Maria Gonzalez-Blue on Person-Centered Expressive Arts Therapy

Maria Gonzalez-Blue on Person-Centered Expressive Arts Therapy

by Victor Yalom
An expressive arts therapist discusses the person-centered foundations of her work, and recounts transformative experiences with individual clients as well as in groups and international settings.


Get Endless Inspiration and
Insight from Master Therapists,
Members-Only Content & More


Formula for Compassion

Victor Yalom: Maria, as I understand it you’re a person-centered expressive arts therapist. A good place to begin would be to ask you, what is person-centered expressive arts therapy?
Maria Gonzalez-Blue: I'll start with what the person-centered approach is, because that's the foundation. Expressive arts then becomes a tool that's been integrated into the person-centered approach, which was, of course, defined by Carl Rogers. The person-centered approach is based on the humanistic principle that, within every organism, there is an innate movement that will always move that organism towards it greatest potential, if it's given a nurturing environment where that potential can grow. The nurturing environment was defined by Carl Rogers as one that includes the elements of empathy, congruence, and unconditional positive regard.
VY: Carl Rogers is certainly well known by our readers and he's had an enduring influence in our field and in many fields to this day. We’ve just been doing some work with Sue Johnson in emotionally focused therapy, and she gives a lot of credit to Carl Rogers. We’ve also just been filming some videos on motivational interviewing, which also has strong Rogerian roots. What, for you, are the essential components of Rogers’s person-centered approach that you hold near and dear to your heart as you teach and as you work with clients?
MG: I see his emphasis on empathy and unconditional positive regard as a formula for compassion. It requires therapists to consider those things any time they sit before clients, students, or other individuals. If I enter a session knowing that I want to bring these elements in, it forces me to bring them home to myself, as well. I have found that it becomes a way of life and makes you a better person, because you're always conscious of when you're not being empathic or when you're being judgmental.

In my work, what I've seen is that when you listen to someone truly carefully, instead of listening to your own ideas and expectations—when you set all judgments aside, incredible things happen. People contact information that's long been repressed. It seems a simple thing, but I find it has a profound effect on an individual to be listened to with such caring. 

The Intention of Tolerance

VY: Coinciding with the publication of this interview, we're releasing on video an interview that Carl Rogers did in the '80s. When discussing these concepts, he clarified his conception of unconditional positive regard. He said something along the lines of, "It's not that we can always achieve unconditional positive regard, but it's fortunate when we can have that with our clients."
MG: Right. And that's what I tell my students all the time: what's important is to hold that intention. Certainly we're human beings—we're judgmental. If we can simply go into an environment with that intention, that is far reaching.
VY: I think that's an important clarification, because otherwise, people can hear that and think it's Pollyannaish. It's an impossible ideal to attain. As you say, we're human. We have our judgments. We have different feelings for our clients and for different people in our lives.
MG: We have to start with tolerance. I think this is why I am so dedicated to this process, because I feel we need this so much in the world. You can at least start with tolerance.
I don't think it's necessary to accept or condone everything and everyone you meet in a session. But you can keep in mind that somewhere in that organism, there is a desire towards growth.
I don't think it's necessary to accept or condone everything and everyone you meet in a session. But if you can keep in mind that somewhere in that organism, there is a desire towards growth, then that's the part that we as person-centered therapists hold: that seed in there that wants to move towards wholeness. Accepting that that is there requires trust and faith on the part of the therapist. And if the therapist can hold trust and faith, then that can affect how clients feel about themselves. If you as a therapist aren't judging them, then maybe their own self-judgments can start falling away.

Not Just Parroting Back: Reflecting as Witnessing

VY: Another one of the core techniques of this person-centered approach that I think has had a vast influence but also been misunderstood is this idea of reflection—repeating back what the client says. Some people have made fun of this as parroting or being too mechanical. What are your thoughts on that?
MG: That mirroring back of language, for people who haven't really experienced it or been part of it, is often seen as mocking the individual. But that's really not the case. Reflecting back the language that a client is using can also be useful, but we don't always use the same exact words. Often, as clients are rattling off issues, problems, and feelings, they'll say something that they've never said before; in their sharing, they're coming to insights, they're making connections without knowing they're making connections. If you, as a therapist, can reflect back what you're hearing, then those connections that are being made come to consciousness. Clients are speaking from a kind of flow of consciousness, and
I like to see myself as a mirror that's reflecting back the wholeness that I see in them.
I like to see myself as a mirror that's reflecting back the wholeness that I see in them. So that reflection is really important.

What's also important is that you want to understand. Part of being empathic in Carl Rogers's process is to see clients' experience from their own worldviews. If you can really hold that idea that you want to understand, it's also a way of saying, "Is this what I'm hearing you say?" And that gives them a chance to say, "No, that's not it." But, if they realize that that's not it, then that gives them a frame of reference of what might it be. It's a stepping stone.
VY: Right; as clients talk, they'll say things they didn't even know existed inside them. And of course, that's always the goal in any kind of therapy—that people will discover new things about themselves. If they're repeating things that they already know, then not much new is happening.
MG: Exactly. It's like the therapist is walking through the woods side by side with the client, discovering things together. There's something about that witnessing that can ground those new discoveries in a way that people can't really do on their own.
VY: That's a nice image. I've seen videos of Carl work and, of course, many other master therapists from different orientations. And what comes through is not his technique or the words he utters. Instead, you get a such strong sense of him really being with clients, listening deeply, committed to hearing and understanding them. I think it's the intention. It's the spirit of it, rather than the words that come out, that really is profound.
MG: And for many people, this has never happened. Even your best friends, and particularly family members, have all kinds of biases. They know you as this certain person. Sometimes your best friends want to help you, so they give you advice that may have worked for them, but may not work for you. But when you want to hear your clients, when you want to really see their worldviews and understand them, something shifts.

The Blank Page: Exploring the Unknown with Art

VY: Tell me about the expressive art component and how that is integrated into the person-centered approach.
MG: We just talked about a client discovering buried material, stepping into unknown material that strikes a surface, which is a good segue. Often, clients who enter therapy are approaching unknown territory. Either they've left a job or a relationship, or their life doesn't feel right anymore, so they know what's not working, but they don't know what's ahead.

The blank page, whether it's in visual art or movement, is a great way to enter this unknown material. Art is really the language of the unconscious; it allows symbols to come forth. People make discoveries of potential and understanding, which become new resources to enter this unknown material. I believe that there's a time and place for everything, so I'm not critical of any therapies. But talk therapy has its limits; art does not. It can be limitless. It can also be contained.
VY: I should add at this point that person-centered expressive arts therapy was developed by Natalie Rogers, Carl's daughter, who's a psychologist and psychotherapist in her own right, as well as an artist. And I know you've worked and trained with her professionally over many decades.
MG: Yes, we've worked substantially together, we've taught together, and we've played together. And what Natalie really brought in to weave those two things together was what she came to call the "Creative Connection." It's actually an intermodal process where we work with different modalities in sequence. A person might be exploring an issue through a visual arts piece. We don't diagnose or interpret art; instead, we ask the artist to explain what came through as a feeling, what is in the art that he or she wants to discuss.
The art doesn't have to be analyzed or intepreted. It's an image that has its own language.
The art doesn't have to be analyzed or intepreted. It's an image that has its own language. So the work is processed through listening, really respecting what the artist has to say about it. If the client wants reflections that a therapist might have, I might add something that I sense in the art without trying to analyze it—maybe noting the energy or the color, the person's body language in the making of it. I like to observe body language; sometimes you can tell energy is moving through.
VY: When you say artist, of course, you're just referring to a client who's engaged in the expressive arts process.
MG: The person who made the art.
VY: Yes. I don't want to our readers to think that only artists can be involved in expressive art therapy.
We are all artists of our own lives.
We are all artists of our own lives. Expressive arts therapy is not looking for an end product, necessarily. It's really about the process and what comes through in doing the art.

Introducing Expressive Arts into Sessions

VY: Can you say how you use art? As you said, people are often going through changes. They're talking about concerns in their lives, some situational issue or an emotional reaction to that, feeling depressed or anxious. How do you go about introducing the expressive arts into a session?
MG: Pretty early on, I observe the client. I bring my intuition into my sessions. I watch body language. Let's say I have a client who is really kinesthetic, moving a lot while she's talking, making certain gestures—for example, she's talking about an issue, and she keeps putting her hand on her heart or keeps holding a part of her body. I might ask her if she'd be open to movement work. And whenever I introduce anything, I do it with a lot of asking permission, asking how it feels, so she doesn't feel like they're being directed. But she's given the opportunity, the invitation, to explore something.
VY: One of the other names of the Rogerian approach is non-directive therapy.
MG: Exactly. And what's important about that is that it makes clients ultimately responsible for their own processes. So I might ask if she would feel comfortable just holding that posture for a bit. Often what happens is the client may hold that gesture, perhaps holding her heart. And then I see more come into it—maybe her shoulders lift up, her facial expression might change. So I say, "If it feels right, why don't you go with that movement and see if there's more there?" And that's a subtle invitation to enter a movement process.
VY: And how might that evolve? A client might get up and move around or dance?
MG: She might get up and move around. She might move where she's sitting. And if a client feels shy, sometimes I say, "Would you feel more comfortable if I move with you?" Because the body has its own wisdom. What's happening here is that we're tapping the body's wisdom to help inform the person, maybe of something that's repressed, or something that really wants to come alive. Then I just might check in and say, "What's going on? What do you want to share about that movement?" At that point, people can easily start describing what they're feeling, what they're understanding. Sometimes they have their whole stories come forth. It's like opening a door into the body.
VY: So, in this case, movement might in turn elicit some emotional reaction or some image or ideas that then they'll go back and process verbally?
MG: That gives them better understanding. They might process it verbally. If there's time, they could do some freewriting. And I might suggest making some quick "I am" statements to see what comes. It also could go into some art—whatever the client is feeling. I'll usually have chalk pastels and oil pastels. I'll ask, "Would you like to take a color and see if you can draw that shape, or just see what comes through?"

There's so much happening when you tap this deeper language. Using pastels has been a really successful way to draw shapes, draw feelings. Sometimes I start my workshops by having people draw their breath going in and out, and it's such a abstract concept that no one has to feel that there's a right or wrong way to do it.
VY: I've seen Natalie say, "Would you like to work with color?" And my sense is that that's a way of de-emphasizing that this has to be some artistic creation. It's more just an experience of taking some colors and playing with them.
MG: Yes, it's very much a meditation. In fact, I use the word "scribble" a lot. I tell people, "When we're done, you can just throw this away. It doesn't have to be put up in an art gallery somewhere." It's really about what's happening when clients go into the stillness to just be with themselves in the process, but with me as a witness.
VY: Just so our readers can get a better idea, can you give an example of how this is used in individual therapy?
MG: I have a new client, and this client is an artist. It's funny; I work with all people that are creative, and people come from all different walks of life. But I typically don't work with artists. We talked for a while; she's had some major changes in her life, and she was feeling a block from her artwork.

I talk with clients, too. It's not like it's all expressive arts. In fact, in some cases I may not bring the arts into it if it doesn't feel relevant at the moment, or if it doesn't feel in the flow. But in this case, I asked her if she would like to do some artwork before she went further to her issues. I had her work with pastels. I had her, first of all, just look at the colors and see if there was a color that she was attracted to start with. I let her know, "This does not have to be an art piece. This is a process." I always try to make that clear.

And what unfolded was that she drew aspects of her life in very basic, rudimentary forms. And there were some surprises already, in what she saw there. This was after she came with the issue of block in her artwork. Then we turned to process a little bit more, her sharing her story, which I won't go into. I listened to her carefully. As she talked, she was able to make some discoveries of elements of her life connecting to ongoing issues that she was aware of.

I had her do a second piece towards the end, and the interesting thing was that she was drawn to all the same colors, but this time in her drawing, everything seemed connected, whereas before they had seemed to be these small, disconnected pieces on the paper. Now there seemed to be flow—all the same colors, but everything seemed integrated. You could see movement. A change had happened, and it's not something that's easy to articulate. But using the arts, she could see it. And she could feel it in her body.
It's not something you can read in a book. You can explain details, but until you feel the changes firsthand, you don't get it fully.

Like you say, it's hard to articulate a lot of this because so much is happening at the cellular level, the emotional level. I think all of us who facilitate the person-centered approach have felt like it's not something you can read in a book. You can explain details, but until you actually live it, experience it, and feel the changes firsthand, you don't get it fully.
VY: Coinciding with this interview, we're publishing a video (LINK) of Natalie working with a client for two sessions. Having a chance to watch that, I certainly got a clear sense of the power of this approach, and how shifts can happen in a short amount of time.
MG: And what I have noticed is that the shifts tend to stick. I'm still in touch with students I had long ago from our training program, or past clients. Person-centered therapy can help to build that self-trust and the trust in the natural movement towards growth. I really try to encourage my clients to know this, and I think that it helps life changes to be healthy ones.

Using Art in Groups

VY: Natalie's first book on this topic was The Creative Connection, and I know she just recently published a follow-up to that, The Creative Connection For Groups. I know you also work with groups. Do any examples of work you've done recently pop to mind?
MG: There's a group process that really stays in my mind, where I saw the profound effect of person-centered and expressive arts therapy. I was doing a seven-day training program. What we like to do is invite feedback every day. It always feels like a bit of a risk to open yourself to feedback, but I find that it's really important because people need to feel that they're safe and that whatever they're feeling or going through is okay and a process.

So I was doing a training, and during a morning feedback session on our second or third day, something arose between two women. It was something about a transportation conflict; one of them was very upset that the other hadn't waited for her at the airport. I said, "Let's go ahead and take some time," and asked people to say how they felt, without blaming, if they could. That's not always possible.

But the people in the training were versed enough in the person-centered approach that they were open to hearing whatever needed to be said. Both these people spoke, and then a couple other people started speaking. The conversation got quite heated. I let it go for a little bit, and then I intervened and said, "I'd like to make a group agreement, because many people are not involved in this conversation. It's important for you to express how you're feeling. But I know there are people who also want to do some work. So can we put a time limit on it?"

So we compromised, and the conversation continued about transportation and what one person said and the other person said. At some point I said, "Okay. The time is up. Do you want to keep going, or shall we do some art?" And, of course, all the other people said, "Let's just do art." So I laid out a huge mural sheet and put on some music that was kind of driven, because I could tell there was a lot of heat in the conversation. We got out paint, and people started just drawing on this mural.

And as a witness of this process, I could see the energy shifting. At first, the drawing people were doing was kind of intense and stark, big. But by the end, people were starting to write poems, affirmations about themselves and their desires. Some spontaneous singing started happening. By the end of that process, I could feel that everything had shifted.

Ultimately, what I know is that in a process like that, those surface feelings that come up are not about the people themselves, but about inner issues that people are grappling with. And to give it space to be there is really, really important.

Collectively, we like to hide that negativity, hide our anger, come to the table with a smile. But something really beautiful happens in the community when people are allowed to be "negative" in a group and have that held—when you see that that's okay and no one's judging you for having those feelings.

The next morning when we had our check-in, it was totally different. People were sharing personal feelings about their woundings and discoveries, but it had nothing to do with the group anymore. So it's really very amazing to see.
VY: Are you suggesting that people may have an easier time expressing some negative feelings through expressive arts than they might be able to put into words?
MG: Yes, because a lot of times the words can be hurtful, or the words aren't even there. It's just this strong energy moving through the body. If you can put that into some artwork, it becomes a creative fire. You can move that strong energy through and see what's underneath it. And that's exactly what happened with that group process.

Building Bridges: Art in International Group Work

VY: You've trained a lot internationally and you've cofounded an expressive center. Is it in Argentina?
MG: That's right, in Buenos Aires. We have person-centered programs now in many countries.
VY: Any thoughts or comments about doing this work internationally?
MG: The beauty of the person-centered approach is that it lends itself to meet any group, any culture, exactly where it is. You design any program you do towards who you're working with. I don't go in with a structured program. I have a sense of where we might go, but it's always fluid. So with every culture, first I get to know the culture. I hear from them. I hear what they might need.

In Argentina, I knew a little bit about the background of a violent dictatorship in the '70s. So I went into that culture with a lot of humility. What I found was that the culture needed a very tight structure in the beginning. Everything needed to be on time. I needed to be perhaps more directive than I usually am. That just meant that if we were working with a certain modality, I would try to keep everybody with a certain modality, whereas working in an environment where there's already a lot of trust, I might just say, "Whatever modality you want to work with, you can."

But, what I found in Argentina was I needed to hold a tighter structure at first to develop trust. It's a culture that hasn't been able to trust their government in the past, so self-trust then comes into question. The beauty was that their hearts were so tender and beautiful that by the end of the ten-day program, everyone wanted to come back. Everyone wanted to go deeper into the work.

The person-centered approach really has a potential to bring great things into our planet, to bridge cultures.
The biggest thing that I want to underline in working with other cultures is that I think the person-centered approach really has a potential to bring great things into our planet, to bridge cultures. I think it's really important as a way of being with cultures that's accepting, that can bridge us into healthier places.
VY: It seems the arts are an international language. Have you had a chance much to work with groups of people from different cultures in the same group?
MG: Yes. In fact, CIIS (California Institute of Integral Studies) is very multicultural. The art becomes the universal language then. A closeness happens with these groups. What happens in group process is it's almost like they start dreaming together when the art images start to appear. After the group has been together for a while, these same symbols end up appearing within the group as if they've just had the same dream. It's a wonderful bridge.

© 2012, LLC.
Order CE Test
$15.00 or 1.00 CE Point
Earn 1.00 Credits
Buy Now

*Not approved for CE by Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB)

CE Test
Maria Gonzalez-Blue Maria Gonzalez-Blue, MA, REAT, REACE, is an Associate Professor at California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco, CA, where she teaches Person-Centered Expressive Arts Therapy. She was on the core faculty of the Person-Centered Expressive Therapy Institute (PCETI) from 1991 to its closing in 2005 where she worked closely with founder, Natalie Rogers. Maria co-founded PCETI Argentina in Buenos Aires and also taught in Mexico and Guatemala. She is in private practice in Sebastopol, CA, as an expressive arts therapist and creative arts consultant/educator.
Victor Yalom Victor Yalom, PhD is the founder and resident cartoonist of He maintained a busy private practice in San Francisco for over 25 years, but now sees only a few clients, devoting the bulk of his time to creating new training videos for He has produced over 100 videos, conducted workshops in existential-humanistic and group therapy in the US, Mexico, and China, and currently leads consultation groups for therapists.  More info on Victor and his artwork and sculpture at

CE credits: 1

Learning Objectives:

  • Discuss how person-centered principles create the foundation for expressive arts therapy
  • Explain the process of introducing expressive arts into a therapy session
  • Apply expressive arts therapy to individual, group, and multicultural work

Articles are not approved by Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) for CE. See complete list of CE approvals here