The Dress Lamp Tree, Tim Walker, 2004

From the moment a colleague and I entered Wonderful Things, we were indeed, in a state of wonder. Here was an invitation to throw off the ordinariness of life that sneaks up on us all and enter a realm of possibility. Wonderful Things offers up a magical, mythical, creative space where the sensual, essential and nonsensical all co-exist. The exhibition calls us to open our eyes, to play, to dive, leap, explore, to dream, to stretch ourselves… to throw ourselves into the world of imagination.

Beds on Cars, Tim Walker, 2004

In doing so, Wonderful Things reminds me of the creative space we must curate for our clients in the art therapy room. As much as therapy offers a place to share deep feeling, troubles and trauma, it’s also a space to play, make, experiment and reinvent. Curate is an interesting word. Whereas now it’s associated mainly with museums and galleries, once it belonged to the spiritual domain. A ‘curate’ was a spiritual guide, someone taking care of the soul. And in the art therapy room, where people so often come to reveal their innermost demons, fears, alongside secret hopes and dreams, the idea of ‘soul’ can feel quite apt.

So how do we curate the art therapy room in a safe, respectful way that honours both creativity and the soul? How do we help people harness the imagination in service of their own self, and use the arts as a natural channel for self-expression, away from technique and talent.

There will always be clients who need to take more time, whose critical self will stop them, or who find art-making overwhelming. Fears must be respected. Yet, equally some basics can be put in place to help smooth the experience. One element is the art therapy space itself. Making sure there are arts materials in reach, that our room is comfortable, relaxed, not too tidy, can help clients feel free to make some mess. Equally, offering a space that doesn’t feel too school-like or learned, can help art move away from a test of talent, into one of feeling and play. For a very creatively-blocked client, dream-work (from sleep) is also a way in. As spontaneous products of the psyche where anything is possible, dreams can help clients start to engage with the powers of the imagination.

It Rained Outside, so we camped inside, Tim Walker, 2002

Yet, perhaps even more importantly, is how we as practitioners model what’s possible in the room. It’s our relationship to creativity that can help the process feel more natural. At the beginning of Wonderful Things, Tim Walker tells us the camera reflects the state of the viewer. If we’re feeling chaotic, the picture will be chaotic. Or sinister, romantic… so on. In arts therapy, so many of our clients have had their lens on life limited, shaped by difficult life experiences. We are there to help offer new ways of seeing and relating to the world. Yet, equally for arts therapists, I wonder what our own lens has become over time, whether it has narrowed or stayed open. So often I hear fellow practitioners saying they no longer make their own art, or self-limit their creativity, now that they are facilitating for others. Time is of course a real issue for everyone, but how important it is to try and keep our own creativity alive, in whatever form it takes. Otherwise, we risk hi-jacking or limiting clients’ own experiences, perhaps without realising it. If I were to choose an arts therapist today, this is a question I’d want to ask – how much do they live creativity in their own lives? After all, I’d want to make sure they practice what they preach.  

In Wonderful Things, Tim Walker chooses ten objects from the V&A’s museum collection to respond to through his own art.  Each room has its own identity, be it magical trees and fluorescence in the dark, photos set against pastel-pink wallpaper. Visitors are taken through an experiential, extraordinary journey, of images, objects, sculptures, ideas and words. This dialogue between different art-forms is also so relevant for arts therapy. By inviting other creative media into our rooms… be it collections of objects, postcards, puppets, clay, fabrics, fairy tales, musical instruments, each form facilitates different explorations and conversations. In doing so, they can help our clients bring stories and inner landscapes to life. Safety and pacing are, of course, key. In a gallery or museum, each picture or object is framed, given its title and space. It’s the same for clients too. Slowing down…not rushing, taking time to explore in the company of another are essential parts of our work.

My colleague and I left the exhibition, inspired and excited, wondering how we might hold ourselves back creatively, and how we might move beyond our own comfort zones. Wonderful Things is a great reminder to keep our imaginations alive in the therapy room; to make sure we keep on listening, watching out for clues from our clients, so we can actively design new creative experiments based in the here-and-now, tailored uniquely to each person we are working with. Perhaps more than anything, Tim Walker’s exhibition reminds us to keep our eyes open to the fairy tales and myths that live in the everyday; they really can help us relate to the world in profound ways.

Tim Walker’s Wonderful Things at the V&A ends Sunday 22 March 2020, exhibition extended due to popular demand.

Post by Pia Jones, Author, UKCP Integrative Arts Psychotherapist, London Art Therapy Centre

All photographs from Tim Walker, Fashion Photographer, Wonderful Things exhibition, V&A. No copyright infringement intended.

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