Art Works!: Sangai Khelaun (Let’s Play Together) / by Jess Linton

The Art Works!: Sangai Khelaun (Let’s Play Together) is a new initiative with an aim to run a number of programmes in communities displaced or affected by Nepal's earthquakes. One of the initiative's main aims is simply: 'to engage children and their communities in creative and joyful activities...foster children’s imagination and raise self-esteem.' 

The first programme was run in Ghaychchock in Gorkha from 12th-16th June, fueled by an energized variety of artists and creative professionals to make up the artists collective: visual artists, circus performers and practitioners, dancers, theatre practitioners, writers and educators. And an art psychotherapist! 

The artists collective shared an important belief that nurturing childrens' imagination, self esteem and confidence could play a vital part in rebuiliding their lives as they recover from the shock of the recent earthquakes in Nepal. At a time when children are experiencing varying degrees of fear and anxiety, we hoped that creative arts activities could help them to focus on the present and find hope for the future.

The initiative hoped to act as a bridge between the need for an immediate response to the devastation in Ghaychchock and supporting the community to rebuild strength and play active roles in their own recovery, working towards long-term goals for themselves, their families and their village after distressing displacement and loss. 

When I met with Srijanalaya to start planning I was advised that the initiative aims to support the local community to draw on their resources and skills and establish a calm, supportive space through the arts to work through often complex and highly traumatic experiences. I really liked their thinking and saw this as an opportunity to work with and acknowledge an inter-generational community with a wealth of resources to draw on. We hoped that all of the activities could, on some level, instill this sense of value in the skills they had to offer their community as they worked together to 'rebuild' in every sense. We worked together to think about how we could create safe physical, psychological and social spaces for the groups we were working with. We worked with the artists collective to unpick this and explore their individual contributions to the programme. We wanted them to be able to acknowledge their input as not solely creating spaces in which they would bring 'joyful artistic activities' but confidently leading valued spaces where, if they felt safe and supported, there would be a range of wider benefits for individuals, whether a young child or older teacher. 

On 12th June we set off for the small village of Ghaychchock, nestled deep in to Ghorka District just across the valley from the epicenter of the earthquake on 25th April 2015. I'm sorry I won't be in Nepal after monsoon to be a part of another trip but I hoped to be able to support some of the thinking around the programme through this first pilot in Ghaychchock. We agreed that a core mission of Arts Works  would be to continue to establish safe creative spaces for the children and communities that we would work with. And we worked with the group to think about how we could create 'safe space' and use the arts safely whilst still working creatively to support communities, particularly the children and young people within them, to find a space to play, explore, express and, in their own time, at their own pace, support their own recovery. For the Ghaychchock project I hoped to contribute through: Support and skills sharing for the Art Works!: Sangai Khelaun Artists Collective Support; Teacher support & skills sharing, co-facilitated with Niranjan Kunwar (Educator & Founder of The Yellow House Children’s Initiative); Creative and sensitive art-making sessions for Year 8 pupils through our “Dream Spaces: Exploring hopes & dreams through Print-Making” collaboration, with Nepali visual artist and print-maker Kabi Raj Lama; Any additional emotional support/ psycho-education for the community, in particular the adults.


“Over the past ten years, work on disasters has increasingly focused on the capacity of affected communities to recover with little or no external assistance. This requires a stronger emphasis on approaches to risk reduction and humanitarian and development work that put resilience, rather than just need or vulnerability, at the nucleus of the debate (IFRC, 2004).”

~ Siambabala Bernard Manyena, 2006: 433


Srijanalaya worked with Dhwoj, a member of the Ghaychchock community to set up all the practicalities for the programme. Dhwoj has proved to be a Kathmandu and Chitwan-based visual artist with bundles of energy and strong ties with Ghyachchok. He was impressively quick to leap in to action to support his village. He told us that Ghaychchock had received no external assistance from humanitarian aid agencies. Physically, we knew that the school had been rebuilt in some capacity but that most of the homes had been completely destroyed or were too unsafe to live in. Most if not all families were living in tents and make-shift tarpaulin homes. The corn field that would become our home and work place has been prepared just three weeks before, ready for our visit. The community, led by some of the teachers, had worked together to find the money to rent the land from the owner, clear the crop and set out to build a  new corrugated iron school block and a communal space.  The corrugated iron was bought and transported through their efforts, not outside help.

Psychologically, we weren’t as clear as to how the adults and children were doing and needed to wait until we reached the village. We did know that a medical post had been set up in the village but it didn’t seem as though any psycho-social or mental health professionals had managed to get to the village. At our team meeting before the trip we had been told: “It would be great if we could just make those people smile…. We just need to boost their morale a bit." We were advised that whilst the people of Ghyachchok saw numerous helicopters descending at Barpak nothing came their way. Over the weeks, they had felt abandoned, unvalued and helpless. I contacted a UN Psycho-Social Co-ordinator to assess whether it would be possible to meet with them and introduce them to the community whilst we were there. We did receive a response from them but we were advised that they would not be able to come to the area, they would pass information on to other colleagues supporting the District if they could.

With this in mind I thought a lot about the need to think about how to best support the community that I would be working with, who in large needed to find ways to cope with extreme loss and the need to ‘rebuild’ without reliance on other people, organisations or other external resources. We needed to ensure that whilst taking in new energy and support via the ‘joyful activities’ such as performance and play, we took the opportunity to acknowledge and promote what the affected community could do for themselves and how best to strengthen them (IRFC, 2004 in Manyena, 2006: 434).


Teacher Support & Skills Sharing ~ Co-facilitated by Niranjan Kunwar (Educator & Founder of The Yellow House Children’s Initiative) and Jess Linton (Visual Artist & Art Psychotherapist, Art Refuge UK) – with support from visiting Mental Health Nurse, Lydia Zambion


“One of the basic human requirements is the need to dwell, and one of the central human acts is the act of inhabiting, of connecting ourselves, however temporarily with a place on the planet which belongs to us, and to which we belong. This is not, especially in the tumultuous present, an easy act, (as is attested by the uninhabited and uninhabitable no-places in cities everywhere), and it requires help: we need allies in inhabitation. Fortunately, we have at hand many allies, if only we call on them; other upright objects, from towers to chimneys to columns, stand in for us in sympathetic imitation of our own upright stance. Flowers and gardens serve as testimonials to our own care, and breezes loosely captured can connect us with the very edge of the infinite.”

 ~ Charles Moore, in Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, 1977, Foreword


Chair of Art Refuge UK, Bobby Lloyd, has returned to this quote in her reflections on her work with displaced communities in conflict and post-conflict areas with Debra Kalmanowitz, co-founder of the Art Therapy Initiative (ATI). They highlight the need for structuring an environment in which people can feel emotionally safe but also acknowledge the particular challenge “in a situation in which people are mostly living in ‘no-places’” (Lloyd & Kalmanowitz, 2002: 49). In their reflections around their work in Kosovo, they go on to highlight that in this environment, the external and internal (emotional) reality of the teachers that they were working with often mirrored one another and they needed to structure an environment which helped to facilitate “the ability to dwell”. They explore the ability to do this through creating an environment for safe, sensitive art-making in which the people we work with can enjoy “a pure playful enjoyment of the materials” rather than feel a need to have talent or expertise ((Lloyd & Kalmanowitz, 2002: 49).

Niranjan and I drew on this thinking in our work with the teachers in Ghaychchock. It felt important to start our work with the teachers by offering them a free, open, space to just be. Where they could have a first opportunity since the earthquake (we were advised) to start to process and express. Without starting from this space it didn’t feel as if it would be possible (or fair) for them to start working on rebuilding within their professional responsibilities. This was a space away from their family, children, school pupils where their mix of emotions and thoughts could be held and considered by others who were able to support them, rather than the other way round. As we started the session it became evident that the teachers were in need of some support and we were pleased to have ensured that we started the work with them with an open space for them to express and be heard – as teachers, mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, community leaders, friends. As we have been seeing in all of our work since 25th April, the disaster has affected us all on many different levels and very much across our personal and professional lives. From their perspective as teachers, being affected on a personal level will inevitably affect their ability to take on their professional responsibilities to their best ability within the school and community. The school is considered such a strong part of the community and as one of the first spaces to be rebuilt after the earthquake it felt as though the teachers were under a lot of pressure to carry on regardless as the backbone of the village and the childrens’ lives. I have heard since our visit that the Department of Education has highlighted Ghaychchock as one of the villages who were first to find ways to rebuild a school ground for their children.

Having started to work together since early May, Niranjan and I have had good time to get to know our ways of working and assess how we can work together. We made sure we took good time to think through the content of the session, the rationale behind it and how we would remain flexible to adapt where needed.

We invited the group to use the materials for twenty minutes to think about something that was important to them. We highlighted that this might be material; an object or person; or it might be a feeling, a memory, or a gift such as a skill or feeling that they have developed or that someone has given them. We all took part in this activity and after twenty minutes we invited the group to share back.

We felt an initial nervousness in the room and perhaps a wonder at where this was going to lead them however the open space worked well and gradually teachers quickly warmed up to the materials and process. They went back and forth to the materials, trying a range of pencils, soft pastels and incorporating text and image making. We witnessed their shift in to a space where they could play and joke as the twenty minutes continues. The arts can have such an important place for opening us up in this way. In the reflection we thought about how on a simple level the arts and creative play can take us back to freer, more playful times – perhaps our childhood years, especially for those who haven’t used materials in a long time.

The reflection space also offered an important space to think about personal experiences and challenges which could become collective, shared experiences which we could tackle together.

A teacher shared his work which highlighted that ‘the school environment’ was important to him. Although he seemed preoccupied on large by the loss of their much loved school building and the necessary materials such as text books he felt they needed, I found myself thanking him for the holistic perspective he brought to ‘school’ and our conversations by sharing this term: “school environment”. I asked the group to think about what “the school environment” meant to them, suggesting that we could see ‘school’ as an equal partnership between the teachers, the pupils and the material resources we worked with. I wondered whether we could celebrate the ‘internal resources’ that we carried with us wherever we were and within whichever context we found ourselves. We highlighted the teachers’ strength in being able to turn up to this new school space every day and in a matter of weeks prepare the corn field and build the school in order to have a space to support the children in. The teachers seemed to be able to take this on board and feel some relief and empowerment in this thought.

It felt important to use the reflection to think about how we can acknowledge our ‘internal resources’ and the control that we can have over these resources when across life all ‘external factors’ (our work and home environment, the weather, natural disasters, other peoples’ actions etc.) are, on the whole, out of our hands.

Another teacher shared that it had been hard to draw and confront what was important to her at first (her home and community, their school) because it meant acknowledging that they had been destroyed. But the session had allowed them to use the art-making space to ‘rebuild’ in some way. Another teacher shared that in thinking together they were able to foster some hope and energy for ‘rebuilding’.

Lydia, a Mental health Nurse, brought a useful additional perspective and fed in to psycho-education around the grief cycle. Teachers seemed relieved when they were able to see that what they were going through was normal - that there was no normal, one way, that we might deal with loss and grief. But that there are some normal reactions that we might experience.  The sense of relief in the room after this discussion was powerful.  


Dream Spaces: Exploring hopes & dreams through Print-Making ~ A collaboration between Nepali visual artist, print-maker and tutor Kabi Raj Lama & UK-based artist and art psychotherapist Jess Linton.

“What we aimed to create was what we called a portable studio. This is based on the premise that the internal structure we carried with us as art therapists could allow for work to physically take place inside and outside: in the bedroom, in the dining room, on the hill, in the town dump.

This internal structure involved a conscious awareness and sensitivity to the art, the art-making and its ability to provide a form which can contain the individual’s experience; a trust in the individual as possessing resources rather than as a helpless victim ... This structure could provide an environment which facilitated expression, and allowed for sustained immersion (McNiff, 1992) in the art-making. It was up to us as art therapists to support each individual in negotiating a way through a complex web, and in realizing that through their own experience, strengths and culture they have some power.”

                                                                                                                                                                                                 ~ Lloyd & Kalmanowitz, 2002: 51


My personal ‘hopes and dreams’ for this work had been cultivated from an interest in what could probably be seen as a social action-approach to art therapy which would, in simple terms, focus on offering a space for the young people that we worked with to realize their place within and contribution to their community. I felt that fostering self-esteem and celebrating personal and collective skills and strengths could be particularly important in the current context of this work, where there felt to be a real feeling of hopeless within the village in the aftermath of the earthquake's destruction. As well as harnessing their own difficult thoughts and feelings around their experiences, the young people were witnessing their parents becoming increasingly frustrated, angry, tired, helpless and ‘impotent’; unable to foster the energy or hope to drive this village back to the position it was in. As we continue to ensure within an art therapeutic context, it felt important to ensure that we worked on the children’s resilience and strength through acknowledging an outcome and process in equal weight.

We wanted to use the art-making space to harness hope, self-worth and motivation on a number of levels. We presented the work as a project in which the young people would be key producers, directors, designers, craftsmen and curators. In sharing, cultivating and communicating their hopes and dreams for the future of their community the young people were also invited to take on the roles of decision-makers, problem-solvers, instigators and ambassadors within their village.

We wanted to use the space to offer the young people a chance to work with a range of different materials. We started by introducing the project to them, advising them that we would be working towards creating work for their community, where they would choose where they wanted it to be hung. We drew on the idea of prayer flags as a tangible object (the flag) holding hopes and wishes within it, that are asked to be carried away with the wind to picked up and made true. It reminded me of the allies that “Fortunately, we have at hand… if only we call on them; other upright objects, from towers to chimneys to columns, stand in for us in sympathetic imitation of our own upright stance. Flowers and gardens serve as testimonials to our own care, and breezes loosely captured can connect us with the very edge of the infinite.”

~ Charles Moore, in Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, 1977, Foreword

We started the session by asking the group to use chalks and soft pastels on black paper to explore and draw their hopes and dreams for themselves and their community. Seeing some nervousness in getting started we reassured them that there was no right or wrong way, that they will probably see that we all have very personal hopes and dreams as well as others that we might share. To support this and perhaps give them permission to draw on their imaginations, we encouraged children to also think about the ‘dreams’ they have at night. These dreams can be unrealistic, have no right way of playing out, take place in distorted places and at unique paces in times. We thought about these dreams as being free spaces with no boundaries or fixed ways to describe the events that take place or the thoughts and feelings that they evoke.

What Dreams Are Made of

I hoped that by introducing the group to ‘mind maps’ and brainstorming they might find new ways to give themselves permission to ‘loosen up’, see things from different perspectives and feel liberated by there not being a wrong or right way of approaching things. The Year 8s were asked to work in smaller groups of five to share their hopes and dreams via the artwork that they had created. They were also asked to explore the fine ingredients of our hopes and dreams (to draw on inspirations from the brilliant Febrik’s work in Palestinian refugee camps). Including drawing on the following questions: What do your hopes and dreams look like?; Are they similar to others in the group or different? How? Why might this be?; Who / what is involved in your hopes and dreams coming true?; What feelings come up when you think about them? Are there any tastes/ smells/ sights/ other senses/ sensation that are attached to your hopes and dreams? The groups used text and images as well as conversation to share and map out their hopes and dreams.

We had to follow behind a typically directive Year 8 teacher (despite having ensured that we worked with him before the class) to reiterate to the groups that they must feel free to draw (on) and highlight whatever they wanted to within their collected hopes and dreams. However on the whole we were pleased with how this next activity started to support the groups to pull out the important bits and start to  find their way to realising and sharing their hopes and dreams, realising and sharing their important voice.


Designing & Carving

We asked the small groups of five think about how they might like to bring their hopes and dreams together in to a final design, where they would use the wood carving printing method to imprint their hopes and dreams on to canvas which would, in turn, be imprinted in to their community as it hung in a shared space with a sense of pertinence and possibility. We emphasized the 'collectiveness' of the piece and encouraged the group to draw out key parts/ areas/ ideas that stood out for each of them rather than copying images like for like. We hoped to emphasize this not from just as a design point of you but in a way that encouraged them to continue discussion around individual wishes and priorities.

I Print, We Print, Imprints 

“Because of you I learnt a new way to print. I had the chance to draw my dream on the paper and whatever I saw in my dreams became true - So finally I could print my dream. I’m very happy”

"The most amazing thing was when we took a print and saw the opposite of the image printed. And when we were rolling the colour on the woodblock, the woodblock was very attractive. The display of the work was very good and interesting."

"Carving on the board and printing on the fabric was the most interesting thing. Everyone was very happy and working sincerely in a focused way so another interesting thing was how all the friends and community were gathering round and being interested in what we were doing."

                                                                                                                                                                                                       ~ reflections from Year 8 pupils


On the second day the groups were introduced to the printing process with a demonstration using one of the groups’ woodcut blocks. They then took it in turns in their groups to roll printing ink on to the blocks, press the blocks on to the fabric and print their images on to canvas. They worked together or took turns for the group depending on the stages. 

A free drawing space was available for when they wanted to use this after printing their work and watching others. We had brought a range of papers and materials to give them a chance to experiment and play.


How had it made its mark?

It was exciting to see how quickly Kabi and I could make this collaboration happen, having met with him just a fortnight or so before to hear more about his work. Some of his practice using mandala with children after the earthquake had fed in to my training sessions and similarly he had enjoyed attending one of my training sessions and thinking about different ways of working. I liked listening to his passionate thoughts on the printing process and the 'whole body experience' it absorbs you in to, as you hear the tools carve away at the wood, and move your whole body to create each unique line. We had discussed an idea of a ‘portable print studio’ and he felt right that this became an opportunity to try this out. My work in the UK and Nepal has been strongly driven by key thinking around ‘The Portable Studio’ art therapy concept[i] and I will always enjoying exploring this approach of bringing this ‘studio’ of an internal and external frame in to different challenging contexts.

I enjoyed thinking about working with print-making and the qualities it might bring to the work. There were particular areas of this work which felt particularly powerful. The group seemed to value the permission they were given to work in an open space with no direction or ‘wrong or right’ approach. They were also invited to take ownership of the work and became not only producers but curators, decision makers and in their own way community ambassadors in sharing their work and, on a wider level, their hopes and dreams for the rebuilding of their community and their own lives.

The act of carving their hopes and dreams in to the wood blocks and then imprinting these symbols of their hopes and dreams on to the fabrics that would hang in their community space and schools felt an important and key part of the work. One young person shared:  "When I was rolling and pressing the fabric I felt like a machine."  I hoped they had felt their own power and strength contributing to the artwork as symbolic of their contributions to the rebuilding of their community.

We had thought about this group and their relationship to practical work in their communities, working the land, often counting on their hands and bodies as the main tools of their labour. It seemed to work really well to draw on the familiar to them in some way as well as bring in the new and inspiring. Through the wood carving and print-making we were bringing in a discipline which feels so embodied and draws on their inbuilt skills but also offers new perspectives and opportunity. Another young person highlighted: "Printing on the fabric was very new for us. It was the first time in the village. Carving was something that lots of people do in the village but we never printed with carving together."

We gave the art materials and art activity careful consideration and it felt important to us to be able to make the gesture of bringing a range of professional materials up the mountains and in to the village. At a time when the Ghyachchok community had lost so much and had been taken so little in aid relief. 

As a whole project, the young people shared that they enjoyed the opportunity to draw and use different materials and papers that they don’t have a lot of opportunity to work with usually. As one young person shared: “From the beginning I was very happy. I’d never done drawing like this on different paper. It was good to see my art and my friends’ art. It was a wonderful moment to use the coloured pastels and have them in my hand. The first day was drawing and carving and the next day we printed.” They reference the connecting qualities of the art materials and the way they can support us to realize our place in the present but also in our wider context – and what we might be able to achieve with them.

Some of the young people showed a good awareness of the wider aims of the work and they seemed to acknowledge the holistic approach to the work: “I had the chance to draw my dream on the paper and whatever I saw in my dreams became true - So finally I could print my dream.”

This was a challenging piece of work for the Year 8 group and ourselves in this context, but an important challenge all the same for opening new perspectives; encouraging the young people to take control, find their voice and acknowledge their place in a wider context. They proved more than capable and brought us inspiration and a whole range of new questions and ideas for our future work which travel with me on a daily basis since returning to Kathmandu. However of course I also left Ghaychchok with some questions that I will continue to work through: Did the young people really connect as I'd hoped, even on an unconscious level, with the wider aims and symbolism of the work?; How empowering is an activity like this when the content (the art-making process, the art form and the activity concept) appear to be challenging and at times confusing, possibly even overwhelming, for a group?; What is ‘lost in translation’?; What is lost across cultural, social, religious, political borders however good the verbal translation might be? How much of my rationale was built on my need to feel as though I was bringing something of real use and substance to the community? How much did Kabi and I, the artists collective and the community all bring shared or differing hopes and dreams? And were they / will they be / can they all be met? - Ultimately at least here I know that we all brought and took away different things from the work in Ghaychchok. And we wouldn't be who we are or have what we have without celebrating and valuing all of the different hopes and dreams that we work towards or the resources that we bring, big and small. And hopefully we can continue to support eachother to strive towards them no matter what the hurdles might be.


Reading & Reference:

[i] “The Portable Studio” has been explored in Bobby Lloyd’s Art Refuge UK work but was originally established with fellow Art Therapist Debra Kalmanowitz in their co-founded organization Art Therapy Initiative (ATI)ATI has used the concept of “The Portable Studio” in various complex contexts with displaced communities in conflict and post-conflict areas. Bobby Lloyd has also explored the concept in some extremely interesting social action –orientated work through her charitable organization in London The Drawing Shed working with communities on estates. This work is co-facilitated by Bobby Lloyd, a visual artist and art psychotherapist, and Sally Labern, a visual artist.


Bernard Manyena, Siambabala. "The Concept of Resilience Revisited" in Disasters 30:4 (2006), 433-450

Kalmanowitz, D. & Lloyd, B. (2002) Inhabiting the uninhabitable: the use of art-making with teachers in Southwest Kosovo, The Arts in Psychotherapy 29 (2002) 41-52

Kalmanowitz, D. & Lloyd, B. "Inside the Portable Studio. Art therapy in the former Yugoslavia 1994-2002" in Art Therapy & Political Violence: with art, without illusion (2005) London: Routledge Publishers, 106-125


My involvement in the Art Works!: Sangai  Khalaun (Let's Play Together)  initiative has been part my work in Nepal here with Art Refuge UK, supporting refugee and local displaced children and communities. Since March much of my work has been around sharing learning with professionals -teachers, artists, psychologists, counselors and creative practitioners - to explore the establishment of these 'safe spaces' through experiential sessions and conversation. Hear more about Art Refuge UK's plans for ongoing, long-term work and find out how you can support via their recently launched Nepal Earthquake Appeal here.