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Environmental Arts Therapy & the Circle of Trees by Vanessa Jones & Gary Nash

urlWithin the profession, art therapists have been working outdoors in nature, working therapeutically and with environmental issues for several years (Siddons Heginworth, 2008, Rust 2011, Jones 2012). Through the experience of art therapists and the growing research and publications within the wider field of ecopsychology, we are slowly evolving a deeper understanding of what it means to work with nature, the environment and creativity in a psychotherapeutic sense. Arts therapists and ecopsychologists are working with nature, not as a resource to be utilised, nor as an ideal or scenic backdrop but as co-therapist in the work.

The practice of environmental arts therapy is described by drama therapist and NHS arts therapist Ian Siddons Heginworth’s in his book ‘Environmental Arts Therapy and the Tree of Life’ (2008). At its simplest the practice of environmental arts therapy can be understood as therapy that works with natural materials in natural environments through the unfolding year. Siddons Heginworth (2008) shows how nature can bring us to a visual, physical and symbolic encounter with the self, and more particularly, with the unconscious. Environmental arts therapy shows us that the hidden part of oneself is stirred and activated by what we find in our encounters with nature.

The Tree of Life offers a framework for working through deep personal obstacles, blocks and struggles which, mirrored in the changing aspects of nature, encourage us to see ourselves reflected in nature and to transform them within the safety of natural landscapes. The use of symbolism and metaphor is central to this process and the exploration and elaboration of the reciprocal relationship between the individual and the earth.

Within the ecotherapy field environmental arts therapy is more than just psychotherapy outdoors – where we may find metaphors in nature to represent internal states and echo verbal narratives. Environmental arts therapy is also more than just art therapy outdoors – whereby one may develop artworks around internal states, egoic forms or personal narratives. Environmental arts therapy seems to draw together the strands of both – where there is deep attention given to walking and being, sensing and talking; and there is joint attention given to what nature provides within a wider ecological and collective frame. There is also a creative process which has nature’s palette and the process of symbol formation at its heart. It is the attention given to this reciprocal relationship, where nature holds and the psyche provides a creative response, which is the practitioner’s principle focus.

In 2013, Ian Siddons Heginworth ran the first post-graduate one-year course in Environmental Arts Therapy, held at The London Art Therapy Centre. The course combines integrative arts media, mythopoetic narratives and psychotherapeutic processes in order to facilitate a heightened experience of self in relation to the other in nature. The underpinning knowledge derives from an indigenous source found in the Celtic calendar. During the course this knowledge is elaborated with reference to stories, rituals and myths drawn from Celtic and worldwide traditions. This approach offers us an understanding of the relationship between the internal process of the individual and the turning year.

The seasonal changes are marked by human cultural mythologies and festivals that occur at significant points in the year. The year begins in November where we enter descent into the ‘dark half’ of the year. The first festival is Samhain (Halloween) followed by Imbolc in early February and Oestre – the spring equinox.  Beltaine festival in May marks the movement into the ‘light half’ of the year leading us to the Summer Solstice, then Harvest and the festival of Lughnasadh (Lammas), Mabon – the autumn equinox then the year ends in October.

During the course the arts-psychodynamic process is amplified through creativity as artworks are made both in the studio, using natural materials, and outdoors in local parks and woodland, in response to feelings states. The use of an integrative arts approach encourages feeling states to be externalised through imagery, sculpting, modelling, bodywork, poetry and drama.

Working within nature seems to provide a subtle and deeper holding of the therapeutic process. Nature also provides the materials, media, context, inspiration and exhibition space. The inspirational dynamic active in nature is experienced as we attune to the holding environment. As we move into feeling we find that the process takes us in to a connection on a symbol forming level. Here there is a connection made between internal feeling and the unconscious – and the external – explored and amplified through the use of symbol and metaphor.

The process of exchange between inner and outer expression opens up in a reciprocal dynamic. As we connect with our internal, individual dramas, losses or traumas, we find them held and reflected back as nature provides the grand narratives of birth, life and death, repeated in its annual cycle.

As Graduates of the training, Vanessa Jones & Gary Nash have established an on-going environmental arts therapy group entitled The Circle of Trees based on Ian’s original group of the same name which he ran in Devon. Running throughout the year, the Circle of Trees, London, offers a fortnightly evening therapy group for therapists, trainees and professionals in education, health and social care who are looking to deepen their relationship with nature and support feelings of interconnection and wellbeing within a nurturing and living environment.

Each group therapy session can be experienced as a one off, or as part of a longer-term group membership where the therapeutic process focuses on felt experience in relationship to the unfolding year. Themes are presented through the trees of the Celtic Ogham calendar – their properties, associated symbolism and myth providing a continuous anchor back to our natural, ecological rhythm and flow of life. Initially the group is held within the studio at the London Art Therapy Centre in Archway, as the year lightens we will move from the studio into natural outdoor space in North London.

Co-Facilitators: Vanessa Jones, Dip. AT, EAT Cert. Trained MBCT Mindfulness Teacher has over sixteen years of art therapy experience working mainly in adult mental health. She is a Baat registered private practitioner, working outdoors in nature as an art therapist within her private practice and the NHS since 2010.

Gary Nash, Dip.AT MA, EAT Cert. has over twenty years of art therapy experience working in adult mental health, voluntary sector, learning disabilities services & mainstream education. He is a Baat registered Supervisor and Registered private practitioner. Both facilitators are HCPC & BAAT registered Art Therapists with additional training in Environmental Arts Therapy.

Group Fee: between £35 and £25 per session. For information & booking please contact

Jones, V. (2012) “Practice Definition: art therapy outdoors” Newsbriefing, June 2012
Rust, MJ & Totton N (eds) (2011) Vital Signs: psychological responses to ecological crisis, Karnac
Siddons Heginworth, I. (2008) ‘Environmental Arts Therapy and the Tree of Life’ Spirits Rest: Exeter.

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