Dr. Duanita G. Eleniak, MSW RCSW ATR BCATR RCAT PhD
Co-creator Ruth Skutezky, MA RCC

I was going to title my writing about cleaning and art therapy as "What My Teachers Never Taught Me about the Field of Art Therapy". But then I realized that though I did not learn this formally in art therapy school, I did learn it during my internship hours after graduation from my mentor Dr. Marie-Jose Dhaese. She taught me about the importance of cleaning, how extensive this work is when one is an art therapist (particularly when you work with children and trauma), and the importance of holding an artistic or holistic attitude when approaching the sacred work of cleaning.

When I was looking into becoming an art therapist I did what I see my students doing now. I visited art therapists and asked them questions about what art therapy was and what art therapists actually do in a typical day. One of the things that was never talked about was how much cleaning an art therapist does every day. In fact, in writing this article I searched the art therapy literature to see what was being said about 'cleaning' and found that this was not an area that is usually addressed.

Yet, one of the most important roles that I play as an art therapist is cleaning. Ensuring that the studio is clean, brushes are clean, and that clean up happens between clients are a major part of my daily tasks. As an art therapist I clean after every client and every group. This can be once every hour or hour and a half. How long it takes me depends on how much "mess" we worked with during session. As an art therapist a lot of my time is devoted to cleaning.

Cleaning and Training

I am a Ukrainian-Canadian and growing up my Mother ensured that I learned the art of cleaning. Every Saturday my sister and I would have to dust, sweep, wash, wax and polish the floors in the house. This was before the days of rugs and vacuum cleaners. When our floor polisher was broken we would sit our little brothers on a rug and swing them around the floor to get the wax off and the shine to come through. It was hard work that I hated when I was doing it and loved when I got that 'fresh' feeling when it was complete. Never did I think that I would choose a profession where the cleaning skills that I learned as a "good Ukrainian girl" would come in handy on a daily basis.

Cleaning and Imagination

As art therapists we literally clean up clients messes. We are engaged physically in the 'mess' that happens when exploring past trauma or working to build a new life.

Now, I have been the kind of person who does not inherently enjoy cleaning. When I was a child and there was dishes to do you would find me running out of the house, jumping on my bike and taking a spin around the hamlet I lived in. My poor older sister was always stuck with the dishes. I swear that I think this is why I still live in a cottage with no dishwasher. I think it is Karma connected with running from cleaning all of the time.

Over the years I have had to make sense of cleaning. Working with my imagination I have created ideas and beliefs about cleaning which help me to continue to do the work in an engaged and sacred manner throughout the day. This helps me to get in relationship with matter even when inherently I am more inclined to stay in the world of ideas.

Cleaning and Attitude

The most important element with regard to cleaning your studio is your attitude. If you can find an imaginal relationship with doing the cleaning in your studio your intentions will be 'felt' in a therapeutic way as soon as people enter your space.

A long time ago one of my art therapy students had a dream that all of her sandtray toys were alive, like in the movie Toy Story. I love this image. I work with it on a daily basis, imagining that all of the materials and furniture in my art therapy studio are alive and that in caring for each of them I maintain a relationship with them that is alive. The materials and toys are my co-therapists. By their very nature they assist to draw clients to them, excite their imagination, and guide them to heal what ails them. As I care for them, they respond and remain 'alive' with all the creative potency for healing ignited.

Cleaning and Meditation

My mom spent most of her working life as a cleaner in an auxillary hospital. You can imagine the messes that she had to clean up as the elderly people there lost control of their bodies. You can also imagine where she was in the hierarchy of health professionals as the cleaning woman. Though the doctors and nurses hardly noticed her, when she came home I would hear stories of her relationships with the patients and the stories they told her as she wiped their bedside tables and moved the pictures of their loved ones.

My mother was well grounded in the Catholic faith. She had a knowing, faith and a deep connection to the mysterious part of life. She told me once that in order to keep going on days where she was very tired she would repeat the Hail Mary and prayers as she moved down the long hallways pushing the heavy polishing machine.

I remember this story as I face cleaning a big mess sometimes as an art therapist. When I'm tired or when I don't feel like cleaning I take my mind into a meditation and let my body move to do the physical work. When I simply may not like cleaning I find approaching big jobs with imagination helps. Holding images in our minds can help our bodies moves through time and space doing what is essential to the healing process.

Cleaning and Intention

Cleaning and Metaphor: The Before, the After, and the In-Between

In her book on Studio Art Therapy, Cathy Moon writes about the artistic perspective and notes that not only is it important to approach the actual direct time with the client with an artistic perspective is important to hold that perspective before after and in between when we are art therapists.

This means that we approach setting up the studio space for the client with an artistic eye for metaphor. This means that we clean after a client with an artistic eye for metaphor. This means that we buy materials with an artistic eye for metaphor.

Cleaning as Purification

Cleaning purifies, makes clean what was once dirty.

When I am washing up brushes or toys or paint palettes or hands, either alone or with a client after having done the work, I imagine that I am washing away the issues that we worked with. If I am cleaning alone, either at the end of the day or between sessions I imagine that the energy of the day or the last client is being washed from me bringing me back to center and to myself. I feel that this really helps me to take care of myself and manage the volume of traumatic stories, anger, sadness, pain and anxiety that clients share during their time with me.

Cleaning between clients ensure that no one begins in another person's mess, literally, energetically and symbolically. We each have enough of our own 'mess' to deal with. This prevents "contagion" from happening between clients. What I mean by "contagion'” is best illustrated by example. A client can see another person's images and this sparks their own and they end up being pulled in a direction that they might not have been if the first client's art had been cleaned up and put away before the second client came in.

Cleaning and Energy

I once hired a Feng Shui person to come into my studio to offer tips on how to increase the environment's ability to provide an atmosphere of healing. One of the first things she made me do was "clean and clear". Clutter, she told me, blocks energy from flowing smoothly, one of the most important reasons why you would do Feng Shui. In a therapy office like mine where I work mainly with trauma and loss it becomes crucial to "clean and clear", to have the energy moving freely so that the "heaviness" of the feelings and stories shared can continue to be uplifted. I imagine that it is like opening a window in a stuffy room. Though most of us cannot literally see the despair, hurt, anger, and sadness that is shared in the sanctuary of our studios, most of us definitely feel it. It is also important to recognize what we can do to clean and clear such invisible pain.

I still do my best to clean and clear areas of clutter, paper piles, storage cupboards, etc. I find that doing a big clean before the New Year and once again in the Spring is very helpful to creating a good feeling in the studio. After such a clean there is a palpable feeling of freshness in the studio.

Cleaning and Discovery

In doing clean up after a client leaves I am often amazed at what I discover. These discoveries occur because of the close attention to detail that happens when doing a thorough clean.

Cleaning the sandtray and discovering things that have been buried; putting away art pieces and discovering what was done on the back of the painting; finding objects that clients leave behind (journals, sunglasses, money on the couch); finding 'secret' arrangements of figurines on the shelves. These are examples of discoveries that can be made when paying close attention during the clean up phase. These discoveries inform the therapeutic work with a client.

Are these parts of the client that they wish to remain hidden? Are they secrets? What are they about? Where did you find objects? Do you share your discovery with your client? What do you discover when you track the hidden images over time? Do the images change or remain the same? If the hiding stops, at what point in the therapeutic process did it stop? Does the client bring the image out to share in session? If so, at what point in the therapeutic process does this happen?

Cleaning and Appreciation of 'Mess'

How much we have to clean as art therapists depends on our level of tolerance of mess. I have seen some art therapists who are generous in their limits regarding mess and are quite content to clean even large messes either with or without the client. I have seen others who have very narrow boundaries with regard to mess and how much is allowed in their space.

There is no right or wrong way to work as an art therapist. What you allow will depend on you, your client and the nature of the material you are working with. I have found over the years that it is helpful to identify your own comfort level with mess and how much you are willing to clean. Then it is important to set up your space to assist you to stay in line with your comfort zone. Choosing the population that you work with is also an important consideration.

Cleaning and Children

If you want to work with children as an art therapist then it is important to have some level of appreciation with regard to cleaning. This is particularly true if you want to work with traumatized children or children with conditions like ADD or ADHD. These children often like to explore everything in the playroom. Some will bring all the toys out. Some like to explore with water. Some like to take things off of shelves (sometimes in one fell swoop). If you work with populations like this a little consideration of design can go a long way to guide the child into appropriate behavior. For example, Marie-Jose has all of her sandtray toys behind a curtain and/or behind doors. These can be opened or closed as appropriate for the type of client she is seeing. She also has a special room which is "simpler" for very young children. She is an example of someone who works in relationship with her space in order to provide the best therapy ever.

Cleaning and Client Participation

New art therapists will often ask me if clients should clean up before they go or not. There is no easy answer to this because it depends on what the client is being treated for and what the therapeutic goals are. Sometimes learning to clean up after oneself, or to clean ones own messes, or to know that one has the power to clean up messes from ones past is crucial to the clients healing. Sometimes learning to have someone take care of you or learning to receive help is the goal.

Regardless of whether the client helps you to clean up after the work or not, it is important for art therapists to remember that the clean up that happens after sessions IS part of the therapeutic work, whether it is done by you alone or along with the client. Keeping conscious that the cleaning is part of the therapeutic process will assist you to do it with intention, make meaning in the metaphor and derive the most healing power from this aspect of the therapeutic process that is possible.

Cleaning as a Time of Reflection

Cleaning at the end of session can be a time where you and/or your client relax and where contemplation and reflection on what happened during sessions can happen.

I find this especially valid when washing something under the tap. The sound of the running water, the temperature of the water allow for one to get into a meditative state of mind which facilitates allowing insight. Children will often play in the water at the end and even want to create bubbles after a long session. This allows for a transition time from the heavy "work" of session to a move back to the "real world". It assists to close down the issues that came up in session and prepare the person to go back to their life.

Cleaning as Transition Time

Cleaning is a time where an art therapist or client can move from the intensity, power and force of the "work" stage of the therapeutic process to the next thing. This allows us to close issues that were brought up and allows us to prepare for what comes next in our day.

Cleaning and Beauty

Beauty is a quality that brings much healing. By creating beauty in our studios, as art therapists we provide a milieu in which clients can immerse and absorb feelings like peace and love without a word being said.

It makes a difference if we lovingly reset a couch cover, line up the tissue box, and spray the therapy space before a next client comes in. They will sense the care which we have taken to prepare the space for them.

It makes a difference if our space is cluttered and chaotic to the eye versus organized with smooth lines for our client's eyes to see. Each visual will create different feeling states of harmony, calm, and peace.

The trick is to find just the right balance in a studio of chaos and calm so that client's can sense being held in calm sure hands while at the same time being given permission to go into as much of their personal mess as they need to.

Cleaning and Being 'Green'

As art therapists we tell people about ourselves in the way we approach the environment in our studio. Since ours is a profession where we engage with 'matter' it is wise to take care towards the Earth so that we are contributing to a larger sense of healing while working on the individual level at the same time.

Some of the small things you can do as an art therapist to help on this level include: working with washable dishes rather than paper or Styrofoam products; if you do use paper and/or plastics you can recycle them. Have a paper recycling container in your studio; creatively reuse materials if you can rather than throw them out; unplug appliances when not in use and turn off lights when unnecessary; keep your heat level low and work with area space heaters when possible; work with shades and blinds rather than air conditioning in the hot seasons; have plants in the studio to maximize the air quality; use rags and dish cloths rather than paper products for clean up; recycle plastic egg cartons, magazines, tins, cardboard pieces for use in the studio. Always avoid using toxic materials.

Cleaning and Cleaners

For those of you that know Marie-Jose Dhaese you will know that she has shelves and shelves and shelves of small miniatures for the 3 sandtrays she has (one in white sand, one in black sand and one in brown sand). You will know of the incredible number of beautiful puppets under her stage. You will know that she keeps birds and flowers as part of her garden just outside the playhouse which acts as her studio, which can be accessed through the gnome door. You can now imagine the amount of cleaning that's required in order to present her studio in the pristine shape that she does for each and every one of her clients.

I remember when I first started my internship her telling me about how expensive her cleaning services are and how difficult it is to train cleaners to know how to handle the little figurines.

When you get cleaners it is important that they too have an artistic perspective and recognize that each of the little figurines, toys and art material is alive. It is a very special day indeed when you get a cleaner who creates little stories on the shelf grouping little figurines together so that as they sit on the shelf they enjoyed themselves. Just as the toys in toy story come alive so too it is important as an art therapist to recognize the life within the very tools that we use whether they be sandtray figurines or paintbrushes or easels.

Cleaning and Materials

There are many different philosophies with regard to art materials in art therapy. Whether or not to present clients with broken pastels, for example, is an issue of debate with art therapists on both sides with equally relevant points. Some art therapists present only new and clean chalks and pastels to clients. Even if the materials have been broken with use, these therapists ensure that they are presented in a 'clean' way that is appealing to the eye. To these therapists, the materials that you present to clients are symbolic of how you see their worth. To them, presenting broken, dirty pastels in a box for clients to use (whether it is in your studio or your waiting room) is a metaphor suggesting lack of care, regard and respect.

On the other end of the spectrum are the art therapists who suggest that unless the materials look 'worn' and 'well used' they may ignite blocks in the clients who won't want to really work with them or think that anything that they make needs to be perfect. These art therapists are concerned with presenting too 'perfect' of materials which could be a block to creativity. Also in this school of thought are those who want to ensure that there is no wastage of materials.

Both of these ways of thinking are valid. Regardless of how you present your materials, however, cleaning the materials to ensure basic physical care of clients is important. This includes crayons, brushes, pastels as well as any toys that you have.

Cleaning and Mending Broken Materials

Another basic tenet of Feng Shui is to remove anything broken from the environment and either mend it or get rid of it. This applies in the studio to art materials and tools. For basic safety, energetic and psychological reasons it is important to repair easels, paint brushes, clay utensils and any other tools that clients use in the playroom.

In my studio I put all broken toys and tools in the China Cabinet until such a time as they are repaired. Hurt children coming for therapy often gravitate to this area and will often choose a toy and attempt to "fix" it. In fact, very often if there is something in the studio which is broken which I have not yet become aware of, these children will be the first to find it. Such moments are precious metaphors for direct work on "fixing" a problem. An incredible sense of power and satisfaction happens if an object can actually be fixed.

I remember the story of the matador's bull. A little 5 year old boy pulled the tail off the bull one day. He and his brother spent most of the session trying to fix the tail. In the end they used tape to keep in on. He still looked broken and so he went into the "Magic China Cabinet". Every session when they came back to the playroom they would check to see if I had been able to fix the bull. He was plastic and his tail was very thin. I was not able to fix the bull.

Then one day it was Spring Cleaning time. We brought out all the toys that needed repair to see if there were any we could salvage and which needed to go away. When it came to the bull we just did not have the heart to throw him out. He 'only' had a broken tail we decided, so he went back up on the shelve much to the delight of the matador and the little boys.

Cleaning and Display of Materials

How you display your materials is also a consideration with regard to cleanliness. Do you have materials tucked away in cupboards in order to emphasize a visual clean line? Or do you have materials out in the open to encourage use? Or do you have some balance between the two?

With any three dimensional object, like sandtray toys, you will have to decide whether to display them individually or in baskets. Generally therapists tend to individually display fragile figurines and have more sturdy ones in baskets where they can be whooshed around without fear of damage. Very often, consideration is given to "scary" toys, like monsters and snakes, who are put in containers with lids on them to prevent accidental trauma.

When art materials and toys each have a 'home', a place where they 'live' in the studio and where they can always be found, trust and safety can be immediately communicated to clients who come week after week and begin to know that they can rely on you and that they know exactly where to go in the space to get the tools they need for their recovery.

Cleaning and 'Tools'

Just as art therapists learn to get into relationship with the images that come forth through the materials, it is also important to learn to be in relationship with your cleaning 'tools' in the studio. When we get in relationship with our tools we can make them living works of art that excite the imagination and immediately make cleaning into a sacred ritual.

Whether it is for ourselves, art therapy students or our clients, we want our tools to help to inspire us to clean. We want them to remind us of our intentions whether it is to have fun cleaning, to make the room healthy, to make cleaning a joy or to make cleaning magic on an energy level respecting the fact that there is so much on an invisible level that happens when we clean.

One way to do this is to imbue them with images that help us to remember to keep our artistic perspective when we are doing cleaning before, during and after therapeutic sessions. We did this for the tools that graduate art therapy students worked with at Adler University, Vancouver Campus.

On the broom, dustpan, garbage can, recycling container, refundables container we created images and symbols that served to support transitioning from one state of consciousness to another; to re-energize us when we feel tired or drained; to inspire new thought; to help us reflect on what we are doing or what has happened.

This kind of attitude is a gift for the art therapists, the student art therapists as well as for the clients.

Cleaning and Safety

Physical and psychological safety is an important factor and reason to regard cleaning as a highly important role for the art therapist. Tools that can be dangerous need to be stored safely away. Saws, hammers, nails, pins, staplers, glass containers, etc. need to be tended to carefully to avoid accidents.

In general, it is recommended that art therapists work with non-toxic and natural materials in their healing environment. Powder paint that can be inhaled and turn into paint in one's lungs is discouraged. Work with clay, because of the dust that can be inhaled and which will turn to clay in the lungs is also to be done carefully. Any firing of clay work with glazes needs to be done in a studio which is properly ventilated. Cleaners of a toxic nature need to be stored properly and locked up. In fact, it is recommended that all cleaners used in a studio be of a non-toxic nature.

Cleaning as Loving

Recently, as Marie-Jose Dhaese gets older she talks to me about her concerns with regard to where all of her toys will go when she's no longer in her physical body. Indeed, this is a unique problem for art, play and expressive therapists. We spend our careers collecting the specific tools we need and caring for them lovingly. Who inherits our tools when we go? Where does our our favorite easel or our favorite paintbrush go? And what about our collections of puppets that helped so many children? And where do all of our sandtray figures go?

I am reminded of the movie Toy Story when I think of the lives of our co-therapists, the dolls, animals, stuffies, blankets, clay tools, sculpting tools. This type of image helps me to remember the spirit and soul of all creations, including my co-therapists, the materials I work with.

The images in my playroom/studio are as alive as the images that we create on paper and with clay. To hold such an imagination helps me bring a different energy to my work, to how I clean them and where I place them in the work environment. I am in relationship with the materials and toys in my environment as much as I am in relationship with the images created through them and with their help. This is why I say goodbye to them at the end of the day as I leave the studio.

Sometimes when a figure is not in its regular "home" I will ignite this imagination for the client and wonder "Now I wonder where that dog can be?" "I wonder what he has been up to all night?" I make a note of where I find that dog and let myself wonder about the metaphor inherent in it all. For example, if I find the dog sleeping beside the cat!

We imbue our toys and materials with Spirit when we recognize that matter is alive and has a particular energy or life force in it.

One time Marie-Jose told me that she thought that the energy might go out of her toys when she leaves her physical body because she won't be there to love them anymore. I like to imagine that she will continue loving them even when she takes bodiless form and that the Universe will ensure that they move to just the right place where they can continue to be loved and to assist in the work of healing others.

Cleaning and Appreciation

Cleaning is a great time to appreciate all that you have, are able to experience and are able to witness. Recite an appreciation list as you clean and you can help lift yourself back to broader frequencies and a healthy state of mind.


To conclude, let'’s go back to the title of this presentation and take some time now to have a conversation about cleaning in art therapy. Let's keep the intentions of a conversation going as we end: to talk informally/ to exchange views.


"Cleaning up is an important aspect of image making. It provides a transition from the deep involvement and restores a sense of equilibrium and safety." – Pat Alan, Art Therapist -

"Whether I'm positioning chairs in a circle, arranging brushes and paint jars, placing canvases on easels, or taping blank paper to the wall, my actions help me focus on what will come. These actions assist my process of preparatory emptying, letting go of outside distractions, and opening up to clients." - Bruce Moon, Artist/Therapist -

"In the same way at the end of sessions after clients leave the studio I participate in rituals of closure: cleaning brushes, scraping paint smears from the table, scouring the sink and sweeping the floor. These actions provide a transitional experience through which I shift from the intensity of client encounters to the reality of my own day. As paint and water swirl into the drain and chalk dust and paper scraps are emptied from the dustpan to the wastebasket, I participate in a ritual of letting go." - Bruce Moon, Artist/Therapist -

"Invest just a little bit more when buying cleaning supplies in order to make your life more enjoyable. The mundane can be creative and enjoyable if you have the right attitude." – Ruth Skutezky -


Alan, P. (1995). Art is a way of knowing. London: Shambhala.

Moon, B. (2007). The role of metaphor in art therapy: Theory, method, and experience. USA: Charles C Thomas.

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