Mind Tapas

Small Plates of Healing and Ideas

More Art Healing Q and A

Can an artwork's inner logic give you sorely needed peace?

Q. You have come upon an intriguing concept--that people can explore themselves using works of art. Could you explain this idea for our listeners?

A. I came upon this idea as a longstanding lover of art. It is simply this: Art Healing is a communion with a work of art for emotional healing, for psychological insight. You use art as a springboard for exploration of your inner self. And you can really tap into power embedded in visual art to transform yourself, by yourself.

Q. What if you know nothing about art? Do you need some kind of special knowledge? I say this because there are people who might feel intimidated by art so that they've never really spent any time in art museums.

A. I'm glad you asked this question, especially at the beginning of the interview. I came upon this process because for me art has provided a way to get out of my head-this is my tendency. I tend to overthink and intellectualize everything and you might notice I will do this as I provide examples to your questions--so if I do this feel free to stop me! So for me, even as I had studied art in college, and loved it, I realized that I used art primarily as a way to help myself emotionally. So I want to tell all of your listeners that anyone can do this. Anyone. In the beginning when you are face to face with a work-whether it's a painting, or a sculpture, or a performance piece, or a looping piece of video you might encounter in a dark room in a gallery, or even, the kind of art that asks you to physically do something-it is best to just be there and have the experience, even if you don't know what the art is about, even if you don't know if what your looking at is art. The key is to be open to the experience.

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I want listeners also to realize that this is a process and that you will be forging a relationship, a personal relationship, with a work of art. And if you are not one to pay attention to art, after learning more about art healing, you find that you notice the sculpture in the waiting area of your dentist's office. And you notice it not just as decoration, but as something that could be useful for you personally. And then you, of course, start to notice more and more possibilities for improving your life-just by looking at objects, at pieces of art.

This realization is like looking at those weird magic-eye posters that were popular a few years ago. What looks like a lot of incoherent garbage-markings that look like nothing at all-all of a sudden pop out at you when you relax your eyes in such a way-and you're then staring not at nothing, but instead at a wildly 3-D image that wasn't there a moment ago. This is what it was like for me when I was in college and noticed that art was more than just paint and pretty pictures. But instead that art was alive-that it was a living and breathing thing, that even if the work I was looking at was from hundreds of years ago, that it could make me feel something today, right now. And that it could mean something very special, very personal.

So there is a kind of point you reach in art healing where if you've never done this before, you will get to the point where you begin to see not just what may be for you another boring picture of fruits and vegetables on a table, but instead a jumping off point for feeling better in some way. Now art will seem to pop out at you-all of a sudden all the paintings and objects you would ordinarily ignore now seem to register differently. They become alive, and multi-dimensional.

Q. Well, I'm thinking, what if you go to the museum and try to connect with a work, but nothing really interests you. What then?

A. If this is your first time in a museum or an art gallery, the fact that you've been moved to go there in the first place is an achievement. It says you are open to making changes in your life. But if you are not moved or interested, then you leave and try other places. This is a process. It would be like going to a therapist for the first visit and expecting that somehow you' have some earth-shattering realization or cure. This is the start of an enjoyable and powerful lifelong process.

Now I have a certain bias in that I feel that more contemporary works of art seem to lend themselves more readily to art seeking.

One example is a work of art that contains no paint, no drawing, no sculpture. Instead it's a work of art that simply asks the viewer, or participant rather, to do something. In one case it was a kind of plank, like you might find on a pirate ship, that you walk to the edge of. And then you're supposed to jump several feet down below onto very thick mats that help to break your fall. That's it. That's the art. And when you do this you have had an experience. And this experience is something that you can use-you can remember, you remember the feeling you had, you might compare this feeling to the difficulties you have in your life, in your emotional life. You could do a lot of different things with this-but the point is that you have just had an art experience. You have just let yourself experience art. This is the beginning.

Q. Wow. It's amazing how art can take so many different forms. I would imagine you can find art all over the place?

A. Yes. I am thinking about one incredible work of art installed in Central Park a few years ago called The Gates by Cristo. There was saffron-colored material draped over over 7,000 16-foot tall rectangular arches. They were placed over the walkways within central Park and were accessible to anyone. And for every one of thousands upon thousands of viewers of this work. So to go and experience this art requires no deep understanding of the work, the artist, but just that you let yourself try out this new experience. When one art seeker told me she felt like she was but a small child again pulling at her mother's skirts when she walked beneath the flowing nylon, it became a deeper exploration of her own childhood. Art stimulated that. Art was in a moment, as it induced a feeling or a memory, became for her more powerful and more incisive than any session of regular psychotherapy.

Q. How is this different from the branch of psychotherapy known as art therapy?

A. Art healing is distinctly different from art therapy. In art therapy you might be asked by a therapist to don a smock and soften clay or paint something. Art healing requires none of this. In art seeking you don't get your physical hands dirty. There is so much art all around us that already exists-made by artists over the centuries including that made in recent years-that we simply can begin to avail ourselves of what may be the greatest untapped resource for psychological healing.

Q. And you do what with the art exactly? What do you mean by communion?

A. By communion I mean a very personal, private back-and-forth between you, a human being with your unfathomably complex psyche, and a single work of visual art, the end result of an artist's creative process. By spending time with this personally meaningful work of art-something that significantly captures your attention-you begin a dialogue within yourself and across the space separating you with the object. Now when I say significantly captures your attention, this is harder to convey as the work may be intriguing or disturbing or delightful, it could be familiar or scary or strange or haunting. The point is that there is something about the work you've chosen that somehow seems to have your name written on it. It's this work-even if you don't know why it is so compelling to you-even if it challenges you, or makes you feel scared or angry or happy, or perhaps you are not sure how it makes you feel, but seems to ‘pop out' amidst all the other works you've viewed that day in the gallery or museum. This is the work that you might use for this purpose, what I am calling art seeking.

Q. Let's really make this come alive for our listeners. Walk us through your process of art healing-a personal trip.

A. OK. I enter the museum. I walk through the entire museum (or as much as seems sufficient to cast a wide enough net to capture a work or two for my closer examination). During the first go-round I am making mental notes of which work or works seem to resonate with something inside of me, or intrigue me, or stimulate me such that I may want to return to it later. And so then, I will go through the museum a second time-but this time I head straight for the work that seemed so personally intriguing.

And I look at the work again, and I am in no rush when I do this. I examine the work from different angles, from close up, from a few steps back. And I sit with the work, much as a good therapist has the client sit with their feelings.

And then what happens next is harder to describe because this experience can become so many different things, but I can tell you this-it is a very primal kind of understanding that happens. It's an understanding using your emotions and your senses, using yourself. You let yourself be---all that exists in those moments are you and the work of art, unsullied by explanations or intellectualizations. As the memories and associations to the work come, you take note of them, so that later you will be able to deepen your understanding of yourself, or heal the anxieties or distress that ails you. But in the beginning simply let it in, breathe in the work as though it were a kind of healing aerosol. Often you find yourself in the work.

Q. I think what you are describing would be even more clear if you gave us an example, could you do this for us with a work of art that most people are familiar with.

A. Yes. First let me say that one of the things I love about this process is that more often than not the art seeker will find a work that is not particularly well known, but has so many nooks and crannies-so many places to begin a conversation-how it was constructed, or painted, or drawn, its texture, or articulation of space (if it's a sculpture); or the objects or images depicted-the young boy with a beach ball or an obese woman, in a particular case, a work I'm thinking of by Lucian Freud, splayed out on a couch-almost an extension of the couch. And so the unique work provides an armature-a kind of skeleton or framework-for you, the art seeker, to create your own healing session.

But for the sake of making sure the most number of listeners can envision the same image, we could talk about art seeking works such as Van Gogh's Starry Night or Edward Munch's The Scream, or Edward Hopper's Night Hawks. I have to say, though, that I really like talking about another famous work-Christina's World by Andrew Wyeth.

Here what I find so intriguing is that when you look at this work-a work which depicts a hill, a field, with farmhouse and outbuildings at the top touching the top of the canvas, with a slate grey overcast sky like a bleak November day in midcoast Maine. You have this woman seen from the back, in a contorted position, seeming to reach towards the top of the hill. But given her position, the hill seems then immense, with the foreshortened grey buildings in the distance, indicating a feeling of frustration, thwarted action, and perhaps even futility.

But when I first look at this painting I don't come up with these descriptions. I let myself lose myself in the logic and overarching feelings elicited in me. I lose track of time as I'm doing this. I'm having a dance within this world.

I not only explore what I see before me-the grass, the contorted figure, the farmhouse, the color of the sky, the color and sheen of the canvas-but I also am exploring these elements as extensions of myself. I am by turns the young woman on the ground reaching uphill, but I am also the barn and the grass and the constricted sky.

The figure, yes, is easily a stand-in for my self. And my tendency is to throw all of my weight onto her-as I identify with her, I identify with this image, this position inside of myself. But I also find that the entire work becomes a mirror held up to my self. A mirror-one that as it's reflecting somehow also becomes a window. I am looking inward and outward at once.

I think the key for someone trying this for the first time is to just give yourself up to the object before you. If you find it captures you or you find it disturbing or not, maybe you find there is a relief associated with a work that shows you the possibility of what could be if only you permitted for yourself a clearer view of yourself, unfettered by the persistent stream of negative-thoughts about yourself. I ask you to spend as much time with the work so that you forge a connection-you do not have to make sense of the experience immediately. Really, that's where the book will serve you as a guide to deepening your understanding as this work now becoming a part of your life, a part of you.

Q. I'm wondering as you describe this process where the artist's original intention for the work comes into play. Does it?

A. Well this is a great question because the short answer is sometimes it will but oftentimes it may not and in either case it may also be hard to tell the origins of the artist's conception for the piece in the first place. The take home message for new art seekers is this: your intention, your personal interpretation and private play with the creation before you is what matters most. What you experience from the work may or may not be what the artist was working out emotionally herself when she drew all those deep furrows in a figure's face, for example. No matter-because I think for most artists implicit in the act of making is the knowledge and intention that the viewer will necessarily have his own experience, his own reaction, and will likely come to his own conclusion-if there is a singular conclusion to come to-that is not only separate and distinct from the artist's, but that will never be known by the artist.

The notion of appropriation, of using someone else's work and incorporating it into one's own creation, became a focus of art-making in the latter 20th century. In music you would call this ‘sampling' and occurs with great frequency in Hip Hop music. Art healing is your own appropriation-you are creating your own art experience-using the raw material of other's creative labors, perhaps even other's emotional turmoil that they may or may not have worked out to some tidy resolution on the canvas. You might think of a Van Gogh, for instance, where what motivated his enormous swirls in the sky and halos surrounding streetlamps may be entirely different from how you use the same image, say, to combat a chronic boredom and pervasive feeling of lifelessness. The image is compelling to you for reasons unfathomable quite possibly to the very person who gave us this image from the depths of his imagination and/or torment.

But lest the listeners think that only disturbing images are fair game for this process, let me give you an example of an altogether different kind of work, a Renoir. There is a work, a very famous work, of Monet painting in his garden at Argenteuil. One woman, in art seeking this work, expressed how for her the work provided a sorely needed boost in confidence and more critically, a deeper knowledge, that she is not alone. And so the feelings that emerge as she studies the work, as she lost herself in the image of the artist painting a canvas at an easel before an magnificent explosion of colorful flowers, untamed by the garden fence, all pointed to what for so long had been her core psychological difficulty.

She explained how this worked. In this case she imagined what it was like in the act of creating the work of art itself-the image before us. And she said that her attention was called to this by dint of there being an image of an artist at his easel appearing to paint the scene before him. And so as she looked at the flowers and the buildings painted, she sees at the same time the thick paint, how the paint felt very present and palpable on the canvas and that what was the result of untold numbers of brushstrokes bringing us this image, she told me that she comes away with a intense feeling of the ‘multiple'. She said because of this sense of the multiple-huge numbers of brushstrokes, creating huge numbers of flowers, slats in the fence, leaves on the plants, windows on and dormers on sloping roofs, all of which seeming to mass together and seamlessly incorporating the figure of the artist painting within it-she was given a feeling of connectedness. This feeling, she said, came to her in waves, the longer that she looked at the painting. And that the experience filled a kind of gap-an emotional hole or lacuna-which has been filled at times just briefly in certain social situations. The painting, then, becomes a living therapeutic object, a missing piece, a place to return to for nutriment-but a very specific nutriment for this particular art seeker.

 

Jeremy Spiegel, M.D. is a psychiatrist and medical director of Casco Bay Medical, with offices in Greater Boston, Massachusetts and Portland, Maine.

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