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Jonny Wilkinson: art therapy good for everyone

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Art therapy, like this work by the ‘At a Stroke’ art therapy group in the Far North, is a form of psychotherapy and improves well-being, says columnist Jonny Wilkinson.

A different light

“Art for art’s sake, money for god’s sake” was an earworm refrain in 10CC’s 70s hit song.

The song draws its inspiration from one of the band members’ fathers who used to say the phrase repeatedly, signaling his doubt about the band’s likely success. His doubt was clearly misplaced as the band went on to produce many hits such as “Dreadlock Holiday”, one of my old favorites.

Art comes in many forms and facets. I should know, my mother was an art teacher
and continues to paint at the age of 89.

The artistry obviously jumped a generation, just above me, and landed quite and squarely on my daughter Chyna who went to art school in Elam and got a BFA . They both have a raw and refined talent. More recently, she completed a master’s degree in the clinical application of art therapy.

Art therapies are forms of psychotherapy using things like visual arts, drama, music, or performance art like dance. It has a therapeutic approach to improving well-being. The focus is on the process, not the end product. One of the beneficiaries of art therapy is people with disabilities. In Northland, such services are emerging.

Last weekend in Waipū, Circability hosted the second National Youth Festival. I had heard from the vineyard that the participants had enjoyed themselves.

I called Thomas Hinz, creative director of Circabilty to see how the festival went. His Germanic exuberance was contagious.

“It was really, really good! We had over 200 attendees. It was the essence of diversity inclusivity. There were people with intellectual disabilities and physical disabilities. There were people suffering from anxiety, depression, ADHD and autism.They were all trying their hand at it.

“There were the students from the school that we trained, training other students. There were workshops in juggling, trapeze, tightrope walking and balancing on giant balls that wheelchair users wheels could do,” he said.

Waipū Circability hosted the second National Youth Festival last weekend, which had able-bodied participants, as well as people with intellectual and physical disabilities.
Waipū Circability hosted the second National Youth Festival last weekend, which had able-bodied participants, as well as people with intellectual and physical disabilities.

“Really, wheelchairs on balls”, I said “how does it work?”

“They can lay on the balls and run around in circles,” he said.

Wow!

“Is it therapeutic? I asked.

Hinz explained, “It’s more the social engagement, it’s that kind of ‘wow – I can actually do that!’ moment that really has a big impact on the participants.”

I asked my daughter Chyna what art therapy was and how it related to people with disabilities. His response was “you should use the term creative arts therapy”.

She went on to say, “Creative arts therapy includes visual arts, dance movement therapy, drama therapy, and nature-related arts. All humans have an inner creative capacity.

“Art therapy offers people, including people with disabilities, the opportunity to express themselves creatively. These opportunities for expression are particularly important for people with disabilities who have difficulty communicating verbally, as they provide a safe, engaging and alternative way to express emotions and experiences.”

“So you must be ‘good at art’?”

Chyna clarified to her old man that “art therapy is not skill-based, it is process-based and offers people with disabilities and all people the opportunity to authentically engage and tell their stories, express their identity and imagine new possibilities.

“Whether through dance, play, theatre, visual art, sensory art and storytelling, the arts are intrinsically linked to our human rights, the rights of all people, regardless of their neurodiversity or his ability to engage creatively,” she said.

I asked her what it was like to be a creative arts therapist. Chyna explained her passion for this mahi.

“As a creative arts therapist working at Blomfield Special School, I have found working with disabled and neurodiverse ākonga to be a privilege. Being able to provide our students with a safe place to express themselves, explore special interests and build inner trust in a therapeutic setting the relationship is magic.”

The Raukatauri Music Therapy Center is contributing significantly to the growth of art therapy services for people with disabilities in Northland. I gave Jen Glover, the clinical director and a licensed music therapist from Raukatauri, a call this week to ask what they’re doing.

She said they opened in Northland in March 2019 and were the only organization providing this service.

Describing the fundamental concept of their mahi, Jen explained:

“Music therapy stimulates healthy brain cells and encourages new cells to be active. This can be used for all age groups, from toddlers who may have autism, Down syndrome or children with developmental disabilities or trauma, to adults who have had a stroke or dementia.It can also help clients with brain damage and the therapy activates the pleasure parts of the brain and helps regulate emotionally.

Reading more about Raukatauri, I laughed to myself. The Raukatauri Music Therapy Center was established in March 2004 by singer and songwriter Hinewehi Mohi, who named it after her daughter Hineraukatauri who has severe cerebral palsy.

I remember years ago I saw Hinewehi Mohi at the airport. I went up to her and introduced myself, optimistically thinking I could offer her some advice regarding her daughter, as I myself grew up with cerebral palsy.

She gave me a horrified look and walked away. I remember being both amazed and perplexed. Maybe it was my own dose of universe-delivered art therapy—a lesson in humility.

• Jonny Wilkinson is the Managing Director of Tiaho Trust – Disability A Matter of Perception, a disability advocacy organization based in Whangarei.