Eco-Art Therapy | My Journey as an Art Therapist

Eco-Art Therapy | My Journey as an Art Therapist

The Artonomy Centre has a unique position in Co. Dublin. We are situated in the heart of Dun Laoghaire village. We have the privilege of offering eco-art therapy sessions along the shore from Sandymount to Seapoint, Cabinteely Park, Killiney Hill and not too far away in Bray at Festina Lente. We also do one off group workshops further out in wilder areas in Wicklow. However, this is not where my journey working as a therapist outdoors began.

Before I knew there was a term for outdoor art therapy (environmental art therapy, eco art therapy, eco therapy, eco psychology and so forth) I spontaneously found myself working this way with clients. About 15 years ago, not long before I began training as an art therapist, I facilitated a therapeutic art programme in a residential facility for substance misuse, in the heart of the Wicklow Wild. I was fortunate enough to work with a highly experienced and multi-disciplinary team led by Dr. Colin O’Driscoll, who is now clinical lead for the HSE Mid-West region Drug and Alcohol Services. There was real encouragement by Colin to trust the work we were doing. I worked here for many years and during this time eventually became the resident art psychotherapist.

The facility was surrounded by the most beautiful and wild landscape of rolling hills and forest. In fact, the forest was our back garden. A truly wonderful place to work. The environment allowed the clients to connect with themselves through art therapy in nature and the inherent healing properties therein. Art therapy in nature offered as much of a container (among other things and in different ways) for the clients/clients work as being in the studio, and in some cases, more: nature and art therapy as co-container/co-facilitator. Working therapeutically in this context was not something I had any consciously deep thoughts on initially. In the beginning it was a natural instinct to work in a way that celebrated, utilised and included the natural environment. The connection already existed deep within me, the clients and the centre. Our dedicated art studio opened out onto the land that invited us to explore and bathe in nature.

Many group and individual sessions involved participants bringing something back from their long forest and mountain walks. Objects could be anything from a fallen branch to an animal skull. Sometimes I would set tasks of finding items for creative integration. It was a good way to inspire those who were suffering inertia to get out and connect with the air and land around them. For some clients the thought of coming to the studio to create intentional art could be challenging. Starting outside and working our way inwards was a natural progression to art making and rarely failed to engage everyone. However, without my direction, many participants did this of their own accord. Fascinating and beautiful objects found their way into our studio. I would encourage them to work with these objects and amazing stories would emerge through the art making, often using metaphor for their own lives. On fine days we would venture out and use only the materials we found around us to create land art, sacred spaces, safe spaces, nests, or simply to be outside and connect with the earth in new and present ways.

I was privileged, during these sessions, to witness muddled energy make way to serene presence, depression lift into lightness. Through our working process clarity would often come from confusion as we sat and shared experiences around the work and what had happened internally and externally through the process of working productively with the earth. The work was not simply limited to “good” feelings. Often, huge emotional shifts could take place through the connection with deep pain in a safe place that allowed the space for stillness and reflection. It is not very common nowadays to have that interval in our lives to sit with ourselves. Nature invites us to do that.

Often, I found the boundaries of a group different when in open spaces. While working inside, some participants can be overly sensitive to the space of others and to their own space. Among other things, they can feel self-conscious due to the proximity to one another. While this is not prohibitive to effective therapy and offers its own emergent cognisance among the group and individual, it can differ to the broader proximity that being outdoors has to offer, the freedom of a space that is entirely one’s own.

One of the many things I enjoy about working outdoors is the metaphorical nature of the work, particularly the changing cycles of nature and how they can mirror events in our own lives. These can be reflected in the everyday events and happenings we experience and also the longer-term view of our lives and our changing cycles through the aging process. The death and rebirth of life, the death and rebirth of life’s phases, can be embraced, understood, accepted and used for positive and conscious change.

It has been argued in many quarters that the disconnection from the land we evolved alongside of for the last 6-7 million years negatively affects the health and survival of not just our species but Earth and all of her species and precious natural resources. This is a theme that arises regularly nowadays, at a time when Earth’s health is becoming more precarious. It is easier to dismiss or lack consideration for nature when it is not readily accessible to us. Fortunately, we can avail of so much natural beauty in Ireland, never being too far from the wild and the tamed wild no matter where we live. There are forests, beaches, public gardens, hills, mountains, rivers and urban green spaces galore. Now, more than ever, with cities expanding and people more and more removed from nature in our busy, busy lives, it is crucial that we connect with our Mother Earth in the ways that nourish us  and the land, as nature intended.

Author | Louise Gartland | Art Psychotherapist 

February 2019