Art Therapy for Groups: A Handbook of Themes and Exercises.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: McNulty, Jamie
Pub Date: 01/01/2010
Publication: Name: Existential Analysis Publisher: Society for Existential Analysis Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Psychology and mental health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 Society for Existential Analysis ISSN: 1752-5616
Issue: Date: Jan, 2010 Source Volume: 21 Source Issue: 1
Topic: NamedWork: Art Therapy for Groups: A Handbook of Themes and Exercises, 2d ed. (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Liebmann, Marian
Accession Number: 288874139
Full Text: Art Therapy for Groups: A Handbook of Themes and Exercises. (2nd ed.) Marian Liebmann (2004) London: Brunner-Routledge,.

I heard Marian Liebmann speak at an SEA forum couple of years back and was so impressed by her work that I have since wanted to read her book. While Liebmann's approach is broadly integrative it gives scope for practitioners of various orientations to develop a style of art therapy that is their own, her phenomenological approach shows how to make a space available for clients to describe their experiences to others and ultimately to themselves.

This book serves several purposes, firstly, it is an introduction for those who are newly interested or beginning to do art therapy and/or group work. This being said, after running creative writing therapy groups for a number of years, I still found this part of the book illuminating and thought provoking. Secondly, the book offers basic guidelines on how to do research involving groups. Third it allows us to follow the progress of a number of groups offering an experiential feel for what can happen there. And finally it is a catalogue of ideas and themes for groups.

This is an intelligent book and the fruit of many years practice, as well as a survey of shared practice from the author's research into the experiences of other practitioners, so that the reader benefits from the trials and errors that are recorded here. I should point out that Marian Liebmann focuses on the graphic arts, stressing the pictorial and non-verbal outlets for expression. Despite my own concentration on talking and writing groups I found this a valuable read and was able to mine the book for fresh practice and themes for groups that I run.

The chapter on the basics of running a group covers familiar territory such as laying down ground rules. For example, she discusses whether to begin with a check-in or not, balancing the pros and cons. I was reminded how this not only establishes a safe environment but can also allow participants to air any immediate problems and tensions they may be having, releasing them to work on issues that are more important or long standing. This also helps to draw boundaries around intense feelings that may or may not be explored further, ensuring that the feelings do not burst out in an overwhelming way. I saw a clear example of this in a recent group when a client checked in with the fact that on her way to the group a friend telephoned to tell her about the murder of an acquaintance. While this could be material well worth exploring, in reality it had little to do with the clients personal life and we heard more about the client's realization of how her drinking behaviour was affecting her young daughter. Such nuances about basic procedure and their underpinnings are invaluable for therapists new to group work and it acted as a reminder for myself as an experienced one.

The short but valuable chapter on research outlines methods of recording, evaluating and researching the group experience. Liebmann firmly adheres to the need for and value of evidence based practice without denying the problems and inconsistencies of doing the necessary research. The descriptions of the methods used are brief but she refers us on to further literature. She does however take time to describe a tension between the degrees of subjectivity and objectivity in the scope of qualitative evaluation, giving due space to the problem of how it is possible to measure art and health. The difficulties of quantitative research within psychotherapy in general and art therapy specifically are also assessed.

The simplicity and basic phenomenology of the exercises can be exemplified in the 'group drawing' exercise, where a large piece of paper is set up and group members simultaneously draw or paint on the sheet. Not only how participants interact while engaged in the activity but also content, use of space, colours chosen and other variables become open for discussion. More precisely and important for working existentially, Liebmann illustrates how a dialogue can be opened up along these lines. The concreteness of the artwork offers something tangible to be worked on, it allows a finite experience to be slowed down, allowing for the joints of the experience to be articulated, the a priori structure if you will, to be revealed and articulated. The process as a whole allows for a genuine saying that shows how one is and acts rather than merely speaking about it (Heidegger 1971:122). This quality of showing helps to clarify and bring awareness to feelings and behaviours. Furthermore Liebmann maintains this principle of showing rather than explaining in the text and in her many examples of groups and themes she presents.

It is also worth noting that a dialogic approach pervades the book offering different viewpoints on procedure. Examples of obstacles and suggestions for surmounting them are interspersed throughout the text and never heavy-handed. Liebmann's experience and her research into the experiences of other practitioners through trial and error are lent to the reader.

She gives examples of how emotion most often increases as the artwork is talked about rather than while during its creation, however she includes the example of a woman who became upset as she saw that she depicting her isolation while she was drawing. The ways that art can bring things to light is stressed in both examples.

In her consideration of the interpretation of works of art she shows very well how interpretations are not about process and say as much about therapists' and clients' viewpoints or their frames of reference rather than about the artwork itself. She also suggests particular exercises designed to illuminate and define these frames.

There are qualities that Liebmann notes that are unique to art therapy. An example here is the quality of silence that can be experienced. She observes the value of a kind of working silence in groups that often occurs when people are engaged in making art "where non-verbal process take over". It is my own experience that silence in an art therapy group can be very different than silence in one-to-one therapy, for example it is easier to see the difference between a working silence and a stuck silence in the concrete process of the artistic activity. The role of silence and when it is counterproductive shows up Marian Liebmann's stress on her flexible approach, and placing the clients needs first. She suggests particular groups where this is valuable and where it is counterproductive. For example, a pervasive silence for a group of self-conscious adolescents or adults with learning disabilities would be unhelpful and limiting.

The last part of the book (almost half of the total pages) is a catalogue and guide of themes and exercises. It is a great reference to have on hand for anyone who does theme-based groups. It includes starting points for specific client groups, warm up exercises, groups to help with concentration, dexterity and memory, family relationships, interactive exercises, and guided imagery. There is also a section on links with other arts, such as movement drama, writing and music.

In her talk at the SEA forum, Marian Liebmann also discussed the art therapy she does with individuals and I wanted to hear more about these. This being said, many of the themes can be modified for one-to-one work, but I am hoping she will give us another volume on her work in this area


Heidegger, M. (1971). On the Way to Language. Trans. Hertz, P. and Stambaugh, J. New York: Harper & Row.
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