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Creative collaboration is one of those terms that gets used a lot but how does it actually work? A recent working partnership between artist, Sarah Pimenta, and myself, an integrative arts psychotherapist, has taught me some of the fundamentals. These principles may seem obvious, but so many times, we see them broken.

In 2018, Katrina Hulme-Cross from Speechmark Publishing commissioned three books from a proposal I’d submitted to create storybooks for children going through difficult life experiences.  As I engaged with the writing, I knew I needed an artist/illustrator, to bring these stories visually to life. From the outset, this was never going to be an ‘ordinary’ illustration job. These were not only picture-books, but ‘therapeutic fairy tales’ taking readers on an emotional, psychological journey. Each fairy tale dealt with a specific situation of intense loss and emotional difficulty, and were designed to be used by care professionals; ‘The Island’ for children with a parent living with depression, ‘The Storm’, about the experience of divorce, and ‘The Night Crossing’, about saying goodbye to life in the face of untreatable illness. The creative task was a momentous one, where any illustrator would have to live and feel these experiences fully without being overwhelmed, in order to bring them to life. I needed more than an illustrator. I needed a creative partner and artist with a vast emotional reserve, someone with whom I could share the vision of these books.

I’d met Sarah Pimenta through our days of group facilitation at artgym, a visionary creative leadership company founded by Eugene Hughes. Through this encounter, I learnt that Sarah also had extensive experience in diverse schools and communities, running creative workshops and print-making sessions. Her artworks printed on fabric (her business is aptly called Social Fabric) were beautiful, capturing the depth of feeling and experiences of her participants. Her creations – truly original. If anyone could hold a range of feelings through image and pictures, it was Sarah.  

Thankfully, Sarah said yes to the creative challenge. Straight-off, we made the decision these were our books, not mine. Even to the extent of how we filed them on our computers – they were by both of us. Without the images, it was clear these stories didn’t exist. This sense of creative and equal ownership was essential to building the foundations of our creative partnership. The book series had become a third thing, something much bigger than either of us, a child that we both had to parent.  

As neither of us had made illustrated story-books before, neither of us knew any rules. As a result, it didn’t occur to either of us to sit down and go page by page about the illustration that was needed. Or perhaps on some level, I just knew Sarah, similarly to me, wouldn’t like being told what to do. Instead, I handed over each story and asked – can you bring this to life? In hindsight, giving Sarah the complete freedom to interpret the story in our own way was vital. So often we say creative collaboration but try to control the process and the outcome. If I’d briefed Sarah on locations, look and feel, then the pictures would have stayed limited to my imagination. In giving the stories over to Sarah, she could take them somewhere else, far beyond my own vision.

As an integrative arts psychotherapist, I’m trained to deal with the taboo, to go into the shadows, the ‘dangerous places’ to find the unspoken feelings, the unseen, so difficult experiences and feelings can be carefully and slowly shared and worked through. As an artist, Sarah Pimenta, works in the domain of light, colour, vibrancy – her art is full of live and vitality. Rather than see this as a conflict in interest, Sarah and I turned this into a dynamic dance. I absolutely valued her need to make the story images ‘friendly’ and ‘accessible’ for children and families, while at the same time holding the counterbalance that we didn’t avoid difficult feelings. This element of our creative collaboration, I believe, contributed to the unique look and feel of these storybooks which hopefully guide children and adults to difficult places, in a safe and gentle manner.

Working with Sarah has been rewarding on so many levels. The lessons learnt about shared ownership, the boundaries and dance between creative collaboration have been invaluable. Whereas we continuously engaged in creative dialogue, and let the stories lead us, we always respected each other’s unique skills and contribution.

In addition, the team at Speechmark, Routledge has been truly wonderful, giving us another experience of how a positive collaborative partnership works. Katrina Hulme-Cross, Leah Burton and Cathy Henderson all gave Sarah and I copious amounts of freedom and trust. At the same time, they handled our books with such care and attention in bringing them to life. Throughout the creative process, our mutually respectful relationships have contributed to helping these stories take flight.

Sarah and Pia’s series of Therapeutic Fairy TalesThe IslandThe StormThe Night Crossing, and the Storybook Manual – an introduction to working with storybooks therapeutically and creatively, come out this Summer, in August 2020. 

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