INTERVIEW WITH KIRSTIE NEL
As simply as you can for the wider audience out there who do not have knowledge of art therapy, please explain what it is and what it means to you.
Simply put, art therapy is combination of art and psychology. Think about those moments in which you got lost in viewing an artwork, listening to a piece of music, playing the guitar, dancing. It is all about engaging you in expressing yourself in a creative way. It is not always sunshine and roses. Therapy challenges you to express at times the hard things. However, this is where the arts, I argue, provide a safer way to engage you to express those sometimes difficult experiences.
How did you first discover art therapy as a practice?
In my first year of undergraduate studies I needed some direction and clarity on what I wanted to actually do. I had always believed in the arts as a way to express oneself, especially when words seem to feel too daunting to use. I found out about art therapy and went on to change my major to pursue my interests in arts and health.
When did you first realize that you wanted to be an art therapist? Was being an art therapist your first career choice?
It was since the moment I had discovered about art therapy as a profession, but it was uncertain whether I would be able to pursue it due to no MA training being available in my country. After finishing my BA and working for nearly two years with intellectually disabled adults as a life skills instructor (albeit a very creative one!) I had gotten accepted into an MA Art Therapy program in Israel and also received a scholarship to support my studies.
“it isn’t always sunshine and roses. As therapists we hold the sunshine and the storms."
What is the greatest joy, to you, about being an art therapist?
Seeing others throwing themselves into their own creative process!
What are some of the challenges you have experienced as an art therapist?
In risk of sounding cliché: “Everything you do in life will be insignificant, but it’s very important that you do it anyway”. I have found these words by Mahatma Gandhi a guidance and comfort when working in areas where your contribution seems like an insignificant drop in the wider context of things. Those insignificant moments, small contributions, a moment of quiet or listening are invaluable—it can mean the world for one person.
What are some common misconceptions about art therapy you have come across?
“I get to do art? Sounds fun!”—It is fun, but it is serious fun and hard work. Play hard and work hard.
“Wow you are an art therapist you are so amazing, wow look at the amazing work you have done”—I agree, I think it is amazing, BUT I have serious problems with the romanticisation of the field and any humanitarian projects. I am passionate about what I do but it is hard work and as I mentioned it isn’t always sunshine and roses. As therapists we hold the sunshine and the storms.
How has being an art therapist affected other aspects of your life?
It is hard work and in my own art practice I used to be very independent, but I realised within the therapy field that team work is invaluable and it has made me much more of a team player. I also realised the importance of self-care since working as an art therapist—so you will see me often hiking and in nature.
How did you find out about The Red Pencil?
An internet search! I joined their email list and received an email that there was a call for art therapists to volunteer their time in Sudan. It was a matter of “I’ll do it! Pick me!”
Can you share with us more about the greatest moment or most unforgettable experience you have had thus far working with The Red Pencil?
SOOOOO MANY!!!!! It was great working with like-minded professionals from different backgrounds passionate about the arts and working to the best of our ability to deliver effective and suitable art therapy sessions and workshops.
Also a specific instance that still stands out to me was a group of young kids (between 3-7 year olds) we were working with, every time they saw me and my co-therapist there was such excitement followed by a touch of creative chaos. They knew us basically as the weird, foreign and fun art ladies that allowed them to mess and play.
Do you have any advice for budding art therapists out there who want to start this profession?
Firstly, you have to have a passion for the arts and in working with others. Volunteer and gain some work experience to find out whether you feel you have the interest and ability to work with others.
“Art is indeed an amazing way to connect and engage with others regardless of their language, culture or background."
You have travelled to many different countries for your work. What is the greatest lesson you have learnt from these travels?
Art is indeed an amazing way to connect and engage with others regardless of their language, culture or background. The strength of artistic communication and expression is inspiring!
I see that you have attended a Music Therapy Workshop in the past. Some of the public may not be aware that music can be used as a form of therapy as well. Could you share more about that experience and how it has helped you grow as an Arts Therapist?
It is all about creativity and expressing yourself using the creative arts (music, dance, visual arts, drama). There is a creative modality for everyone if someone does not feel that they are able to fully express themselves or is not comfortable in one modality, then sometimes you need to look at a different modality. It is also nice to continue your growth as a therapist by learning from other creative arts therapists and some tools and exercises you can use in your sessions.