Interview with Eimear Coffey from the Draft Collection

What is arts therapy?

Arts therapy is a form of therapy that engages creative modalities, including visual art-making, music/sound, dance/movement, the written and spoken word, with therapeutic outcomes. This creative engagement brings us into the present moment, it puts us in touch with who we are and helps us to connect with others. It engages our preverbal and pre reflective self, empowering the expression of feelings and strong emotions and deepening the exploration of recurrent issues and behavioural patterns.

Arts therapy can restore or provide a sense of cohesiveness to individuals and communities, by supporting people to learn more about themselves and providing a space to begin to make sense of how they live or considering ways they may prefer to be in their lives.

When did you decide this was a path you wanted to go down?

I think I’ve always travelled this path, I just didn’t realise it had a name, that it could be harnessed and shared with others as a form of therapy.

I’ve always held firm to my creative endeavours and used them to cultivate my own wellbeing, I found that communication through artistic pursuits could speak to things in a way that I could never manage with verbal language. I love writing and listening to music, reading books and poetry, but using my hands to create has been a primary form of expression for as long as I can remember.

I have dyslexia and a fair amount of social anxiety, so I really struggle to match the thoughts in my head and the sensations of my body with the words that come out of my mouth. I have a strong connection with my body, body language and inner sensing, it's often how I engage and learn about others, by watching their body language and using my own inner sense to guide me. When I am making marks I don't falter, I feel confident, like the artwork has the potential to capture all that I have to convey in a raw and authentic way. The truest form of my whole self speaking.

So when I came across an area of study that could help me assist other people and communities, to learn more about themselves, I knew that it was the path for me.

How do you find time to practice art?

I make time! I find it useful to have a loose routine, that helps me set aside time to focus on my practice, but if i’m being honest, most of my artwork is done by seizing every opportunity that arises and carrying art materials around with me most of the time. So children’s nap times, train rides and sleepless nights all turn into wonderfully productive moments.

How would you describe your artistic style?

Gestural abstract expressionism. I use the gestures of my body in combination with art materials to express sensations or reflections about my personal experiences.

I find this way of working, a powerful way to reflect and process my recollections, as it captures an implicit dimension of my experience, something that sits at the edges of my conscious and as such is unavailable to my purely cognitive, sometimes self-critical thought.

I’m incredibly sensitive to my environment and the people that cohabit it. Light, smell, textures, objects and other people's moods all influence the way I feel. If it's an adverse experience, I have found it's generally enough for me to just be aware of myself and how i’m being affected, to acknowledge what's happening. On the flip side, I never cease to be amazed at how exhilarated I can feel when I'm near the ocean or deep in the bush.

I grew up between the beaches of Sydney’s east coast and the lush green mountains of Melbourne’s dandenong ranges. I feel like my body has kept a memory of my childhood sensations and experiences in these space and these evocations manifest in my work. Nature serves as a constant inspiration, its energy, movement and interwoven textures, it is a restorative presence where I can feel connected and at the same time be a passive observer of its power and beauty.

How important is art?

Art feels paramount to me. On a personal level, creative dialogue feels like my primary language, it is the most authentic way I know to communicate and helps me find my place in my environment, by providing me with the space to explore and respond. On a larger more universal level, I feel like art is a platform for so much more; it can express and generate ideas that instigate change at grassroots levels, it creates and connects communities and it can establish a discourse that extends beyond the limitations of language and culture in a non didactic way.

Consider the reach and universal effect of works by Frida Khalo or the impact of literary works like Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Harriet Beecher Stowe) and 1984 (George Orwell). There is so much power in the minds of people, it's just a matter of tapping into a way of communing that feels indigenous and authentic to the individual.

Is art for everyone?

Yes, unequivocally and emphatically.

Art can hold significance for everyone, the maker and the audience. It evokes a myriad of dialogues at the same time, provoking thought and reflection. Art has the power to transcend any label culture likes to prescribe and moves across time, as we still find significance in work created centuries in the past.

I think this quote from Deborah Kalmanowitz articulates my sentiments in a much more eloquent way;


How can art affect people who are not associated/interested in art itself?                                    

Maybe I’m an idealist, but I truly believe there is an art form which can engage and affect every individual. I don’t believe you need a certain education or cultural pedigree, I think it’s just in everybody. Art has exist from the very beginning of human evolution, in rock paintings, song and dance, I feel like it is in the fibre of our being as a way to connect with others, to explore and reflect on our human experience, as individuals and as part of a community.

What do you wish people see when they look at your work?

I hope they feel something more than see anything. I think there’s a beautiful dynamic that is available between the viewer and the artwork, that can exist in the absence of the artist. Something that comes alive and resonates for each person. I found that people generally have an instinctual response to my work, they feel things they can't verbalise or give rational thought to, which makes me feel wonderful, because that's how I am when I am creating.

The arts and art making are a forum for expression and communication. There is a layer of communication that emerges when we experience art together. A charge in the space between the witness, artwork and maker that is constantly evolving and only possible when we open ourselves up to share our creations. This is the importance of allowing your work to have an audience, to open a new discourse.

What defines something as art?

The maker and viewer.

It could be suggested that art is defined by the intention of the maker, but I think the parameters then become too formal. Art is subjective, it has the power to make you think and feel, it is not only found in formal setting like galleries, but can be everywhere.

Art is a mercurial form of expression, its capacity to be defined varies. But it lives in the moments of creation and the reception of an audience.

How important is it that art remains unrestricted and continuously developing?

I think art, by its very nature, exists in a liminal realm. It is the expression of emotion and thought and nothing good will ever come from censoring those aspects of ourselves.

How has social media affected the art world?

I feel like social media has made the art world more accessible. It bypasses the commercial aspects of art (marketing and exhibiting to gain exposure) and the financial restriction emerging artists feel exhibiting in a traditional gallery space. Additionally it reduces the aristocratic stimaga that surrounds art by exposing the machinations of the artist, whist simultaneously creating a global community of creatives. I have nothing negative to say about the impact of social media on the art world, I believe art is for everyone to create and enjoy, social media makes that an easy thing.

Artist in residence at The Dax Centre

In February this year I was invited to be the first artists residency at The Dax centre in Melbourne, the residency would run for five weeks as part of a larger exhibition titled STIGMA: dismantled, revealed, an exhibition which showcased six other contemporary artists exploring the pervasiveness of stigma and self-stigma in relation to mental health.

The Dax Centre is a leader in the use of art to raise awareness and reduce stigma in relation to mental health.  They work to engage, inform and encourage community connections and conversations about mental health through the arts. As an artist with training as a therapeutic arts practitioner, I thought this was a wonderful and unique opportunity to explore what I believe is the inherent connection between the arts, the making and sharing of it, and our well being.

My plan to explore the theme came in two distinct forms, the first being a community built art project (which you can read all about over HERE) and the second was a more focused exploration of my own experience through works on paper, free writing sessions and mindfulness.

I arrived in the space with the plan to follow a routine, which would (I’d hoped) help me connect with my inner experience despite the shift to unfamiliar surroundings. I would spend some time cultivating my connection to self and environment through a mindfulness exercise before beginning to paint, once I had reached a point where my gestural explorations had been laid out, I’d switch modalities to free write for 10 minutes or so, fleshing out the manifestations of introspection in another modality. I found it strange to settle into a new space, I tried to cultivate the intimacy I was so used to having in my home studio, a private space which contained the transparent reflective and responsive exploration of introspective connection, a space where I was essentially invisible to the outside world and could work with a myopic focus on the exploration of my inner experience, comfortable in the cloak of anonymity.

Yet the gallery was not that space. Even though I had come to work at a time when the gallery was closed to public visitors, there was always a gentle tide of people that washed across the space; the other staff that worked in the gallery, the catering staff that would move through to set up for events and the steady noise and movement of the scientists who worked in the levels above me, their voices echoing down an open cavity that stretched the height of the building. I was part of a larger ecology, a gallery space, set inside a research facility that was part of one of Australia’s largest universities. There were people and activity everywhere, a constant flurry of movement and exchange. I was not alone and was very visible.

My focus and view constantly oscillated between outward and inward awareness. I was not just functioning as a witness and participant to my subjective inner experience but also a participant and witness of the objective experiences of others in constant flow around me. The routine I had adopted to bring my focus introspectively felt limiting, I was frustrated with my futile efforts to shut down the external workings of my environment whilst actively existing and participating among it.

I have a participatory worldview, I believe that we experience the world and make sense of that experience in relation to others, but struggled to hold onto the nuance of my own experience in the space, the pace of the environment moving faster than I could attend to, it felt difficult to round out and continue one thread of feeling before another tugged at me. I felt stretch across the fullness of all that was available for experiencing and so the experience itself felt thin and only touched the surface of possibilities.  I wanted to explore the ecology of the environment with fresh attention, open myself up to an embodied investigation that would manifest itself in a visual response, but I felt incapable of being permeable in the space, limiting the visceral dimensions of my experience.

I had to step out, not to step away, but to regain my own step, find the ground, reorientate my perspective and be able to step back in more consciously.

I found a wonderful garden a short walk from the gallery, called the System Garden. The garden is a horticultural exploration of plant diversity, a series of garden beds and sections where plants have been sown in groups according to their families/subclasses the emphasis on plant evolution and relationships. Amongst the other microclimates is an Australian Rainforest section with a magnificent sprawling rock fig and all manner of ferns, lichens and moss nestle under its canopy, each plant maintaining its identity whilst flourishing and responding to the mix of its environment. This was what I wanted; this is what I needed to be able to do. Not dissolve myself into the membrane of a larger system, but instead to establish roots and participate symbiotically with the environment.

So on Monday’s, when the gallery was closed I would ferry my materials across from the gallery, setting up a temporary studio, the magnificent fig would lend me its canopy as a shield against the searing heat of this year’s summer and together we would paint for hours. The foliage and the sun interacting to form beautiful shadowed outlines, the movement of the plants and the smell of the damp earth, the clicks and rustle of birds in the undergrowth contributing to the broadness of my experience. I found a way to flow in this environment, collaborating with the space, letting go of any effort to focus on one thing or another and instead cultivated a type of porosity that allowed me to deeply engage with my process, my environment and myself at the same time. It was less about the concept, more about being open to a broader perception.

This shift in awareness brought attention to the perceptual anomaly that galleries, as a space and place bring. They way they are predetermined as transitory spaces, places of impermanence whereas a visitor you are perceptively aware of the expectations of the space acting upon you, the quiet reverence, your role as a witness to the presentation of a static environment. There are intangible internal and external barriers, bred from a cultural expectation that subtly dissuade participation, dissuade you from making a sound or too much movement, your presence in the space reduced to a somewhat passive witness, your internal resonances contained.

Yet the intentions of The Dax centre and gallery felt much more liminal. Their desire was to hold a space for people to connect, engage and communicate, to ask visitors to move beyond witnessing to engage, participate. I could see that my limitations to working in the space were a response to the more traditional expectations of a gallery space and that I needed to adapt, rather than persisting with an adjunctive mindset, trying to layer my current process over a new environment, I needed to find a way to hold myself, suspend myself, to let myself exist in this liminal space, to respond and embrace the reciprocal influence of the environment and its inhabitants.

“ If you change, the countenance of the world changes.” – Carl Jung

So I moved back in, making marks directly on the walls in the space, taking responsibility for my own experience and readjusting my perceptive limits to bring a multisensory coherence that sat adaptively in this labile space. I painted a large mural across the corner of the room and I removed the temporary tape that fixed my work to the wall, curating a series to sit in and around the mural, affixing them with pins.

I landed in the space and the space landed in me.


The Dax Centre
30 Royal Parade 
Kenneth Myer Building, University of Melbourne
Parkville VIC 3010

Contact details

03 9035 6258

Dates and times

15/02/2019 to 07/06/2019

21 days of bravery project

I came across a project #21daysofbrave whic was instigated by artist @meredithcbullock. The project invites artists to engage in their practice, daily, for 21 days. I’d never done anything like this, but the timing seemed right for me as I struggled to make time for mark making amidst a full life. 

I worked in a polymorphic way, having multiple works, running many divergent conversations at the same time. decided to constrict my parameters, stick with A5 (or sketchbook) and introduced some simple line drawings of botanicals. I found myself reaching for new colour and brushes, experimenting with texture and finding new ways to layer and trail marks acrosss the page.

Some days it was a struggle to make the time, but I was always thankful when I did. Feeling calmer and more connected with myself and what was going on around me. Art has been the only medium I have ever found that has come close to expressing all of these layers. To make me feel like there’s a way to authentically express the multifarious nature of my thoughts and sensations.

I think the structure of the daily commitment helped me reconsider how I spend my time and created more possibility to #carveouttimeforart. I was intrigued by what was unearthed, the connections I made and the enthusiastic response from the beautiful social media community.

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