Alumni Update: Irina Derkacheva (Class of 2012)

Moscow International Art Therapy Conference 2012 Report

When I first attended the art therapy conference in Moscow last year, I was shaken by the realization that Edith Kramer, the most esteemed name in American art therapy, was not universally revered and admired. It turned out that many Russian practitioners have never heard of her. In fact, they were much more liable to refer to the works of Carl Jung or any number of European experts, whose names were unfamiliar to me. I felt like a fish out of the water when participating in discussions about the practical applications of art therapy. I speak Russian fluently and the issue was not linguistic but rather conceptual, or perhaps even cultural. The Russian approach to art therapy is firmly grounded in psychology and sociology, thus therapists tend to use a lot of psychological terminology and aim at achieving measurable results. So when I came to Moscow this year, I was prepared to give a highly scientific-sounding presentation. I spent hours learning the jargon and matching my goals with the observable outcomes. However, when I presented a workshop based on the work I did in my second year internship, I discovered that my audience was much more impressed with the actual art experiential than with my learned discussion of the psychological underpinnings of the approach. I observed the same reaction in the other workshops I attended at the conference. Though well-versed in psychology and psychiatry, Russian art therapists seemed to have relatively limited exposure to artistic applications and techniques. When offered a chance to create, these otherwise solemn-looking clinicians enthusiastically immersed themselves in any assignment or task. They were hungry to experience the liberating effects of art-making.

My workshop — the product of my much fretted about thesis project — was devoted to the examination of craft-based activities as valid art therapy interventions. Yet, the better half of the 3-hour workshop was spent discussing the realities of the forensic setting where I interned during my last year at SVA. Russian therapists were fascinated by my descriptions of a New York City jail. My recollections apparently shattered many of their assumptions about the state of the correctional system and mental health care in the U.S. Although the American approach to mental health care seems to be better organized and better funded than its Russian counterpart, it is by no means as advanced and comprehensive as Russian professionals tend to believe.

This Q&A session was finally interrupted by another foreign guest of the conference. Laura Jimenez-Alonso, a refreshingly forthright professor of art therapy from Austria, petitioned the group to switch gears and to start making art. And switch gears they did. Once I divided the 10 participants into 3 smaller groups and gave the instructions, the art-making process was unstoppable. The simple directions required the participants to cut geometric and organic shapes out of construction paper and to use them in designing personal “quilts” on 8’’ squares of white drawing paper. The room was buzzing with energy and chatter. Laura, the free-spirited Austrian, started humming a melody that seemed to resonate with the other group members. While some people were singing the nameless tune, others seemed to be completely absorbed by their creative process. A male psychiatrist, who a few minutes earlier was drilling me on the effectiveness of my “methodology” and its applicability to business, could not stop cutting and rearranging the shapes. Some female group members seemed to have a clear idea of what their personal piece was supposed to look like and went around the room looking for different colors and shapes.

After several reminders and a certain amount of cajoling, the participants were finally able to tear themselves away from their work and reconvened around the large piece of mural paper I had placed in the middle of the room. They seemed to still be entranced by the process of creation and reluctantly placed their pieces on the mural, which I described as a group quilt. Having observed their hesitancy, I became worried about the processing part of the exercise. After all, they were a group of strangers attending a professional summit. However, after the first few minutes of processing, these seasoned professionals seemed to have let go of their reticence. The group members enthusiastically shared the meanings behind their work and the emotions they experienced while making their pieces. Yet, when Laura suggested coming up with a story that would incorporate all the quilts, the Russian participants had trouble coming up with a cohesive narrative. They kept staring at the large communal quilt, transfixed by the multitude of themes and ideas. Interestingly enough, when I facilitated the same experiential with a smaller group of Russian therapists in a different setting, they were more than willing to discuss and disagree with each other on the nature of their joint narrative. It seems that the familiarity of the group members with each other played an important role for this part of the activity.

After the workshop many participants asked for my permission to take their quilts home. They seemed to have made personal connections with their work and were proud of their accomplishment. As I was packing up and closing my Power Point file, several group members approached me, expressing their appreciation for the simplicity and genuineness of my presentation. Remembering my earlier preoccupation with sounding professional and scholarly, I had to chuckle a little. It turned out that all they wanted was an unpretentious and honest description of the work and the chance to experience it themselves. Theoretical and cultural differences of our approaches to art therapy seemed to diminish when actual art making was involved.

Although the gentleman who quizzed me on the business applications of art therapy remained dubious about my aspirations as a professional, the vast majority of people I encountered at the conference seemed to share many of the views and beliefs I have heard from American therapists. I enjoyed finding such similarities with Russian conference attendees, yet I also valued these interactions for the way they expanded my awareness of the different points of view and the multitude of approaches that exist in the art therapy universe. I feel that such exchanges of ideas and collaborations with foreign colleagues are an essential component in promoting art therapy as a globally recognized discipline.

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