The Art of Therapy

The Art of Therapy

American art therapist Irina Derkacheva brings a project to help kids cope in St. Petersburg.

Published: June 21, 2013 (Issue # 1764)

Irina Derkacheva

The set for the animated film was a group effort that involved kids from different backgrounds and of different ages.

Irina Derkacheva, an American art therapist of Ukrainian origin, is in St. Petersburg this week to conduct art therapy sessions with underprivileged children. Using stop-motion animation, Derkacheva hopes her pilot project will not only help a number of children overcome their problems but will also raise awareness of art therapy in Russia.

Derkacheva, 35, crowd-sourced the funding for the project in Russia and said that she wanted to share her experience in this field with the country that she was connected to in her childhood.

Here in the city for two weeks, the energetic art therapist is running two sessions a day at a summer camp at one of the city’s schools. Each session has 11 Russian children grouped together by age. In these sessions, the children, as a group, create a stop-motion animation film. First they make clay figures of cartoon characters and then develop a plot for the film. To then create stop-motion animation, they take photographs of the clay figures after making incrementally small changes to them. When the frames are viewed in quick succession, the effect of movement is created, thus creating a film.

“Art therapy has a number of goals, such as helping children or adults who are experiencing certain psychological difficulties to express themselves non-verbally, to work together, to give them an opportunity to communicate in a manner they’re comfortable with,” Derkacheva said.

According to Derkacheva, art therapy can be used with a variety of people, but there are certain personalities, both children and adults, who gain the most benefit from it. With children, it’s those with behavioral problems, who have difficulty in finding common ground with others or may be lacking the attention from parents.

In contrast to regular art studio classes, where participants are usually left to their own devices to explore and learn art, art therapy sessions should be conducted by trained therapists. This is because art therapists understand their client’s needs and can help them to develop new communications skills and modulate certain negative tendencies all while having them engaged in a creative activity.

“For example, one of the children in my St. Petersburg group seems to be answering any initiative with a ‘no’ reaction. He refused to join the group at first. However, we found a way to engage him and now have him trying to develop positive attitudes to new activities,” Derkacheva said.

Here in St. Petersburg, Derkacheva works with children starting from seven years old, up and to 13 years old. A number of these children come from families that lack time to give individual attention to their children, all for various reasons.

“Of course, we must understand that art therapy alone won’t become a complete solution to the problems of those children. However, these sessions give a huge boost to their self-esteem and confidence. The major lesson I want to impart upon them is to never give up!” Derkacheva said.

Before coming to Russia, Derkacheva practiced a similar art therapy program in New York. Some of the participants were students from a specialized school for children with developmental disabilities such as autism or Down syndrome.

Irina Derkacheva

Participants developing animated characters for the project.

“It would be unrealistic to expect that after participating in a short-term art therapy project, children with such problems as these would be able to overcome all their difficulties. However, we have seen several positive changes in behavior, such as an improved ability to work and stay in a group among students with autistic spectrum disorders,” she said.

Derkacheva co-leads the group in Russia with two Russian specialists from the Center for Medical, Psychological and Social Assistance in the city’s Kirovsky district, and hopes she will pass her experience to those experts and later to many others if she finds more funding for the project.

“It’s a pilot project and I’d like to get funding to develop a long-term program. I strongly believe that cooperation between Russian and American therapists would benefit both sides,” Derkacheva said.

Oksana Kamakina, one of the psychologists from the center who is assisting Derkacheva, said the art therapy method they are now using might become an effective way to solve the various psychological problems children have.

“On one hand, this method immediately motivates children to take part in the activity since it teaches them something new and modern, ultimately connected to the computer world that most of them are now so fond of and they can watch a cartoon they’ve made together on a computer screen. On the other hand, it’s pure psychological training where they learn how to cooperate with each other, consider the opinions of other people and ultimately achieve a common result,” Kamakina said.

She added that she and her peers are most likely to use the methods they are now learning in their future professional activities.

According to Derkacheva, Russian art therapists are very interested in developing collaborative projects with their colleagues from other countries, adding that Alexander Kopytin, the President of the Russian Art Therapy Association, was instrumental in connecting her with Russian colleagues.

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