When asked to create a visual expression of how she felt, the student painted a whole page black. Girija Kaimal, EdD, ATR-BC, MA '01, who was teaching the course to demonstrate how art therapy can help facilitate creative self-expression in a way thatʼs helpful, decided to give her space to work things out. After looking at her black page for a while, the student “picked up some pink modeling clay and created cherry blossoms on it,” Kaimal recalls. “Then she started talking to me about cherry blossoms and how she had been having a difficult year, but was looking forward to spring.
“That whole process really highlighted to me how, very often, the solutions we seek are within ourselves.”
BALANCING THE ARTS AND THE SCIENCES
Kaimal, an artist herself, got a masterʼs in art therapy at Drexel before earning a doctorate in human development and psychology from Harvard University. “I always balanced the arts and the sciences,” she says. “Coming back to this position as research faculty helps me bring those two interests together and work on understanding what is the role of art in our lives.”
Her art therapy research, which focuses on understanding the way that creative self-expression affects human emotions and other brain processes, has been funded by a wide range of government, academic and nonprofit organizations, ranging from U.S. Department of Defense and National Endowment for the Arts to Oxfam America. Her roles as scientist, teacher and visual artist are “interconnected,” she says. “My research keeps my skeptical mind open to what the data might reveal. That feeds back into teaching, that feeds back into mentorship and that feeds back into artistic practice.”
ʻTHE QUESTION THAT DRIVES MEʼ
But Kaimalʼs interest in how art affects our well-being is not strictly academic. Itʼs also personal.
“When I first moved to the U.S. from India in 1998, I came with my suitcase and my art supplies,” Kaimal says. “When I was struggling to find my way in this new country, thatʼs all I had. So whenever Iʼm in a difficult spot or struggling with something, art is a way for me to process and get through. I wonder often, is that just me or does that apply to others as well? That’s the question that drives me.”