POLYPHONYJournal of the Irish Association of Creative Arts Therapists

The First All Ireland Convocation Frontiers Conference

Published on Jan 26, 2024 by Suzie Cahn

Organisers stated that it took 30 years to achieve their goal of celebrating the convergence of creative arts therapists from Ireland, Northern Ireland, and beyond. The inaugural All Ireland Convocation Frontiers Conference brought together professionals, students, and supporters dedicated to advancing creative arts therapies on the island of Ireland as a critical ingredient in addressing the mental health crisis, particularly highlighted during and since the pandemic. 

Held at TU Dublin, School of Art and Design, the day commenced with former Irish President Mary McAleese. In her opening address, she emphasised the significance of all-island collaboration in this field and invited participants to embrace opportunities for unified work on shared goals.

The venue itself, with its innovative architecture on the grounds of the former St. Brendan’s hospital, one of the first settings for a creative art therapy program in the 1980s, provided a fitting backdrop for the conference’s theme of exploring new Frontiers in creative arts therapies. 

The keynote address by Dr. Nisha Sajnani, an Associate Professor at New York University, highlighted her pioneering work with the WHO, emphasising the transformative power of arts in health in fostering equity, care, and collective human flourishing. 

The conference came to fruition due to a connection between Aisling Brennan, then Chair of the Irish Association of Creative Arts Therapists, and Colin Sims, a lecturer at Ulster University, in 2021. The idea was to create a platform for accredited Creative Arts Therapists (CATs) on the island of Ireland to come together, share ideas, and enhance their clinical practice while exploring shared challenges.

The theme “Frontiers” symbolised the profession’s journey from early cross-border collaborations to its current state, continually pioneering new approaches.

The idea was developed with the support of many partners including TU Dublin, School of Art and Design and members of the faculty of arts therapy programme in Ulster University and individuals from the representative bodies for Creative Art’s Therapies in Ireland and the UK. 

The event also sought to addressed pressing issues, such as the suspension of Stormont affecting services in Northern Ireland and the decades-long slow moves towards Statutory Regulation in the Republic of Ireland. One hoped-for outcome was to leverage the experience of Northern Irish CATs to influence the regulatory landscape in the South. Presenters and workshop facilitators from various disciplines showcased the interdisciplinary approaches that contribute to helping individuals, families, and groups navigate difficult circumstances and mental health challenges. 

Looking ahead, the organisers envision the Frontiers Conference becoming a bi-annual international event, allowing governing bodies and universities to explore current questions, showcase ongoing work, and raise awareness of the profession’s efficacy.

The 2023 Frontiers Conference marked a historic moment, uniting Creative Arts Therapies and Arts Psychotherapies from across the island. The conference provided a platform to showcase the depth and scope of arts therapies, emphasising the importance of collaboration and networking among practitioners, showcase ongoing work, and raise awareness of the profession’s efficacy in addressing mental health on the island. 2023 participants have already fostered professional alliances, discussed new models of learning, and innovation in services. 

Suzie Cahn

Suzie Cahn qualified as an Art Therapist in 1991, completing her Master’s Degree in New York. Her 30 years of experience included working extensively aiding survivors of sexual abuse and in hospice care and providing art therapy and supervision to individuals. Suzie also offered art therapy in various community roles, alongside being a community arts facilitator and artist in residence.

Her awareness of our connection to the natural world and interest in sustainable food systems led her to volunteer in school and community gardens and eventually establish Carraig Dulra, a social enterprise focused on regenerative ecological design. In 2021, she retired from art therapy to focus on community activation and engagement work. Suzie currently directs an all-island project for the Wheel and coordinates a training program in the Just Transition region. She remains involved in Art Therapy by tutoring on the MTU Art Therapy Masters programme, integrating arts and nature, and teaching on  Irish Hospice Foundation programmes.