Category Archives: Arts Based Inquiry

American Art Therapy Association Conference

I’m excited to be heading off to the American Art Therapy Association (AATA) annual conference in Baltimore Maryland from 7-10 July 2016, where I will be presenting a Master class on arts based research. My presentation will be based on my Doctorate in Creative Arts Therapy which I undertook at MIECAT, Australia. See the abstract below.


This enquiry is grounded in my own personal experience of breast cancer. I experienced the loss of my breast, not only as a change to the shape and feel of my physical body but also in the way I understood and expressed myself as a woman. Still largely based on the bio-medical paradigm, the medical system in Australia encourages women to have a breast reconstruction at the same time, or soon after, their mastectomy in order to nalise their treatment and ensure they get back to “normal” as soon as possible. This enquiry explores how I used creative arts to nd meaning in my lived experience of breast cancer; in particular, how I made sense of my changed body, came to a decision to not have a breast reconstruction, and explored how to live as a one-breasted woman.

Using creative arts I attempted to speak from my body. Situated within a review of di erent discourses of the body, my enquiry centres on an understanding of the feminist phenomenological body as a continuously forming shape-shifting entity intermingled and coconstructed with the social and natural world. Working alone and alongside other women, I undertook numerous enquiry cycles using a range of di erent art modalities, with a particular focus on sensory knowing formed through relationship with the art materials. Touch provided the bridge between my experiencing, emotion,

and movement into art-making, allowing me to heighten my sensory awareness thus providing the space for new knowing to arise within my body.

Using a fusion of di erent modalities, my enquiry centred on two key images. One image created from my painted body allowed me to explore existential issues of mortality and the meaning of life, while the pink lady image provoked me to explore my feelings of anger, vulnerability, and shame. Through these images I discovered that a particular artwork is able to hold the complexity of lived experience.

My own arts based exploration of my breast cancer experience provides a method for other women to follow, it will inform my own arts based practice, provides a template for arts based groupwork, and contributes to the understanding of women’s lived experience of breast cancer that can influence the support provided by family, friends, and health services.

The full thesis is available on



Reconstructing medical breast diagram

I was painting the other day. I decided to work with the medical diagram that the surgeons use to illustrate their surgical procedures. I cut out a stencil based on this image and used it in my first painting. When I lifted the stencil off I noticed it was covered with paint so made a print of this. When I lifted the stencil off the second art work the left breast shape stayed stuck on the paper.  I then did another print which now had a hole where my breast had previously been. This really seemed to reflect my breast surgery process.

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Relationship with Clay

Hard, grainy, rough
Immersed in water you remain
resistant to my touch
I rub my hands over you
and you give some of yourself to me

I manipulate you in my hands
feel your softness
make indentations with my fingers
My wet hands squeeze your softness
as we create a soft, gooey mess.

We come together
You provide a thin covering
Each influencing the other

I throw you onto the page
and you form into your own shape

I make prints on paper
the texture of my skin amplified through you.


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Judith Wright’s 2011 exhibition A wake, her first major figurative installation, marks a new development in her long meditation on the loss of her daughter, who died shortly after birth many years ago. Wright says ‘the power of the shadow to conjure absence’ directed her to make A wake. The ancient Greeks associated shadows with the soul, and this is true of Wright’s musicians: their shadows are the soul of their music.

Wright’s reference to shadows as a means of conjuring absence resonates with me as I  have been drawn to taking photos of shadows; maybe this is also related to my work about leaving traces of my life behind – traces can also become shadows.

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Well of Despair

I realise that this black hole of grief reminds me of my experience of depression. When in a very depressed state I had such a strong visual image of being stuck a couple of 100 metres below ground in this deep well not being able to reach the pin prick of light above me.

The Black Well of Despair

Stuck up to my chin in black oozing mud
Just enough clearance to breathe
The rancid stench of decay fills my nostrils
The taste of death in my mouth.

Raising my eyes
I can just see the pin prick of light far above me
I am deep down, deep down
Stuck in this deep well of despair.

One day I know
I will have the strength to climb out
To make the tortuous journey back up
Back up towards the light and rejoin the living

But for now I am stuck
Stuck here
In this deep black well of despair

Kay Gravell
April 2012

 I was talking to a friend about this experience of feeling like I am in a deep well of despair and she commented that she immediately thought of the sacred well. As in Greek mythology wells contain sacred water and are the source of spiritual rejuvenation.

Black hole of grief

I took this image of my painted body soon after I had had my mastectomy This close up image of my chest wall painted black is a grim reminder of my missing breast. I have carried this image around with me for the last few years . It has been a strong symbol of my grief.

The black space

I peer into the white rimmed
black space.
Where my left breast used to be
now looks empty

My rounded breast
punctuated by a nipple
dripping in red paint
proudly adorns my right chest.

It has such beautiful symmetry
sensual shape
just the right size
to be gently cupped by a hand.

The concaved black emptiness
stares out at me
like an unblinking eye.

A large black pupil
holding hidden depths
of unknown meaning.

Kay Gravell
29th April 2010


Torn Tissue

Torn tissue forms the tear in my skin.

I’m interested in the idea of torn tissue; of tearing. I decide to amplify this through another representation. I tear up tissue paper. I enjoy the feeling and the sound of the tissue paper tearing. I then stick the torn tissue paper onto a sheet of white paper. I immerse myself in tearing strips of tissue paper and gluing them onto the paper, gradually building up layers and texture. I’m interested in allowing some layers to emerge. I then create more depth by tearing into the layers.

Tearing, ripping, slashing, shredding
Slitting, my skin, revealing the tissue
And beneath this tissue of lies
my blood, my flesh
the rawness of my pain.

Kay Gravell
May 2012

I have this image of tearing my skin open to reveal the flesh, blood, tissue beneath it. It seems very symbolic for me that my left breast has been removed which has brought my heart closer to the surface. It feels so much more present to me as without the padding of my breast the sound of my heart beat is very loud.

I am reminded of the images of the sacred heart of Jesus that I was exposed to during my catholic upbringing. The image of Jesus with his beating heart revealed through his skin represents his divine love and compassion for all humanity.


 Image by bbburge downloaded from on 10/05/2012



Smoke Drawing

I began to play with the idea of tracing; I decided to make some smoke drawings. I used different papers and candles to get a range of effects.  I tried a number of different types of paper and candles before I got the smoke to really leave a mark. I loved the totally emergent nature of the pictures. The smoke made beautiful images in the air before swirling around the paper. Although I moved the paper in an attempt to control the aesthetic of what I was creating I really had very limited control over where the smoke went. I found this really freeing. Just allowing the smoke to make its mark.

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Trace of my life

Small  story books

An exercise I did with the group of women who had had a mastectomy was making small story books. Firstly you cut an A4 piece of paper into thirds and give each person one of these long narrow pieces of paper. They are invited to create a concertina folded book by folding their paper in half, then half again and so on until there is a concertina with 8 folded squares. They are then invited to paint their paper on both sides with a water colour wash using an abstract pattern; this will form the background to their story. Once this is completed each person writes for 10-15 minutes completing the following statements by writing in free association:

I am …………..

I want …………….

I need ……………

After 15 minutes each person sits with their writing and chooses one phrase, which they write on the front and back folds of their story book. Then they just complete the story writing a word/phrase/sentence in each folded section. When they get to the end of one side they turn the page over and there will be the starting phrase again and complete this side. Once the story books are completed each person takes it in turns to read their story out.

The one I completed is shown below:

I was scared
I thought I was going to die
but facing death
wasn’t so scary
just a slipping
into the light
leaving a faint trace
of my life behind.

I was scared
Then I found
real peace
knowing I had
lived my life to the full
with no regrets.
Can I hold this wisdom?
was scared. 

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When I read it out the other women gave me their responses

Slipping into the light banana

No need to remember how just making traces

Scared but accepting

Uncertain of your hold on life

This again brought out the theme of the silver lining i.e. that through facing death I had found a sense of calm that has eluded me all my life. I just need to remember this and hold onto it. One woman asked me why I thought I was going to die. Had I read all the literature that would have told me I had low probability of dying. I said no I hadn’t felt drawn to read lots of stuff but I was scared of dying as I was having my fourth general anesthetic in as many months. I want to be present at my death. I find the idea of dying on the operating theatre under general anesthetic really scary.

This activity got me thinking about leaving a trace of my life behind. This was a powerful idea for me. I had always wanted to leave a something big behind, some sort of legacy; to know that I had made some sort of difference to the world in some way; maybe a novel that would live on after me etc. It was a relief to know that I could feel at peace knowing I had left just a light trace of my life behind.

More on Body Mapping

I just came across a woman in US who was writing about her experience of body mapping. Its such an amazing feeling of connection to come across people on the other side of the world exploring similar topics. She has written about her experience of particpating in a 2 day body mapping workshop on her blog

She has also given links to other people using body mapping in working with people with AIDS/HIV in South Africa.