Culture & Society

An Australian Artist's Long Connection With Kashmir

Australian artist Dena Lawrence talks about her art journey, connections with Kashmir, and art therapy.

Australian artist Dena Lawrence's carpet creations featured a vibrant, free-flowing palette
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Australian artist Dena Lawrence, who at the Carpet Design Awards 2024 held at Domotex in Hannover, Germany secured the top position in the category of "Best Studio Artist Design," has a long connection with Kashmir. She visited the Valley first time in 2009 and since then she has been to Kashmir, according to her, “32 times.” In her Facebook post after receiving the award, she wrote: “Look at the magnificent work of the weavers in Kashmir, working on the winning design at the Domotex carpet design award. Magic.”   

The award is a recognition of her original small-scale production design as an artist. Her winning piece is called Maschera. The Captivating Carnival-Inspired Handwoven Silk Rug Maschera is a handwoven silk rug that captures a carnival's playful and enchanting aura. Its design features a beautiful blend of colours, including playful pinks, radiant mustard tones, vibrant purples, and soothing greens. These colours dance harmoniously to create an artistic celebration of whimsy. In an interview with Outlook, she talks about her art journey, connections with Kashmir, and art therapy.

How did your art journey begin? 

My journey with art started in childhood; painting and drawing have been lifelong passions. Alongside, I delved into music, learning the piano and self-teaching with other instruments over the years. After school, I attended different Art and Design colleges, with my primary focus being on capturing the vibrant hues and landscapes of Australia. That focus remains a central part of my artistic journey to this day.

How did your collaboration with artisan weavers in Kashmir and Rajasthan first start?

In 2013, after wrapping up a self-funded Art therapy project in Kashmir from 2010 to 2013, I had the chance to meet some incredible artisans and weavers in the region. By that time, I was already having my artwork printed on scarves and shawls in India, which received positive feedback when sold in Australia. The idea then struck me to take my artwork to the next level by translating it into stunning silk rugs, all while supporting the declining weaving industry in Kashmir. It felt like a natural progression—from assisting the youth in Kashmir with trauma through Art therapy to leveraging my creative strengths and simultaneously engaging the skilled weavers in Kashmir in what they excel at: meticulous and delicate weaving.

In what ways have you observed improvements among rug artisans in Kashmir over the years?

Introducing my designs to the skilled artisans in Kashmir initially posed a challenge. Unlike traditional Persian or Kashmir carpet designs, my creations featured a vibrant, free-flowing palette with numerous shades and colours. Traditional motifs were patterned and repetitive, typically limited to around 15 colours, whereas my designs embraced a rich spectrum of 22 to 36 colours. The weavers, showcasing their remarkable skills, adeptly captured the intricate details and shades required to precisely translate my artwork.

With time, the weavers became adept at following the unique design, and the process became more seamless. Despite the initial challenge, they demonstrated their enormous skill in achieving an exact translation of my artistic vision. The dedication and craftsmanship of these artisans shine through, with some carpets taking approximately 9 to 12 months to weave a 6 x 9 ft masterpiece.

As an artist, art therapist, and mental health nurse, tell us the therapeutic process you undergo when creating these rugs.

As an artist, art therapist, and mental health nurse, my therapeutic process involves expressing my emotions through a spontaneous and experimental approach. In my role as an art therapist, I have always been eager to convey my feelings by freely throwing, dripping, and pouring paint, allowing for a free-flowing and vibrant expression of my moods. This intuitive process is not only therapeutic but also relaxing and cathartic.

With decades of experience in channeling my creative energy into music and visual arts, I see myself as an explorer of both inner and outer landscapes. My artwork emerges from an intuitive search in a free-flowing state, reflecting an authentic spirit of self. The techniques I teach are employed in my own practice, serving as a tool to break habitual behaviour, explore the interplay of light and dark, celebrate the beauty of nature, and provide solace during challenging times.

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Australian artist Dena Lawrence's carpet creations
Australian artist Dena Lawrence's carpet creations
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What inspired you to adapt your artistic practice for rug designs, and how do the rugs embody your distinctive kaleidoscopic style?

Embracing creativity and exploring innovative approaches to art is an integral part of my personality—I thrive on challenges and enjoy venturing into new territories. The decision to adapt my artistic practice to rug designs was born out of a desire to see my vibrant and dynamic art take on new life in a different medium.

The use of silk, with its inherent shimmer, beautifully captures the lively and energetic essence of my artwork. The transformation of my art into rugs results in absolute gems that vibrate with colour, resembling a mesmerizing kaleidoscope. These rugs, in essence, become a tangible manifestation of my personal quest for harmony and vitality through art.

My inspiration draws from the wildflowers and seascapes of my native Australia, as well as the dazzling colours of India, a place I have extensively travelled. This rich tapestry of experiences and influences finds expression in each rug, creating a harmonious blend of my distinctive kaleidoscopic style.

Tell us about your Kashmir connection and the initiation of the 'Perfume & Poison' art therapy program for “traumatised” youths.

My connection with Kashmir began as a tourist in 2009, where I was profoundly moved by the duality of the region—the breathtaking beauty (Perfume) and the visible trauma and grief resulting from years of military, insurgency, and conflict (Poison). This experience prompted me to recognise the potential of my background as an art therapist, specialising in Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome, in providing support, particularly to the youth in Kashmir.

Understanding that art therapy could serve as a powerful means of self-healing and recovery, I initiated the 'Perfume & Poison' art therapy program. This program involved adapting the art therapy model I had previously developed in a private psychiatric hospital in Perth, Western Australia, to address the unique needs of the youth in Kashmir.

Over three years, I conducted workshops for students at the University of Kashmir, with a specific focus on training 15 students to delve deeper into the art therapy process. The goal was to empower these individuals to extend their knowledge and skills to others within their community, creating a ripple effect of healing and support. Through this initiative, I aimed to contribute to the well-being and resilience of the youth in Kashmir, providing them with tools for self-expression and healing.

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What emotions did you experience while participating in the art therapy program in Kashmir a decade ago and how did art therapy resonate with Kashmiri participants? Are you still doing such programmes?

Participating in the art therapy program in Kashmir a decade ago was a profound experience, marked by a range of emotions. Many participants were engaging in drawing and painting for the first time, although some had a pre-existing love for art. The primary focus of the workshops was not on the technical skill of drawing but on providing a platform for emotional expression.

At the outset, the artworks produced by the students reflected a somber tone, characterised by dark colours, especially red and black, depicting themes of bloodshed and anger. However, as the creative process unfolded, art became a language through which the youth could explore and express new dimensions of themselves, infused with hope, optimism, light, and resilience.

The feedback from participants was encouraging, with one student sharing, "Now I create art, draw, and paint whenever I am frustrated or depressed, and it helps me." Another participant expressed, "I spilled out all my feelings in the workshops; it helped me present Kashmir and express my feelings to the world." Yet another participant remarked, "We Kashmiris know what we are going through. So, pain is the first thing which gets expressed."

Throughout the sessions, I observed prevalent feelings of depression, frustration, entrapment, and low self-esteem among the youth, as if they had locked their inner, authentic selves away. Over time, a transformative process unfolded, allowing them to rediscover their true selves—a journey marked by healing, growth, creativity, and newfound confidence.

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Have you visited Kashmir in the past few years, have you noticed any significant changes as an artist, or does the essence remain the same?

Yes, I have had the privilege of visiting Kashmir numerous times over the past 14 years—approximately 32 times. During these visits, I have observed some changes, particularly in the way I approach my art. Recognising that my creations would be experienced as rugs on the floor, I began adapting my designs to ensure they could be appreciated from all angles and perspectives. Despite these adjustments, the essence of my creative process has remained consistent—I initiate the journey with a gesture and a feeling, painting spontaneously and intuitively. The core of my artistic expression, grounded in emotion and intuition, remains unchanged.

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