INTERVIEW WITH ALAA ALHAJJI
What does creative arts therapy mean to you?
I would say generally art has been always a natural extension of my own personal journey. I have been creating ever since I can remember. My mom would tell me how I would happily sit for hours drawing and colouring on the kitchen floor. I love that I now get to make art as a part of my work.
As well as being an avenue of expression, art and creativity have been a way for me to process emotions and experiences, release and embrace aspects of myself, and unveil a clearer reflection of who I really am. Because of my personal experience in living a conscious creative path, I feel passionate to help others in a creative way. It is amazingly rewarding and can be very enlightening as well. I get to be a space holder for creative transformations, learning, thinking, and self-actualisation.
How did you first discover creative arts therapy as a practice?
In 2013, I came across the term 'art therapy' when I was making a big decision of switching my undergraduate major from biomedical sciences to fine arts. I made a mental note about it, and started searching and looking for more information.
The concept was fascinating to me and it made so much sense given my relationship to art. So I made the decision to pursue a career in art therapy the moment I realised I would be limiting myself if I didn’t.
What is the greatest joy about being an art therapist?
Art, like life, is in constant motion, ever changing, growing and evolving. One of the most exciting things for me is the continuity in the healing power of art. I never get used to the look on my clients’ faces when the image they created voice out what they couldn’t express in words. Art therapy brings a voice where no voice may have been heard, connects people through a common thread and bond, and opens doors long closed to provide immense healing, insight and growth.
“One of the most exciting things for me is the continuity in the healing power of art. I never get used to the look on my clients’ faces when the image they created voice out what they couldn’t express in words. “
What are some of the challenges you have experienced as an art therapist?
The challenges I experience on a daily basis are generally associated with the “helping industry”, like burning out or getting too involved with a client’s problem.
Was it difficult at first? It was indeed hard at first, but I explored and discovered my boundaries, and set firm limits.
Is it still difficult? Sometimes, a client’s story of abuse or trauma will get to me, but I’ve got my self-care routine handled.
Another big challenge I face having an art therapy career is the need for professional regulation to clearly define Art Therapy and differentiate Art Therapists from Artists or Art Educators. This will not only provide a clear career path but will also protect clients' safety and therapists' rights to practice.
From your experience, how do you think art therapy impacted the lives of your clients?
Through its therapeutic and empowering qualities, art has helped them gain deeper understanding, develop greater clarity, and give things more meaning in both inner and outer worlds.
“I think that my pursuit of art helps me to see the beautiful little details in life… from a tiny wildflower on a mountain to the beauty to be found in a cluttered abandoned house in city street corner. “
How has being an art therapist affected other aspects of your life?
There are times when I consciously use art and my art therapy skills to help me literally shift how I see things within, and around me. I can see art everywhere I look.
Everything manmade was first dreamed of by an artist. I think that my pursuit of art helps me to see the beautiful little details in life… from a tiny wildflower on a mountain to the beauty to be found in a cluttered abandoned house in city street corner.
Can you share with us more about the greatest moment or most unforgettable experience you have had thus far working with The Red Pencil?
I’m grateful for the opportunity itself of being able to respond expeditiously to the horrendous event of Beirut explosion, and work with the vulnerable population of children who were not only fighting cancer but had to endure the challenges and outcomes of this new traumatic experience.
What valuable insights have you gained from volunteering with The Red Pencil?
I’ve learned that any action can make a significant difference. I thought that participating in an online mission can be limiting and not very effective. However, it was quite the contrary.
The program was extended, and the benefits of art therapy sessions not only included the kids but reached to the families of the children and the trainees in the mission, as well.
Your Master's thesis focused on having a mobile art studio for Arab refugee children. What is the importance of having a mobile space for refugee children to engage in art?
Newly arriving refugees are among the most vulnerable communities due to limited recourses, language barriers, unemployment, and restricted transportation. Such barriers hinder access to healthcare and deny refugees the necessary opportunity to seek help for their traumatic experiences.
The project focused on creating a holding safe space for children refugees to express themselves using art as a source of empowerment and a form of therapy.
Art provides refugee children a unique creative outlet to speak out and share their personal stories with a world quick to silence and turn away those in the most desperate need of humanitarian assistance.
Therefore, a goal of this project was to allow the children to advocate for themselves, their families, and homeland in a way they never could before. It also worked as a public platform for the children to exhibit their works in their new community. Children were invited to express their feelings and create a visual narrative of their journey through the process of bookmaking.
“Art provides refugee children a unique creative outlet to speak out and share their personal stories with a world quick to silence and turn away those in the most desperate need of humanitarian assistance."
Could you share a few creative ways to deal with stress during the COVID-19 pandemic?
At any time in our lives, creative practices can play a huge part in stress reduction and mindful healing. The practice of engaging in hands and the artmaking process in and of itself can provide a highly therapeutic experience.
Some activities, such as doodling facilitate decompression and mindfulness through art. Although the word doodling can sound like a time wasting activity, research shows that in a multitude of workplace and therapeutic settings, making marks in a repetitive and rhythmic fashion has been shown to help people to: focus, self-regulate, slow down, calm ruminating thoughts, stabilise, enter a flow state, and self soothe.
I love to use these techniques myself and have found that recently during the times of COVID-19 uncertainty and my own worries, I can anchor myself quite quickly by picking up a pen and continuing a doodle that I started earlier, or even by cutting out collage pieces for my mandala.