“Mending what is broken between us” was the title of the 39th Canadian Art Therapy Association Conference held at Concordia University this past October, where over 250 art therapists and allies from across Canada attended to share their knowledge and practice within the field, from research on certain intervention strategies to the ways the profession is carried through different populations.
Art therapy, in a nutshell, is a form of expressive therapy that combines psychological knowledge with art media knowledge to tailor services for individuals to work through their challenges in visual and often non-verbal means. As many of us may know, talking about what makes us afraid or hurt can be difficult and art can often be a way of expressing what cannot be said. The creative process, in this manner, is a place to deconstruct and reconstruct the self or an experience on both a psychological level and through the materials themselves in often surprising symbolic ways.
The role of the art therapist is to guide these individuals through their internal and creative processes using their extensive knowledge of psychological development, disorders, cognitive and affective functioning as well as a grounded knowing in how to use art media to reach psychological goals. Art therapy as a practice is thus as diverse as the colors on a pallet in the ways that it can be used, which is what tickled my curiosity as a new art therapist.
In working with Indigenous children within the school system as well as Indigenous male inmates at medium security prison, I was curious about the ways innovators were using art to create both personal and social change within the needs of Indigenous populations. Including sharing my own perspective through the presentation of my research, where I explored how multigenerational trauma impacts the identity development of Indigenous people.
Or in other words, how colonization affects how we see ourselves.
I found, through art material, that we exist on a spectrum of Indigenaiety (similar to acculturation in the psychology fields). This means that parts of us both accept and reject our own culture as well as the culture of on the outside because of the shame or fear or feeling not good enough (or native enough) we inherited from residential schools, family upbringing or being on a wrong side of a stereotype. Many of us have been there because many of us do not look like Pocahontas and many of us also like going to the movies, driving a car or going to university in a colonized institution.
So how we meet in the middle was what I wanted to explore.
The research I then presented was on how art materials and the creative process can act as the meeting ground for all those parts of the selves to coexist. Art-making can be the way that we can embrace two ways of knowing.
This concept, whether by chance or through social change, became the theme of “mending what is broken between us” not just in terms of our own personal struggles, but as a dialogue around reconciliation. I met with other indigenous art therapists across Canada to create a circle and dialogue that can work towards decolonizing our practice so that Indigenous people have a culturally safe place to explore themselves and have access to culturally appropriate tools—tools that may blend therapy techniques with cultural knowledge.
But decolonization rarely occurs on just one level; it has to be all levels and in this sense also involves creating a space within the profession to educate others on the impacts of multigenerational trauma and colonization on wellness so that relationships can be built to better service communities. This entails changing curriculum in our programs and educating service providers, policy makers, associations and orders and others.
Through building a community of Indigenous art therapists and allies, we are taking the steps to make change and by using our gifts of blending the creative process with psychology to “mend what was broken between us”.