Mapping out Family Systems with Oil Painting – Genogram Project

January 26, 2014 at 8:49 pm 2 comments

Genogram Oil Painting

Genogram Oil Painting

I can easily draw a family tree, but in Family Art Therapy class we are making genograms to explain our relationships with our families. Many people can map out their family systems with an assortment of boxes and lines and symbols. Here is what a typical genogram looks like:

Freud's Genogram

Freud’s Genogram

I tried this method.  But I could not fit my family in boxes, at all! Maybe it is boundary issues, or lack of roles in a chaotic system. Or maybe it was my not wanting to label anyone as anything. But I tried. I made boxes and moved them around for weeks, never finding an arrangement that made sense.

Then, while hiking one day, I came upon a ridge topped with jagged dark iron rich boulders carved with ancient petroglyphs. Primitive symbols of humans, birds, spirals and crosses were etched in the sun facing surfaces. Some were clear and some were faded and vague. Studying the shapes and thinking about the history of the place, I looked out over the hills and wondered how many people had stood in this very spot, contemplating life– and how they fit in it.placitas petroglyph

These marks of history, carved in stone, were the inspiration for my genogram.  I started this painting with an ochre base and then laid a dark patina over the entire canvas. I wiped off a circle of burnt umber to reveal myself as a golden sun shedding light on the family system I know.  Then, scratching into the surface, figures began to emerge. In the shadows of the upper left is my grandpa Smed, a colorful character who died of cirrhosis.

Grandpa Smed

Grandpa Smed

But I wanted to show more than a dead alcoholic patriarch. So I gave him a jester quality to convey his humor and his importance.  Characters began to appear on the canvas, in abstract form, quite fitting for the way I knew them. At the bottom of the canvas are my two children.  They are portrayed as neutral and whole. I didn’t want to smear them with red, or aqua representing prevalent issues in our clan. I’d like to think, that awareness will make the intergenerational toxins less potent for them.

Family trees are all about facts around birth, death, marriages and children. Genograms are about relationships. That gave me much more room to lay it out in a personal and subjective way. I painted my family as I experienced it.  No one can argue with that.


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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Lucy Barbera, PhD, LCAT  |  January 27, 2014 at 8:13 pm

    This is really compelling, Amy, you found a metaphor that resonated with you personally. As an Creative Arts Therapy Educator, I utilize metaphor is an ally to bring meaning to all of the “exercises”, processes, and facilitation skills I am hoping to teach and inspire.

  • […] Painting by Amy Hautman Bates. See more of here work on her webpage Artist and Art Therapy […]


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AUTHOR Amy Hautman Bates M.A, LPCC, ATR-BC

After being a professional painter for 30 years, I broadened by scope from making art for personal edification to using art to promote health and healing in the world. I work as an Art Therapist with children and families in Santa Fe, New Mexico, witnessing  them tap into their creative energy to gain greater emotional stability, resiliency and peace.

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