We’re taking part in a reading group at the University of Exeter about ‘moving objects’. It’s the lead-up to the Cultural and Historical Geography Research Group’s retreat in January, in which we will each bring a meaningful object to hand over to someone else to live with. We’ll reflect on what we choose, what its care instructions are, and how its meanings move and change with in its new life. In one of our discussions, Daisy Curtis talked about a similar project that her sister-in-law Erica Curtis had developed for the Museum of Broken Relationships. We asked. Could we read something about this? No. Could she write something about it? Yes. So here it is. Thanks Erica.
Select an item that reminds you of a past relationship – whether it be with a friend, a lover, a city, or an earlier time of your life. Look at the object. Hold it. Consider it. Ask yourself: What story do I tell myself about this object? Artifacts from past times may remind us not to make the same mistakes we once did. Perhaps they remind us to be angry. They may allow us to connect with a happier time or with a part of ourselves from the past.
Artifacts hold emotional power. Not because they do so inherently but because we imbue them with specialness. By making objects special, events and relationships become more salient, pleasurable, or memorable. Emotionally charged objects help us feel closer to others, thus building social cohesion – a process that has aided in our survival (Dissanayake 1992). And yet, the specialness of objects that once served can begin to harm. Our lives can become cluttered (literally and figuratively) with the past, making it difficult to be open to what is unfolding in the present.
Return to your object. Ask yourself: How does my story about this object serve me? How does it not? What would happen if I let go of the object or its meaning?
Just as we create meaning about objects, we also create stories about letting go of those objects. We think that if we let it go, it means the person, place, or time didn’t mean that much to start with. We believe we will forget to remember. Maybe we think we’ll need it someday. Such stories (that we often unknowingly accept as truths) shape our views and feelings about our experiences, relationships, and ourselves. Fortunately, we can capitalize on this phenomenon to change our perspective. Indeed, our tendency to make objects special can be harnessed to transform the way we think and feel about our experiences and ourselves.
As a clinical art therapist, I’ve long witnessed the power of the creative process and resulting art objects to promote insight, shift feelings, and improve lives. When I was asked to facilitate an art-based self-improvement workshop at the Museum of Broken Relationships in Hollywood, California (a museum housing artifacts from broken relationships) it was a natural fit to invite participants to start with an artifact of their own. I reasoned that we could make a special, personal object special in a new way by transforming the object itself. In other words, change the object and change its meaning. Change its meaning and you change how you feel about it.
Workshop participants were asked to bring an artifact from a broken relationship. First, they were asked to consider the meaning they assigned their object, just as you have above. Then, they were invited to write a wish, belief, or hope based on what is or could be, rather than what was. Returning to your own object, you can do that now:
Looking once more at your object, reflect on a wish, belief, or hope that you have for yourself or another based on what is, rather than what was. Write your wish: May I/you/we feel peace. May I/you/we be safe. May I have moments of happiness. May I forgive. May I be open to the life that is before me. Cut out your wish. Now, using any materials at your disposal, transform your object. Affix or wrap your wish to the object.
Rather than encouraging destruction or discarding of their objects workshop participants were invited to focus on transformation. Presented with yarn, string, paperclips, rubber bands, pipe cleaners, markers, paper, scissors, and glue, attendees wrapped and embellished their objects: a deceased mother’s glasses wrapped with red string; old letters wrapped in paper with tied bows; cold medicine dangling from scrunched-up post-it notes with paper clips; a broken piece of fence covered methodically in blue yarn.
Not unlike the street art form, yarn bombing, transforms public space and its meaning by softening, brightening, or beautifying what is there, wrapping artifacts of broken relationships in paper, yarn, ribbons, and the like transformed the way participants viewed and felt about their objects. Many shared that the process alone was soothing, self-reflective, or meditative. One participant experienced a parallel between lovingly tending to her artifacts and tending to the body of her recently departed parent. All discussed the transformative impact of literally seeing their objects differently: a broken piece of fence now looked like a cocoon from which something new could emerge; old letters of hurt now looked like precious little gifts.
At the end of the workshop, half of the participants decided to donate their newly transformed objects to the museum. Suddenly, they didn’t need them anymore. One woman approached me afterwards: “I’m not ready to let these go,” she said as she showed me her wrapped letters, “but somehow this process made them feel safer. I can be okay with keeping them now.” Then she smiled, “I can’t wait to go home and wrap everything else.”
Dissanayake, E. (1992) Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes from and Why. New York, NY: Free Press.
Erica Curtis LMFT, ATR-BC is a Board Certified Art Therapist and a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with a therapy practice in San Juan Capistrano, California. She teaches for UCLArts and Healing, is an an expert consultant for her professional board, and has served as an expert for over 50 media outlets including PBS, Elle, Boston Globe, LifeHacker, US News and World Report, Cosmo, She Knows Parenting, EHow Family, and the award-winning parenting source, Kids in the House. Ms. Curtis is a past Board Member of the American Art Therapy Association and past President of the Southern California Art Therapy Association. She speaks regularly about arts-based approaches to health, wellness, and parenting at universities, business, and organizations. Ms. Curtis has been published in The Journal of Clinical Art Therapy and on various online sources including the Foundation for Art and Healing, and Lifespan Learning Institute. Her book, The Innovative Parent: Using Art to Raise Happy, Connected, & Successful Kids is coming soon. To learn more, please visit www.TherapyWithErica.com