by Amy Hautman Bates
I can easily draw a family tree, but in Family Art Therapy class we made 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:
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.
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. 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.