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Interview With Jo Kelly, Art Therapist
by Jo Kelly



Editor's Note from Karen Adler: Art therapy is relatively unknown in Australia. It's not as well-established as it is in the UK or in the US. I came across Jo Kelly via linkedin and she very generously shared information about her work as an rt therapist and her PhD research. Jo hopes that her PhD will add to the body of research regarding art therapy in Australia and contribute to early intervention and mental health options for young people.


What motivated you to become an art therapist?

I have always done artwork for myself as a child and young person and went to art school to study art in my early twenties after living in Papua New Guinea and being a ceramicist.  However, I found art school frustrating and eventually trained as a teacher with art as my main subject area. I came across art therapy in the UK in the early 90s while involved in the postgraduate centre orgainising the doctors' continuing education. In that hospital we had an adult inpatient psychiatric unit and I had the opportunity to meet the art therapist there. I actually decided to do my training after a death in the family and experiencing a family member who was mentally unwell.

How do you use art therapy in your work with children in long-term foster care and in schools?
I use art as the primary mode of communication. This means the art is the language by which we communicate. I use good quality materials and this is important and indicates respect for both the work and the person I work with. Usually the work is undirected but sometimes not, depending on the student or child. Art therapy is used at many different levels, from engagement, to assessment and includes doing deep therapeutic work often through the use of symbol and metaphor or can be more psycho-educational depending on the person. For the children in foster care especially, doing artwork together can be a nurturing, caring activity that models appropriate and positive relationships as well as continuity for the child. In addition where there is trauma, the art can help sooth and relax.   The making of images can enable greater awareness, acceptance and increased understanding to occur.

Please tell me about your current PhD research - topic, methodology, how chosen, how you see it fitting into current practice in Australia, your hopes for it when completed etc.

My qualitative study is an exploration of the art therapy intervention with young people from multiperspectives. I am using Naturalistic Inquiry as an overarching method, which means as much as possible, I try not to manipulate the setting in which the study takes place. I am exploring the art therapy intervention from the perspective of approx. 10 young people who are over 18 and who have experienced art therapy. I am also interviewing 13 art therapists who work with children and young people about their issues, claims and concerns and I am including my own personal experience of working both in private work and in a high school.  The research uses ethnographic interviews and visual art data and is trans-disciplinary in its approach. I am now in my third year. I see it contributing to the empirical knowledge that is Australian based and I hope it will help with considering a more flexible approach to early intervention and mental health options for young people as these are currently woefully inadequate. 

An area I'm really interested in is the differences and similarities between art therapy and transpersonal art therapy. I’d appreciate any comments you'd care to make on this issue.

Personally, I do not see much difference between art therapy and transpersonal art therapy as my framework is holistic, humanistic and client-centred. The transpersonal element means that a focus is on self-realisation (very humanistic and Rogerian) growth, integration, meaning and power (as in self direction). Many art therapists have been trained in specific frameworks such as psycho-analytic, psychodynamic, existential, etc etc, and many are eclectic. I think there are a lot of similarities between art therapy and transpersonal and the difference is merely of degree.

I have attached 2 artworks of mine.  The blue and green ripped paper one is of a recurrent theme that represents the therapeutic relationship I have with a little girl in foster care I have been working with for nearly three years and the layers of that relationship.  The second is a self-reflective piece and is called "Comfort" and is about comfort and support.


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About the Author


Jo is a mother, artist, art therapist, counsellor and educator. She has lived and worked mainly in developing countries, including India, Bangladesh and Papua New Guinea. She has work experience with a wide population including young parents with mental health issues, disability and children and adolescents.  She is currently working as a high school counsellor/art therapist and is developing her private practice in northern NSW. She is also a supervisor for students on the Masters of Mental Health (Art Therapy) program at University of Queensland, as well as a lecturer in the Diploma of Transpersonal Art Therapy in Brisbane, through Ikon Institute.  Jo delivered training in Youth Mental Health First Aid auspiced by Orygen Youth Health Research Centre at Melbourne University from 2009 to 2011. She commenced her PhD through Southern Cross University in the field of art therapy in high schools in late 2010. This qualitative study is uses Naturalistic Inquiry to explore the art therapy intervention from multi-perspectives.

PhD (Candidate) (Southern Cross University), Masters in Mental Health (Art Therapy) (University of Queensland) , Postgraduate Certificate in Health Promotion (Open University), Bachelor of Education (Hons) (Nottingham University), Diploma in Counselling, Cert IV Workplace Training and Assessment.



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