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Speak Out: Pat Allen’s Open Studio as a Form of Group Art Therapy

By Elizabeth Bram
ART TIMES Summer 2016

In the world of art therapy, the term “open studio” refers to a type of group art therapy in which no directives are given. For Pat Allen, “open studio” means much more than that. I will describe here Pat Allen’s ideas and evaluate whether they seem to work and have value.

Pat Allen’s ideas on group art therapy are in direct opposition to the more traditional approaches. First, many art therapists evaluate and interpret their patients’ works using projective tests and through their own chosen psychological systems. For Pat Allen (1995, p.x), the artist is the authority on her own work. This idea plays a major role in the structure of the open studio.

Another advocate of open studio, Shaun McNiff (1998, p.8) writes, “Only now is the world beginning to realize that interpretations of art are projections of those who make them.”

Harriet Wadeson (2002, p.169) concurs, writing, “Given the massive documentation on the lack of validity for these three most widely used projective tests for over 75 years and the less-than-solid substantiation of art- based instruments, we must question the position of art therapists today in seeking to develop assessment instruments.”

For Pat Allen, the authority of the artist in determining the meaning of her own artwork is a given. It is the basis on which she organizes her open studio as a form of group art therapy.

The next important concept in open studio is the relaxing of roles between the art therapist and the participants. In these groups, the therapist creates art alongside the participants, much like an artist-in-residence. According to Pat Allen (2008), “We viewed the latter role as that of a kind of fellow traveler whose primary contribution was to ‘hold the space’ by being fully present in his or her own creative process while cultivating a relaxed awareness or compassionate disinterest in what others were doing (Gadiel 1992).”

Here we envision a studio with the group participants as well as the leader creating art together as a community. Pat Allen (2008) writes, “In this view, the healing aspects of art-making arise from the making and doing, the trying and failing, the experimenting and succeeding, alongside others “(p.11).

These are the foundations of Pat Allen’s open studio. However, within this system of equality, self-determination and freedom, there are some very specific principles that are followed. First, open studio group art therapy can be used to discover answers to issues in one’s life. The way this is done is by setting one’s intention before beginning any creative work.

Allen (1995) writes that, “It isn’t necessary to try to make a picture about the problem; you have only to form a clear intention to know something and then simply take up the materials and begin “(p.17).

Allen (2005) states that, “We may meditate, focus on our breathing or free write until an intention takes shape” (p.11). This seems to be a very meditative approach in which you allow images to arise freely from the non-thinking part of your mind in a stream-of-consciousness way. It involves faith and trust to relax into the process. Hopefully, the supportive community environment will then carry you along as the creative process unfolds in an atmosphere of safety.

After using intention as a guide in creating art, the next principle of Allen’s open studio as group art therapy is witnessing the art that is created. The leader has already relinquished authority over the interpretation of your art as have the other participants. The artist herself will initially witness her own artwork. Allen (2005) writes, “Like intention, witnessing requires stillness” (p.61).

One way for the artist to witness her own artwork is to write about it. “We use writing both to extend the creative act as well as to record our experience of the image by focusing our attention” (Allen, 2005, p.62).

The describing of the artwork is not an analysis or an interpretation of the meaning. Allen (2005) gives an example of witness writing:

I see three images affixed to a gold sparkly cloth. There are eight feathers in the edge of the sparkly cloth: white, red, green, brown, beige, orange, yellow, red. Beginning on the left is an image of a tree in full leaf, bigger than the page. (p.63)

This type of witness writing is a continuation of Allen’s non-judgmental approach to group art therapy. The images are described as phenomena using an existential approach in which you observe the images, noting what is seen.

Afterwards it is time for the image to speak as well. According to Allen (2005), “I accomplish this by inviting the images to speak and recording the dialogues in my witness writing, I write down whatever comes” (p.64).

Here is an example of Allen’s (2005) dialogue with an image she calls Crone Moon:

ME: Will you speak to me today?

CRONE MOON: You spout such false wisdom. Why do you think I am so compressed and black? …

ME: I feel the truth of what you have to say. It’s a little embarrassing. I know it intellectually, how can I really know it? (p.65)

Now you have witnessed the art and the art has witnessed you. You’ve had a conversation with your work. This automatically prevents you from turning the image into an object to be analyzed. It has its own life and you are learning things from another part of yourself. It hits home so much deeper when we hear wisdom coming from ourselves than from someone else.

Since open studio is a form of group art therapy, there is yet another step in the process. The artist may read her writing aloud to the group. Allen (2005) writes, “Those of us listening are privileged to be there, supporting the exchange between artist and image and often learning from it” (p.67).

Allen (2005) goes on to say:

We in the group act the way the internal witness does during traditional meditation; we are present, unchanging, yet somehow subtly registering the effect as best we can in a state of openness and compassion. It is a practice for the artist to be bold enough to speak the truth, no matter how full of “warts” or how tender. And it is a practice for the listening artists to recognize the experience of compassionate disinterest. We do not need to fix, correct, soften or enhance the experience of another. Sometimes there are sighs, tears and even laughter during a witness reading, but verbal comments are not made. (p.68)

So this is the open studio: self-determined interpretation of the artwork; the therapist as co-artist; the use of intention to focus the creative juices; the artist witnessing her own artwork by writing about it; dialoguing with the artwork in writing; reading one’s writings aloud without verbal response from the leader or the rest of the group.

There is no interpreting of the images on a cerebral level. There is no sharing of feelings and thoughts among the participants. There is no leader interpreting your work.

This type of group art therapy is very valuable for highly functioning populations who can understand all the different layers and aspects of the process and who are able to work independently.

Open studio is meaningful for people who are at a sophisticated level of personal growth and who do not need constant reassurance or guidance. It is a wonderful approach to creativity and exploring one’s own soul, but it is not for everybody. In order to participate here, you must have the ego strength to integrate what you learn from your art-making on your own.

Open studio is far too advanced and evolved to be used by psychiatric patients or by the psychologically weak or faint-hearted. It is not for beginners who have never looked within and need someone to hold their hands.

The participants must have strong enough egos to essentially be their own therapists. They must be able to dialogue with different parts of themselves without hallucinating. They must be open enough to experience both discomfort and joy as it emerges from within. There is group support in that everyone in the room is involved in the same independent process. But this may not be enough for some people.

Art-making using intention, witness-writing, dialoguing with the images and reading one’s writing aloud are the building blocks of this awesome form of group art therapy. Pat Allen’s open studio method is a wonderful journey for those of us who are equipped for the voyage.


Allen, P.B. (1995). Art is a way of knowing: A guide to self-knowledge and spiritual fulfillment through creativity. Boston: Shambhala Publications.

Allen, P.B. (2005). Art is a spiritual path: Engaging the sacred trhough the practice of art and writing. Boston: Shambhala Publications.

Allen, P.B. (2008). Commentary on community-based art studios: Underlying principles. Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, 25(1), 11-12.

Gadiel, D. (1992). Working as an artist-in-residence as a method of practicing art therapy. Unpublished master’s thesis, School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

McNiff, S. (1998). The interpretation of imagery. Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, 15 (1), 8-16.

Wadeson, H. (2002). The anti-assessment devil’s advocate. Art Therapy: Journal of The American Art Therapy Association. 19(4), 168-170.

Elizabeth Bram is a published author and illustrator of children's picture books, an internationally exhibited painter and a creativity coach with a Master's degree in creative arts therapy. Ms. Bram lives in Peekskill, New York with her two cats Ellie and Pinky. She can be reached at ebram @

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