The SIID Early Career Researcher Network organised a slightly different type of event on 15th May 2017. Instead of the usual discussion rounds and workshops, an Art Therapy session addressed the wider challenges of post-doctoral life, full of deadlines, teaching commitments, application anxiety, etc… Facilitated by Art therapy student and qualified psychologist Heleen Begheyn, we completed several group activities aimed at unlocking creative thought processes. This felt a little alien at first – most of us hadn’t seen water colours and art supplies in a very long time! But everyone settled into this new way of ‘producing’ quite quickly, with really colourful and interactive results. Most noticeable however was the calm and friendly atmosphere, the sense of relaxation that came from doing something rather different, and the joy of using different materials for expressive work. On a deeper level, the interactive tasks also led to reflections about processes, challenges, and the creative potential of co-authoring papers and collaborating with several different individuals. So, while the session involved glue, glitter, and play-doh, it also definitely had deeper relevance and resonated with challenges experienced in academic life.

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The hour and half long art session, which followed a two hour writing session, allowed us to reflect in the challenges of our early careers in a rather different way than normal. Since a few months, SIID’ ECRs have been meeting to discuss our writing and research/publication strategies. In these meetings we also generally talk about the challenges and uncertainties we are facing. The art therapy session was no exception. We all had different deadlines, conferences, work in progress and end of contracts approaching. With no phones in hand to remind us of them, we started the first exercise that consisted in creating ‘something’ on a blank piece of paper for 5 minutes. When time was up, we passed our work to the person next to us and kept working on the one we received. This was a new challenge: to trust in what others will do with your work while you try to do your best with what you received. As we reflected while we were painting, this process is not so different from our current activities as we are all working on joint papers with other colleagues or as part of a team in research projects. Moreover, the exercise of trusting others and ‘let it go’, plus the conversations we had, emphasised the importance of having these safe spaces to collectively reflect on our challenges.

What you are reading now is a result of what we learned and experienced in the creative art session: a collaborative and experimental piece of writing, each paragraph written by one of the attendees of the session. As a result of the mutual feelings of success and admiration for the pieces of work we produced together, we decided that the perfect way to round off the experience would be a collaborative piece of writing in order to share what we learned during the session. Once we completed the group pieces of work, there was agreement all around the table that we were each pleased with what others had added to our original artwork. We felt the result to be a vast improvement, through the addition of new colors, shapes, textures and styles to each piece of work. For example, the originally most abstract piece started to take on new forms as images began to appear onto the canvas, such as spiders and dragons, whereas, those that started with more pictorial scenes, sprouted rainbows, coloured shapes, became more fluid in movement. Dotted amongst these scenes, appeared the odd detailed figures, such as a person reclining to read a book. As this process unfolded, we all agreed that we became more relaxed, freer, confident and daring in our creativity. From initial feelings of hesitancy, we each took a chance, jumped in and produced new exciting work beyond the boundaries of our own imaginations.

In conclusion, it was eye-opening to see the parallels between creative processes involving art materials and the innovative and at times experimental process that academic writing and research can be. Without overstating any immediate ‘results’ or effects, the art session offered some insights – which are by necessity personal – into how such processes can be cultivated but it was most importantly very relaxing and fun to do. The value and benefit of having accessed a tiny source of relaxation and creativity in the midst of a hectic schedule that heavily relies on constant brainwork surely need no further comment.

This post was co-authored by Justa Hopma, Marcia Vera-Espinoza, Merisa Thompson, and Eva Hilberg.  If you’re interested in SIID’s Early Career Researcher Network, and would like to hear about upcoming events such as writing sessions, please email Eva Hilberg on e.hilberg@sheffield.ac.uk

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