differences are there when you’re working with creative processes with an individual and with groups? Are there any you think are important to mention
Jenny: Yes. I think when you’re with a group, find art directives where everyone can contribute. So there’s an element of individual work that’s contributing to group work. That’s cool. There are lots of ways to do that. Or people doing their work, and if they’re open to it, reflecting on their work with the group. That’s a good way to bring it in. In group work, those to media — collage and pastels — are probably what I’ve used the most because they are accessible.
Tiffany: Thank you so much for sharing your experience, Jenny.
Collen Harding. Using the Multiple Intelligences as a learning intervention: a model for coaching and mentoring. International Journal of Evidence-Based Coaching and Mentoring.
Yvette Ramos-Volz. ‘Living Life in the Meantime’: An arts-based coaching model offering an alternative method of managing personal and professional change. International Journal of Evidence-Based Coaching and Mentoring.
 Marie-Claire Dassen. Drama Techniques in Team Coaching. International Journal of Evidence-Based Coaching and Mentoring.
 Jacki McCartney. Practice and Potential: A Heuristic Inquiry into the potential for poetry for the reflexive coaching practitioner. International Journal of Evidence-Based Coaching and Mentoring. Special Issue
 Lily Seto and Tina Geithner. Metaphor Magic in Coaching and Coaching Supervision. International Journal of Evidence-Based Coaching and Mentoring.
 Eli Fumoto. Developing a group coaching model to cultivate creative confidence. International Journal of Evidence-Based Coaching and Mentoring.