ENVIRONMENTAL ARTS THERAPY – PERSONAL, PROFESSIONAL AND CREATIVE ACTION
Dip AT, MAAT is a HCPC registered art therapist. Gary is a Co-founder of the London Art Therapy Centre in 2009, where he is a practitioner-researcher providing individual and group art psychotherapy and environmental arts therapy. He is a visiting lecturer at the Institute for Arts in Therapy and Education (IATE) and the University of Hertfordshire and co-editor of Environmental arts therapy, Routledge, 2020.
With contributions from David Little and Vanessa Jones
Both Vanessa Jones and David Little are qualified art psychotherapists registered with the HCPC in the UK. Gary, Vanessa, and David are collaborating on the 2022 exhibition in London.
In this review, Gary Nash shares his thoughts on creative artistic and social initiatives of art therapists, who have increasingly become more environmentally active over the past decade at the national and international levels. He is announcing an environmental art exhibition planned for 2022 in London, which will be the creative response of art therapists to the pandemic, the global environmental situation and our changing relationship with the Earth.
Keywords: art therapy, ecological arts therapies, ecotherapy, environmental art
In the current and on-going crisis within a crisis that we are a part of, there is a collective call for change, which, if we allow it, will impact on every individual in our personal and professional lives and relationships. The impact of the pandemic and the deepening of the climate emergency provide the central narratives that define the world we live and work in as art therapists.
Stimulated and inspired by Jamie Bird’s article “A social action art therapy response to climate crisis”  I am prompted to write about my own personal and professional response to the damage that we do collectively to our environments, the responsibility that I take individually and my deep yearning for change. This reflective article asks us to consider what creative and imaginative arts-based responses might look and feel like? Also, as practitioners in a highly professional and regulated field, how might we make changes within our work with clients, colleagues, and communities?
Figure 1. Gary Nash, Touching Nature, 2020
The burden of consciousness involves taking responsibility to face our relationship with our collective behaviour as a species and to integrate the shame, the pain, the guilt, denial and grief for what we do and for what we haven’t done, to accept what we can change and to acknowledge what we will lose in the process. The ways in which we struggle, and resist is described as ‘eco sorrow’ by Susie Orbach  ‘eco-grief’ by Windle  and working therapeutically with environmental despair by Joanna Macy . This is a painful process, and it is described as one of ‘deep adaptation’ by Bendell .
I ask myself, the therapists that I supervise, and the colleagues that I work with, how engaged or socially active can we become? What is permitted in our social contract with our clients, colleagues and employers? How do we support clients in their fear, dread and grief at what is happening to our world? Can we bring our relationship with nature into the studio? Can we step outside to engage with our lived experience of the environments and communities that we live and work in? Can we attune and respond to the bigger picture, one in which Nature holds all that we are – our interdependent relationship with Mother Earth? My clinical response has been to develop a safe and innovative practice whereby natural materials are brought into the art therapy studio and clients are invited outside where we develop and nurture our relationship with the natural environment and engage creatively with whatever we find there .
In my practice and teaching of environmental arts therapy I find that as we open the studio door and step outside, we seek to shift the restrictions inherent in the conventional clinical paradigm, a paradigm within which clients come to receive and therapists are employed to give. Instead, with Nature as co-therapist, we collaboratively seek a greater sense of knowing, sharing, and healing together. When we work outdoors, we find ourselves consistently reflected in all that we make, encounter, or find, and through sharing and being witnessed in our creativity we ritualise and manifest change. Creativity, like nature herself, provides stimulus and frustration as we, both as clients and therapists, confront the despair and beauty pulsing through the human heart.
Social action and creative action
I supervise therapists who are creatively and socially active in raising consciousness at a local and political level. Some are engaged in supporting their children to participate in “Fridays for Future” school climate walkouts, and others are engaging in demonstrating protest through Extinction Rebellion and other independent legal challenges to political inactivity.
Change is seeping into consciousness and is shaping policy development, direction, and leadership, and it is generating a movement forward. A movement which the creative arts therapies, nationally and internationally, have been actively engaged in over the past ten years – see the International Expressive Art Therapy Associations approach in Atkins & Snyder . In Britain Jamie Bird’s work continues to develop as outlined in his article in Newsbriefing . Jamie has found support within the therapy community through the Climate Psychology Alliance forum. I access support and a shared sense of community and workshops through Ecotherapy UK online and there is also a growing number of art and drama therapists who have established the Environmental Arts Therapy UK network.
2022 planned exhibition entitled “One World: Creativity, Crisis, and Change”
As a member of an arts therapy community, I value the contribution that artists, therapists, and clients can make when united through a collaboration of intention and ideas expressed through the arts. Last year we curated an exhibition of environmental arts therapy in a North London parkland gallery and experienced the ways in which creativity can connect and communicate ideas and mobilise social engagement. The next bi-annual exhibition is being planned for the autumn of 2022 to coincide with the UN Climate Change Summit being held at the same time. The One World exhibition comes from an understanding that creativity unites and integrates, and when we use all of the arts with social and ecological intention, we can stimulate dialogue, response and creative action within our communities and localities. This exhibition will be a celebration of our creative and imaginative responses to our climate crisis; and is an expression of our longing for change, a reverence for our planet, and a nurturing of our relationship with ourselves and our Nature.
The exhibition and accompanying workshops will include the following linked strands and modes of practice, with the aims and content leaning towards an exploration of the climate crisis and its impact:
- Environmental arts therapy: a specialised form of art psychotherapy, which is in turn a specialised form of psychotherapy. EAT is essentially concerned with personal growth and healing, whether for individual or groups; it makes use of the natural environment, and participants/therapists make artwork in Nature with natural materials.
- Environmental art: is about working in and with nature and natural materials, but not with a particular therapeutic aim or context. Examples of environmental artists – or land artists – are Richard Long, Andy Goldsworthy, and Robert Smithson; their work is respectful of and inspired by Nature but does not usually have an overt political or campaigning agenda.
- Ecological art or eco-art: work created in and with Nature and natural materials specifically in order to raise ecological awareness or as a campaigning tool. Ecological art or eco-art is closer to the protest art or activist art movements starting in the 1960s, for example Joseph Beuys’ ‘7000 oaks.’
Our interest in curating this show is in the overlaps between the three areas, and the increasing need to include and integrate environmental concern, and our place in the natural world, in therapeutic practice.
Figure 2 Vanessa Jones, We’re Sorry. Paper, watercolour, ink and threads (83cm x 75cm)
The show coordinators will be practising artists, therapists, students, clients, and educators who will also plan and deliver written information and work with the gallery to arrange public talks and events relating to the exhibition. The exhibition will be 2-dimensional arts media and photographic representations of art works made in natural settings and community group contexts. The proposal will have an educational element and will provide an opportunity to invite members of the local community to view, discuss and experience the practices of environmental arts therapy and our creative engagement with climate change.
I am now writing at the end of February 2021 having been through a second national lockdown and a year of change, challenge, and process of adapting to working from home, home schooling and having limited access to others or to the outdoors. The work of therapy involves holding my own personal challenges to change and the impact of a collective fear of illness, isolation, and death, and being present and open to others who are also activated by conscious and unconscious fears around survival, collective trauma, our own mortality, and grief. The work of art therapy and therapy in Nature is greatly needed at this time to help us bear the enormity of this humanitarian emergency and climate crisis.
In the Environmental arts therapy book  we asked each author to consider and reflect upon the impact that climate change is having on their practice and identity as art and drama therapists. The 2022 exhibition will also be a response, visually and creatively, to our changing relationship with our Earth, the environmental crisis, and the pandemic.
You are invited to submit a proposal for an individual or group submission to exhibit at this event. Please send submission proposals to email@example.com by December 2021.
- Atkins, S., and Snyder, M. (2018). Nature-based expressive arts therapy: Integrating the expressive arts and ecotherapy. London, Philadelphia PA: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
- Bendell, J. (2018). Deep adaptation: A map for navigating climate change. IFLAS occasional paper 2 available at www.IFLAS.info
- Bird, J. (2019) Belonging and imagination in the Anthropocene: A social action art therapy response to climate crisis. Newsbriefing, Winter, 34-36.
- Roszak, T. (1995). Where Psyche meets Gaia. In T. Roszak., M. Gomes., and A.D. Kanner (Eds.) Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, healing the mind. (pp.1-17). San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books.
- Macy, J. (1995). Working through environmental despair. In T. Roszak., M. Gomes., and A.D. Kanner (Eds) Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind. (pp.240-259). San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books.
- Nash, G. (2020). Taking art therapy outdoors: A circle of trees. In I. Siddons Heginworth, G. Nash (Eds.), Environmental arts therapy: Wild frontiers of the heart (pp.137-150). New York & Oxon: Routledge.
- Orbach, S (2019). Climate sorrow. in This is not a drill: An Extinction Rebellion handbook. London, New York: Penguin Random House.
- Siddons Heginworth, I., and Nash, G. (2020). Environmental arts therapy: Wild frontiers of the heart. New York & Oxon: Routledge.
- Windle, P. (1995). The ecology of grief. In T. Roszak., M. Gomes., and A.D. Kanner (Eds.), Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, healing the mind. (pp.136-145). San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books.
Reference for citations
Nash, G. (2021). Environmental arts therapy – personal, professional and creative action. Ecopoiesis: Eco-Human Theory and Practice, 2(2). [open access internet journal]. – URL: http://en.ecopoiesis.ru (d/m/y)