HOW CAN WE RESPOND TO A NATURAL DISASTER THROUGH THE ARTS? AN EXPLORATION OF WORKING WITH NATURE’S RESOURCES / by Jess Linton

 

"Among the many relationships that define the human condition, the individual’s connection to the environment is primary. The elemental back-ground against which all our activity is played out, nature is the biggest of the big pictures. We worship and loathe it, sanctify and destroy it. Birth, death and all that is graceful and vicious between sit comfortably within the natural web. We “singular creatures” also bloom and rot on its vast matrix, but the combination of our ambition and our gifts makes us want more than simply to survive. We aspire to leave our mark, inscribing our observations and gestures within the landscape, attempting to translate and transgress the space within which we find ourselves.”

                                                                                     ~ Kastner & Wallis, 1998: 11

 

TLC  Jharuwarasi May 2015

In a training session for teachers, artists and arts educators recently a Head teacher had raised the question of how we could rebuild a trust for our home ‘Mother Earth’ (to use her term) after the earthquakes. The natural world seems to be highly regarded in Nepal, recognized for the sustenance it gives us: water for us to drink and to clean with, food to eat, materials to build our shelters. Although we have seen powerful landslides up in the mountain regions destroy or savagely scar whole villages, on the whole we have also found our sanctuary in open outdoor space.

So this probably highlights part of the tension that this Head teacher shared with us. This natural disaster has reminded people of how small we really are, how much bigger than us the natural world is, and what little control we ultimately have over it. We thought in the group about how this natural world continues to be our natural place, our home, regardless. And that there is nowhere else we could or would rather be. So how do we find our balance? And how do we feel at home and cultivate a true sense of belonging?

The same headteacher shared a simple mantra with the group that she had written and wanted to teach her children:

Mother Earth we love you,

We are sorry,

We thank you for all that you give us,

And we give back our love to you.

 Another educator running a workshop for the group shared possible songs that could be sung with children that connected with nature and also offered a beautiful story-telling through yoga activity.

 “The reason for using natural art materials [aims to] foster an investigation of nature through engaging sensory intelligence. In this context, subjectivity relates to a natural terrain that is continually in flux, a mirroring of one’s own nature in motion amid changing circumstances”

~Whitaker in Hyland Moon, 2010: 123

I found myself responding to the conversations in the training session by starting to bring natural resources in to sessions. I have drawn on learning from the ‘Circle of Trees’ environmental art therapy group that I have started to be a part of in London and wondered why I hadn't brought it in to the work sooner here . I have always been interested in working with natural resources or often brought the natural word in to my art practice. I had started to explore this in my art therapeutic practice with a refugee service I was working with in London too.  

I wondered whether, on a very simple level, working so directly with the natural world would in this context could support us to rebuild this connection, however subtly we might begin to work with it. I enjoy responding to the 'environment' around me and learning from and with the groups that I am working with. It has become clearer and clearer to me that given there was little separation between the people I was working with and the natural world surrounding us on many different levels, we couldn’t be separated from it  (Davis, 2007: 46).

For the past few weeks I have continued to feed this rationale in to my work in a range of different sessions for people displaced or affected by Nepal’s earthquakes, and professionals working with them. Some of these professionals are of course displaced and affected themselves. 

 

A workshop for 30 children and young people in a temporary learning centre (TLC)

“the nonverbal communication between environment and participant allowed for play and freedom which often gave a different perspective to feelings of total hopelessness”  

                                                                                                                                                                                      ~ Davis, 2007: 46

I went with Nepal Children’s Art Museum (CAM) to offer a session for children in a TLC in Jharuwarasi, a district in north Lalitpur. The school we delivered the work in was not damaged and had re-opened to support their pupils and other local children. The academic programme hadn't begun again and children were being invited to take part in a number of extra-curricular arts, sport and play activities. The Government had suggested a start date (31st May - which we hadn't quite reached at that point) for the schools that could re-open but we also felt that teachers seemed exhausted and keen to have the support of external organisations and individuals.

I worked with a mixed age group from 9 years old and above, supported by a member of staff and volunteer from CAM. We agreed that we could take the session in the field next door where the school were leading half of their activities due to space issues. There was also a lovely big tree which offered shade! A perfect spot for working with natural materials.

We started by taking a minute (or near enough, the younger children did pretty well!) to sit quietly listening to the sounds around us. We thought about what we could hear: the birds, the wind, the wind in the tree, leaves, other children in the school, the dogs. I asked them to think about what ‘nature’ meant to them – was it somewhere they spent a lot of time or was it unusual to be spending time outside? Some children seemed to find it hard to draw on personal thoughts and feelings but the group discussion allowed them to begin to make connections. Others instinctively connected the conversation to the earthquake by sharing that at the moment they were spending lots of time outside. We thought about how open spaces had become people’s safe spaces, and that many local families and families across Nepal were also currently sleeping in tents outside.

Next we introduced the natural materials that I had gathered for the session. They were put in the centre of our circle, with children keen to pick these up and play with them. We passed a few materials around and asked them to use all of their senses to get to know them: touching them and feeling their different textures; taking a close look at every detail: petals, leaf shapes, seeds, bark, veins in the leaves; looking at them as a whole; holding them up to their noses to see if they could smell a scent.

Then we introduced the art-making activity, inviting the children to use circular pieces of paper and the natural materials to make their own work, thinking about what nature meant to them. If they wanted to they could use glue to stick materials down and use other art materials to add to the work.

As I handed out the paper a child said the circular paper was like a roti (the traditional flat round bread) and as they made we talked about how the circular papers began to look like ‘pujas’ - the offerings, often of food, fruits and sweets, left in temples or outside houses for deities). This led us organically to the decision to put the finished work around the tree we had worked under, holding a mini exhibition of the work. As we walked around the tree looking at everyone’s work we talked a bit more about what we get from the natural world: water to drink, to clean with, to cook with; food to eat; materials to build the shelters we live or sleep under etc.  

Being a younger group than I had planned for I was left wondering whether the activity worked as well as I had hoped. The younger children in the group seemed hungry for whole materials and less able to think about their relationship with them or how to adapt them. Once natural materials were used they worked over their papers with crayons and coloured pencils, often in what felt like an unintegrated way. I thought about the fragments and chaos surrounding them and perhaps how they weren’t quite yet able to digest their experiences or feel quite whole again. In a simple way the session also allowed the group to be playful and creative with new materials, working in new ways and in new spaces. There was a clear interest in the use of new materials and the acknowledgement of all the different things natural resources bring us in order for us to feed and sustain our basic needs and in turn our own internal resources.

The sensory qualities of the natural materials seemed to be calming for some of the children, as was working in the outdoor environment which felt more still and spacious than the crowded school spaces.

Gathering the work around the trunk of the tree and walking around the artworks offered a symbolic bringing together of the group in their environment, the children able to acknowledge our place not just alongside but within the natural world, the place we naturally call home.

 

 A session for psycho-social and mental health workers already supporting children and adults displaced or affected by the earthquake.

“Making art within a natural setting expressed themes related to growth, decay, and processes of changes, as well as cultural traditions associated with different seasons of the year… The materiality of the natural world and the materiality of human nature coexist as expressions of organic life’s superfluidity, infusing art therapy with new frontiers of accumulative creation.”

~ Whitaker in Hyland Moon: 2010, 120-121

 

Recently I established a support and skills sharing group for Art Refuge UK in collaboration with Transcultural Psycho-Social Organization (TPO) Nepal, co-facilitating the group with a counselor from TPO Nepal. TPO Nepal have a beautiful garden space which we may well work in one day. For our first few session we have decided to take natural materials in to one of their counselling rooms, so that the group feel as though they have a private space to work in. Despite having felt fairly sizeable aftershocks up in our room at the top of the building in both sessions!

Individuals attend the group from a range of professions within psycho-social support and mental health, including: a clinical psychologist, a psychologist, psycho-social workers, counselors, support workers, researchers. Everyone who attended has been working with people displaced or affected by the recent earthquakes.

I introduced the natural materials and some of my rationale behind working with them in this context. We started by ‘checking in’ by choosing from the natural materials from the table and bringing them back to the group. We introduced the materials and shared what had resonated with them, drawing on our week on a personal or professional level. I always enjoy this activity. It's a fun way to start a session, calling on all our senses as we pick up different seeds, twisted stems, crunchy leaves. Waking ourselves up in to the session! But also brilliantly, we enjoy being able to use the natural materials to draw on a far broader palette of descriptive words for our experiences, thoughts and feelings that we might miss in our daily (verbal) dialogues. This palette of ‘in between’ colours, shapes, textures, smells and symbols alongside the power of metaphor helps us to draw on our unconscious and unpick the parts of self and experiences that aren’t simply ‘black or white’.

"Working within nature seems to provide a subtle and deeper holding of the therapeutic process. Nature also provides the materials, media, context, inspiration and exhibition space. The inspirational dynamic active in nature is experienced as we attune to the holding environment. As we move into feeling we find that the process takes us in to a connection on a symbol forming level. Here there is a connection made between internal feeling and the unconscious – and the external – explored and amplified through the use of symbol and metaphor."

                      ~ Jones & Nash, 2013: 3

I have also begun to see a really interesting mixture of shared, cultural/ localized and personal knowledge of and connections with the natural materials. The presence of the natural materials opens some individuals up, some keen to share knowledge of specific flowers or plants and the social, cultural, religious and personal connections and relevances. It was a new realm for the group to occupy but most were able to bring themselves in to the room with a real honesty and openness, intrigued by where the work might take them and quickly noticing how all embodied the work with these materials could be.

In many of the adult groups we have thought about the way that working with the materials takes us back to our childhood, where we were more connected with nature and able to be playful, trusting of our surroundings and at peace. I wondered whether going back to these places through the art-making would be part of the bridging process we needed to reconnect with nature.

In our next art-making session we invited the group to use the art-making space as they wished to - offering a range of art materials but also encouraging them to work with the natural resources. This was a group full of emotion; pain, sadness and loss, but also across the spectrum to feelings of hope, strength and resilience. Wherever they sat individuals did seem to express thoughts and themes related to growth, decay, and processes of changes (Whittaker, 2010:120) in their own way. Working with the natural materials, their temporariness and clearly defined cycles and seasons seemed to offer an important space where we could work from the safety of metaphor. The materials became metaphorically but also quite literally something for people to hold on to and make some sense of.

 

To be continued!... Some great reading for those that might be interested:

Davis, J (1999) Report: Environmental Art Therapy – Metaphors in the Field, The Arts in Psychotherapy 26(1), 45-49

Jones, V & Nash, G (2013) Environmental Arts Therapy & the Circle of Trees Blog

Linden, S & Grut, K (2002) The Healing Fields: working with psychotherapy in nature to help rebuild shattered lives, London: Francis Lincoln Publications

Roszak, T., Gomes, M. E., & Kanner, A. D. (1995). Ecopsychology: Restoring the earth, healing the mind. San Francisco:
Sierra Club Books

Siddons- Heginworth , Ian (2009) Environmental Arts Therapy and The Tree of Life, UK: Spirit's Rest Books

Whitaker, P "Groundswell: The Nature and Landscape of Art Therapy" in Hyland Moon, Catherine (2010) Materials & Media in Art Therapy: Critical Understandings of Diverse Artistic Vocabularies, London: Routledge