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Wise Counsel Interview Transcript: An Interview with Natalie Rogers, Ph.D. on Expressive Arts Therapy

David Van Nuys, Ph.D.
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Dr. David Van Nuys: Welcome to Wise Counsel, a podcast interview series sponsored by CenterSite, LLC covering topics in mental health, wellness and psychotherapy. My name is Dr. David Van Nuys. I'm a clinical psychologist and your host.

On today's show we'll be talking about expressive arts therapy with my guest, Dr. Natalie Rogers. Natalie Rogers, PhD is founder and co-director of a certificate program in the expressive arts at the Saybrook Graduate School in San Francisco, California. She's the author of the 2003 book, "The Creative Connection: Expressive Arts as Healing".

A psychologist, group facilitator, artist, mother of three daughters and grandmother of four, her mission for the past 30 years has been to bring creativity, soul and spirit into our lives, to empower ourselves as activists in this troubled world.

As an expressive arts therapist and the daughter of Carl Rogers, the foundation of her work is based on her father's philosophy: "Each individual has worth, dignity and the capacity for self direction if given an empathic, non-judgmental supportive environment." The philosophy and values of the person centered approach inform all of her work and group facilitation, psychotherapist training, personal growth and communication.

Now here's the interview. Natalie Rogers, welcome to Wise Counsel.

Dr. Natalie Rogers: Thank you. I'm glad to be here.

Dr. Van Nuys: Well, you've spent the past 30 years or more doing pioneering work in the field of expressive therapy so perhaps we should start out by having you tell us what you mean by expressive arts therapy.

Dr. Rogers: That's a good question because expressive arts therapy actually is a very new field within the last ten years.

Dr. Van Nuys: Really?

Dr. Rogers: Ten or 15 years at the most. Expressive arts therapy means to use all of the arts--movement, sound, journal writing, psychodrama and, of course, words to express oneself to come into some sense of inner being and to be able to express that inner being through all of these media in order to gain insight, personal growth, self empowerment and eventually, it's my belief, empowerment to take action as a world citizen.

Dr. Van Nuys: I suspect at least some of our listeners, if not many listeners would have heard of art therapy, but it sounds like what you've done is to expand it past the palette of just say, painting or drawing.

Dr. Rogers: Yes, well there have been for many years and there still are, very valid separate fields--dance therapy, art therapy, music therapy and other kinds of therapy. But what expressive arts is it's integrating all of those and that's a very important part because my book "The Creative Connection: Expressive Arts as Healing" discusses the integration of all those arts and how they are very meaningfully integrated to help us into our personal growth and higher states of consciousness.

Dr. Van Nuys: Well, I want to talk about your book but before we do that let me ask, how did you come to do this kind of work.

Dr. Rogers: Yes, well my mother was an artist and I've always been interested in art as a hobby. I took art classes in college and I'm always taking art classes. If you look around my living room you can see my art all over the place.

Dr. Van Nuys: I do see that.

Dr. Rogers: Art has always been a part of my life so that means the creative process has been part of my life. My father was a psychologist and we'll talk more about him later. So my interest in art and psychology, bringing those together is a very natural outcome. I became a psychotherapist at the age of 45, 40 something like that.

Dr. Van Nuys: So there is still hope for many of our listeners?

Dr. Rogers: After having been a wife, a mother, raising a family and getting my master's degree and so forth while I was a young mother, I then went into the field of psychotherapy. So as I started to work with clients I found that using art, using visual art, was very helpful. They appreciated it. I always asked them if they liked that. So very early on, I became an art therapist in a way but I was a person centered art therapist because I had really the foundation of client centered therapy.

Then movement--I'm a very kinesthetic person. So as my life evolved and I took training and movement therapy I integrated all of those. Then I found out there was a word, expressive art therapy. So I was kind of doing it before I knew there was a word. This was in the 70s. Then I found that there were a few places--Leslie College--and a few places out here in California that were offering courses called expressive arts therapy.

Dr. Van Nuys: Interesting. I know that at Sonoma State University shortly after I arrived there there was the School of Expressive Arts. I didn't hear anybody talking about expressive arts therapy but the people that were involved in that school at Sonoma State University, they definitely felt it was therapeutic.

Dr. Rogers: It very much was. Yes. Those folks I've been very much in touch with.

Dr. Van Nuys: Now you named your book "The Creative Connection". Now just what do you mean by that? What is the creative connection? I gather that has some power for you.

Dr. Rogers: It has a very profound meaning to me and it's something I hope my graduate students will do more research on because I've discovered--and I'm sure I'm not the only one who has discovered it--but I'm the one who keeps pointing it out. That when we move it changes our art or when we do art it changes our writing and when we do writing it changes--all of these things change our self awareness, our state of consciousness.

For instance, there are many artists--painters or sculptors or whatever--who say, "Oh, I always dance before I paint" because what we do with our body really affects how we proceed to the next creative process.

Like when I'm writing a book I will get up and go for a walk or--people say, "Yeah I always jog or walk." I have the phrase that I'm "walking a chapter". So I'll have something in mind, I go for a walk, whether I'm on the beach or around the block and things come to me. Thoughts clear up.

So there's this connection between--it's all the creative process but there's a connection between one creative process and another. It seems like a lot of people actually use that but don't talk about it.

Dr. Van Nuys: Interesting.

Dr. Rogers: More and more it's coming--again, I think I am kind of a pioneer in this. As I say, people are doing this but they're not conceptualizing it very much or talking about it.

Dr. Van Nuys: Well, you've definitely got the ball rolling. Now you mentioned that your work is rooted in the client-centered approach. How does it differ from traditional client-centered therapy?

Dr. Rogers: My father, Carl Rogers-and we can talk about him... [laughs]

Dr. Van Nuys: The cat's out of the bag now. [laughs]

Dr. Rogers: Because the foundation of my work is very, very client-centered, very person-centered. And, so the question again was, how...

Dr. Van Nuys: How your work, which you say is rooted in a client-centered approach, but in some ways it's not exactly what your father was doing.

Dr. Rogers: No, it's not. Carl was a verbal therapist and a revolutionary, a pioneer in his own way. And he has, even long after his death, been voted the most influential psychologist in America. His work was so profound in bringing forth the idea that within each person there is the ability, the capacity for self-development, self-insight and growth. So he changed the whole psychological counseling world.

The medical model had previously said-and still, to some extent does say-as a client in a therapy situation I will diagnose you. I will ask you what your symptoms are, and then I will give you advice, or we'll have a treatment plan and that kind of thing.

Instead, he was very profoundly influential by saying that if we create a safe empathic environment for the client, he or she has the ability to find their own answers. And that's so easy to say and so difficult to do.

Dr. Van Nuys: Yes.

Dr. Rogers: As a teacher, a professor of teaching client-centered therapy, and teaching expressive arts therapy, I find that people have a very difficult time really letting go of their ego as a therapist, and their ego saying, "Oh, I must have the answers for this person." And really allowing themselves to create the safety so that the person can find her own answers.

Dr. Van Nuys: You really have to trust the process, and it's hard for people to have that trust.

Dr. Rogers: That's exactly right, yes. So, that's in a very small nutshell, Carl's philosophy. But I feel my work has embodied Carl's theory of creativity; embodied and enhanced it. But I particularly like the word "embodied" because it's using the body in the creative process. We don't become creative by talking about creativity.

Dr. Van Nuys: Darn. [laughs]

Dr. Rogers: You and I can sit here forever and talk about the theory, the philosophy or how to do it, but until you actually get up and start engaging in the process, you don't learn anything about creativity. [laughs]

So it was my addition, or expansion, to his work to invite people to get up out of their chairs, to do some very simple kinds of movements, to help people get acquainted with their body, to express themselves through their body. I start with movement often, because in this culture-particularly the American and some of the European countries-we are so used to sitting and talking and telling our story in a therapeutic relationship.


Dr. Van Nuys: Yes, indeed we are.

Dr. Rogers: And for people to get up and actually become acquainted with their bodies is profound. Just very simple things, like walk at a slow pace and be aware of what's happening. Or run around the room and be aware of what's happening to your body. How do you feel when you shift from slow to fast?

I have one exercise that people like. And I call these exercises, and Carl would never ask people to get up out of their chair and move. [laughs] So that's a big difference. And I have one exercise which I like, which is imagine you're in a museum and you see a statue or a figure in the room, and you look at it and you say to yourself, "Oh, this is how I feel right now."

And then I ask people to put themselves in that pose of how they are feeling. So some people may be in a meditative pose, some people may be in an angry, aggressive pose, some people may be hiding or some people may be flat on the floor. Anyway, it's very interesting to watch. And then I say, "OK, now imagine yourself looking at another statue and you say, "Oh, this is how I would like to feel." And they get up and they move their bodies into a pose of how they would like to feel.

And I ask them to explore that transition back and forth between this is how I feel right now-maybe I'm sad, or frustrated, or blocked-and this is how I'd like to feel. Maybe it's open and creative and spontaneous. And they notice how different their body is in one pose as compared to another. That's a kinesthetic understanding, that if we just talked about it they wouldn't get it.

Dr. Van Nuys: Yes.

Dr. Rogers: It's a real experiential, kinesthetic understanding. And then I might ask them to move into clay, without talking about what they just did. Move into clay or color-use colors expressively. And this, by the way, is all about the process more than the product, in terms of the artwork.

So they go into clay, close their eyes, let something evolve out of the clay, and then the clay gives them more insight into how they're feeling because it's something that evolved. It's not something they thought of, "I'm going to make a dog, or a giraffe, or something. I'm going to just let this evolve out of what I just did through movement."

This is also what I'm calling the creative connection. So they're moving and they connect into their kinesthetic feeling. And then they do art and connect in deeper ways into their feelings and thoughts. It's not all just feelings, but feelings, and thoughts and insights, and then maybe do some journal writing after that. So this whole process helps them tap into the deep well of their unconscious and bring it forth to their consciousness.

Dr. Van Nuys: And I gather that at no point would you step in and make what might be called an interpretation. Is that right?

Dr. Rogers: That's correct. When we're done-and I'm talking now about group work, but I do this either in individual therapy or in groups-but if we're in a group I put down some guidelines, actually, for how people respond to each other's art. Because it's important to me that the person-centered approach be a big part of how we treat people, having just been through the creative process.

We're all very vulnerable at this point. Their clay piece, or their visual art or their movement is very self-revealing and exposing. It's important to me that the artist speaks first. So if you've done the art I'd say, "What does this mean to you? What was the process like for you? How did you feel about it when you were doing it? Do you gain any insights from it? Or, you didn't talk about this part, would you like to say something about the color blue here?"

So it's a form of drawing the person out about their art, but basically listening. And then I might ask, "Well, would you like my response to your art?" So at first I get permission. [laughs]

Dr. Van Nuys: Yes.

Dr. Rogers: And then if I have their permission, I'll say, "When I look at it I feel very excited because I feel there's passion in what you've just done." But I'm not telling them who they are; I'm telling them what my response is.

Dr. Van Nuys: Right.

Dr. Rogers: It's sort of like in dream work we say, "If it were my dream this is what it would mean to me."

Dr. Van Nuys: Exactly.

Dr. Rogers: "If this were my painting or my sculpture, this is what I would be feeling." So I'm very careful to try to instruct people who are listening to the artist not to project but to own their own feelings about it.

Dr. Van Nuys: Do you find that they will spontaneously be able to make connections to the emotional issues that they're dealing with in their life?

Dr. Rogers: Oh, absolutely. It happens so quickly that the people who are involved are really quite surprised, because some people come in as kind of skeptical, or particularly naive, I should say, about what could happen. And a lot happens very quickly. So as a therapeutic process it is incredibly deep, and quite amazingly swift.

Dr. Van Nuys: Yes, yes. I've had enough contact with this sort of thing to be able to say I know that to be true. I really understand what you're saying.

Dr. Rogers: Good. OK. [laughs]

Dr. Van Nuys: And I know that for a number of years you've trained Expressive Arts Therapists, first through an institute and I think more recently through the Saybrook Institute Graduate School in San Francisco. So one question that comes up is, do you see this as a complete therapy in itself, or is it a supplemental augmentative kind of thing?

Dr. Rogers: As a long-time psychotherapist I see this as definitely a-how did you put it?

Dr. Van Nuys: A complete approach in itself.

Dr. Rogers: Yes, it is a complete approach.

Dr. Van Nuys: It is?

Dr. Rogers: It definitely is, yes, because we're not avoiding the verbal aspect. If you would watch me in a counseling demonstration, which I always do in any class, you'd see that I'm listening. I'm really Carl Rogers' daughter when it comes to that.

I almost feel channeled, because I'm very client-centered and empathic, and am on the same wavelength as the client, doing my best to understand what she is experiencing, how she views the world. That's my job, to understand how the client views-I'm going to use the feminine pronoun-her own world. So I'm a companion on her journey.

And then at some point, when maybe she has some imagery or maybe she's stuck or doesn't seem to be able to go further, or perhaps she's in some very deep emotional feeling-perhaps a death of a parent or something like that-and there are no more words to speak, I will say, "Would you like to try expressing this either through movement, or through color or clay?" So I have there available clay and chalk pastels, which are really quick and easy to use. And I also inquire about movement.

Let me just stick with the grief because it seems so poignant around issues of grief, that people get choked up, and it's so heartbreaking, that there are no words. People's words kind of get stuck in their throats.

Dr. Van Nuys: Right.

Dr. Rogers: They're either going to just cry all the time or they're going to get stuck. So it's a wonderful time to say, "Put some of these feelings on paper, or in clay". And it's amazing the-how can I say it, the aura, the ambience-what happens when they begin to focus their emotional energy on paper, or clay or into movement. It's a very different state of consciousness between us and within the client herself. She's totally involved.

Dr. Van Nuys: So there's a real shift.

Dr. Rogers: There's a shift. Yes, there's a big shift. I haven't really talked about that too much before, but there is a big shift. So then I give her time to work on the art, and I often suggest that people use their non-dominant hand.

Dr. Van Nuys: OK. Yes.

Dr. Rogers: So that they're not in control, and they're not so worried. They say to themselves, more or less, "Well, if I'm using my non-dominant hand it's not going to be any good."


Dr. Rogers: So they give themselves permission not to be so self-critical or self-judgmental. And that's also tapping into their right brain, their intuitive brain, their spontaneous, creative side of their brain. So, again, things come from the unconscious and surprise them.

Dr. Van Nuys: Right. Now, as I hear you talk about this it seems like there would be a natural affinity with the Jungian approach; that when people think about going to see a therapist and doing things like working in clay, or painting, or something, that they might in their head think, "Oh, I need to find a Jungian." Where do you see the crossover?

Dr. Rogers: It's interesting you bring that up because I say this in my book someplace too. I'm very interested in Carl Jung's work. I'm not a scholar of his work, but I was very, very moved by his, "Memories..."

Dr. Van Nuys: "Memories, Dreams and Reflections".

Dr. Rogers: Yes, that book, which has got notes all over it. And also I was deeply inspired by the documentary-and I am not going to be able to remember the name of it, but it was a British...

Dr. Van Nuys: Sure. A three-part series. I think it's called, "The Story of C.G. Jung" because I've used it in teaching for many years.

Dr. Rogers: Have you? Is this the one where they show his "Red Book?"

Dr. Van Nuys: I believe so. Yes.

Dr. Rogers: When I saw that! It still gives me goose bumps.


Dr. Rogers: Because I said to myself, "Oh my gosh, he was an expressive artist."

Dr. Van Nuys: Yes.

Dr. Rogers: He put his feelings into art. And those images, which I can still see-I bought a book that has some of those in it just to look at-whether he understood it conceptually, and I think he did, expressing himself through art was going to help his healing. Actually what happened to him-this is my understanding, and a Jungian analyst might not agree, I don't know-was that his art actually frightened him because it was so powerful. It came from such a deep place inside of him.

It was very carefully, beautifully done art, but the messages he was getting from it were frightening to him. Just like some of his dreams were. And I kept thinking to myself when I read that, I wish he were in this generation and we could say, "It's OK. You don't have to be frightened by it." I mean, it was his own shadow.

Dr. Van Nuys: Sure.

Dr. Rogers: And of course all of his work on the shadow is very meaningful to me, and I describe my use of that in the book. And I do feel in some way that my integrating both Carl Rogers and Carl Jung in my work is part of my real contribution.

Dr. Van Nuys: Yes. Yes. There really is an integration there. I actually have read your book. I used it in a course that I taught years ago.

Dr. Rogers: [laughs]

Dr. Van Nuys: One thing that I'd like to pick up on that you made a little reference to, kind of in passing, at the very beginning, was something about the relationship between the inner work and the outer work of, maybe it's activism, in the world.

Dr. Rogers: Yes.

Dr. Van Nuys: And I gather you see some sort of a connection there. Because a lot of people would say, "Oh, all of this is just belly button-gazing and narcissistic, self-indulgent..."

Dr. Rogers: Well, I just totally, totally disagree with that point of view. And actually, what I want to talk about really follows on the Carl Jung, Carl Rogers connection...

Because Jung was so poignant in bringing up the shadow, that what we have put in this black bag of ours as we grew up and things that we couldn't accept about ourselves needed to be brought forth and accepted and acknowledged. And it's my understanding of the work that I'm doing, or the people that I've trained are doing, is to help people be in touch with their anger, their frustration, our violent side--I'll own my own--our violent side, our destructive side.

And this is where I think it's so connecting to world peace. It's like a metaphor for what's happening in the whole world, to me. It's that we as individuals have not come to terms with our own destructiveness, our own inner violence. And we all have that. I believe that. Sweet and good and nice as I am...


Dr. Rogers: I know that there are times, when I'm pushed up against the corner, that I, too, could strike out or kill or whatever. If you're oppressed enough, if you are pushed in a corner enough, you will come to a point, pretty much--unless you're Gandhi... [laughs]

Dr. Van Nuys: Yeah.

Dr. Rogers: ...that your violent side will come forth.

So, with my students, we talk about this, and I say that, to me, the angry part of me can be a very positive ally in my work if I know how to channel it. And that's been true for me time after time after time. When I feel very frustrated, very blocked, professionally or personally, or very angry, I find ways to express that in art, in writing to myself, not to the persons I'm angry at. And then I find a way to channel that into something constructive.

Actually, my institute grew out of some of that frustration. And I thought, "Well, you know, I'm angry right now, but I'm going to put all of that energy into building something really good". And as a feminist early in the '70s, I was angry at a lot of things--at the second-class citizenship of women. That was it. [laughs]

Dr. Van Nuys: Yeah. Yeah.

Dr. Rogers: And I found ways, eventually, to channel that energy into writing, into producing a book and so forth.

So the connection to the world is, if I can, instead of blaming all those others--the enemy, the we/they, that we're the good people and there's all those bad guys out there--if we can really, really understand that we all have the bad guy in us as a potential and that all of us need to learn how to accept that and find ways to use that energy constructively, we will be learning how to mediate and collaborate, cooperate, rather than saying, "You're evil, and you're my enemy."

Dr. Van Nuys: That's probably a good place for us to begin to wrap it up. I wonder if there's anything that you haven't had a chance to say that you'd really like to get out before we do close it off here.

Dr. Rogers: Somehow, I'm coming back to the emphasis on finding our own creative energy, each individual in this world, because I'm so distressed with the educational systems becoming more and more rigid, more and more test-oriented, and less student-centered. So easily, we kill off the creative energy, the creative spark, by limiting how people learn and making them conform to sitting in desks and learning from books rather than from life and experience. I mean, there's nothing wrong with learning from books, but that's all we do.

We need to really emphasize in schools the arts, the music. And that's the first thing that gets cut is the creative process. The creative process, in each of us, is our vital force, our passion, our energy, and when we block it, we block so much. So I'm very passionate, as you can hear, about finding ways for kids and youth and adolescents, as well as the adults that I work with, to find their creative life force energy.

Dr. Van Nuys: Well, Natalie Rogers, I want to thank you so much for taking time to sit with me and for sharing your passion with us here on Wise Counsel.

Dr. Rogers: Thank you. It's a pleasure.

[musical interlude]

Dr. Van Nuys: I do hope you enjoyed this interview with Natalie Rogers.
You've been listening to Wise Counsel, a podcast interview series sponsored by CenterSite, LLC. Until next time, this is Dr. David Van Nuys, and you've been listening to Wise Counsel.