Monday, 11 February 2013

Quilting Is Art Therapy - An Interview with Patricia MacAulay

        Patricia MacAulay has perhaps one of the most interesting jobs a creative person can have. Her job title is an art therapist.   She has incorporated her love of quilting into her profession with wonderful results.  Read on to meet this remarkable woman.
     Where do you live?

I live in Inuvik, Northwest Territories. This is a town of about 3000 people, located in the western Arctic at the end of the Dempster Highway that runs north from the Yukon. It's also connected to more northern communities for at least part of the year by ice road. We're about 100 km south of the Arctic Ocean and 200 km north of the Arctic Circle. We're so far north that we have about 60 days of continuous sunlight in the summer and 30 days of darkness in late December and early January. We typically have snow from September until May. The town was founded in 1953 as an administrative centre for the region. 

Taken on a nice spring morning in Tuktoyaktuk. Behind Patricia is the Beaufort Sea. 

Do you belong to a quilting guild?

Yes, I am a member of the Inuvik Quilting Guild. I take part in the Guild workshops held throughout the year. I am a beginner and I am learning a lot through these workshops.

    Can you tell me what an art therapist does?

An art therapist is a trained psychotherapist who facilitates creative expression from people who are experiencing emotional conflict and/or are seeking experiences of growth and understanding. We know that the memories of emotionally resonant experiences are stored as bodily sensations and as images, therefore more hands-on and visual approaches can help access difficult and/or meaningful emotions associated with such experiences.

I always say that art therapy helps us remember who we really are. If we know ourselves well, we can live our lives with more purpose and integrity and also with greater joy. Finally, I should say that those of us involved in creative endeavours are well aware of the meditative quality of such experiences. There is an inherent calming and soothing that comes with creating with our hands.

You mention that you work with students, what age group? 

I work with students from kindergarten to Grade 6 at an elementary school in a small northern community. This is my fourth year in this position, and I've seen a lot of growth and change over that time. Individuals and families who are native to this community have been ravaged by the process of colonization. Ancient cultural traditions and teachings have been eradicated, family ties have been broken, and people have suffered considerable physical, emotional, and sexual violence, initially from the colonizers and ultimately from members of their own families and  community. 

People have been trying to cope with the unimaginable hurt and pain associated with such violation and dislocation. Some cope well by maintaining strong bonds with family, community, and the land. Many, however, are lost in a world of substance abuse and violence. I mostly work with the children and grandchildren of those who experienced significant pain associated with the residential school system and other aspects of the colonization process. 

The effects of such deeply traumatic experiences can be felt for generations. I see my work as a means of helping this current generation process their feelings and find their own self-worth. I get to witness little miracles on a daily basis as I watch children find their courage and their sense of self even in the midst of considerable chaos. That is a very worthwhile and satisfying experience. 

I should also note that art therapy processes are particularly appropriate for cross-cultural work. Less verbal, less directive approaches allow people to make their own choices and create their own meaning.
You told me you save fabric from your guild, for what purpose?

     Whenever I attend guild events, the members always save their scraps for me. They are very generous in many ways, including this one. I use these scraps for myself and for my little clients. As you might imagine, this type of work can be quite draining for me. I need to have my own creative outlet in order to process my own feelings and to find my sense of self again after being exposed to the pain and distress of those around me. I find that I need to be able to do quick, easy projects that are soothing and satisfying for me. Those scraps are a godsend. I use them at home to make rugs, wreaths,  and structures that I call "spirit houses." These simple projects allow me to use my hands, to experience soothing and repetitive motion, to let go of rigid and unhelpful stances, and to find joy and beauty at the end of the day. 

     Using these scraps is a metaphor for my belief in our human ability to make something beautiful with whatever is at hand. I don't believe that we need perfection and wealth in order to find happiness. We just need to be able to use what we have available to us. The projects themselves are very meaningful to me. They represent my own wholeness and my attention to my spirit and its need for a safe and nurturing home within me.

      Is fabric a medium you use as a form of therapy in the classroom? 
      For my clients, the scraps have served a variety of purposes, but probably the most common one is for a very basic form of quilt making. I have had a number of girls, usually in Grade 5 or 6, who spontaneously begin gathering the scraps together in order to make their version of a "quilt." As they put the pieces together, sometimes with a sewing needle, perhaps even with a stapler or a roll of tape, they become very absorbed in the experience and through their conversation and their non-verbal expression, some of the meaning of the experience unfolds for me. 

     I see that they are getting in touch with their femininity, finding solace in the process, and expressing a need for all that a quilt can represent - warmth, comfort, familiarity, and safety. This is particularly touching in some scenarios such as one girl who had spent most of her life in foster care and who longs for her mother's presence. She spent several weeks on her "quilt," often closing her eyes and rubbing her face in the fabric. One can only be awed and moved by being a privileged witness to the expression of such a personal and primal expression. 

     Just recently, I witnessed "quilt making" as another phenomenon for a young girl in Grade 5. For her, the process seemed to be an expression of her sense of competence. She believed that this was something she could pull off and was taking great pride in every square that she added. Wow! How wonderful to see a girl feel that way about herself! Another example of the way that creative processes mean different things for different people.

    Are you a quilter as well? And does that overlap with your job as an art therapist?
     I would call myself an "emerging" quilter. A few years ago, I felt a strong desire to work with fabric. I bought a sewing machine before I came north and I took a basic sewing course my first winter here. I found that I had to overcome feelings associated with previous unsuccessful experiences with sewing and I went at my learning in fits and starts, as time and energy permitted. 

     Our local guild president offers quilting workshops that suit me perfectly. She sets up a safe and structured environment, gives us the basic information we need, and lets us find our own way with her support. At my first workshop with her, I overcame my fear of the machine, and since then I have been sewing quite happily. So far, I have made many, many quilting squares, and I am just learning to piece them together.  I am sure that I will eventually produce a quilt, but I am in no rush. For me, it's about the process, not the product. 

     I am a mixed media artist, and for me quilting is like another form of assemblage or collage work. Fabric gives me more options for my artistic expression. Also, the quilting workshops offer a soothing and collaborative environment that does my heart good and helps me feel more peaceful and grounded when I am doing my client work.

     What benefits do you see in the children by working with fabric?

Not all but quite a number of the children I work with have not have the bonding and nurturing experiences that provide a solid foundation for subsequent emotional development. Touching fabric can take them back to their early days and help them find a sense of safety and comfort. It's my hope that even such a brief encounter with that basic human experience can give them sufficient strength to move forward in their lives. The human spirit can do a lot with very little, with some support and encouragement. I am hoping that even a "scrap" of such an experience will serve them as they grow and learn.

Thank you Patricia for providing such a wonderful service to those lovely children and sharing your insightful thoughts with us!


  1. A wonderful way to share your heart Patricia and still maintain a sense of self.

  2. "Making something beautiful with whatever is at hand."
    Right on!

  3. Very nice quilting design...I love the color combination in your design and the fabric is very nice.
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  4. Wonderful story! Patricia, your work is so important and meaningful. Your interview brings so many things to mind. Inuvik is on my list of places I really would like to see some day, after falling in love with the NWT when I taught there this past year. Actually, I met a couple of the Inuvik quilters who came down to Yellowknife for my classes. Second thing I want to say is that "Quilts and Healing" has been a topic on my blog,, in the last while. Are you familiar with the book "Using Textile Arts and Handcrafts in Therapy with Women" by Ann Futterman Collier"? I was one of the artists interviewed for the book. She has a website called I really believe in the healing aspects of the creative process.

  5. Patricia; You are an amazing part of our Guild and continue to inspire me to teach in an 'experience' focused environment, rather than to focus on technique or project. Please continue your journey with textiles.