Susan Rudnik explains how a community-led art psychotherapy service is helping those affected by the trauma of the Grenfell Tower fire to start processing what happened.
The Grenfell Tower fire of June 2017 is forever etched in the minds of many – and none more so than those in the north Kensington community surrounding the tower. The London borough of Kensington and Chelsea is one of stark wealth divides with mansions, Royal Palaces and foreign embassies to the south and deprived social housing in the north.
I have lived in social housing close to the Grenfell Tower site for over two decades. With our many battles to save homes, libraries, nurseries and community spaces from gentrification, ours is a close-knit community. Most in it have links to the tower in some way and many more bore witness to the fire as it tore through the block.
Art psychotherapists often work with marginalised client groups that no one else has been able to engage
The morning after the blaze I went into my work at the local hospital. When only three survivors came onto the wards we knew there would be many more deaths than first thought – and that work would be needed in the community.
Three days after the fire I set up an art therapy space in the community centre on my estate. At the same time art therapists set up spaces on the streets which, though familiar, now felt nothing like home. Mourners were everywhere while press and well-meaning volunteers flooded the area. It was amid this sense of alienation that some bereaved children from the local secondary school, which lost five children in the fire, spontaneously made a memorial.
We therapists supported them to gather materials from the community centre as they organised themselves and allocated jobs to the group. One young lady painstakingly drew out the letters spelling ‘Grenfell’ with precise detail. She sat for hours and when her work was finished she said “I feel like I have done something”.
This resonated with me. I too wanted to ensure that I’d ‘done something’ for my community. Within two weeks art therapists had been placed in nine local primary schools as requested by a local charity that had connections in the schools, and two more community spaces opened with art therapy services. One month after the fire art therapy was being provided in a further three community spaces. A ‘safe space’ where children could play and make art was also developed for the young people at all the public and residents’ meetings.
These early art therapy spaces were chaotic, mirroring the chaos all around. The boundaries we usually hold dear in therapy seemed useless as the spaces spilled over with children. The doors were held open at all times and three or four therapists worked together in the same space. Therapists held spontaneous groups as they formed. People spoke and cried together, trying to make sense of what had happened. Younger children played games of trapping each other and escaping, to relive what they had seen and heard.
Art materials, with their capacity for fluidity and movement, offered people a way to process the trauma as it was being felt. And the art psychotherapists involved work in a non-directive way, which means the creativity of the sessions could take any form the child wishes. Using metaphor (looking at and thinking about the narrative of the child’s art work rather than thinking in a literal sense) can help to engage with difficult and confusing feelings. This is particularly important in trauma work when thoughts and feelings may be too painful or too hard to recall.
In the midst of a traumatic disaster such as Grenfell, where normal thought processes had disintegrated, art enabled people to bring shape and thought to their experience.
The early artwork that emerged was of dark and black moon shapes, echoing the images from the night of the fire, where everything was covered in thick black smoke. Slimy, gooey mixtures appeared in every therapy site. These pungent, messy mixtures would spread all over the spaces, symbolic of the surrounding ‘mess’. And of course, towers were constantly in the artwork – sometimes deliberately and sometimes appearing unconsciously.
As the weeks and months progressed, the large, chaotic groups gradually became ordinary sized and routines and time boundaries were negotiated. The first art therapy space that opened remains well-used by groups and individuals. Everyone has folders and boxes inside lockable cupboards, and the door can be closed.
Among the chaos and trauma, an organisation was born: Latimer Community Art Therapy (LCAT). As with a premature birth it has taken time to recover and the baby is very fragile indeed. But systems are in place to ensure its survival as we continue to support a community.
LCAT has been well received by the local community. I put this down to several factors, not least the ability of our therapists to work in uncertain circumstances and unusual settings. Art psychotherapists often feel marginalised from mainstream mental health interventions. But it is this marginalisation that has allowed us to develop our practice in non-traditional locations. Often this involves working with client groups that no one else has been able to engage: alcoholics, violent children, the dying, the wounded, the traumatised.
It is also very significant that LCAT was wholly community led. I was not just another professional coming to help – I am a resident just like everyone else. I understood the issues from the inside and I fought for what I believed to be best practice alongside my comrades. Psychotherapists studying the response to 2005’s Hurricane Katrina have written that “outsiders could not and should not be expected to provide the continuity of care that is imperative in a community struck by disaster”. As the hordes of volunteers and pop-up therapy services have all but disappeared from the Grenfell community, this has become abundantly clear.
LCAT is now a community interest company with 23 art psychotherapists delivering therapy to around 300 children, adolescents and adults a month, and a thriving community service employing 13 local residents at Henry Dickens Community Centre. LCAT Art Psychotherapy continues in three community spaces, 11 primary schools and one nursery. We have an adult art psychotherapy service with outreach into older adults’ homes and we work in partnership with the V&A to deliver a monthly respite group. Since its somewhat premature birth LCAT has seen 1,183 people for therapy delivering 10,996 art therapy sessions.
Susan Rudnik is a state registered Art Psychotherapist and clinical supervisor.
A longer version of this article was published in Art Therapy OnLine in 2018.