What if a large chunk of what you were taught in grad school turned out to be undesirable in some clinical situations?  What if your setting or population required you to re-think the knowledge and skills you acquired in the name of serving others?  What if you had to learn to “unlearn”?


I had to do this myself.  For 5.5 years I worked at a men’s maximum-security psychiatric prison, where I provided group art therapy services.  Firstly, I had to “unlearn” everything I’d learned in grad school about helping people emote and express.  These two things can be dangerous in men’s prisons, as emoting and expressing in front of other inmates makes a target out of a person (that’s not true in women’s prisons, so I’ve been told).


Secondly, I had to “unlearn” everything I’d learned in grad school about the confidentiality of client artwork.  The prison gang intelligence officer spent some time with me and provided a crash course in detecting gang art.  I was not accustomed to having my clients’ artwork used against them, but my orders were to turn in any suspected gang art to him without asking questions of the inmate(s) who produced it.


Thirdly, I had to “unlearn” everything I’d learned in grad school about the ownership of client artwork.  My program had taken the position that it belongs to the client (to be honest, the art therapy world has differing points of view on this issue), but state prison rules dictated that any material possessed by an inmate that had been altered from its original form or appearance was considered contraband and could—and would—be confiscated, resulting in a disciplinary charge.  Keeping in mind that all artwork involves altering the form and/or appearance of something, this rule meant that allowing group members to keep their non-gang artwork simply amounted to letting them get caught with contraband and be consequenced for it.


The solution to all this unlearning?  Structured psychoeducational group curricula that didn’t allow for much in the way of emoting and expressing or slipping in visual gang references.  I collected all artwork at the end of each session and sometimes brought it back the following session for continued work toward goals.  For the last group session in each series, I brought back all artwork and facilitated a visual review of the progress that had been made.  The good news was that I didn’t have to turn in much artwork to the gang intelligence officer, and the inmates were able to recognize the gains they’d made as these were reflected in their art products.  The bad news was that I still had to collect their artwork at the end of the final session; they weren’t allowed to keep the tangible evidence of their progress.


Those 5.5 years of unlearning taught me that necessity is indeed the mother of invention and that creativity is the child of limitations.  Making the most out of what you have to work with—without making anything worse—is an art, not a science, and serves as a frame of reference for encouraging clients to develop their own resourcefulness and resilience in the face of problems.  Whatever you  learned in grad school, what would happen if you had to “unlearn” it?  You might be surprised at what you can do when your work with others depends on it.


With appreciation for the important work you do,

Megan  October 2014

About the Image on This Page

This is a thumbnail of Surface Texture,  which was posted to The Public Domain website by Mitch Featherston in 2012. Click here for more information.