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Artist Trading Cards (ATCs): Promoting Connection through Self-Expression

by Lauren Fallat, LPC LPAT ATR-BC

The incorporation of artist trading cards in the field of art therapy has grown within the past decade and continues to promote an effective alternative to traditional verbal expression through the use of imagery and symbolism. Artist trading cards were introduced to the creative art world by the Swiss artist M. Vänçi Stirnemann in 1997, in which Stirnemann created 2.5 in. × 3.5 in. cards for a performance art exhibition and encouraged attendees to trade their cards with him and each other. The artist created a collaborative art exchange that continues, on a collective level, to promote and represent healthy expression, self-reflection, connection, joy, belonging and inspiration.

So, what are artist trading cards exactly? These cards are miniature art pieces that contain images, symbols, words, colors, textures, lines and layers contained on a playing card sized paper. They can be created using any medium you like, from drawing and painting to collage and photography, and they can be as simple or complex as you like. The imagery and symbolism used on the cards are individual to the creator and these cards may be spontaneous art creations or intentional works based on specific themes- such as emotions, current thoughts, values, hopes, dreams, inspirations, challenges or lived experiences.

The size of the cards are ideal for individuals who would like to make a series of artworks that reflect different aspects of what they are feeling or thinking, or for those that like to focus on the small details. These cards are also ideal for individuals who have difficulty expressing themselves to others, as it can be a helpful first step in promoting connection and a sense of belonging when cards are shared or traded with others. There is no need for previous artistic experience, as you can apply images from magazines, old calendars or newspaper clippings, attach embellishments, such as flattened beads, jewels or buttons, overlap decorative papers, and add stamp designs.

For a therapeutic experience, one might choose to create cards based on specific needs or values, such as a card that represents and explores the concepts of acceptance, self-compassion, or companionship. One might choose to create a collection of cards with each one representing a different emotion and how one experiences that emotion. These cards might also reflect words of comfort or hope during difficult times of loss or transition. These cards have the potential to tell a story or create a new narrative that has yet to be uncovered or explored and this can be especially important when we are feeling stuck. Allow the artwork in the cards to point you towards the direction of your emotional needs.

If you would like to create these cards at home, I recommend that you cut out a few cards of the same size and gather materials that you can easily access during the time that you choose to work on the activity. Gather drawing materials, collage materials and attachment materials (such as tape or glue). You may choose to create backgrounds for each one using watercolors, paints or decorative papers or wrapping paper. Feel free to overlap and layer different elements together and add words using fortune cookie messages, quotes, song lyrics or anything else that inspires you.

Article cited in this blog:

Marta Garrett (2015) Using Artist Trading Cards as an Expressive Arts Intervention in Counseling, Journal of Creativity in Mental Health, 10:1, 77-88, DOI: 10.1080/15401383.2014.914455

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