Find it in your art

One child squeezes clay through their fingertips while another
splurges red paint vigorously onto a yellow background. The room is
full of children getting stuck into artistic activities, but the
members of this class are not working away to produce pictures for
their bedroom wall or sculptures of their favourite cartoon
characters, their work has a much more serious purpose.

“The art activities the children carry out in the sessions are
not necessarily about producing beautiful objects,” says Jenny
Murphy who runs art therapy sessions for children who have
experienced sexual abuse. “It’s instead a way of releasing some of
the feelings that are locked in their bodies.”

Murphy believes artistic activity enables the children to come
to terms with their abuse, with it being an enormously difficult
subject for them to talk about.

Her art therapy sessions consist of single sex groups of
children aged up to 13 and take place as an outpatient service at
Mount Gould hospital in Plymouth. She sees the same group of
children once a week for six months, enabling a relationship to be
built up.

Murphy has been an art therapist for 14 years and has edited
‘Art Therapy with Young Survivors of Sexual Abuse: Lost for
Words’ – a book on what art therapists are doing with
children around the country, published in 2001. She also wrote a
chapter in the book about her group work at the hospital. She runs
the sessions with a male child psychotherapist, and with many of
the children’s abusers being male this helps them to reassess their
ideas of men. “Sometimes when they start they say, ‘Why do we
have to have a man in the class?’” she explains.

The children are free to produce whatever they wish in the
sessions and their work gives Murphy and her colleague an
indication of where they are in their recovery. She explains that
some pictures contain significant content and themes, such as
monsters, which can be picked out, while others are close to
showing the abuse itself without actually depicting it. Murphy adds
that pictures such as these are sometimes kept to be used in court
at a later date and that all of the work is kept until the end of
the sessions.

Murphy and her colleague will ask children what they are trying
to show in their work but it is left up to the child to decide what
they want to disclose. She explains that those who can’t respond do
benefit from listening to those that can, with all the children
encouraged to help each other. Murphy will say to one of the ones
who are more ready: “Maybe you could tell her [a child who is
not ready] what made the difference so she can be helped
too?” She adds her work is not about wanting the children to
talk through their experience again, with them having already been
through it once when they originally spoke out, but instead tries
to encourage them to reflect on the emotions they have been left

Together with painting and drawing the children can work with
materials that can be shaped and moulded, such as clay, plastercine
and sand. Murphy says these can be used as something to attack,
with the children feeling angry about what has happened to them, or
to form models, which they sometimes dismember or put into sealed
coffins. She adds that they also make mystery packages, consisting
of things wrapped up in lots of layers, which she believes
symbolises them having to keep what happened to them secret in the

She says that by being able to handle these materials children
are able to reawaken their sensory feeling, with many switching off
their physical sensations as a defence to the abuse and in order to
disassociate themselves from it. She adds that the outpouring of
negative feelings can also occur literally by the pouring of
liquids or paint out of containers.

“The children’s plays often follow the theme
of rebirth” – Jenny Murphy

Sometimes the children dress up and act rather than take part in
artwork. Murphy explains that their plays often follow the theme of
rebirth, with them pretending to be babies, going back to a time
before they were abused. They also feature hospital stories where
somebody is having an object removed in an operation. She describes
one such play in which a baby has swallowed a needle that the bad
mother has left lying around and it has to be removed.

For the last twenty minutes of each session the children sit
down together and are encouraged to reflect on the work they
produced that day. Murphy says that understandably they find this
quite difficult due to the sensitive nature of the subject and
because many abusers threaten their victims. “It’s quite common for
them to be told that they will be killed or that their mother will
be killed if they tell anyone,” she says.

With most attacks being carried out by men, male and female
victims have different concerns. Murphy explains how the boys are
sometimes worried that they are gay or that they have been turned
into a girl and with the girls being concerned that they could be
having a baby.

She adds that group therapy is widely recommended to treat
children who have suffered sexual abuse as they often feel that
they are the only ones it has happened to. “It enables them to see
that other children it has happened to are just normal children
like them, not monsters,” she says.

The children’s parents have concurrent group verbal therapy
sessions to their children’s classes, with many feeling angry and
guilty about what has happened to their child. Murphy explains that
both sets of therapists meet up at the end of the sessions and they
often find that the children and their parents have been thinking
about the same things. “Enabling the parents to address those
issues really makes a huge difference, as how they are feeling
often rubs off on the children,” she says.

She tells how on a few occasions children who are too disturbed
to be helped by group work have been brought into the sessions and
have had to be removed to receive help individually. She explains
that sometimes these children are so disturbed because they are
still suffering abuse about which nobody is aware of or if the
abuser is someone who they still see around.

Art Works

Enabling people to communicate in a way other than speech also
takes place in projects run by Art Works. This is an artist-led
visual arts organisation that creates opportunities for young
people and adults who have complex impairments to express
themselves through art. They primarily work with people with
learning difficulties and Kate Adams, director of the organisation,
has a 20 year-old son with autism. She set up Art Works in 1997 in
Hastings, East Sussex, with fellow artists Jonathan Cole and
Caroline Le Breton.


Art Works digital art workshop Project India

Art Works is currently working on Project India – named after a
girl taking part in the activities who has severe learning
difficulties. This is a three-year regional art lottery programme
set at Hazel Court secondary school, a specialist school in
Eastbourne for over 200 young people with learning difficulties,
which is co-located with The Causeway School, a mainstream
secondary school.

The project began in September 2000 and is in its, final year
finishing in July. Adams explains that by

running it over a long period of time the children are able to
make lasting developments.

“We work with the child in what they are able to
do” – Kate Adams

The work involves two artists running continuous workshops all
day for either one or two days a week with groups of children at
the school. They carry out many different activities including
printmaking, painting and photography, and also work in digital
media, using computers, projectors and video cameras. As with
Murphy’s work there is no set agenda. “We have a large range of
media that we use and the artists’ knowledge of that media
enables them to respond to the needs of the children,” says Adams.
“We don’t go in with an agenda, we work with the child in
what they are able to do.”

Currently this work includes making a large installation to be
left in the school when the project is finished. They also hope to
put on a public exhibition in November. In the spring term it
involved the children painting large portraits of themselves which
have been put on to canvas and mounted in the corridors of the

Adams says that the project gives the children the resource of
skilled artists to help them express themselves in any way they
can. She explains how if some children manage to concentrate for 10
minutes while doing their art work then that is a major achievement
for them, with the activities aiming to stretch their

Art Works already had a relationship with Hazel Court before
Project India and therefore the school was willing to work with the
organisation, providing them with a room to work in as some of
their radical and innovative ways of working require space.

She says that as a part of this the artists will work with
whatever the child can do. “Even if they can only move their little
finger we will lay them in sand or paint,” she says. “Our work is
innovative in that we do create quite a large amount of mess, not
with the aim of doing this, but in order to do away with boundary

The organisation also offers flexible lesson arrangements,
providing individual sessions as well as group work. “If we had a
child with us for a half-an-hour session and they didn’t get
going until the end then we would allow them more time,” says

She adds that mainstream schools cannot offer this flexibility,
being unable to include Art Works’ activities at all as they
are so locked into reaching national curriculum targets. However,
The Causeway School has tried its best to bend the timetable to fit
in some Project India workshops.

Art Works’ Geodesic Dome mobile workshop

Art Works’s previous work includes contributing to last
year’s ‘More Than Just Fun’ – a training video
commissioned by Mencap on good practice in the arts for people with
learning difficulties. They are also a part of the consultation
team for the Mencap Art Strategy.



Art Works in Mental Health

Last year mental health charity Rethink was involved in
organising ‘Art Works in Mental Health’, an exhibition
of art by people with different mental health needs which went on
tour and proved so popular that it is set to be repeated this

Joy Carey, is a service manager at the Blackborough drop-in
centre in Reigate, Surrey, a social club for people with mental
health needs managed by the charity. Part of her role involves
running art classes at the centre which feature a number of
activities, such as glass painting and working with wax. There is
also a shop on-site in which users can sell their artwork.

“They treat us as a home from home” –
Jo Carey

Carey says that the art makes people concentrate on what they
are doing, taking them away from their illnesses. Because they have
all gone through day services and spent time on wards, the
unstructured nature of the centre aims to help them get back to
normal life. “They treat us as a home from home,” says Carey. It’s
because of this that the classes take place as and when, opposed to
being at a set time.

George Aslett, aged 73, used to be a professional artist and
uses the drop in centre. He has bi-polar disorder which means that
he feels high in the summer and low in the winter. He says that
although his condition doesn’t cause him to get aggressive it does
make him become annoying to some. “Sometimes I get a bit too glib
and annoy people with my heartiness,” he says. He explains how
physically his condition makes him speed up and become accident
prone in the summer, telling of one time when he didn’t sleep for
days on end and wound up in hospital. When the days are short the
opposite occurs, with him getting sluggish because of his

He says that a lot of people with bi-polar disorder are
artistic, with the bright colours and geometrical patterns
providing them with stimulation. Although nowadays Aslett is unable
to paint as much as he would like he still tries to occasionally,
finding it therapeutic and as providing an escape from his
disorder. “It improves my mood and makes me happy,” he says.

With effects like this, art, when used in the right way and with
certain disorders, seems capable of surpassing any medical
treatment available.

Contacts and resources

Jenny Murphy (ed), ‘Art Therapy with Young Survivors of
Sexual Abuse: Lost for Words’, Brunner-Routledge, 2001;

The British Association of Art Therapists

Art Works

7 Cambridge Road


TN34 1DJ

Tel: 01424 423555

The Blackborough Club

15 Holmesdale Road





Tel: 01737 242 385

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