Updated: Jan 13, 2019
I'm really excited to be launching an informative interview series for 2019. 'Creative Insights' explores the fascinating topics of creativity, art therapy and the benefits of arts engagement. I hope you enjoy this series and find meeting the researchers, practitioners and artists as insightful and thought provoking as I have.
Our series starts in conversation with someone whose research into the benefits of arts participation has had a huge influence on my own study and career development. So I was absolutely thrilled when Dr Girija Kaimal, Assistant Professor in the Department of Creative Arts Therapies at Drexel University in the United States, agreed to be interviewed.
An internationally renowned researcher in the fields of creative self-expression and art therapy, Dr Kaimal holds the position of Principal Investigator at the HALE lab. A research institute that examines art therapy and other arts-based interventions for psychosocial and health outcomes, including for current and former military personnel with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI).
Dr Kaimal is on the board of directors of the American Art Therapy Association, and serves internationally as a consultant on development projects related to gender equity and arts-based psychosocial support for vulnerable people living in trauma zones.
Bolstering her work and own sense of wellbeing Dr Kaimal prioritises time to maintain her own award winning art practice. Images of Dr Kaimal's artwork are interspersed throughout the interview.
Dr Girija Kaimal
Michelle Saleeba: It has been said that creative engagement is fundamentally tied to our sense of vitality and wellbeing. Why do you think this is?
Girija Kaimal: I think creative work offers opportunities for human beings to imagine new and possibly empowering ways of being which can generate hope. Creative work also helps us channel what might be difficult, inexpressible, or socially unacceptable emotional impulses into something acceptable (artistic work of any kind). This sublimation helps with our sense of wellbeing since we get to express that which is inside us in a socially acceptable and hopefully non-destructive way.
Oil pastels sublimated
MS: If there is intrinsic therapeutic benefit to engaging in creative pursuits, how is art in therapy, or art psychotherapy, different and why is it beneficial?
GK: I think when people go through traumatic, negative or challenging experiences, they feel different and isolated. They might think that they are the only ones who have been through it and that nobody might understand them, that they are different from the norm and therefore perhaps forced into loneliness. I think what the arts and particularly the therapeutic relationship in art therapy does is it helps normalize the isolating experience and bring the individual back into a feeling of belonging and being understood.
MS: Why art therapy?
GK: I was drawn to art therapy because it was a profession that combined my interests in human psychology with my lifelong engagement as an artist. I didn’t know such a field existed and when I did find it, it felt like a perfect fit.
Flora and Fauna: Mixed media (12" diameter: Wood, tree bark, clay and nails)
MS: Are you a generalist or specialist practitioner?
GK: I would say I am a generalist but I have worked most with specific populations including those undergoing medical treatment and those who experience chronic and traumatic stress.
MS: Tell us about your work at Drexel University.
GK: I work as an art therapy research faculty and educator of doctoral students in the creative arts therapies. So most of my interactions with clients are when they participate in our studies. I also do workshops and trainings in the United States and India on art therapy with adults and children.
What we see changes what we know and what we know changes what we see: Jean Piaget (scratch board)
MS: Art therapy has a long history and has undergone considerable evolution and development. In your view how is the profession responding to our increased understanding of neuroscience?
GK: I think art therapy is moving towards a wider evidence base which is very heartening. It is not just founded on the clinical insights of a few founding art therapists. I am heartened that the field is accepting a range of data and knowledge on how the arts and the therapeutic relationship can help human health and wellbeing, including neuroscience. We do have to be very careful though to not make assumptions about clinical practice and connections to neuroscientific evidence without systematic study. The neural basis of behaviour and human functioning are very complex and art therapists must be careful not to make unsupported connections.
MS: Research has shown the therapeutic relationship between therapist and client as paramount to positive outcomes. In art therapy there is a third element in the relationship, the artwork, how does this triad alter the therapeutic process?
GK: The third element, or artwork, helps provide some distance and perspective which is fundamental in my opinion to see things differently. That perspective taking is key to initiating any change.
MS: Often therapists have a defining professional experience that enhances or solidifies the why of their practice. Have you had any formative experiences, or lessons, that have impacted on you as an art therapist?
GK: I have had several. I see people visibly transformed by the act of creating when they had little confidence in their ability to do so. I see how art can be relaxing and offer new insights to clients and patients. I have seen how the session can change someone who was inhibited and shy initially. These are all very heartening to see as a therapist. In short, I find that art therapy ends up being like a “shortcut” to the individual.
Black and Blue: Scratch That
MS: Do you feel there are perceived barriers to participation in creative activities generally, and art therapy specifically? How might these be overcome?
GK: The biggest barriers in my opinion are the ones we set on ourselves. I cannot tell you how many times I have encountered individuals who have negative perceptions of themselves as being creative or able to express themselves visually. They often recall vividly when someone undermined them or made them feel poorly about their artistic abilities. I think the art therapy session also is initially about reversing those inhibiting self-perceptions.
MS: There is substantial research about the importance of social connectivity for health and wellbeing. Art therapy is often delivered as a group process. Does making art with others enhance social connection and a sense of belonging?
GK: Absolutely. Art making and more importantly sharing of oneself (including through the artwork) in a group setting (or even only with the therapist) is a way to connect and share positive and negative aspects of self. To be able to share “all” of oneself is key to self-acceptance, self-awareness and authentic being which are essential to wellbeing.
MS: I perceive my therapy clients as embodying substantial amounts of resilience even at times of overwhelming stress or perceived dysfunction. Part of the art therapy process is helping clients realise the ways in which they are already resilient. How do you incorporate this process of assisting people to identify their existing strengths into your therapy practice?
GK: You are right. People are inherently resilient. I do believe that the opportunity to “make” and “create” taps into this resilience. Any pro-active “doing” is resilience in my opinion.
MS: Most art therapists have their own art practice, which we don’t often hear about! Describe your art practice are there any consistent themes, metaphors or stories in your work?
GK: I am active in my artform. Artmaking is my way of taking care of my own health and wellbeing while also using art to process and make sense of the world.
MS: What strategies do you employ to help yourself when you feel creatively blocked? How might you encourage someone who is experiencing creative, or life “stuckness”?
GK: I think travel is a great way to get out of stuckness. Experiencing or seeking out new experiences or simply being curious are all ways to get out of stuckness. These can be simple things like reading a new book, going to a new place in your city/ town, trying out a new cuisine etc, trying out a new art form or new media. I also find being in nature and beautiful natural surroundings including natural water bodies to be very inspiring.
Backyard canvas (Teak leaf, acrylics, henna and metallic paint)
MS: Is there a book that has really influenced your development as an art therapist?
MS: Do you have any exciting news relating to your work that you’d like to share?
GK: We expect to start a new federally funded study on art therapy and pediatric oncology soon. We also have a few publications forthcoming on art therapy with military service members and for depression in the elderly.
You can see more of Girija's nature inspired artwork on her blog Art stories: Reflections on self expression, creativity and learning, and view her professional CV and publication list here.
Portals of surprise (Gel crayons on poster paper)