The American Art Therapy Association represents a diversity of professionals, students, and organizations across the nation. We recognize and celebrate the work of our members at all levels through our Featured Member series.
January 27, 2022
What excites or inspires you most about your job right now?
The opportunity to bring together the potential of creative expression, artistry and science to address the challenges we face as human beings in terms of physical illness and psychological distress. I particularly love being able to connect research, teaching, leadership and service in my current role at Drexel University. There is an unfortunate minimization of the role of art in our lives in modern society. In my work I strive to dispel some of these misconceptions and am grateful that in my current professional capacity I am able to research and share the interconnections between the arts, sciences, and humanities.
Has working with a particular client group shaped your professional focus or specialty? What have you learned from working with these clients?
I have worked with a range of patients including children living in conditions of adversity, adjudicated youth, youth struggling with anxiety and depression, adults experiencing medical and psychological trauma to name a few. What I find across the board is how art making in an art therapy session bypasses the many armors and shields we build up over life to protect ourselves. To be witness to, to be with someone’s unique and authentic self expression, and, to be able to know each other through art to me is the ultimate human privilege. Our artworks help us connect across space and time to the core of who we are in all our complexity. Working with patients and clients is always a reminder of how unique we all are and yet also exactly the same in many ways in our struggles and wish to live meaningful lives.
How has your role changed as an art therapist during the COVID-19 pandemic?
I think I certainly see the negative impact of isolation on our collective well-being. I have seen both exceptional compassion and also extreme distress through the pandemic which clearly has changed us all, including in as yet undetermined ways. The pandemic certainly made me immensely grateful for work and being able to do it remotely and the communities of colleagues, friends and family. Many changes in society were accelerated due the COVID and I hope raised awareness and made us sensitized to and compassionate towards people and communities those who have endured irreplaceable losses as a result of the pandemic.
How have race, diversity, and/or social justice impacted your work as an art therapist?
I am defined by the many identities that are are part of my life history and story including that of growing up in India and Nepal and having now lived in the US for the past 23 years. I carry with me many privileges and vulnerabilities at the intersection of race, ethnicity, social class and gender. The issues of disparity and the pursuit of equity are integral to my practice as a scholar, educator, administrator, and leader. I am inspired and led by an idea in the Bhagavad Gita, a philosophical treatise embedded in one of the mythological stories of Hinduism which says, that to effort alone must we commit ourselves, not to the fruits of that effort. To that end, I am led by my values and commitment to informed decision making that includes data and voices of as many stakeholders as possible. We might not always be able to shape outcomes, but we all have agency over our efforts and to that sincere effort I remain deeply committed.
What advise would you give someone interested in pursuing a career in art therapy? Or, is there something you would like to share about your journey thus far as an art therapist?
I became an art therapist and art therapy researcher because it brought together my interests in human behavior and motivation, a lifelong practice and love of visual art and narrative writing. Over time, my professional work in art therapy has shifted more to research and leadership work and I look forward to continuing to serve the field through scholarship and mentorship.
Artist statement: “Art making to me has been a lifelong friend that has helped me make sense of my experiences including processing thoughts and coping with emotions. It has been a means for reflection, engagement with the world, and exploration of creative possibilities. During the year(s) when COVID-19 brought physical restrictions, emotional confusion and sustained changes to our lives, art making was a way to connect with myself, my family and professional community. I found self-regulation by allowing myself refuge in my artistic practices. Art served as a sanctuary sometimes simply as a form of distraction and keeping our hands busy. At other times, art making was about externalizing the complex emotional landscapes. Much of my own research on the therapeutic aspects of art making (e.g., improved mood, reduced stress, gaining perspective, feeling positive emotions, self-efficacy and creative agency) are inspired by my experiences of what artistic practice has meant for my own health and well-being.
Being outdoors was one of the few free activities during the pandemic and as a result in 2020, my art took an even more intentional turn towards mixed media inspired by natural materials and nature metaphors. Instead of traditional canvases, I have increasing been using elements of nature as both themes and the base for my art. Natural materials represent to me the transient beauty and anonymity of everyday lives as well as the paradoxically universal uniqueness of all beings.”
Girija Kaimal, EdD, MA, ATR-BC
Girija Kaimal is an Associate Professor, Interim Chair and Assistant Dean for Special Research Initiatives at the Drexel University. In her Health, Arts, Learning and Evaluation (HALE) research lab, she examines the physiological and psychological health outcomes of visual and narrative self-expression. She has published over 60 peer-reviewed papers and book chapters, has led research and evaluation studies and has had continuous grant funding since 2008. Her research has been featured by NPR, CNN, The New York Times as well as a range of media outlets worldwide.
Most recently, she was awarded the first qualitative research grant for studying aging and demographic differences in Gulf War Illness by the Department of Defense. She is also PI for two studies funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, examining outcomes of art therapy for military service members with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress, and arts-based approaches to mitigate chronic stress among patients and caregivers in pediatric hematology/oncology units. Additional current studies include examining the therapeutic underpinnings of indigenous and traditional art forms and serving as a research advisor to Save the Children International on projects that examine the role of the arts in education and human development.
Living out her research interests, she has been a lifelong visual artist and her art explores the intersection of identity and representation of emotion. Her service commitments at present include being the President of the American Art Therapy Association and faculty senate representative from CNHP.
Dr. Kaimal has a doctorate from the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, Master of Arts from Drexel University and Bachelor’s in Design from the National Institute of Design in India.