Interview with Artist and Psychotherapist Timothy Walsh
TJ Walsh, BFA, MA is a Counselor/Psychotherapist, Painter, Art and Higher Education Administrator. Prior to receiving his M.A. in Clinical Counseling Psychology from Eastern University in Saint Davids, PA, TJ received his BFA in Graphic Design from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.
TJ has extensive experience working with young adults, university students and young couples with a focus on artistic and creative personalities. In addition to his work in a group and private practice, TJ is a seasoned Student Affairs/Student Life professional with foci in the areas of Counseling, Conduct/Judicial Affairs, Title IX (specifically within the realm of campus sexual assault), and Educational Accessibility (ADA).
TJ writes and speaks about topics of art, culture, faith and mental health. His work has been exhibited and published internationally. He is on the faculty at Eastern University in the graduate school's Counseling Psychology department.
Tell us about your journey to becoming an artist. Was it something that always interested you?
I was always encouraged to create. When I was young, I wasn’t interested in sports and when I did play sports, I was always out in left field (literally) daydreaming and getting lost in my imagination. As I grew older, my teachers and mentors encouraged me to pursue my art even when the art was unconventional to what everyone around me was creating. My work went from expressive, figurative work to completely abstract during this time and I haven’t turned back. My work harkens back to those days in the left field, exploring my imagination and responding to my emotions – with the hope of evoking imagination and emotion in others.
When did you decide to pursue therapy as your second career? What inspired you to follow this path?
I took the step to pursue helping others professionally about five years ago when I arrived at a crossroads. The crossroads was the decision of whether I was to go back for my MFA or to get my graduate degree in psychology. The MFA would mean that I’d disappear into myself, while the psychology degree would allow me to explore other people. One thing that I know about myself is that when I am allowed to disappear into myself, I become self-destructive. I chose to pursue helping other people over myself. This decision played out marvelously for me because not only do I get to learn from and help other people navigate their path, but my artwork and insight about myself has grown and increased exponentially, too. It was the right decision.
How do you relate your art practice to the therapy room? How are they connected or different?
My art practice is not directly connected to my therapy practice insofar as they inform one another. However my art practice provides release and distance from the heavy emotional work that I put into sessions with my clients. Much like I encourage some of my patients to utilize making as a way to release stress and process emotions, my art practice is that for me. Making creates the necessary space to process experiences, interactions, and relationships.
What have been some interesting observations you found regarding the connection between art and mental health?
As researched by Zorana Ivcevic Pringle, Ph.D. at Yale University, it has been found that people who engage in everyday forms of creativity are revealed to be more “open-minded, curious, persistent, positive, energetic, and intrinsically motivated by their activity.” Individuals who score highly in daily creativity report that they have a greater sense of well-being and personal growth compared to their peers who engage less in everyday creative behaviors.
Creating can also be therapeutic for those who are already suffering. For instance, research shows that expressive writing increases immune system functioning, and the emerging field of posttraumatic growth is showing how people can turn adversity into creative growth.
Do you encourage your patients to express themselves visually and if so, have there been positive benefits as a result?
I do encourage patients to express themselves visually. It’s through the use of a creative expression that develops opportunities for exploration and growth.
One thing to remember is that, with the discretion of the therapist, often less structure, more fluidity and openness, can produce a productive session. Art is a useful tool to uncover one’s deepest sense of self, one's psyche, and also a means of getting to know the client. As themes in the artwork emerge, it is important to remain sensitive, as the artwork is just as ‘alive’ as the client. The art is a connected extension of himself or herself.
From your experience, what are some tips and best practices for artists to overcome blocks?
When experiencing creative block, it’s important that you don’t browbeat yourself. Lulls in creative energy are necessary to the overall creative process, and even though the lack of creative energy can be frustrating and psychologically painful, it’s important to move toward viewing these periods as times of growth. The in-between times is when creativity gets its start. It’s important to have a lot of thinking time – and thinking time happens when you least expect it to happen. When experiencing a creative block, try these helpful tactics for working through it:
-Come up with many solutions – not just one. Try to come up with a list of 20 ideas.
-Look for patterns in episodes of your creative block. When a creative block occurs, take notes and see if a trend emerges.
-Draw blindly for half a minute. You can’t criticize the results. Give yourself a theme. This can work for free writing, too. Without having expectations, you can break through to being able to work on your blocked project.
-Redefine the problem to find it more compelling. By looking at your project with from an unfamiliar angle, and a new perspective, you may be surprised that the block will become dislodged.
-Dirty your canvas. Put an ink-stained handprint in the middle of the problematic work. This will give you something to fix.
-Keep a sketchbook or notebook. Always carry it with you.
Tell us about your approach to painting. What is your process like?
My approach to painting is a process of call and response. I lay a spot or field of color down, place a mark or blemish on a surface and respond to it with another color, mark, or blemish. The work is an investigation into what it means to make marks on a surface to convey emotion. The process can be meditative or manic, as it is informed by many hours of listening to people share their stories of transition or struggle with me in the therapy room. The immediacy of mark making is therapeutic and healing. Making marks and pushing paint is about breaking through the noise of life to unearth the conversation beneath.
When you experience a tough time, what strategies do you use to overcome it?
When I experience a tough time, I make sure that I am seeing my therapist regularly. It is only through working things out with my therapist that I can dislodge what is stuck. I also make sure that I am in my studio as often as possible. This allows me to keep a flow open and continue the process of gaining insight and perspective on my relationships, the world and myself.
Please share the best piece of advice for staying grounded and maintain a healthy creative practice with our artists and readers.
1. Microcreate. Allocating regular time to create is vital, but we can also create in short bursts whenever windows of opportunity open. On busses or trains, for instance, we can do some mental practice or jot down ideas.
2. Be resilient. Given that creating involves experimentation and missteps, it takes mental toughness to keep pushing our limits. When problems arise, or if we receive criticism that hurts us, we need to be able to bounce back and press onward.
3. Create through turmoil. Life brings unexpected complexities. Instead of being derailed by disturbances, if we keep creating through tough times, even at micro levels, we support our motivation.
4. Refuse to procrastinate. Many would-be creative people put off starting or finishing projects. But such procrastinating behaviors are actually manifestations of angst that arises when we worry about rather than dive into artistic problems. If you tend to sidestep your creative work, take up some anti-procrastination techniques. For example, think about your creative work just before you sleep and then do some micro creating as soon as you wake up in the morning.
5. Collaborate. Creating with others lifts our artistry. But before we commit to collaborative projects, our partners and we should clarify our objectives and roles.
6. Counter negativity. If we find ourselves harboring toxic thoughts like, “I’ll never have new ideas,” we should respond by disputing the negativity, affirming our ability to create, and then getting to work.
7. Maintain energy. Creating takes a lot of energy. It’s important to commit to healthy lifestyles and also schedule restorative time. Especially when we wrap up large projects, vacations—even brief ones—ward off burnout and recharge our motivation.
8. Be accepting. Sometimes our creativity will soar; other times we’ll fumble. In order for our creative paths to continue to be open, we have to accept the bad days with the good. Ultimately, what matters most is that we are consistent in our work. If we do that, we liberate our creativity, and our lives are meaningful.