surreal watercolor painting of a campsite set up on an anchor

What does camping have to do with art therapy?

When I was in grad school for art therapy, one of our assignments was to make art about our anchor. This was a place or thing that made us feel safe. When we felt lost and overwhelmed, or when our clients needed support to feel grounded again, we could internally visit our anchor and gain the comfort, strength, and wisdom we needed. This image would be the foundation on which to build our identities as art therapists.

My anchor came to me intuitively. I didn’t have the words to explain it, but I instantly knew the image. It was a little campsite, surrounded by trees, with a cozy tent and a warm fire. There was water all around, but the campsite was safe, contained, and secure. (There’s a photo of my artwork at the top of this post.) 

At the time, all I knew was that when I am camping, I feel secure. I feel brave, powerful, capable, and creative. Even though I’m in an unknown place exposed to the elements with limited resources, I have a sense of inner calm and reassurance. 

woman sitting beside trees overlooking lake
When I’m camping, I have a sense of inner calm and reassurance. Canoe Lake, 2019.

This was the feeling I hoped to bring with me when working with clients. If things felt stormy or uncertain, I wanted to tap into that inner safety and reassurance. I didn’t know how camping related to art therapy, but my intuition established this connection from the very beginning. 

My partner shares my love of camping. We took camping trips together while I was in grad school and during my first few years working with clients. I saw these trips as invigorating and refreshing but separate from my work as an art therapist. 

Man sitting by fire pit next to lake
Lake Superior, 2016

Eventually I came to a crossroads in my professional life. I found myself anchor-less, unsure of what would come next.

Around this time I went camping. It was during this trip that I remembered how significant camping had been in my childhood.

Woman paddling a canoe
Bon Echo Provincial Park, 2018

I recalled how I used to sit in the middle of the canoe while my parents paddled. I would dip my fingers in the water and watch the ripples they created, letting my imagination drift.

Those memories of camping were the times in my childhood when I felt the most safe, secure, and free. And it was still true for me now. This was the place where I felt the most authentically and powerfully me.  

I realized then that I wanted to find a way to share this experience with others. Thinking of my childhood self, I clarified that I wanted to work with kids. I wanted to offer them a space where they could feel how I felt as a child in that canoe – safe, held, and contained; free to explore, to imagine, to feel fully themselves right now in this moment. And from that safety and acceptance they could find their way through challenges. 

This is the mission of Resourceful Me Art Therapy. The name and the logo are inspired by my 10-year-old memories of camping. Click here to read that specific story! 

photo of tin "resourceful me art therapy" camping mug on a mossy log in the forest
Algonquin Park, 2019.

The connection between camping and art therapy had resurfaced on an emotional level for me. But it wasn’t until this past summer that I found a concrete way to answer the question: 

What does camping have to do with art therapy?  

I was on Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park, my paddle dipping in and out of the dark water, when I suddenly realized:

Camping is the perfect metaphor to explain my approach to art therapy. 

front of a canoe with boots and paddle
Canoe Lake, 2019.

There is a beautiful ritual and rhythm to camping. 

First, my partner and I plan when and where we will go. We prepare by packing our supplies and gathering what we might need. 

Aerial view of camping supplies
Here are some of our camping supplies.

Next, we head out to our campsite. We leave behind the tasks, responsibilities, and distractions of our everyday life. 

image of canoe rack reflected in side mirror of a car
Island Lake, 2015.

Once we arrive, we set up camp. We create shelter and establish safety. 

tarp set up over picnic table in forest
Creatively engineered shelter for our eating space. Bon Echo, 2018.

Then, after we have co-created our base camp, we are free to go exploring. We hike or paddle into new territory. We go deeper into the wilderness, not sure of what we might find. It’s intense. It involves work and effort. It’s stunningly beautiful. We connect deeply with each other. No distractions, no technology, just us together sharing this moment. 

canoe pulled up on a sandy beach surrounded by trees
Stopping for a swim while exploring. Joe Perry Lake, 2019.

We connect deeply with our environment, too. We notice the plants, animals, and elements surrounding us. As challenges come up, we figure it out together. We can’t look up directions, so we consult our compass, look to the sky, or locate ourselves on the trail map by observing the land around us. Through the process of exploring and navigating, we prove to ourselves our strength, our problem solving abilities, our creativity, and our bravery. These discoveries happen within the context of our shared experiences.

As night falls, we return to camp. We make food. We rest. We sit by the campfire and debrief our adventure. 

person sitting by a camp fire on the beach
Connect, nourish, debrief. Inverhuron, 2019.

When it’s time, we pack up and head home. As we return to our separate tasks and responsibilities, we carry within us our shared experience. In my mind I often return to it. When I face a difficult moment and feel discouraged, I remember how I have the strength to paddle against the wind, the resourcefulness to cook a meal using only one pot, and the perseverance to climb a cliff.  

person standing overlooking a bay with arms outstretched
I have the perseverance to climb to the top of this cliff! Bon Echo, 2018.

To simplify, here is the basic rhythm of a camping trip:

Prepare;

set up and create safety;

journey deeper and explore;

return to safety;

connect, nourish, debrief;

pack up;

head home, with internalized experience. 

An art therapy session shares this same rhythm. I follow the rhythm to safely guide my client through the session. 

Before my client arrives, I plan, prepare, and set up the environment. This means setting out certain art materials or having specific toys or books ready. I anticipate what we might need.

aerial shot of sketchbook and art supplies
Setting up the space is part of how I prepare for my client.

When my client arrives, we spend the first few minutes settling into the room and our therapeutic relationship. This beginning part is like setting up or re-establishing our base camp. During our time together, there will be no distractions. My client will have my complete undivided attention. It’s a technology-free zone. We challenge ourselves to figure things out using what we have in the room right now. 

Once we have established safety and trust in our relationship, we use the middle part of the session to explore on a deeper level. Neither of us are exactly sure what we may find along the way. As my client feels comfortable, they share more of their emotions through their art and play processes. They express parts of themselves that they might otherwise keep hidden. I am there to support and witness as they learn about themselves and put their skills into action. We connect with each other in the moment.

child wearing superhero mask and cape
Photo by Jessica Rockowitz

We also connect with the environment. Through the art and play process, my client gathers concrete evidence that they are strong and creative. When they try for the third time to cut through the cardboard and finally they succeed, they prove to themselves their perseverance. This breakthrough moment is worth the struggle that precedes it. We spend time here together, exploring and celebrating. 

craft supplies and hands holding string
Photo by Jasmin Schreiber

When appropriate, we return from this deeper work and come back to the present moment. We talk about the art or play process and what we each noticed. We connect what we experienced to what’s happening now and what might come next. 

Then we clean up the art room together, metaphorically packing up the base camp. We put things back, safe and secure until next time. 

Shelf of art supplies and toys
As the session is ending, we put everything back in its place.

At the end of our session we part ways, returning to the outside world. But we carry within us our shared experience, and we can both return to it. When my client sees a math problem that they would like to skip, they can remember their cardboard cutting experience. They can say to themselves, “I don’t give up. I try hard until I get it”, and find the strength for a mathematical attempt. 

Now I understand why the image of a campsite came to me all those years ago. 

Camping has everything to do with art therapy for me. All the things I hope to offer my clients through art therapy, I learned and experienced myself while camping. 

As I continue to grow in my identity as an art therapist, camping is indeed my anchor and foundation. It’s the metaphor that grounds me in my role as a therapist. It’s the memories I return to for comfort and encouragement. It’s the source of the hope I offer my clients. 

Woman overlooking forested view
Algonquin Park, 2019

Thanks for reading. I’m so grateful to share my thoughts with you. 

To learn more about how you can work with me, call or email to book your free introductory meeting. 

Happy adventuring!

Written by Rubi Garyfalakis, DTATI, RP, RCAT