Shimali Perera is an Art Psychotherapist, using art to heal adults and children who experience depression, anxiety disorders, stress, abuse, and trauma. She is a Master’s graduate of Art Therapy from Goldsmith’s College, University of London and a registered Art Psychotherapist of the Australian and New Zealand Arts Therapy Association (ANZATA). She also has a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from the Missouri University of Science and Technology, USA. In this interview with Women Talk, Shimali talks about how art is becoming increasingly significant in therapeutic work and what it means to use drawing and expression for healing.
You are one of the few qualified Art Therapists in Sri Lanka, also with an academic background in Psychology. What drew you towards a career in Art Therapy?
It’s a long story. When I was doing my Bachelor’s in Psychology, I chose to do a 3-month internship. I looked at many options, but nothing really worked out for me. Finally, my last resort was to sit in prayer until I had a clear direction. Sure enough, one day I had a thought that dropped into my head, which was ‘Creative Therapy’. I didn’t know much about the existence of such a field. I spoke to one of my friends who knew a Counselor who used art in her work. I contacted her and eventually began to volunteer with her at the Mulleriyawa Halfway Home, because of this, I began to develop an interest in Art Therapy and then pursued my higher studies in this field. Every person has a perfect fit, when finding their purpose in life, it is a matter of waiting for that direction to lead your path and enlighten your way.
How significant is your educational training in Psychology for your work as an Art Therapist?
Art Therapy is a form of Psychotherapy, with its foundation in Psychology. Psychology and Human Development are also part of our education and training in becoming an Art Therapist, as we apply the Schools of thought and the many Psychological theories when working with individuals and groups. Therefore, as much as it was helpful to have a Bachelors in Psychology, it was further deepened, as I did my Masters in Art Therapy.
Your Art Therapy work has centred on children who have experienced trauma due to physical, sexual, emotional abuse, and neglect as well as adults experiencing depression. Could you elaborate on some of the areas you are working on currently?
My work with children was mainly during my clinical training, while doing my Masters. After which, my area of work expanded to adults as well as children experiencing trauma due to various challenges they have experienced in life, such as the death of a loved one, early childhood abuse, depression, suicide ideation, divorce or separation of parents, anxiety disorders etc.
What sort of tools or methodologies are used when working with Art Therapy?
There are mainly two ways of working in Art Therapy, that is the directive approach and the non-directive approach. The directive approach consists of various directives or art activities that would be given out according to the need of the client. The non-directive approach is where clients have the freedom to work freely, alongside the Art Therapist. We also have the various art mediums that come into play, for example paint and clay, which can be used according to the needs of the client.
What is the difference between an art class and Art Therapy?
Art Therapy is different from an art class for two main reasons. In Art Therapy, the focus is not on the final product created by the individual, but in the process of art making. Prior knowledge in art or skills in art are not a requirement for Art Therapy. Thereby, the process of art making, has a therapeutic value to the client who works alongside a trained Art Therapist.
So, it is not the basic structure of an art class where you are given something to do and it is supposed to look good. That is completely the opposite of Art Therapy. Art Therapy is where it is okay to make a mess, it is okay for it to be ugly, it is okay to tear a piece of paper, and it is okay to throw something. It is the freedom to express yourself in a non-judgmental and safe therapeutic space alongside a trained Art Therapist. After which, we look at your process – that is your thought process and feelings associated with the art making process and then we reflect on it together to gain a better understanding of the art work.
When you work with children especially how do they find the medium of art for healing?
Most children by nature, love art. It comes naturally to them. Hence, they are more open to the medium of art. However, when working with children it is about observing the process and understanding for yourself, as the therapist, what is going on in the child’s mind. The therapist’s understanding of the child together with the medium of art is what will enable the healing process to take place.
Is the change visible? Do you see them changing step-by-step, from where they were?
Yes, it is visible. It is gradual, but it is visible. We are required to always maintain client art work. Therefore, after a few sessions we can review the artwork and compare the progress. Often, we see the notifiable changes in the artwork, which coincides with the changes that have taken place within the person as well.
How is it when you work with adults because, unlike the children who usually associate with art and drawing, adults are kind of disconnected from that?
With adults it is generally gradual. They have to be assured that they do not need to have a prior knowledge in art and that their art does not have to look great, but it is more of just releasing themselves and being free. Once this assurance is given, they feel more confident. As time progresses, some of them will come to realize that they like the process and it is working for them.
When you implemented a program that concerns art and therapy, how was that first received in Sri Lanka? In places like New Zealand or Australia, it is common practice.
I must say there were persons who were interested in the field, but like with all new things it takes time to start off especially for persons to become comfortable with it, since it is a field that involves the wellbeing of an individual. It was a very challenging experience for me at the start. It took time, and a lot of patience, but eventually there was a breakthrough where more people became aware of the field and were interested in it.
Just to generalize Art Therapy a little bit more to Sri Lanka’s context, because we are undergoing a post war phase and we have a lot of healing to do. We have mostly suppressed our feelings and have not really talked about our issues. In the context of Sri Lanka, how does something like Art Therapy position?
I think in the context of Sri Lanka there is a lot of work to be done. Art Therapy, and the other forms of Arts therapies – Drama and Movement Therapy, Play Therapy, Music Therapy, Dance Therapy – have a role to play in healing the trauma experienced from war. These forms of therapies are especially effective, for those who are not able to express through words what they have been through, especially their suppressed feelings, and memories. The Arts Therapies can tap into the part of the brain where all these memories are stored, and gently begin the healing process. Hence, we need to create a lot more awareness about the field and its benefits in bringing about healing in the present context in Sri Lanka.
You are also conducting art therapy workshops for groups of people. Is that collective engagement significant?
Yes, the collective engagement is significant where you can begin to see and understand the group dynamics that is taking place. There is a process, where trust needs to be built and relationships formed, in and through which the rapport between participants increases, resulting in better teamwork. Furthermore, I have often become aware that in workshops when a handful of persons are open to the process, eventually the others begin to open up to it. This is especially evident in the time of sharing, which is allocated in such workshops.
You have work with the corporate sector as well…
I conduct workshops in the corporate sector, which focusses on building team work and managing work related stress. These workshops have been a good experience and have contributed positively in improving their group dynamics. Through the art work they did as a group, they began to realize for themselves the importance of working together as a team. Moreover, through these workshop activities participants were also made aware of the contribution and impact that each person can make in their own respective work environments.
Based on your work with trauma and depression, is there a safe space in Sri Lankan society for people undergoing these situations?
I think that there is a lot of stigma in our society in the sense that people do not freely come out with what they are going through mentally and emotionally due to the fear of being judged by others. However, these trends are gradually changing in our society at present and many more people continue to reach out now and seek help from professionals in the field, as there are many such safe spaces placed across our country where people can freely express what they are going through.
In our society, we are now very digital based and we have forgotten about paint and picking up a book and actually drawing. How does engaging with art and drawing connect with the context we are living in now in this digital age?
Art is very useful to connect with people. Recently a participant at a session gave feedback that she used to love art as a child, but as she grew up was forced to give up her desire for art for a different path in life. After many years, she once again was able to reconnect with art, at an Art Therapy session, which enabled her to connect with her inner-being. This type of experience can be achieved through art. Similarly, I have had adults who tell me that they have never touched a crayon since they were in school, but the Art Therapy exercises helps them to go back to that inner child and just be themselves.
Date of Interview: 4 December 2017
Interviewer and photos: Shashini Ruwanthi Gamage