Werk In It: Shelter

When I began to design this piece of artwork I really wanted to focus on the environment in the participant and art therapist/ counselor work. While the two previous pieces that make up two thirds of the exhibit focus on two interconnected parts of experience, what I’ve been describing thus far is a system in which these two interlocking roles are located. What I’ve found in the course of my research is that there is a wealth of material about high employee turnover in mental healthcare, there is evidence that high employee turnover negatively impacts both mental healthcare practitioners and mental healthcare participants, and finally that there is available information on how organizations can combat high turnover rates. There are extensive mission statements that bind organizations and ethics codes that we are bound to as art therapists and counselors. These mission statements and ethics codes clearly outline our responsibilities as organizations and as practitioners to address high turnover rates because of their impact on participants. Yet the protective element of mission statements and ethics codes has failed to protect workers and participants alike.

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In this way I began to imagine ways that we conceptualize protection. Often people refer to shields or shelter structures as protective elements from harsh conditions. But there is a limited and temporary sense of protection mission statements and ethics codes offer us. Ethics codes and mission statements may in some way be a coat, a layer that we put over ourselves to separate ourselves from harsh condition I felt as if the comfort of physical touch might over-represent the protection being offered in this context. Even a jacket with holes, still wraps itself around the wearer. Instead, I conceptualized the protective elements of ethics codes as an umbrella.

IMG_20191019_171254 (1)The umbrella itself is a flimsy and easily lost object. We’ve all lost umbrellas, had them taken from drop points in our offices or work places, or felt them break or bend in particularly harsh winds. We’ve all felt the way a small flimsy umbrella doesn’t hold up to the task of the environment we are moving through. So too, do our ethics, on occasion, fail to adequately protect us from harmful workplaces and workplace harm cycles. I took the time to write out the ACA and ATCB ethics codes on the transparent sides of the umbrella, carrying over the sense of typed content from the bustle garment and the rotating vanity. This writing acts as a thread, drawing together the three pieces in clear unity. So much of what we do is codified in words insufficient to the tasks they are asked to represent and affirm. Inside the umbrella, the ‘water’ pours in, strings of beads extending into the flimsy protection of the temporary shelter.

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From within the umbrella the text becomes skewed and in the reflection of the mirror, the words become even less recognizable. This distortion is meant to reflect how being positioned in this system positions art therapists and therapy participants in a location wherein they are subject to these rules and entitled to protections but do not have control or power over them, nor do these regulations always make sense or address the needs of a given circumstance.
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While I deeply enjoy incorporating water elements into art works; however, given the need for the students and art therapists and counselors to interact with these art pieces on the regular, actual water was inappropriate. Ironically, I could not ensure the safety and wellbeing of exhibit goers with actual running water. So I chose to represent water with a series of strung beads that pour over the sides of the umbrella creating a semi curtain around the umbrella. However, this umbrella is decidedly insufficient and as such I strung beads of ‘water’ down inside the umbrella as well, making it clear that there are leaks and holes in this protective device.


While this artwork as an individual piece may appear beautiful and alluring at first, when participants step inside, they realize that they are not able to move through the curtain of beads to an enclosed area. On the other side of the umbrella curtain, opposite of where exhibit goers are encouraged to enter, is a large standing mirror. I don’t just want people to experience this broken umbrella; I want them to see themselves in this environment. I want to encourage them to look at themselves as they attempt to navigate this space.
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There is a creaky noise as the umbrella is moved along the suspension wire hinting toward the instability of systems of mental health care. Exhibit goers can feel the weight of the umbrella, spin it, play inside it, move it, walk with it, and generally attempt to navigate this flawed form of protection in a limited range of motion.

I hope that exhibit goers will have many questions in this particular work of art. I hope they will ask themselves, how will I move here? How can I picture myself in this space? I want them to watch themselves attempt to brush aside or step inside a seemingly beautiful space only to find the beauty of it is an obstacle in and of itself. In the semi-privacy of this beaded space I want exhibit experiencers to have a moment of private reflection in a literal way. The rest of the exhibit is fairly public in nature, and this one place of solitude is crowded and complicated.

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