Museum-based art therapy workshops explore positive mental health in an unexpected setting

AnnMarie Wright, Catherine Hession, and Ursula Murray, who host the Re:Imagine workshops at Galway City Museum. 
Photo: Mike Shaughnessy.

AnnMarie Wright, Catherine Hession, and Ursula Murray, who host the Re:Imagine workshops at Galway City Museum. Photo: Mike Shaughnessy.

A series of art therapy workshops, currently being run by Red Door Studio at Galway City Museum, are bringing a positive mental health message to an unexpected setting. The workshops, called Re:Imagine, use the museum's exhibits as a form of therapy - by exploring the space, and creating their own art in response to this, participants can learn to understand themselves better, and heal through self expression in a safe space.

The workshops are organised by art therapists Ursula Murry and Kate O'Sullivan, who have been providing art therapy services from Red Door Studio in Prospect Hill since 2018. Murry, from Lancashire in the UK, and O'Sullivan, from Croatia, met while they were both studying for a master's in art therapy in Cork.

"We wanted it to be very much focused on providing art therapy within the community," said Ursula Murry. "We provided an open studio here for two years, but had to move online during the pandemic. It was very interesting moving online. The creative element is there; it worked well for groups. It’s surprising what you can do on a screen."

The return of in-person sessions meant that the pair could realise a long-held ambition to work with Galway City Museum as a venue for art therapy workshops.

"Working in the museum is something we've been thinking about for years," Murry said. "We did a lot of background work during the pandemic. We were delighted to get the project funded through Mental Health Ireland and Cosain Wellness, a peer support group in the community. The reason we wanted to do it through Cosain was we really wanted to work with people with lived experience and collaborate together. That collaboration has been a huge learning process for us."

'People’s wellbeing and safety is paramount'

The Re:Imagine workshops have been running on Friday afternoons since last month and will continue until March 3. They have been designed and co-produced by Murry, O'Sullivan, and two people with lived experience of mental health challenges or supporting someone with mental health challenges.

The workshops are free to join - booking is essential - and are open to anyone who feels they could benefit from mental health support in a fun, safe, setting. Art therapy is similar to psychotherapy, with a focus is on creative rather than verbal expression, though people can also talk about their experience if they find it helpful.

"It's a very structured workshop and it needs to be like that, people’s wellbeing and safety is paramount," Murry explained. "People go and view exhibitions, with some guidelines, and just take one thing to have some connection with. It could be images, objects, a scene out the window, or some text - just take one thing that resonates and spend some time with that. People then come back to the workshop room and are given time to respond creatively."

The workshops provide a variety of art materials for participants to use in this response. The focus in this exercise is on expression, finding a way to connect with thoughts and feelings by creating something in response to the internal experience.

'Playfulness is encouraged as a way of expressing yourself'

"People can write, they can draw, they can build something, they can paint, scribble, they can fold paper, they can do lots of things," Murry said. "Playfulness is encouraged as a way of expressing yourself. There’s no judgement of anybody or anything created. There are also no expectations that you have to get somewhere. We spend some time towards the end of the workshop where we talk, that's the connecting piece. It covers all those corners of myself in the world, myself and others. It’s about where we are as humans and how we do our creative work."

Galway City Museum offers an ideal setting for the workshops, with a variety of exhibits and themes to help ignite the creative process. While some of its exhibits deal with darker events in our history, the workshop facilitators help participants to navigate safely through the space.

"To us it’s very important that it’s a non clinical setting," she added. "The museum belongs to the citizens of Galway and beyond, it belongs to all of us. We’re aware that some people may have never been in the museum, so it was important to us that we did it in the museum. A museum captures the psyche of the community."

The workshops are open to everyone, but are aimed at people with mental health challenges who feel they could benefit from art therapy. Participants must be over 18.

"The thinking behind it is to reduce stigma," Murry explained. "Social inclusion is another aspect, there’s the question of, how do you book if you don't have the internet? We have phone bookings as well. People are coming from all parts of the county and city, some people through services and some people not."

There are 15 places in each workshop, and places are still available in upcoming workshops. The workshops are free, and people are asked to cancel if they cannot attend.

The Re:Imagine workshops are a natural extension of the work done in Red Door Studio, where Murry and O'Sullivan offer both individual art therapy and group work, as well as group therapy in the community.

'Our job is to help people communicate a need and meet that need where they are'

"We have worked with homeless charities, with cancer supports, we’ve worked with supports for children with autism, Youth Work Ireland, with disadvantaged communities through libraries," she said. "Our therapy is a form of psychotherapy, but it can very much meet the person where they’re at with their needs. Some people may keep it surface level or go deeper.

"It's not an art class, it’s not an art lesson; we use creativity as a means of expression and communication. Some people might use very little, they might use objects, photographs, other people's paintings, or they may create themselves. It’s just using that creative side that is more in touch with the non-verbal.

"People of all levels of wellness can access this, if you're homeless you can access it, people who don’t have English as their first language can access this, people who are new to the country and who don’t know anybody," Murry added. "It’s very much aimed at trying to include people who don’t feel included and don't know where to go to meet people in a safe space, also people who have been in services for a long time and don’t know where to go out and meet people in the community.

"Red Door’s work is community based and depends on what people need. It’s about connection for some people, for others it's about them, and their experience, and we’re going into individual psychotherapy. Our job is to help people communicate a need and meet that need where they are. It’s gentle, and it's effective work for people who may find it hard to verbalise for whatever reason. Within that expression, if there are areas that are challenging or causing distress, that’s where we need to get in and do the work, and that can be verbal. The history of our therapy is long and it's certainly not a new therapeutic intervention; it's been borne out of a need for something wider than verbal expression."

Bookings for the Re:Imagine workshops can be made at www.reddoorstudiogalway.com/reimagineworkshops, on EventBrite at www.eventbrite.ie/e/re-imagine-tickets-473268608147,or by calling Ursula Murry (087 621 6852 ) or Kate O'Sullivan (086 384 7411 ). For more information on Red Door Studio, see reddoorstudiogalway.com

 

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