Alumni Spotlight: Dr. Savneet Talwar

savneet-talwar-amst-alumniSavneet Talwar is an Associate Professor in the graduate art therapy program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her current research examines feminist politics, critical theories of difference, social justice, and questions of resistance. Using a transdisciplinary approach, her professional practice explores the social discourse of cultural trauma as it intersects with crafting, gendered labor practices, and public cultures and relates to art therapy practice and pedagogy. She currently serves as the Associate Editor of Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association. Her current projects are: CEW (Creatively Empowered Women) Design Studio, a knitting and fabrication social enterprise for South Asian and Bosnian women at the Hamdard Healthcare in Chicago; and the Wandering Uterus Project: A DIY Movement for Reproductive Justice, a craftivism project that focuses on experiences of gender, sexuality, reproductive justice, and the body.

1. What made you choose UMD and its American Studies program initially and why?

I chose the American Studies program at UMD primarily for its transdisciplinary focus. I came to the Ph.D. program with many years of clinical, community, and teaching experience in art therapy. The program perfectly fit my need to further my interest in social and cultural theory and bridge the link between critical inquiry and praxis in the field of art therapy.

2. How have the skills you learned both inside and outside of the classroom translated to your current role?

I joined SAIC as a faculty member in Spring 2009 and was tenured in Spring 2012. During my eight years at SAIC, I have been an active contributor on many levels to the school and the art therapy profession. On an institutional level, I have worked hard with the administration to have an active diversity initiative to increase diversity within the faculty. I been instrumental in revamping our departmental curriculum, bringing a more social, cultural, and global perspective to art therapy. As part of my professional practice and to broaden the scope of my teaching and research, in 2012 I started the CEW (Creatively Empowered Women) Design Studio in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago. CEW Design Studio is a Chicago-based art therapy social enterprise serving Bosnian refugees and South Asian immigrant women. CEW provides a welcoming space for sewing, knitting, crocheting, and art sessions that enhance life skills, cultivate a sense of community, and promote holistic wellbeing. Craft and fabrication are used as a way to develop social capital and empower women by offering practical, economic, and emotional support. CEW participates in a number of art and craft fairs through the year. Seventy percent of all sales go to the members. CEW was highlighted by WTTW in March 2016 on “Jay’s Chicago” as an innovative program the bridged the therapeutic and social by focusing on issues of gender and economic justice.

My experience with CEW has led me to design a new class – Stitch by Stitch: Feminism as Practice – an interdisciplinary course that considers the topic of craft practices and the therapeutic thorough the lens of feminist pedagogy, including theories of touch and interembodiment. The course examines the critical role craft and the domestic arts have played in raising questions surrounding feminism, gender, and labor practices in everyday histories. Drawing on DIY movements, craftivism, and fabriculture, the course examines local and international projects centering on memory, trauma, and collaboration. A major focus of the class is on the ethics of community collaborations and how the practice of making can cultivate a sense of community, wellbeing, and social capital.

In 2015, I was invited to be the Associate Editor of the Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association. As the only peer-reviewed journal in our field, I am responsible for editing one journal volume a year on a special issue. So far I have edited two volumes – (2015) Culture, diversity, and identity: From margins to center; (2016) Is there a need to redefine art therapy? The upcoming volume (2017) will be on Law, ethics, and cultural competence in art therapy. Finally, I am working on a manuscript for publication with Routledge, titled – Art Therapy for Social Justice: Radical Intersections. The book aims to promote scholarship and dialogue that open boundaries to envision approaches that are culturally sensitive, with a focus on antiracist, feminist, and emancipatory movements.

3. How has a Ph.D. from UMD’s American Studies department set you apart from your colleagues and peers?

What sets me apart from my colleagues and peers is the transdisciplinary focus that I bring to the field of art therapy. The department of American Studies at UMD offered me the opportunity for engaged learning and reflection. The transdisciplinary nature of the American Studies department, and UMD as a whole, gave me a rich educational experience that has impacted my teaching and scholarship. By focusing on arts-based methodologies, I explore the intersectional discourse around identity and difference, as they are located in the materiality of the body and the therapeutic. My scholarship has advocated for a social model of art therapy that brings a structural analysis in examining concepts of trauma, violence, shame, and stigma. I am interested in troubling the concept of “healing” as a private encounter or individual responsibility and locating the therapeutic in a social praxis; here, art is not just an object of contemplation, but rather serves as a critical and communal process. This kind of therapeutic process encourages participants to move from listening to speaking and from personal to social, as a way to enable agency and action with the aim of transforming relationships.

I want to stress that in no way am I trying to romanticize this kind of communal practice. In community collaborations there are no clear, linear, progressive outcomes. My collaborations and art are messy encounters. I have come to realize that when therapeutic practice moves into non-dualistic spaces, where we have to deal with the uncertainty and fluidity of the body, there are no neat outcomes. Such a process for me becomes about embracing “art therapy practice as a living inquiry.”

4. What was your favorite memory from your time in the American Studies department?

I have many fond memories, especially the mentorship for my scholarship I received from various professors who nurtured my ideas and interests during my time at UMD. My fondest memory is of writing my dissertation and the support I received from my committee members John Caughey, Jeffrey McCune and Chair, Nancy Struna.


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