As a direct result of Rita Simon 1975 and early ‘76 introductory classes and residential courses for Queen’s University Belfast (QUB), several participants began to meet informally, thus NIGAT was established in May 1976 at her home in Holywood. A steering committee of three was elected, Rita as Chair, with four co-opted members and supported by the five others attending. The Group would provide three day meetings a year in order to present papers, use art materials, have literature available, disseminate information and promote art as therapy. Open membership was and always has been advocated: for example from artists, therapists and counsellors, health services, education, probation and prison services, voluntary agencies – and for all who were interested. Membership was the princely sum of £1 per annum! Rita’s courses for QUB continued, assisted by NIGAT and visiting lecturers, thus ensuring a supply of enthusiastic members.
From these early days NIGAT became a dynamic collective contributing much voluntarily at Group meetings and as outreach, helping to establish art therapy groups, posts and training. Newsletters and an annual report were distributed; members contributed to textbooks and to journals in UK and abroad. Courses progressed with evening classes and residential weekends through the Metropolitan College Belfast, University of Ulster (UU) and QUB.A weekend at Oxford Island, Lurgan was £15!
NIGAT members attended conferences, short courses, career conventions and gave lectures and workshops in Ireland, UK and Europe; established exhibitions in N Ireland; compiled a survey on Arts and the Handicapped; hosted therapists from the Republic of Ireland and when their separate association was formed, continued to share meetings and trainings. Before Rita Simon moved to London in 1984 (returning frequently over the years to conduct trainings, e.g. for QUB/NIGAT at Murlough, Co Down ) she wrote three important documents: an extensive report on the Group’s work, a research proposal to bring qualified art therapists to N Ireland and a detailed proposal for a two year postgraduate art therapy training here, to be led by NIGAT.
1988 saw a continued professional relationship with music, drama and dance therapists in organising a successful Shared Creativity Conference at UU. A formal committee, constitution and AGM were formed in 1989, enabling an application for charitable status. In 1992 the Group had a record membership of 119. Rita, Honorary President, published her long awaited book and the first of many NIGAT Art Exhibitions was arranged. Another milestone was reached by 1993 when the first week- long Art Therapy Summer School, was organised at UU College of Art. This has become an exciting annual core event building on its early success.
The late 90’s saw an expansion of art therapy exhibitions, by patient and client agreement. A very well received conference in Newtownabbey, ‘Costing Creativity’, showcased the practice of art therapy as a profession to possible future employers. 2001 saw the Group’s 25th Anniversary exhibition and celebration in Linenhall Library, Belfast and Rita’s last year as Summer School keynote speaker.
This was followed in 2002 by another momentous event after intense work and negotiation by the Group. The first MSc Art Therapy at QUB, in partnership with NIGAT and supported by Threshold NI, was approved by the Health Professions Council (HPC) and led by Caryl Sibbett. In 2005 the initial cohort graduated; this news delighted Rita when a small number of the Group’s founder members celebrated the publication of her final book in London. Congratulations to graduates of ’05,’ 07,’11 and to four NIGAT members who have obtained doctorates, thus raising the profile of Art Psychotherapy even higher. The training relocated in 2008 to the Centre for Psychotherapy, Belfast, validated by the University of East London and continuing to be led and taught by NIGAT members.
In 2004 a major fundraising art exhibition, Signatures Withheld, took place at the Waterfront Hall, Belfast. NIGAT members belonging to BAAT established the new Regional Group (20) NI, of the association and Caryl Sibbett was nominated as the first Co-ordinator. That year the Summer School moved to Stranmillis College, Belfast, later to Lisburn College, and in 2009 moved to NI Council for Voluntary Action, Belfast. In recent years, the Summer School is run at Corrymeela, Ballycastle. It goes from strength to strength, offering an eclectic selection of speakers and workshop leaders, national and international.
After Rita Simon’s death in 2008 the Group was honoured to receive her extensive collection of art therapy books and a very generous donation towards the development of a library. Therefore in 2012, NIGAT was delighted to establish a reading and study room in Holywood, which was near her home where the Group began! In 2016, the Reading Room relocated to the Lisburn Road in Belfast.
Membership still continues to benefit from being an eclectic and enthusiastic group of therapists and non-therapists, led by another inspirational Honorary President. The past and present voluntary post holders and committees have done sterling and remarkable work promoting art therapy, and evolving NIGAT into a strong force with all the original “vision, energy and commitment” of 1976.
Rita Mary Simon
A Brief Professional History
Rita Mary Simon pioneered art therapy in psychiatric after-care in Britain in 1942 and introduced it into a number of hospitals in London and the Home Counties. Formative influences include six years’ training in art, a Freudian analysis, and further experience in Adlerian and Jungian psychotherapies. Before the National Health Service (NHS) was set up in 1948, she was employed directly by the National Association for the Prevention of Tuberculosis, by medical consultants, and by psychiatrists and medical superintendents of psychiatric and similar institutions. After the introduction of the NHS she worked in a psychiatric hospital, a hospital for the severely physically handicapped, residential homes for old people and for children in care, sanatoria, and a diagnostic school for autistic children, in England and in Northern Ireland. From 1952, she lived in Northern Ireland and practised art therapy there in a psychiatric hospital. On return to Britain, she introduced art therapy at the Astell Day Hospital, Cheshire, and after 1970 to the Health and Social Services in Northern Ireland and the Belfast Education Board. From 1975 to 1983 she provided regular short residential courses in art therapy through the Queen’s University of Belfast and through evening classes in a College of Further Education.
The considerable variety of work in these contracts and in the Social Services Domiciliary Service provided valuable experiences of social aspects of mental and physical disability in the community, as did small groups such as a mother/child ‘play at home’ group and a child art group in a disturbed and violent suburb of Belfast. Between 1975 and 1995 Simon published two books and 18 papers.
The Rita Simon Collection
What is in the Rita Simon Collection?
About 500 paintings (mostly in gouache or watercolour on paper) and clay pieces by adults and children suffering mental and physical illness. The collection derives from R M Simon’s 55 years of work as an art therapist in private practice, hospitals and day centres of the National Health Service and Social Services. The works in the collection were made between 1942 and 1984. The collection includes sequences of paintings showing spontaneous changes in style during art therapy.
How is the collection arranged?
In two sections: 1. Classified into eight groups, each group being marked by one of the eight distinct art styles identified by R M Simon.
2. Sequences of works by the same person. The artists include normal, untrained adults and children of various ages and backgrounds, such as preschool and mainstream primary school children, professionals and others without formal art training. The variations in style show the many ways in which habitual styles can be modified.
What were the areas of psychological need served by the works of art therapy?
Mental and physical illnesses and handicaps in adults and children suffering exceptional stress through deafness, blindness, autistic states, clinical depression, schizophrenia, senile dementias and brain damage.
Why were the works preserved?
As evidence of the general validity of R M Simon’s concept of the symbolic meaning of art styles and as a tool for research. Some of them have been published in her two textbooks: The symbolism of style, London 1991 and Symbolic images in art as therapy, London 1997, both published by Routledge, together with other published papers. Researchers are requested to consult these two books first. Although the works are available for study, for reasons of confidentiality personal details of patients cannot be included beyond those given in the case histories provided in works already published.