Art Therapy Summer School in Cork marks 30th anniversary with special exhibition

An exhibition runs in Fitzgerald’s Park this month to mark the 30th anniversary of the Art Therapy Summer School. COLETTE SHERIDAN caught up with one of the art therapists showcasing her work
Art Therapy Summer School in Cork marks 30th anniversary with special exhibition

Art therapist Aideen Cooney who is among those showcasing their work 

FACILITATING the exploration of one’s inner world and expressing it through art therapy is what art therapist Aideen Cooney does with her clients.

Now, Aideen, along with three other art therapists, is exhibiting her own art work at the Lord Mayor’s Pavilion in Fitzgerald’s Park for the month of July. The exhibition, entitled Sailing the Riptide, marks the 30th annual Art Therapy Summer School which took place at the beginning of this month. It is presented by Sample-Studios in partnership with MTU’s summer school.

Sample-Studios, with MTU Crawford’s department of arts in health and education, invited the lecturers and facilitators of the Art Therapy Summer School to show their own work.

Additionally, the studio is presenting a pop-up exhibition of watercolours by Ukrainian artist, Tetiana Milshyna, who fled her native country when the war broke out. She brought some of her own watercolours with her. The exhibition is an extension of Sample-Studios residency programme for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants.

Aideen has just completed her first year lecturing on the Masters in Art Therapy programme at MTU Crawford. As she explains, art therapy is a specialised form of psychotherapy using visual art mediums such as clay, paint, textiles, drawing materials and natural found objects. Craft work is also one of mediums.

“The aim of art therapy is to address whatever issues prompted the person to attend art therapy in the first place. It could be anxiety or low mood, depression, body image issues, bereavement or addiction.

“We work in a wide variety of settings where there is a mental health intervention, such as a psychiatric hospital, mental health services and hospices.”

Aideen, who works in the hospice in the Milford Care Centre in Limerick two days a week, says that the process involves providing materials for the client in a studio-type set up.

“We might have a chat first. The invitation is for the person to explore. It’s very client-led.”

Art therapy is for everyone.

“You don’t need any art experience. We have certain ways to facilitate the person to start working with the art materials. If they come to us specifically for something like bereavement, they may not have the words to fully express what it is they’re going through. We might suggest using some of the materials to give a face to or to create an image around what they’re experiencing.

“At the hospice, we would do legacy work. That would be when patients are dying and they feel they want to make something to leave behind for their families.

“Or it could be that they have a fear of dying and just want to get that out on a page. We work with metaphor and find language around emotions such as feeling sad or worried.”

Do clients feel self-conscious about expressing themselves through art?

“If we do our job properly, they won’t feel that. Part of our training is to create a safe space for the client. It really doesn’t matter if you just want to draw a dot on paper. We’re very much process-led.”

Aideen says that most art therapists have a visual arts practice themselves. The exhibition is “to give us space to reflect on working through Covid as therapists, going through this collective trauma and seeing how our arts practice was informed by it.”

Art therapists who do the training don’t have to come from a fine art background.

“I don’t. I’m a self-taught artist and I do some practice as an artist. We would have people coming to the training who might be teachers or nurses. We’ve had one or two doctors training over the years. Also, psychologists and psychotherapists, and we always have a strong presence from the fine art background as well.

“Whether you come from a fine art background or not, most art therapists will have some type of art practice because I think it’s important for us to be engaged in that process, while working with and facilitating somebody else. The more aligned you are with (art), the more in tune you are with it.”

Aideen is exhibiting abstract paintings, a landscape and two sculptural pieces at the Lord Mayor’s Pavilion. The other art therapists in the exhibition are Aoife Ní Labhradha (who studied fine art at the Crawford) and works in drug and alcohol services. There’s Ed Kucjaz, former chairperson of the Irish Association of Creative Art Therapists. And there’s Gerry Lee who gave a lecture at the summer school on neuro-scientific theory on art therapy used with children and young people.

Describing her art work, Aideen says it’s “definitely expressive and quite textured. It’s a release for me. 

"I can’t say what I’m exactly thinking or name a specific emotion or feeling. But I think art is quite an intuitive process for me. And because of the work I do, it’s an outlet for me.”

As part of the training to become an art therapist, Aideen had to attend therapy sessions herself.

“Once you’re qualified, you have a supervisor. It’s all confidential. I certainly dip in and out of therapy for myself. It’s kind of like a life journey.”

Aideen originally studied social sciences at University College Dublin.

“From the social sciences, I had always worked in the area of social care. I travelled and have worked with kids in India with the Edith Wilkins Foundation. I did six months there. With the language barrier, I found that working with the kids through art got me through all that. It was my first experience seeing how the creative process can be a visual language as a form of communication. I think that was the start of me exploring my own creativity.

“I found my way into the Art Therapy Summer School and started attending an art therapist myself. I applied for a certificate course in art therapy. It’s recommended that before you apply for the masters, you should get as much art therapy experience as possible. I did that and went on to do the masters.”

Clocking up lots of experience, Aideen worked as an art therapist in Capetown after she qualified.

“I worked there with a community art therapy programme. I worked with the Red Cross in a children’s hospital in the children’s palliative care team. I worked in the townships as well. I ran a women’s group and also worked with children who had been sexually abused.”

During the pandemic, Aideen was a frontline worker in her duties at the Milford Care Centre hospice.

“All art therapists were frontline workers. We never worked online in the hospice. I had client contact which was fantastic. It was great for us to be acknowledged as an essential service. I kept going into patients so it was an interesting time.

“I’m based in Cork so I was driving up and down the road to Limerick. There were no cars. There was an eerie feeling. I might pass a truck on the road. Life and death doesn’t understand 5km restrictions. Things just keep moving on. You acclimatise and adjust.

“I suppose we were all going through the pandemic together in different ways. I think what was hard, particularly in the hospice, was that visitors couldn’t come in. But the hospice always facilitated families coming in when somebody was dying. At least there was that. But it was an extremely difficult time. It couldn’t not have an impact.”

Aideen says that she quite enjoyed not having to be out all the time during the pandemic.

“I know that, for some people, not being able to be out affected their creative process, but I liked having space and time to myself.”

Art therapy was brought to Ireland from the UK 30 years ago. The Crawford College of Art and Design was the first place in Ireland to host art therapy education.

“Irish art therapists who trained in the UK set up the course in Cork and they specifically chose to set it up in the Crawford so it would be embedded in an art space. It has developed and evolved since then.”

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