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Discussion with LS (Part 1/6)

A few weeks ago I had an opportunity to meet with Lee Simmons, an artist and art therapist who I first met whilst working as an intern at South Hill Park Art Centre. Lee was an Art Advisor for ARC at the time and studying on the MA Art Psychotherapy course at Goldsmiths (graduating in 2009). Given that I’m now retraining to become an art therapist I thought it would be good to catch up with Lee and get her views on life after the MA and becoming an art herself. I was also interested to know whether being an art therapist has informed her own art practice in some way or does one negate the other? This is what Lee had to say….

For the purposes of those who may be unfamiliar with your work I was wondering if you could say a little bit about yourself and your artistic practice.

Ok, so I’m Lee. I am a fine artist who often works in public spaces and the process of making the work and experiencing the work is a large part of each sculpture or event. The works are cross-disciplinary, but are derived from fine art painting (and ways of looking at painting), colour and human engagement. The work then moved outside and became a lot more experiential…. I worked with that fine art base for 4 or 5 years before studying a Masters with more of a public art focus (Design for Environment at Chelsea College of Art and Design), studying alongside interior spatial designers, landscape architects, textile artists… etc. And then about 5 years later I focussed on the psychology side of it and studied the Art Psychotherapy Masters at Goldsmiths, which is a clinical practice and not a fine art practice, but it has informed my own art quite a lot in unexpected ways. So I’m an artist who also works as an art therapist.

Could you say a bit more about making work in the public sphere? Were you making work that was socially engaged as a result of doing the Design for Environment course at Chelsea or had this always been integral to your practice?

I was doing that work anyway, but I was pushed to think about it differently. It was coming from my own concepts and ideas and on that training they really pushed me to look more at the spaces I was working with, and the communities, the histories of those spaces and making work around that – less work around my own ideas. It seemed I was too much of a fine artist for that training, but they pushed me to work in more of a design and research type of way, which was helpful.

You also mentioned the influence of psychoanalysis. Subsequently how did studying on the MA Art Psychotherapy course at Goldsmiths affect your art practice at the time? I think the reasons I gave for making art previously I probably scrutinised in a different way to how I’d thought about them on the public art training and fine art training. I became a lot more aware of how we think about and process our experiences and how art communicates these experiences. Sometimes I’d get an idea for a piece which would come out of a similar theme to my other works; it would come of that same line of enquiry, but I’d be more aware of my own background and personality influencing the work that I had done before so it became more difficult to intellectualise these pieces. I think that’s probably the case for a lot of artists. We make work with all of these different themes, purposes and ideas, but ultimately we’re making work that we want to make for our own reasons.

So did doing the course encourage you to look differently at work you’d made before?

Yeah, a bit. But I always knew that there were more drives making me do the pieces I was doing than those I had fully communicated. We don’t always need to say everything about why we do the things we do, though it became a bit more obvious.


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Discussion with LS (Part 2/6)

I’d previously been deliberating a lot about whether or not I could be an art therapist. I generally find that when I talk about it to others they’re never quite sure what it is and what it can be used for. On that basis I’m interested to know what informed your decision to study Art Therapy.

I’d been interested in it since I was a teenager, and I’d also done a placement with arts therapists in 2001, which I enjoyed, though I decided to concentrate on my own artwork and doing social art instead of being an art therapist because I could see it as being quite a different thing. But the idea never really went away. I started to think if I don’t do it I’m always going to wonder and working 3 years on something (part-time) is really not that long in the grand scheme of things. Also in the past I didn’t know how I’d be able to do it. I wanted to do the Goldsmiths course, but London is hugely expensive, the course is expensive, you’ve got to have personal therapy yourself…. how is anybody ever going to afford it all? But then I found myself living in really cheap accommodation practically opposite Goldsmiths; working freelance, so I put in an application and got in, thought I’d do the first year and see how that went, and then I ended up doing the whole 3 years! I’m really glad I did it. And it was the right time to take on new information and challenge myself in a different way.

One thing that’s always put me off becoming an art therapist is that I’ve always felt that it would have a detrimental effect on being an artist and making work. Is this something you’ve found yourself?

It’s a case of making time. Also when people hear that I’m a qualified art therapist, and I get paid for doing that work, I think that they dismiss that I’m an artist. It’s as though you can’t be a serious artist if you’ve got a ‘good job’.

Do you find then that being an art therapist negates your position as an artist or vica versa?

I think I’m a better artist because of it, but I do think that people will take me less seriously as an artist in my own right.

Why do you think that is?

I think we like to put people into boxes. The thing is I’ve done loads of other jobs in the past alongside my art practice. So why can’t I be an art therapist and an artist? I think it has had an impact, people who’ve known me as an artist for more than 10 years have started to introduce me as an art therapist when I’ve only been working as an art therapist for a couple of years. They didn’t introduce me as a post lady, or a gallerist, but they’ve started introducing me as an art therapist. In fact I only do art therapy some of the time at work, a lot of time is spent in my current job on social art projects.

Are you happy with that balance or would you want to spend more time doing art therapy?

I am happy with that balance as the art psychotherapy is really interesting, but it’s quite emotional work as well and takes up a lot of your head, so it’s nice to be able to do other work that’s more action-based. I hope that for the rest of my life I’ll still be delivering art therapy, but I’d like it to be alongside other projects.


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Discussion with LS (Part 3/6)

Typically art therapy applicants are required to have some level of clinical experience prior to starting on the course (at Goldsmiths this constitutes 1500 hours of working in health, social services or education). Can you describe your own vocational experience prior to being accepted at Goldsmiths? Did you already have that experience or did you have to acquire it by other means?

No, I already had that. I’d worked for Richmond Mencap, and done assisting work for special needs schools on and off during and since my degree (2000), and I’d done a year of leading community art projects, often working with disabled people; my own projects also involved working with a wide variety of people, including those in difficult situations. There was plenty of experience that I’d gathered along the way as I’d enjoyed working with people in lots of different environments.

Do you feel that the course equipped you to work with a range of other client groups as well?

Yes, I worked in psychosis as part of my clinical placement and I don’t think I could’ve done that before. I needed specialist support and training to work in that environment.

Can you say a little bit about the client groups you now work with as an accredited art therapist?

It’s quite varied. It’s mainly adults; I’ve worked with a lot of mental health patients and I’m doing family work at the moment.


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Discussion with LS (Part 4/6)

There seems to be a range of art therapy courses which are defined by different strands of psychoanalytical theory/ theorists. My course at the moment for instance is Jungian-based though I wondered if this was the same for your course.

No, it was Freudian-based. Following a line through Melanie Klein, Bowlby, Winnicott (to name a few) following the development largely of attachment theory and object relations to the present day. It covered a huge amount but really ignored Jung.

Did you read up on Jung anyway?

No, there was enough to be looking at on the training. I read what was suggested to read and followed some other things up that I was interested in. I obviously did read a lot of Freud, and was particularly interested in Klein.

Do you feel that people will actively seek out therapists whose training is underpinned by a particular school of thought whether it’s Jungian, Freudian or other? Is this a prerequisite to people working with you?

Well I’ve never been asked. It’s good to have learnt about that history, though the most important thing is whether you’re psychodynamic or not and how you’re thinking about your clients. People are definitely interested to know that I’m a psychodynamic art therapist and that I’ve got that traditional training from Goldsmiths – then they generally know what they’re getting. Other therapy courses often have more of a spiritual element or focus more on dreams and visualisation.

Does the breadth of different art therapy courses make it harder for you to describe what you do as an art therapist?

Some people have a really good understanding and that’s really exciting. Some people are open to knowing more about it and that’s cool. And some people, no matter how well you explain it, are not going to get it and maybe don’t want to get it either. There’s definitely a lot of misunderstanding around it, a lot of people think you’re doing art teaching or art activities which you’re obviously not.

So do you have to be strict in saying this is what I do and it’s just this or do get asked to asked to do other things which aren’t geared towards art therapy?

When I’m doing art therapy I’m clear in saying that this is an art psychotherapy session, there are different boundaries. If I’m doing individual work they know that the room’s a no-go area for that hour, the work’s also kept confidentially so I won’t be giving the staff feedback. And if I’m working in an art therapy group there are rigid timeframes; the group takes place here and this is the time boundary, and it’s the same very week. It doesn’t change. Whereas if I’m doing art activities these things are more flexible.

Is it easy for you to switch between these different ways of working?

I always have done. When I was training was I still doing social art projects to earn a living and I ran other stuff too. I’m used to juggling different projects; I think I prefer it to doing one thing all of the time.

Given that art therapy has its own rules and ethical code did you find this way of working rigid having worked on other projects that offered you more flexibility?

Yeah it took some getting used to. At first I found it incredibly dogmatic and I thought it was a bit ridiculous and unrealistic. But then over time I’ve really appreciated how important those boundaries are and how important it is to contain the client you’re working with. The stuff that’s coming up in therapy needs regularity and clear boundaries so that it can be therapeutic and useful, otherwise it could be destructive.


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