Young and old, we gather around a table strewn with pictures clipped from magazines. The instructions to each one are soft but clear. “Take a silhouette board and pick out any pictures you are drawn to and glue them onto the board.” As if by its own volition, my hand is drawn firstly to a [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Art to heal and make whole again


Young and old, we gather around a table strewn with pictures clipped from magazines. The instructions to each one are soft but clear.
“Take a silhouette board and pick out any pictures you are drawn to and glue them onto the board.”

As if by its own volition, my hand is drawn firstly to a picture of a person looking stressed and then to a scene of tranquillity, a serene garden glimpsed through the tall windows of a stately building.

Shimali: One of the few qualified in art therapy. Pic by Ranjith Perera

The pictures say it all, although we journalists use it in a different context when we say that a photograph would in an instant reveal a story that would otherwise need a thousand words to describe.

No words of introduction are needed, the ‘picking pictures’ session has already shown us the way, with lovely Shimali Goonetilleke then giving us an insight into what art therapy is all about. (See box)
While art therapy in itself is an intriguing topic, what led 26-year-old Shimali, one of few people qualified in this “new” field, in this direction is doubly interesting.

Art was never on her mind as a child or even as a student of St. Bridget’s Convent. As she reached the Advanced Level (AL), the only definite thought was that she would never be satisfied with an 8 a.m.-5 p.m. desk job. As a child, however, programmes about the humanitarian organisation CARE, on the Discovery Channel made her want to engage in that kind of work.

Having completed her ALs, she was toying with the idea of pursuing higher education in Information Technology, but was wracked with worry because her Thathi was “for” but her Ammi was “not so keen”. On the verge of applying to an IT school, when she met one of her schoolteachers for a recommendation, the latter had flatly refused to issue her a letter. “Having seen how I deal with children, she insisted that I should do psychology,” says Shimali.

Without rushing into IT, she then gave herself a month to mull over what she really wanted to do. It brought to the fore her childhood dream, with Ammi, Shelendra, supporting her fully.

A four-year degree in psychology followed, the first year at the American College of Higher Education in 2007 and three more years at the American National College. The last semester included an internship but where she took it up did not yield the number of hours required. With her supervisor pushing her and unable to see ahead she grew frustrated. “No doors were opening. Being a very spiritual person, I prayed,” she says and out of nowhere ‘creative therapy’ came to mind.

“Guide me,” Shimali urged in her prayers and then found to her astonishment that her supervisor had a friend who had been trained in creative therapy. Everything fell into place soon after, with Shimali becoming an understudy of counsellor Seema Omar who would visit the halfway home of Mulleriyawa’s Unit 2, which comes under the National Institute of Mental Health, every Monday.

The natural progression for Shimali was art therapy, with the conviction that she had to do her Master’s in this field. Although she did have a prospectus from Goldsmiths, University of London, United Kingdom, which was the best for art therapy, “something didn’t feel right,” says Shimali, once again giving credit to God for showing her the way.

“It was amazing,” she says, explaining that when at a prayer meeting she attended regularly, Singapore suddenly came to mind as a possible destination where she could secure her Master’s.

Searching the web, she found Singapore’s LASALLE College of the Arts and all the people she enquired from spoke highly of it. To her wonder, she found that it had got validation by none other than Goldsmiths.

However, entry to LASALLE was not that easy. The next challenge came in the form of a mandatory portfolio. “I can’t draw. My interest has been in crafts,” says Shimali in all humility. Seemingly magically, another door opened, with someone who had qualified in a different field but from LASALLE offering to help her.

Selected but warned during the interview on Skype by LASALLE administrators that it was a very intense course, more questions whether it was “really for me” assailed her during the first semester. The loneliness once her parents had settled her on campus and left and a severe bout of flu had not helped to bolster her confidence.

Her elation when her Thathi was nominated for the V-Awards in 2012, just before she left for LASALLE and the presentation about the humanitarian work her father, who is none other than well-known Consultant Surgeon Dr. Gamini Goonetilleke, was doing kept her inspired. He is Shimali’s role-model and his work has kept her on track, with her focus on helping others.

So Shimali soldiered on, seeking refuge in prayer even when her clinical placements were among the toughest populations – firstly male-dominated drug addicts and then traumatized children.

Not only did she survive but also grow strong with huge support from her LASALLE supervisors as well as her peers, working with the drug addicts sometimes until 10 at night, with fears of physical harm never far from her mind, while with the children, herself intensely experiencing their trauma.

The poignancy of her experiences, Shimali relives when she talks of a six-year-old girl who had undergone all possible trauma – neglect and also sexual, physical and emotional abuse.

“That little girl had a lot of anger and also suicidal tendencies,” she says, explaining that when the semester-break came she clung to her in desperation. This made Shimali question whether she was doing more harm than good, but as she pored over the meticulous process notes she had made about the art therapy sessions, as was required, she saw the subtle positives which were slowly but surely emerging in the girl’s life.
Her dissertation was about a different child – a seven-year-old boy, who had over and over again experienced heart-rending breaks in attachments, from his mother, then his father, then as the people running the ‘care home’ he was in changed frequently.

There is much emotion as Shimali recalls how the boy had not completed his art work when the first session with her was over and was adamant that he wanted to take it back with him although she was supposed to keep it. His plaintive cry had been that Shimali would not be there the next time.

With the strong belief that children need love and the conviction that working with children through art therapy is her passion, the shy, young girl who went to Singapore doubting herself has now returned with a boost in confidence.

Shimali has come into her own – with the knowledge that she can help the men, women and children out there in Sri Lanka who need to take up an art medium to overcome negative experiences, inherent fears and insecurities.

Therapy for individuals and groups

Art therapy is a form of treatment that uses art-making to improve and enhance physical, mental and emotional wellbeing, says Shimali who is back in Sri Lanka not only with a Master’s from LASALLE but also with registration from the Australian and New Zealand Arts Therapy Association (ANZATA).

This type of therapy may be offered to those of any age and ability and embraces a variety of psychotherapy theoretical frameworks. The emphasis is on the process of creating and making meaning rather than the end product. It can be practised with individuals, groups, families and communities, according to her. Art therapy uses any art medium.

Shimali cites one example to prove her point. A drug addict she had worked with back in Singapore when given rainbow paper (black paper which reveals all its colours when scraped) had just drawn one line and then kept drawing lines, starting very slowly and going very fast, indicating absolute frustration.

“The frustration came out through the art. It came out non-verbally, paving the way then for verbal communication of his pent up emotions. He began talking thereafter,” she adds.

With the objective of art therapy being to heal and make whole again, Shimali– with the letters AThR behind her name– is now working with a non-governmental organisation and at Mulleriyawa’s Unit 2.

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