Friday, July 23, 2010

GW Art Therapy Students in India

The GW Art Therapy Department takes students abroad each summer for a multicultural diversity class. The class went to India for their 2010 trip (follow details from their trip here), and a local journalist interviewed members of the class about their time providing art therapy services in Chennai and surrounding areas. I am pleased to note that my intern from last year, Lauren Hayes, was interviewed for the article, and has the opening quote!!

CHITHIRA VIJAYKUMAR

SHADES OF UNITY: Students and women from The Bambino School, with their work. Photo: R. Ravindran
THE HINDU SHADES OF UNITY: Students and women from The Bambino School, with their work. Photo: R. Ravindran

“The only rule,” says Lauren Hayes, “is that there are no rules.”

Around us, the other students from the George Washington University are crouching contemplatively over as many circles drawn in white chalk, sometimes sprinkling fistfuls of shimmering blues, rich vermilions, and flagrant greens of rock salt into them. “Koe-laam”, some of them mouth, tentatively. Today's a day-off for them, after more than a week of work.

The 16 women, all students of art therapy, have been quietly helping ease the pain of cancer patients, differently-abled children in schools, substance-abuse victims, and the homeless and mentally-challenged women of The Banyan. And they do it all with nothing more than pots of paint, and handfuls of clay.

“So,” continues Lauren, “we tell them that the art doesn't have to be good or bad, that the sun doesn't have to be yellow, or the water blue.” Sometimes, they specify what they'd like them to draw. “It helps us understand the level of their cognitive development, the way they think,” says Karie Schwartz.

“An art therapy session gives you a snapshot of the person; how they're feeling, what they're thinking and what's going on in their subconscious,” says Lauren. “Everything they might have found difficult to admit, even to themselves.”

There are several ways to know. “The colours they use, the energy with which they paint, and how much of the paper they use, for instance,” says Monica Salinas. “It's also hard to convince the children that the glue is not to be eaten!” she laughs.

But these women come from around the world — cultural markers and symbols that mean nothing there might mean everything here. How do they understand?

“Through trips such as these,” smiles Anne Hurley. “There is so much art here. On your fabrics, the floors, the ceiling — everywhere! You live, thrive in it. This would make the people here very receptive to art therapy.” In fact, one of its primary concepts is the mandala, Sanskrit for ‘circle' or ‘completion', which abounds in Tibetan, Buddhist, and Hindu cultures. “Besides, we have had art since we were living in caves; there's something in it that resonates with everyone,” says Karie.

Art therapy is now used around the world in hospitals, prisons, education centres, mental health clinics and for the sexually-abused. Its effectiveness may also lie in the distance it allows between the person and the problem — you can work your way through using symbols, metaphors and abstractions. Which is why the differently-abled usually find great respite in it. Such as Stephen Wiltshire, the famous artist diagnosed with autism, who drew all of Tokyo on a 10-metre canvas, after a 20-minute helicopter ride over the city. Not only did he get right the number of floors on buildings — he even got the number of windows.

Kathryn Martin has been at the Apollo cancer ward for a week now. “A two-year-old made little clay figurines of people, and painted each of their stomachs a deep, aching red. Later, the nurses told me that that was where her cancer was.”

Language stopped being a barrier at this point, she says, though the little girl spoke only Swahili. “One of the women went from filling in her mandala with only one colour, to three, to five the day after that, and then finally even filling in the space around the circle,” says Lauren, who worked at The Banyan.

“This is the first time a university in the U.S. is doing something of this sort,” says Sangeeta Prasad, an alumni of the University herself, who has helped bring the students here. “We're trying to get art therapy into the medical institutions.”

But doesn't delving into the consciousness of several people every day take its toll? “Yes,” smiles Karie. “We have to do sit down with our sketch pads and paints at the end of each day to wind down!”

THE ART OF THE MATTER

* While leaving art therapy to the specialists, you can still use art to calm your frazzled nerves. Remember, you don't need to be good at art to enjoy it.

* Keep a sketchbook like you would a diary — record your most personal sentiments and thoughts, or sum up your day through images.

*A ‘Dream sketch diary', to trace images from your dreams that you'd like to remember, or understand.

* Keep books of different kinds — one for all that's causing you stress in life; and another one for all you think is beautiful about it.

*The colours, shapes and representations you use will say a lot. So don't start with a rigid concept of what you want to end up with. Just let it flow naturally.

*You can keep your work to yourself, try to analyse it, or discuss it with someone you trust.

Keywords: George Washington University, The Banyan, cancer, social service

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