"The place is more beautiful than the heaven and is the benefactor of supreme bliss and happiness. It seems to me that I am taking a bath in the lake of nectar here."
—Sanskrit poet Kālidāsa on the Kashmir Valley, 5th century
When a Kashmiri rug seller in Kerala invited Dena Lawrence to visit Kashmir, she thought it an impossible idea—the region would be too dangerous to visit, owing to the military occupation of an area that had been a disputed territory for more than sixty years. But he extended an invitation to his family home, which she accepted, travelling to the city of Srinagar with a friend in 2009.
She was overwhelmed by the sorrow and sadness she felt from the people she met, but equally by the poetic beauty of the landscape. The heavy military and police presence, barbed wire, curfews, street protests, and constant surveillance she witnessed jarred with the delightful aesthetics of work produced in abundance by Kashmiri artisans, weavers and woodcarvers.
"I saw a land of beauty, perfume and innocence alongside trauma and suffering. I saw heaven and hell on earth in one place. This land of artisans, mystics and poets is now also a place where there is much cruelty and corruption—a place and people of extreme opposites."—Dena Lawrence.
With four decades' experience as a mental health nurse and a professional art psychotherapist, Dena was highly attuned to the degree of human suffering in Kashmir, which resulted from decades of violence amid political chaos. In Australia Dena had designed and facilitated successful art therapy workshops for those suffering from PTSD, grief, depression, anxiety and addiction; she felt compelled to share techniques that could, to some degree, soothe some of the people experiencing extreme trauma and loss in Kashmir.
"Kashmir left a huge impact on me, and I felt a calling to return and offer my humanitarian services as an art therapist. A lot of people with trauma can't describe with words what they've been through, but they can express it through art."—Dena Lawrence.
With assistance from a local journalist in Srinagar, Dena set up 'A Path With Art': a series of art therapy workshops delivered in colleges and orphanages and individually. Most of the art therapy project was self-funded. She also received sponsorship from Hollywood Private Hospital in Perth, where she practises. Dena secured financial support from the Rotary Club of Western Endeavour, and it became a Rotary Australia World Community Service (RAWCS) project. Between 2010 and 2013, Dena returned to Kashmir on eight occasions.
At Kashmir University, the workshops reached several hundred students; fifteen trained to pass on Dena's teachings to their peers. In this way, the effects of the programme spread to more remote border regions too. The participants received training not only to paint with expression but also to tap into unspeakable emotions within. The act of image-making facilitated emotional expression and stress relief and provided an avenue for creativity.
"The workshop was very revitalising and inspirational. Feelings, which were concealed deep within me, found a vent to come out. Living in a conflict-ridden area takes a toll on your psyche, but after finishing my artwork, I felt quite peaceful and contented."— 'A Path With Art' workshop participant
"Now I draw whenever I am frustrated or depressed, and it helps me."—'A Path With Art' workshop participant
"I observed a lot of depression, frustration, entrapment and low self-esteem amongst the youth. It is as if they have kept their inner selves locked behind bars. The initial drawings and paintings of the participants were of painful emotions. After some time, the expression of their artwork changed as they rediscovered their self-esteem and confidence in their creativity. The new artwork displayed themes of hope and rejuvenation."—Dena Lawrence.
‘A Path with Art’ held a group exhibition of selected artworks in Srinagar, Kashmir. The show travelled to be exhibited at the Freight Gallery in Fremantle, Western Australia, in 2012. The artists were paid for the sale of their paintings from the Australian exhibition.
While delivering the programme in Kashmir, Dena met an Indian businessman who suggested she could also help the region's weavers. The weavers were making exquisite rugs based on traditional Persian designs. She immediately recognised the potential power of rug designs based on the type of expressive art she was there to teach. Selecting paintings from her art collection, she commissioned several images to be woven into silk pieces. It was these that developed into the extraordinary Firesun collection.