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Covid Cohort: Derby’s Art Therapy Trainees show resilience by producing an online exhibition and opening night ‘Beyond Words’

19 December 2020

By Catherine Brooks and Odette Andre

Derby’s Art Therapy trainees showed adaption to course expectations during the Covid-19 pandemic that halted the world. Dissemination of the Independent Scholarship module would conventionally take place as a physical exhibition within the Britannia Mill studios. The exhibition has a dual purpose; to exhibit research and mark the end of training. This can be thought of as an initiation ceremony, the last task before losing the title ‘Trainee’ from our names and becoming qualified Art Therapists.  Covid-19 made the physical exhibition impossible, with government rules needed to keep the country safe. These unusual times led trainees to alter expectations of what an exhibition could look like. A website was produced to showcase our arts-based research and an online opening event marked the end of two transformative years, allowing a celebration together although physically distanced. This account is written by two newly qualified Art Therapists who were part of the digital online exhibition and spoke on the night.

The University of Derby’s Britannia Mill campus features oversized windows, filling the generous studio rooms with light. This space ensures that art making provides the foundation of our practice and a containing frame to engage with sensitive material safely.

At the end of each academic year, Art Therapy trainees witness the transformation of this creative space into a venue for the end-of-year show. As art bays are taken down, the freshly painted walls reveal a blank canvas and potential for the cohort to exhibit upon.  Showcasing the trainee's intense interaction with our individual arts-based research, keeping art firmly at the heart of our practice. Although the exhibition is not graded, the engagement with art making is what informs our research papers.

The opening night would conventionally allow the final curated work to be displayed, disseminating feelings held within the pieces. Friends, family and professionals would have the chance to engage with the work and talk to the creators, with the clinking of glasses providing a symbolic ending.

For the class of 2020, however, this ceremony would be transformed beyond recognition by Covid-19, producing a feeling of loss and uncertainty that was also being felt within the wider systems of society.  The action taken by the cohort was an online collection of our work, translating artwork into digital platforms, encouraging students to revisit their work and reconsider how it could function in this new context.  Challenges included how to photograph 3D art pieces to truly capture the embodied sense within them, as well as cataloguing pieces two dimensionally rather than the curation of an immersive space. This reduction of size, space and contortion to the digital screens 

changed the artworks’ potency in unknown ways.

The online show provided a potential for reaching international audiences that could not have been achieved previously. Time, distance and physical attendance to the exhibition no longer mattered as interactions could happen through digital devices of curious people in their own time.

The new format of the night included talks, a Q&A session and a symbolic ending montage. The event was hosted by our peer trainee, Josh Tan and featured guest speaker, sensorimotor Art Therapy specialist Liz Antcliff. Derby’s Art Therapy Programme Leader Kirsty McTaggart, plus other academic staff and trainees offered contributions.

Event Host Josh Tan

The opening night

In the privacy of his own home, but in front of an assembled crowd of around 150 – Josh, one of 17 graduating Art Therapists from the class of 2020, hosted an almost seamless conference-style event. Responsibility for leading the ceremony would have fazed many, but Josh had experience in this area, having previously addressed much larger crowds in stadiums as a master of ceremonies in Singapore and for numerous recorded TED talks.

The audience featured a global presence which reflected our diverse cohort of trainees. Attendees included experts in Art Therapy and others, relatively unfamiliar with the profession, such as friends and family of those exhibiting. New audiences were able to hear tutors' comment about the course, the cohort and arts-based research in talks now available through the website.  Some of these featured creativity and metaphor, becoming visually symbolic art pieces in their own right. Josh light-heartedly relayed the irony of an exhibition called Beyond Words, given that the opening night was filled with words.

Liz Antcliff, an Australian Art Therapist who provided training to us back in February, opened the show. The tilt shift effect over a still image of Liz created a continuous rolling motion, producing for some an unease. These visual effects mirrored the disconnect and unsettled feelings relating to the opening marking an uncomfortable ending.

Liz offered insights to our exhibition title ‘Beyond Words’, exploring the symbolism associated with this title. Her astute awareness of the multi-layered meaning of ‘beyond’ and ‘words’ connected them to our future careers.  Although the purpose was to provide a talk with congratulations, by including still images and effects it became full of metaphor and symbolism. Panning and scanning effects across landscapes containing horizons, water, clouds, and high contrast imagery of setting suns felt like a visual representation of our journey to the end.    

Screenshot from Liz’s Talk

Kirsty McTaggart, Programme Leader, provided the second talk giving context to the Independent Scholarship module.  She noted the ‘tension we often sit with as Art Therapists, understanding the creative process, staying with the felt sense and understanding that sometimes there are no words.’

Adem, a lecturer on the course, congratulated the cohort and spoke of the importance that Art Therapy holds existing beyond the realm of language and the concise nature of the exhibition title.

Another lecturer, Sage, provided a corporeal film with the plant heather as its subject. The slight movements indicated a human witnessing the plant with thoughts to the joint attention and triangular relationship that is engaged in Art Therapy. Sage presented the metaphor of heather as a gift to the cohort, commenting on how the experience ‘had become its own curious gift of learning’.

Dr Jean Bennett gave the first live talk, providing a brief overview of arts-based research. She posited that despite the self-absorbed impression Independent Scholarship research may give, personal narratives show vulnerability and may hold a resonance to others.

Our peer, Lucinda Creed, started the trainee talks off with a playful opening, using Freud and Jung puppets before thanking all who had helped us on the course.

Odette spoke about her experience of the course and her use of animation. Her talk was quickly ambushed as her two-year-old son joined unexpectedly, playing with art materials in the background. Nonetheless, she held the segment together, drawing attention to the very real issues of studying and working from home.

Rachel Roberts compared her previous career as a biostatistician with the very different profession of Art Therapy. She described a tension between her previous knowledge of data for quantitative research and learning a new form of methodology on the MA course.

A panel consisting of guest speaker Liz Antcliff, Dr Jean Bennett and trainees was placed alongside visuals from the arts-based research as guests asked questions via the chat function. To conclude the event, Catherine compiled video clips of course mates into a montage of goodbyes held together with an original music composition.

Zoom Image of Exhibiting Trainees