Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Gayil Nalls, Ph.D.
Gayil Nalls Ph.D.

An Interview with Susan Firestone

The artist and art therapist discusses female identity, trauma, and her art.

Art is a powerful act of communication.

Artists have always known this. They have also long known that there are positive benefits to creating their work — one of which is knowing and understanding one’s self. New research suggests that throughout the centuries, the life expectancy for artists has been longer than that of their society’s elite because of their self-awareness and engagement in the creative process. The therapeutic effects of the arts have been recognized for hundreds of years, however, it's only recently that scientific studies have provided solid evidence of the important therapeutic effects of the arts on attitude, mental health, blood pressure, hormones, pain, anxiety, immune response, neurological disorders and more.

Experiencing an image, a dance, or a music composition can be as healing and life enhancing as any sort of verbal communication. Artistic expression not only increases self-understanding, but therapeutically it can be invaluable in the assessment and treatment of some individuals. Through the creative process involved in art making, thoughts, feelings, meaning and insights emerge, often expediting diagnoses and treatments.

Art often communicates what words cannot. However, on November 5th, I interviewed Susan Firestone, an artist and art therapist, who has found that life experience is perhaps the most important asset to success in both these roles. Having lived and worked in lower Manhattan through 9/11 and the years following the area’s recovery, she saw firsthand how artistic expression involves the same areas of the brain in which traumatic experiences take place.

During her interview, Firestone describes how her art explores the social difficulties and extreme violence that women face, the meaning of her imagery, and why both her art and art therapy increase awareness and bring hope to herself and others.

GN You have a Ph.D. in expressive therapies and so spend a lot of time exploring the creative process. What did you discover?

SF Pursuing a Ph.D. allowed me the time to really connect with the work I’d been doing after 9/11; I’d been doing trauma work. I really found out a lot of things about trauma during that time and working with people, and I wanted to talk about it. I wanted to find a forum and a form to actually be able to do that, and try to make a difference in medical treatment of trauma with art. In doing that, spending those five years, really got me back into my own process. It was like a gift to myself actually to have that time. During that time, I changed my topic from the trauma of 9/11 to working with women artists, creative people, who had suffered a major illness, because I wanted to see what they had to say about the creative process and the meaning it held for them.

GN What did you find out, and how did that influence your own process?

SF I wanted first-hand information and first-hand documentation for the field of art therapy, really, for the expressive therapies. I knew from being an artist myself what the creative process did once you could have access to it, and how it gave you another way of knowing and understanding your own feelings and the emotional content that wasn’t evident or available in conscious thinking. Art making and art objects are often containers of symbolic elements picked up intuitively about our relationships within our lives, to our culture, and about the world at large.

GN Did you find any common threads between the different artists and how they approach their lives as they recover from catastrophic illness?

SF Yes. What I found was they were desperate to get back to their work. The participants were from different creative fields, yet often explored and incorporated other mediums. Three were painters, one was a dancer/choreographer, one a sculptor/performance artist, one did stage designs for TV, one a network photographer, one a documentary photographer, and others multi-media artists. They did different things, but even when they were going through terrible treatments they found a way to roll over and do a drawing for two seconds or meet with their dancers or continue teaching. They wanted to keep that part alive. That, I think, is what gave them a purpose in their lives, to continue, and they didn’t want that connection and concentration to end.

GN Like many female artists, you have an empathetic ethos. Your art is an expression of some very deep cultural concerns and you’re also somewhat of an activist. What is your art telling us?

SF I think it is my way of talking, my way of entering into a cultural discourse. And, given life experience and world experience, at this point I don’t feel I could remain silent. I’ve always been looking for a way to connect the art-making and the imagery with dilemmas and concerns for mainly girls and women. As a woman; it’s my perspective colored by personal experience. Now, I’m very much concerned with violence against women at home and in conflict zones, the trafficking, selling, raping… all of this. I think it has been going on throughout history and is often denied or hidden today, but I feel I have to address it at this time.

GN Can you talk about the work you are currently pursuing?

SF Yes. Most recently I’ve been concerned and more socially active, as we’re bombarded in the media about violence against women worldwide, as well as domestic violence, as well as cultural college assault, for example I just feel like this is a moment for me to try to actually do what I’ve wanted to do for a long time—to get some of those concerns into artwork without exploiting the people who are being exploited. So my concerns have always been there, maybe coming from my father, who was a pediatrician in healthcare worldwide, and saw people of many cultures, all economic status — I learned from him that everybody can get sick, everybody can have illness, but we can help them and do our part to make their lives better as each child is valuable. And then, things happen beyond that: cultural changes, domestic exchanges, and social/economic disadvantages. Those have always been there, so trying to actually get that into the artwork has been difficult for me as an artist but not as an art therapist. But, I want to speak out more and more, and I’m finding ways to do it. The dissertation was one way to pose questions and research areas of medical history and science to understand past and current thinking and find areas that had not been addressed or needed current concentration. I found that traditionally there was a lack of studies on women, particularly older women in health care as well as art history until recent history. As a researcher, critical findings were in words and by showing images of creative women with their words. Now, as an artist myself, I am assembling mixed media to form associations and often visual narratives. In artist books I am putting images and words together that re-tell age-old mythological stories or updating images with socially relevant implications.

GN From what I have seen over the years, I would say that configurations of female identity, inhumanity to the female gender and the complex realm of the human mind, are your primary subjects. Are there other themes?

SF Yes, female identity is one. Also, there are anthropological relics and ritual objects, which have often interested me more than what’s going on in the contemporary art world. People throughout history have always wanted to communicate something; their beliefs, their feelings, their emotions, their personal histories. It seems that they were not just decorative patterns, but held cultural meaning. Perhaps they felt this object might mean or might communicate and reach beyond their everyday world to give them some hope during times of despair, times of loss, times of need, times of want. So I think that those relics, votives, and treasures held value, those are themes for me as well. And inspiration and forms come from nature. In my early years, I grew up in the nature and on the water; snakeskins, shells, or things that we could find that would ignite our sense of wonder and imagination and were just as valuable as gold or silver dollars,

GN There are some horrific things happening to women in different cultures of the world. How are you addressing some of these very serious, often lethal practices?

Print series © 2015 Susan Firestone, Photo by Gayil Nalls
Source: Print series © 2015 Susan Firestone, Photo by Gayil Nalls

SF I’m seeking out information, number one; that’s part of the research process. I’ve been collecting articles for probably six or seven years on violence against women, violence in the military against women, women’s history, and girls. So how am I doing it? I’m actually now combining news articles in a collage manner with images, maybe sublime or stylish images of women that look innocent, look as though everything is just perfect, maybe even a fairytale, or maybe even a modern myth. I’m using these images because people are familiar with them and they’re not threatening images. They’re more about innocence or a time before trauma, a time before transition or crossroads in life. I’m combining those things with what’s going on today, setting up a situation, so that people might be drawn into a story and might actually relate it to something bigger than what they see.

GN No matter what the medium, there is an intimate narrative that very effectively conveys some terrible realities about the female experience. Can you discuss specifically some of the story lines in the works?

SF I’ve always loved fairytales and loved mythology. Probably Jungian psychology got me back into those stories I liked throughout childhood. As I saw different cultural myths and different cultural stories, I started to see that there was a universal element, meaning human emotions and human search for beliefs, adventure, love, and rewards. The story lines come out in form, such as those earliest female stone sculptures from Anatolia. Now, they don’t call them fertility objects anymore. They are being referred to as female figures, because we really don’t know their meaning. That was a past cultural overlay to label them as sexual objects by anthropologists of the last century. So those stories are age-old, whether they’re Greek, our western tradition, or Indian or Japanese or other. Throughout the world, there is a need to tell a story. And what can we see of it? We see the objects that are left behind or that are preserved in some way. The stories come from looking at the objects and realizing there’s something that connects all humanity, and it probably is the story, however we depict it.

GN Would you give an example of a specific work and its narrative story?

Daphnae and Apollo © 2009 Susan Firestone, Photo by Gayil Nalls
Source: Daphnae and Apollo © 2009 Susan Firestone, Photo by Gayil Nalls

SF There’s a bronze sculpture and an assemblage about Daphne and Apollo. This is the story of the wood nymph who was happy in nature, and the god, Apollo, who noticed her and pursued her. She begged her father, Neptune, to save her from being possessed, and the way that happened is that he turned her a tree, a laurel tree. One of the versions of the stories is that Apollo changed his symbolic tree into a laurel because he could not have the one thing he wanted to possess. So I think it’s about nature and that sense of freedom. I’m just speaking from a woman’s point of view, because that’s who I am, and as a girl, of not losing your instinctive sense of freedom.

GN Many artists have interpreted the myth of Daphne and Apollo, however, it’s very interesting how it resonates with you. Are there other reasons why this myth became part of your narrative?

Demeter and Persephone, inkjet print © 2015 Susan Firestone
Source: Demeter and Persephone, inkjet print © 2015 Susan Firestone

SF Probably, trying to balance being an artist with being married with children and also trying to meet social expectations. But I think that sense of needing that freedom of thought was probably what that was about. That story resonated with me a long time. I cast my hands,I cast my hands, I cast branches in bronze; somewhere in there I did a book about that and the Psyche and Cupid story and retold them in a contemporary context. Demeter and Persephone is another one that sort of took hold of me for a while, and I think that had to do with having daughters and that relationship of mother/daughter, losing your daughters, you know, giving up your daughters, and wanting to protect them from life’s pitfalls, the agony of all of that.

GN One of the sculptural series you created features you, the artist, in various gestural states. You took emotional poses in order to unlock and understand your own emotions. How did this raw expressiveness become part of your tools for creating works?

SF There came a time, probably in my early 40s, when my daughters were coming along. They were 11, 12, or something, and changing. My physical body was changing. Life around me was changing. And I don't know, I just felt this compulsion to cast myself, have myself cast in plaster and have that fragment express an emotional state. It started with one, and the first one had to do with responding to art history and historical Greek and Roman plaster casts. I had a very academic art training, drawing casts and studying them and their history. So I just felt a need to actually, I don't know, preserve my body at that moment and have it interact with different objects. As I did them I didn’t know I would do more than one, but I think there are eight, maybe. The emotions emerged and changed. The things that I wanted, I didn’t even know I wanted to express. There was anger, there was pain, there was violence, one was joy after seeing a Matisse sculpture. And I wanted to dress some these plaster casts of my torso, so I dressed them in different clothes. One has a velvet bustier, one a metal vest, one has arms bound in copper. One is related to Magritte with drawers coming out of her torso filled with small objects, relating to art history. But, they all have something personal coming from me. And I found out about my own emotions from doing them.

GN Would you say that in some ways this process was healing to you, and in some additional ways, you’re trying to heal the larger collective human condition?

SF I think there is definitely something there. For much of my life I don't think I recognized or realized that there could be loss, despair… huge problems. I came from a stable background, a caring background, and I created that in my own life. But if we live long enough things happen around us, things happen to us, things happen to our loved ones. Divorce was a big rupture in my life. Then there’s losing your parents, moving, transitions, how to get on in the world. Yes, these things did come into the work and did influence what I was making and what I was doing. With divorce, with a total life change, I always knew I wanted to work with people in my art, but I needed training to do that. I was really aware of mental illness from college days and working with mental patients, so I wanted to be able to have professional training to actually incorporate the human psyche and condition into my work. At this point I moved to New York and began studying art therapy as a means of working with people using art in a clinical way

GN Your art is filled with a variety of evocative visual vocabulary, objects and symbols that are loaded with significance. There are broken winged victories, fertility forms, goddesses, Disney princesses, souvenirs, family treasures, things that have value and associations for you. You employ this iconography to communicate. Can you talk a little bit about how you weave these objects together to form meaning?

SF Yes. My house is sort of a collage! It seems as though things sort of combine over time and I arrange them and they begin to become associative and visually narratives, these things I’ve gathered throughout life. Coming from where I came from, Charleston, antiques and family were the most valuable things you could have! Your ancestors, and all this furniture you inherited, these things that seemed to have meaning to people because they save them all. So I don't know, I’ve had these valued objects and family things around me. I’m a sand play therapist, so I work with miniatures with students, clients, and patients using free association and active imagination. I know about early formative European psychologists, Duchamp, and I know about Hanna Höch too — artists that used significantly used collage in Germany, and graphically — and later artists such as Joseph Beuys. So I think collage and assemblage became the way that I could connect things, whether on paper or with literal objects.

GN What does a broken Winged Victory mean to you?

SF When I look back at that piece, which I thought was the first piece I cast of myself, the arms are up in celebration; of course, they’re broken like they’re a fragment. But I don't know, I see that I chose to do a Winged Victory falling down across the chest, like she was going the other way. So I think it was some sort of unconscious recognition that there is despair out there, there is loss, there is tragedy, even if the object looks beautiful. It holds a memory, a history, or perhaps a premonition from an internal world.

GN In the target print series you use symbolic images of very attractive women. They are literally stamps that override the meaning of what a woman really is. How does that interweave with the target imagery to form meaning for you?

SF I use the target symbols, literally targets that hunters use for practice. My big question is why is she the target? Why is she the target, meaning yes, she was represented in an art context a certain way, not by herself but mostly by male artists, male designers, male engravers. So there was an image of what she was supposed to be, a muse or a dream, or how she looked or whatnot. I’m sort of using that, the target and an image of a woman or girl or symbol, to draw people in, I hope, to make them curious about this other time, another era. Yet the information that is underneath the images in some of the pieces, not in all of them, is really about what actually happened to them, whatever culture they came from. Some of the wood block prints are trademarks that were printed on the cotton in Manchester, England and then shipped out all over the world. So engravers actually made these blocks representative of something from that culture, so the image was literally is a trade symbol, an advertisement for the seller. These images of women were trade symbols.

GN In all these allegorical messages that move through your body of work, there are really no images of domestic serenity. Why?

SF That’s a good one! Let’s see. Why would they not be there? I suppose that looking at art history, landscape, genre painting, whatnot, it just didn’t seem to represent what was going on in the world as I began studying art and going to art school and even today and what was my reality. I think I came into the art world sort of in the ‘70s, when the feminist movement was gaining ground and a lot of history was being dug up about women and about where had they been throughout history. But also the prevailing art form, as you looked around at the time, was minimalism, and that just didn’t suit me. I couldn’t figure out why we would deplete art-making of emotions. You know, color is good and was my way to engage, but just these big sort of anonymous geometric forms didn’t say… well…it wasn’t the voice that I had somewhere in me. It wasn’t expressing things that I felt were a woman’s voice, and it wasn’t. That’s taken a long time to come out. And it’s taken a long time to see women’s artwork and hear different women’s voices and to understand what they have to say. It’s half of history, as has been said!

GN Your body of work is defined by many different styles and developments. How would you explain the evolution of your creative process?

SF Well, I think that I’ve made a lot of things over time and the forms that they have taken have been driven by whatever it was I needed to create. I never really thought that you just did one thing and developed that over your whole life. That really didn’t interest me because the world is full of variety and I was curious about making things and about expressing things, and the form really was driven by what it was I was trying to communicate. Often, I didn’t know until I’d gotten into it.

GN So along this journey and during the time you were a creator, you’ve raised two daughters. How did that shape your worldview and your art?

SF I’ve always felt they were my greatest creation, and luckily I said it one time in front of them in an art show! It just came out! I’m so glad I did and they were there. So relationships mean more than anything else, relationships to them, to people, to friends, like you. And this is really what it’s all about in the end, you know?

GN Can you talk about your early training as an art student?

SF I think I did some art in high school, because the art building had music, it was quiet, it was a place you could go without all of your friends, and I liked the art teacher. It was just a place to be. I didn’t do art in college, I did psychology, and as soon as I graduated from college I thought I was going onto graduate school in psychology. I took an art course and I worked with delinquent boys that summer, and luckily, the person I took art from just really encouraged me to go further in that direction. And the boys were very difficult! I was also offered a job at a women’s prison, and I thought, what do I know at age 20 that could help women prisoners? I realized that I needed a lot more life experience before I could take up really serious work in psychology. So I went to art school to explore and learn something I sensed was missing in my academic training, and there weren’t many art schools in those days, the ‘70s. I went to the Pennsylvania Academy, a very academic academy, because there really weren’t very many programs, like there are today, that you could go to. And then I moved to Washington and was able to get a masters degree at American University, because they offered degrees, whereas the old studio art schools did not, and I thought I might need to teach at some point, which I have done. Gene Davis was a big influence, when I met him first as a teacher and stayed in his small company for his life. His questions about why and how to make art caused me to rethink and purposefully put aside my formal training g that I learned in art school; how to draw, how to see space, how to construct, how to see the world from your eyes looking out. I forgot all of that and started over, basically from the inside out. It was as though I had to learn to speak again, or I had to figure out how to communicate my own way and why and what I wanted to put out there.

GN So in part it was studying psychology, but also learning to handle the mental pain and suffering of others and to begin to process your own, and this gave you a new perspective?

SF Yes. I had to find out who I was and be strong enough to really actually help others.

GN Your work has several dimensions. It’s psychological, philosophical and political. Can you talk about how these three areas come together in a specific piece?

 Here All Dwell Free © 2009 Susan Firestone
Source: Impulse: Here All Dwell Free © 2009 Susan Firestone

SF There is one piece I started making where I was casting my hands and it was for the Daphne piece, and it didn’t turn out very well. I didn’t like the position and the stiffness of them. So I ended up making another piece that I hadn’t planned on making. I just gathered some broken sticks and broken pieces of wood that were at the foundry where I was working, and then wrapped those in a piece of copper mesh, I guess you would say. In the hands I put a bronze colored light bulb. To me, that piece was about how when things are broken or in pieces or maybe damaged in war, or damaged in some way, fragments, that there was a way to put the pieces together in another way and make them valuable. The copper mesh felt like gold from the ancient times or something. So it was as though this is worth preserving. The light bulb transformed into metal maybe meant there’s hope, there’s enlightenment, there’s a way to go forward. I called that work Impulse.

GN So it’s a work about hope?

SF I think it’s about hope. Yes, it’s about hope. My father, as I said, was a doctor, and I went with him on many house calls late at night to little cottages in the woods and took his medicine kit, I mean in the rural south. He was always so optimistic and I just somehow got that from him and feeling that you could make people better and that your presence mattered to them. And not just that he could, but that people could get better with some help. So I think I got the feeling that people did get better, even if they were sick. So that sort of optimism has really helped me deal with difficult situations. Maybe it’s his spirit, or just incorporating that spirit, and hoping it’s alive in the world… because I think we need it.

© 2015 Gayil Nalls, All rights reserved

About the Author
Gayil Nalls, Ph.D.

Gayil Nalls, Ph.D., is an interdisciplinary artist based in New York.

More from Gayil Nalls Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Gayil Nalls Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today