Art Therapy Summer School in Cork ‘feeds the soul’

Leading art therapists will deliver this year’s Art Therapy Summer School at the Crawford College of Art and Design, writes COLETTE SHERIDAN
Art Therapy Summer School in Cork ‘feeds the soul’

Stephen Millar taken at Belfast Pride 2019/

THIS year’s Art Therapy Summer School, organised by the Crawford College of Art and Design (July 1-5), will be facilitated by a number of leading art therapists, including Stephen Millar from Belfast, who won the Turner Prize in 2021 as part of the Array Collective in the city.

Stephen, who works with primary school children in West Belfast, says that while the summer school is primarily aimed at art therapists, it is also for people that might have an interest in learning about the discipline.

“They may want to pursue art therapy as a career, they may want further training, or they might just have an interest in what the arts can do in terms of healing and mental health in general,” he said.

Using art as a vehicle can give rise to different conversations.

“It takes our minds to different places and changes the narrative so we can talk about the work we’ve made,” explained Stephen.

“That takes clients on a journey to have conversations about their experience that they would never otherwise have.”

While art therapists, who need a masters to practise, don’t have to have a background in art, Stephen says it’s helpful to have a background “or at least an interest in the arts. There are art therapists who don’t have formal training in the arts. Some come from psychology backgrounds or different caring backgrounds.”

Some people might feel discouraged from availing of art therapy, saying they’re no good at art. But that’s not the point. As Stephen points out, the primary goal of creating a piece of art in art therapy sessions is not the finished product.

“It’s not about creating an aesthetically pleasing piece of work per se, but using art materials to express yourself, to engage with them. It’s about encouraging people, whether it’s adults or children, to play with the materials. It removes the pressure of the idea of a finished piece of art. That’s all secondary.

“That thing of saying ‘I can’t draw’ kind of gets drummed into you at an early age. Everyone can draw. Everyone can make marks or create an abstract piece of art. Encouragement is key. The role of the art therapist is to give people permission to play,” said Stephen.

Children can be “a wee bit more open to playing with art materials,” he added.

“It can take a bit of time for adults to break down the idea that they have to make the perfect picture. That’s the opposite of what we’re doing.”

At the Art Therapy Summer School, Stephen’s workshops will focus on the experience of working collaboratively.

“I do that in my own practice with my colleagues in the Array Collective. I’ll be explaining the fundamentals of art therapy and encouraging the group to work together.

“We live in a society but we live very individually, so we will be looking at common causes, things that impact everybody in modern day society.

“We’ll figure out how we can make creative changes or how we can consider working creatively together, to lead to positive change. It will be about participants finding their own voices.” The summer school poses the questions: How do we use our voices? How do we make ourselves heard? How do we tell our stories with authenticity and make sure they are heard empathetically? And how do we allow ourselves to hear the stories of others?

Consideration will be given to how these questions can be approached in the art therapy room and in wider society. Stephen’s workshop will explore how historical and mythological characters and objects not only tell a story of our collective histories but can be used to tell contemporary stories.

Participants will be encouraged to explore historical or mythological characters and develop them in a way that tells their story. They will be introduced to creative and theoretical approaches to working with trauma throughout the sessions.

As Stephen says, we have all experienced a recent global trauma and we’re now in a post-Covid society, having moved very quickly into it. He is hugely disappointed that funding has been withdrawn from the post-Covid fund, Healthy Happy Minds, that ensured primary school children in the north would have access to therapy provision.

“It means that thousands of children will be affected.”

On a brighter note, Stephen says the Art Therapy Summer School will be “great craic” as it encourages playfulness. But if traumatic issues are brought up by individuals, “we’re there to contain that and help people explore and work through trauma. But that doesn’t mean that things have to be very heavy all the time.”

The broad theme of the Art Therapy Summer School is internal and external connection. It promises to “feed your heart and the soul as well as your head,” according to the organisers.

“The most profound element of the experience is the experiential workshops. The workshop groups are of approximately 12 participants and the membership of each group stays constant over the event to allow trust to grow. The group facilitators are skilled in supporting the creativity of each individual and the group as a whole.

The group becomes a place where everyone can experience the powerful process of being witness and being witnessed. As the journey unfolds, the shared experience inevitably generates a camaraderie that is hard to put into words... Absolutely no art making experience is necessary. Every mark that is made will be honoured. All aspects of ourselves that come out to play will be welcomed.”

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