Staff Spotlight: Dr Deborah Green + Hilary Tapper

We caught up with Dr Deborah Green and Hilary Tapper to discuss their academic and personal connection to Creative Arts Therapies, coping mechanisms for contemporary times, and what creating meaningful change means to them.

Dr Deborah Green is the Programme Leader and Senior Lecturer at Whitecliffe’s School of Creative Arts Therapies and has been a faculty member for six years. She is thoroughly involved in coordinating year two of the Masters programme, coordinating the research programme, and teaching in the Postgraduate Diploma programme.

Hilary Tapper is a new addition to the Whitecliffe Creative Arts Therapies team. She helps teach the Postgraduate Diploma in Christchurch as a lecturer, as well as assisting with the Masters programme which she completed herself in 2020. She is currently in the beginning stages of her PhD.

We caught up with Dr Deborah Green and Hilary Tapper to discuss their academic and personal connection to Creative Arts Therapies, coping mechanisms for contemporary times, and what creating meaningful change means to them.

Do you two mind introducing yourselves?
Hilary Tapper: My name is Hilary. I'm new on the Whitecliffe Creative Arts Therapies team and helping with the Postgraduate Diploma in Christchurch, and a little bit with the Masters programme too. I just finished the programme [myself] last year. I'm currently in the beginning of my PhD.

Dr Deborah Green: I'm Deborah. I’m a senior lecturer and programme leader for Creative Arts Therapies. I coordinate year two of the Masters Programme, coordinate the research programme, and I teach various aspects of the Postgraduate Diploma in year three as well. I've been with Whitecliffe for about six years now.

Hilary, could you give us some insight into your PhD?
HT: So it's very much exploring what came out of the Masters programme, and personally, what came through my dissertation experience was engaging with this methodology of ABRA which Deborah teaches and sort of created. It’s looking at arts-based research through autoethnography and, engaging with that methodology had such an impact on my experience of self and identity, and particularly my understanding of Creative Arts Therapy. So, I'm using that methodology and continuing to explore that methodology and the significance of it for emerging Creative Arts Therapists.

Deborah, Hilary mentioned ABRA which you created, would you explain to us what this means?
DDG: It came out of my own research investigations. Over the years, I've done a variety of different forms of research, but they all seem to gravitate back towards using arts-based research, which is an established form of research. It has been around for about 30 years now. It is on the fringe. It's a performative type of research, which means that rather than going to discover something that already exists, you're doing something creative, and you're bringing something into being. It is a creative form of research using the arts, either for your data gathering and creating process, or making art to gather data for analysis - so analysing your data through arts making, and to actually present the final piece through the arts making and using various modalities of art such as dance movement, visual arts, creative writing, nature connected work, drama, script writing, theatre presentation. All of those form part of this arts-based research.

Autoethnography is a form of research which has also been around for quite some time, which is where you use self as subject. ‘Auto’ means self and researching yourself, ‘ethno’ is the cultural constructs, graphy is the writing. So, the original autoethnography was a creative and enquiring form of writing about a living inquiry into yourself, and the culture of self, and when you twin it with arts-based research, you start using the arts as a way to come to know yourself more effectively. So basically, in putting them together, I realised there's something quite magical that happens for arts therapists and creative arts therapists when we combine these two research methodologies, arts-based research and autoethnography.

An important part of becoming an arts therapist is to use the type of processes you might use with clients, on yourself to come to know yourself. There is something special about our use of the creative arts in a therapeutic healing way, and our use of the psychotherapeutic theories to come to know the self, which sits in that interesting space where arts-based research and autoethnography come together. So, I created this playful, silly umbrella term ‘ABRA’: Arts Based Research (through) Autoethnography. I like it because it's silly. It's the sort of abracadabra of research that's playful and fun and is all about experimentation and trying things out and not taking yourself too seriously and holding yourself with a certain lightness. So, it's a construct and it's not airtight. It is not a model. It's more a positioning and an opportunity, it’s an invitation for people to experiment.

Deborah, what does Creative Arts Therapies mean to you?
DDG: I'll probably kick off by talking about the fact that we're all creative beings. And part of what makes our species as human beings so unique and so special, is that we act upon our world, and we create, we have imagination, we can imagine things that don't yet exist, we can imagine things being quite different to the way they are. That is a really helpful and healing thing to have - is that creativity and that imagination. But for a lot of us that gets impacted by life's experiences in all sorts of ways, and we start to become more and more and more constricted in our capacity to imagine ourselves in different ways. That often results in mental unwellness and physical unwellness. So, the essence of Creative Arts Therapy is putting us back in touch with that creative, imaginative self that can imagine and breed new worlds and new opportunities, new possibilities, new options for ourselves. One of the best ways to do that is to get involved in the arts. So, the art therapy is me and my client together, collaboratively, creatively, and collectively, using a whole range of different forms of art, to explore what it feels like and what it means to be imaginative and creative again together. So that's probably how I would explain it to somebody who hasn't experienced it before.

Hilary, what does Creative Art Therapies mean to you?
HT: Sometimes with younger people, they can access these creative spaces a little more fluidly through the realm of play, experimentation, getting messy, getting colourful and different things like that. Sometimes those capacities are very inhibited, and that's also an interesting space. Something that I really love about our programme is that Deborah talks about this soul limberness and building soul. When we have these capacities to express ourselves, to move with materials, move more fluidly, move with our bodies, and with each other, it's a sign of health, or as that fluidness of being. We can see that often in younger people, that capacity to move a little more fluidly, and then when there's that restraint or restrictiveness, that's sometimes a sign of some support being needed.

DDG: You know, as you were talking Hilary, I was just imagining how many times clients have come into the studio, and the studio is set up to be this invitational creative space. It's not your traditional therapeutic space where there's just maybe two chairs and a rug. There are art materials around, there's a sand tray in the corner, there are beanbags, there's a table usually with some paint marks on it. So, people usually walk in, and they go ‘wow!’, and they're looking at a shelf full of paint pots, and then little creatures on the shelves for the sand tray, so immediately, there's a place to begin, you know? Often if they're children, they'll come in, and they'll be drawn somewhere in particular, and you start the conversation where they are. I think that's probably one of the most important elements that makes our creative arts therapy and the approach that we use quite specific. We don't use the arts as moving towards a particular outcome.

There are various ways of being a creative artist, and in many forms of art, the person imagines something that they're going to create, and then they manipulate the materials towards creating that, whether it's the body and dance, or whether it's the clay sculpture, or the visual art material or whatever. We go the opposite way around and we commune with the materials and the feeling state in a person's body, and we see what arrives, and it's a particular type of arts making called Poiesis. It's an ancient Greek word that Guru Steven Levine uses in exchange for art because art, in many people's minds, just has this picture of fine art and a gallery, and so it immediately excludes them. Whereas to use this word Poiesis you know, what the hell is that? And what it's really talking about is responding to what's given. It's art making in that form. And so, a lot of the arts making is about what's here and now, what's happening in this moment, and what we need to do next. So what Hilary was talking about with that limberness, is that those are the qualities we need to live in, in everyday life, is what's happening right now? What is coming into me through my senses and what do I need to do in response to that? And when we lose that capacity to respond fluidly and with the aliveness of the moment, we're starting to court ill health, and how do we restore that magical capacity to imagine and to be alive in this moment right now? We can do that through a particular way of creating with the arts.

With what’s going on in the world, can you share with us some coping methods?
HT: What I thought immediately was the importance of connection and having a relationship to others, and that therapeutic relationship in arts therapy is so paramount. Sometimes when that's not accessible, art materials can provide a very tacit connection to shared existence through art materials. I feel like I relate to that both in subtle and gross ways of being able to put colours out on a page of how I'm feeling inside, it can just give a sense of extraordinary relief. It can also be really scary as well, and so all of this is sort of in gentle terrain, but sometimes just from a perspective of trying to find some self-soothing is just finding colours that speak to how I'm feeling now if I feel like I want to bring something outside of me. Choosing colour or material for something that I feel attracted to, it might be that feeling of cold clay, or it might be wet paint, or maybe it's just some pencil lines or something just to bring out what's going on inside, outside. That itself is so simple, but can be really helpful.

DGG: That idea of externalising things, moving sensations out of your body and into an artwork is a really fundamental aspect. Because quite often when we start to feel impinged upon by the world, you know, we're in lockdown, things are becoming stressful, we contract. There tends to be two major responses to that sense of distress and trauma rising in our bodies, is a sense of dispersal. So, we just sort of feel like we’re falling apart and just can't get it together. Our whole language is saturated with these terms of dispersal, of just not being able to think straight, everything’s all over the place, being tied up in knots. And then there’s contraction, where we get really tight and really small, and we can barely even breathe, everything becomes so tight. We're terrified of doing anything because any movement might attract something more harmful. So just the honouring of that sensation and giving yourself permission to know ‘hey, this is what's happening, this is what my body does to try and protect me when I'm feeling embattled in these sort of ways’. And as Hillary said, that externalising event, even if it's something as small as asking ‘what do I need? I need pink. I've got a pink scarf. I'm going to go and get my pink scarf and wrap it around my body. Or I’ll make a little assemblage. I need some little stones. So, I'm going to click some little stones and make a little assemble in the corner because that feels calm and soothing. And I'm feeling really dispersed at the moment so externalising something that feels nice and contained. Or I'm feeling really contained and I need to break out. So, I am going to spin circles on the carpet with silly music playing and I'm going to get myself out of that.’ So that’s externalising and giving permission to yourself to have that experience.

The other thing that I was thinking might be quite useful for people to have a play with, it's a silly little acronym that I came up with a while ago. I was working with the year three students and we were sort of having a little play with trauma and some of the very, very baseline stuff that you might be able to do with a client and that clients can take away in their pockets when they're experiencing the uprising of that nervous system where your nervous system is now activated and it's trying to protect you so you are agitated and feeling fighty, frozen or shut down, or just that nervous system stuff that goes on when we get really anxious. I think a lot of that's happening for people at the moment. You can't predict the future, time is uncertain, everything feels limited, we're worried about a lot. An acronym that I found quite useful is Brats, and I like to think of it as creative Brats.

The B stands for breathing, so we know from a whole lot of different studies that have been done around the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, that you can really down regulate that agitation through breath. Breath can take all sorts of forms. It doesn't need to be sitting still and being yogic because when people are agitated that is really difficult to do. In fact, it can make you feel a hell of a lot worse to sit still and breathe. I always feel like I'm suffocating as soon as I start. I remember the time that I nearly drowned when I was scuba diving, and I'm just flooded with stress around controlling my breath in that sort of way. So, for me, breathing needs movement, so there are things you can do. Can you float across the room breathing like a jellyfish? Or can you get a big piece of paper and try to draw a perfect circle with one breath out? Can you put colour with your fingertips? So, all sorts of ways that you could be breathing that focuses on the breath that isn't contained or restrictive. Breath is really important.

R is for rhythm and relationships. Hilary's already spoken about connecting, and the relationships, or reaching out to somebody to form a relationship. Go and hug your cat and kiss your dog. Imagine somebody that you love and form a relationship with them. Go and talk to your plants. Make relationships, that's really important. The other part of the R is rhythm. Once again, a lot of research behind this shows that rhythmic sounds and rhythmic movement are incredibly good at helping us regulate that overwhelm. So, put on a lovely piece of music. A really good one is Pharrell ‘Happy.’ The beat for it is the absolute right cadence. Have a good dance, or just drum on something. We as babies love rhythmic rocking, and our first experience of being nurtured and cosseted is in our mum's womb in that warm amniotic fluid as she's walking, and that rocking rhythm and the heartbeat is right next to you, that's what we know, that's how we soothe. So go back to that and do that again.

The A is activity, so getting active and getting arty. So, A for activity and arty. Get yourself moving. Don't get stuck. It can be the tiniest movements. You can pay attention to the movement inside your own body. If you are stuck somewhere where you can't jump around, just pay attention to the movements inside your body. Getting active is really good at helping that nervous system soothe down.

The T is temperature. We know that hot temperatures increase agitation and activation of that sympathetic nervous system, and lower temperatures decrease the sympathetic nervous system. So put your wrists under a cold running tap. Go outside into the fresh air. Get some cool air on yourself. Take off a layer of clothing so that you cool down. Cooling down has a marked impact upon down-regulating that agitation.

The S is sensory stuff. Anything to do with activating your senses. What can I see right now? What can I smell right now? What can I feel on my skin? Can I hear the birds outside? Can I hear the sound of my computer going? Can I hear the cat purring? So, activating the sensors and getting them really engaged.

So, BRATS, and you start wherever it works for you. Have a little play with those different things. In the moment, in a nice neatly packaged little way, even one of those it's going to help you come back into your body. When you get that rising sensation of ‘I just want to punch somebody, I just want to run away, I just want to fall apart, I just want to collapse’ that can really help ground you, and then go and make some art.

What does ‘Create Meaningful Change’ mean to you?
HT: When I hear create meaningful change, I just hear these small threads slowly returning within and without through these embodied practices, through artistic practices, through relational practices.

DDR: The idea of being the change you wish to see in the world. It’s connected with this idea of returning to self, that, meaningful change begins with me. With each of us individually living into that, and as you say Hillary, we're so dispersed so often in our contemporary world. We're so focused on what we're putting out there, and the extraction from ourselves, and the gifting to the world, that meaningful change can so easily be something we impose on others. When actually, we need to model it, and live it, and be it, and demonstrate it through those ongoing little checks and balances, and retaining our limberness to respond creatively to a world gone a bit mad. And how do we live and breathe and stabilise in that, and therefore from that space, enable others to do the same? I love that idea of the little threads of return, of these practices, of coming back to me. What am I actually doing right now that can create this meaningful change? I love that the students in year one engage with this idea of being a change agent. And that's the term that's often used for this process of going out and creating meaningful changes, you become a change agent. One of the students can't remember who it was so I apologise if you are listening to this at some point and you think ‘that's me, I came up with that!’ But one of the students came up with the idea of change ally. So rather than a change agent, which is this enacting on others, we're in that lovely collaborative thing that you spoke about earlier as well, Hillary that is so healing, that we need to be in connection and in collaboration. If we become change allies to each other, that's really beautiful, so you're working on your own change, as well as being a meaningful change ally with others.

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