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Holding Things In

In thinking about the creative process described within the workshop a few weeks ago, I started to develop other trains of thought which might be linked to this. As mentioned, myths and stories can offer new perspectives on human dilemmas and struggles whilst also providing possible routes to their resolution (Huckvale, 2011:31). Hence in thinking about the funnel, and the process of pouring liquid into it, I was reminded of a bible passage that uses the metaphor of a dirty cup to describe how the Pharisees (or religious leaders) were dirty on the inside whilst appearing clean on the outside. As the passage describes:

What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy—full of greed and self-indulgence! You blind Pharisee! First wash the inside of the cup and the dish, and then the outside will become clean, too.

(Matthew 23:27)

In revisiting this metaphor of the dirty cup, I started to consider my own need to disguise harmful or unwanted emotions. Ideas of contamination or toxicity are also prevalent in my thinking as well as the notion of ‘keeping up appearances’ in regards to holding things in.

Similarly this type of retention is comparative to Freud’s notion of psychosexual development in which a child may become fixated on controlling bowel and bladder movements (see below).

Oral Stage (0-2 years) – Pleasure derived from the mouth (e.g. sucking, biting, swallowing)

Anal Stage (2-4 years) – Pleasure derived from the anus (defecating or retaining faeces)

Phallic Stage (4-5 years) – Pleasure derived from the genitals

Latency Stage (6 – puberty) – Sexual urges sublimated into sports and hobbies. Same-sex friends also help avoid sexual feelings.

Genital Stage (puberty onwards) – Physical sexual changes reawaken repressed needs. Direct sexual feelings towards others lead to sexual gratification.

Freud developed a theory of how our sexuality starts from a very young ages and develops through various fixations. If these stages are not psychologically completed and released, we can be trapped by them and they may lead to various defense mechanisms to avoid the anxiety produced from the conflict in and leaving of the stage (Changing Minds). Consequently in the anal stage, two possible outcomes may emerge. The anal retentive personality is stingy, with a compulsive seeking of order and tidiness whilst the anal expulsive personality is messy and out of control.

Whilst Freud’s description of these fixations is somewhat extreme, they do have some resonance with the ideas I’m exploring in my own art making, particularly the funnel.

As a final point, David Maclagen discusses how these human functions are likeable to art materials which share the qualities of these bodily wastes. As he explains:

‘Faeces certainly do evoke a whole experiential spectrum, from the sloppy to the compact, from control and retention to explosive incontinence…. Paint by its very consistency, as well as in the activities associated with it of squeezing, smearing, dribbling and so on, lends itself to perform as a phantastic analogue for these body products and how they might be ‘handled’, so to speak.’

(Maclagen, 2001:54)


Bible Gateway, (No Date), Matthew 23:27 (New Living Translation), Available at: (http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew%2023:27&version=NLT), (accessed: 20.10.13)

Changing Minds, (No Date), Freud’s Psychosexual Stage Theory, Available at: (http://changingminds.org/explanations/learning/freud_stage.htm), (date assessed: 21.10.13)

Huckvale, K., (2011), ‘Alchemy, sandtray, and art psychotherapy: Sifting sands’, International Journal of Art Therapy, 16 (1) pp. 30-40, Available at http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17454832.2011.570272 (accessed: 02.10.13)

Maclagen, D., (2001), Psychological Aesthetics: Paintings, Feelings and Making Sense, London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers


Active Imagination

‘The term active imagination was applied By Jung to refer to a means of mobilizing the psyche through an image or a chain of images and their related associations. It is a ‘concentration on some impressive but intelligible dream image, or on a spontaneous visual impression, and [one] observes the changes taking place in it.’

(Schaverien citing Jung, 2005: 40)

In starting back on my course last week we’ve started a new module relating to symbols as the language of the unconscious. As part of an exercise we were told story called Sealskin, Soulskin, taken from Clarissa Pinkola Estés’ Women Who Run with the Wolves. With my eyes closed I tried to envision what the story would like through my minds eye. We were then asked to think about a part of the story that spoke to us and to make an art work in response.

Something that resonated with me was the description of ‘a man so lonely that over the years, tears had carved great chasms into his cheeks’(Estés, 2008:255). I envisioned these tears to be like a waterfall flowing down into a ravine. Upon revisiting the story this week I started to consider why these themes had held so much meaning for me. I started to think about people’s willingness to cry and how I myself couldn’t remember the last time I had cried openly. I wondered what that would feel like and decided to make an artwork to convey these feelings. .

As in previous posts, I found myself returning to the idea of the container though this time I felt I coming at it from a different direction. I started off by making a funnel out of paper and tacking the end with a piece of masking tape (see opposite). I wanted to fill it with liquid and with this in mind I began to pour watery ink into the funnel. Initially the funnel-form seemed up to the task of containing the liquid although gradually the paper became sodden with ink and started to leak out of the bottom. A short while later the paper began to feel heavy and soggy in my hands. I worried that it might spill all over the floor if I didn’t do something with it. I maneuvered my way over to the sink and decided to untape the funnel. Unsurprisingly the ink flowed freely out of the bottom; it was thoroughly satisfying – an instant release.

This continuous flow of thinking, prompted by the story and then developed as an art work, is linked to Jung’s description of active imagination. Active imagination is the process by which someone may discover an image that is visualized or dreamt. The individual is then encouraged to contemplate a fragment of the fantasy that seems important to them until its contents becomes visible (Schaverien citing Jung, 2005: 40). In this activity for instance, I’d become particularly drawn to the part of the story which described the man’s tears which then lead me to consider my own emotional wellbeing.

Within the group discussion, someone commented that because I could cry myself I’d made something that could ‘cry’ for me. My tutor on the other hand described how people often hide their innermost feelings alluding to the Jungian notion of the persona; a kind of mask that the individual presents to the world. Unsurprisingly active imagination, as the name suggests, is a dynamic process; the image generates ‘psychological movement’ (Schaverien, 2005: 41). Whilst on the surface the making of the funnel was a pragmatic response to the story, the dramatic element of pouring the liquid into the funnel and letting it spill out of the bottom spoke to me at a deeper level about a personal need to control or contain my emotions. Moreover there are parallels with a previous blog postings in which words and phrases like ‘blocked’, ‘flow’ and ‘containment’ are often repeated.


Estés, C. P., (2008), Women Who Run with the Wolves, London: Rider

Schaverien, J., (2005), ‘Art and active imagination: Reflections on transference and the image’, International Journal of Art Therapy, 50 (2) pp. 39-52, available at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17454830500345959 (accessed: 02.10.13)


“I believe that with its many subspecialties, art therapy has the key, or perhaps a key, to our understanding of the mechanisms underpinning change in all kinds of psychological treatments… because art therapy is closest to what we now understand to be the embodied roots of human consciousness and cognition.”

(Peter Fonagy, 2012)

This weekend I had the opportunity to attend BAAT’s Attachment and the Arts Conference: Neuroscience, Attachment and Creativity. The conference is the fourth of its kind, running annually since 2010. The premise of the event is to recognise the impact of attachments on human development, particularly from the field of Neuroscience, as well as highligting the role of art in this process.

Among the speakers was Jan Lobban who presented In Two Minds, a talk on the use of art therapy in treating ex-soldiers suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As part of the talk she cited the following Culture Show special, Art for Heroes aired in 2011(on Armistice Day). Well worth a watch.


Fonagy, P., (2012), Forward to special edition of International Journal of Art Therapy: Inscape on art therapy and personality disorder, International Journal of Art Therapy: Inscape 17 (3) pp.91

Walker, R., (2012), Art for Heroes Culture Show Special, [YouTube], Available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k93iAmPKyG0 (accessed: 07.10.13)

Walker, R., (2012), Art for Heroes, [YouTube], Available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D4K6zGV_5Is (accessed: 07.10.13)

Related Links:



Art For Heroes (Culture Show Special)


The Art of Play (part 1/2)

‘Psychotherapy takes place in the overlap of two areas of playing, that of the patient and that of the therapist. Psychotherapy has to do with two people playing together. The corollary of this is that playing is not possible then the work done by the therapist is directed towards bringing the patient from a state of not being able to play into a state of being able to play.’

(Case & Dalley citing Winnicott, 2007: 78)

A few months ago I pondered the relationship between art and play and suggested how in my own practice the business of making art work often lacked the sense of discovery and experiential learning that I had associated with art therapy. Incidentally I’ve recently been reading a lot of literature around art therapy with children and adolescents which positions play as an important part of basic human development. It has been interesting to learn about how play becomes an important developmental milestone in our transition from children to adulthood, even modeled in our earliest relationship with our parents.

Case and Dalley write that there is overwhelming evidence, from video playback and frame-by-frame analysis, that infants want and actively seek social engagement and play from their primary caregiver (2007:25). Good attachment between the infant and their caregiver is essential. Without it the infant’s sense of self is lost and changes to the brain occur (O’Brien, 2004:6). Interestingly the brain is born prematurely though continues to develop during childhood and into young adulthood.


The Art of Play (part 2/2)

Left Brain: Verbal, analytical, logical, rational, sequential, successive, directed, cautious, linear, factual, words, objective….

Right Brian: Non-verbal, relational, intuitive, creative, random, simultaneous, random, holistic, visual, colours, sensory, spatial, emotional, divergent, imaginative, subjective….

Within the context of this blog it is useful to think about the developing brain as being made up of left and right hemisphere (see above). The right brain of the brain focuses on the visual, and processes information in an intuitive and simultaneous way, looking first at the whole picture then the details. The focus of the left brain is verbal, processing information in an analytical and sequential way, looking first at the pieces then putting them together to get the whole. Case and Dalley write that before the left hemisphere, with its language and its structure of time and place, has fully developed at around age 3, infant memories are held in the process-dominated, emotional, limbic and cortical areas of the developing right hemisphere (2007: 39-40). During this time the infant uses his senses to gain information about his environment, and this becomes a template for future understanding of the world and other people. However if the child is subjected to maltreatment at an early age this can in turn affect language acquisition between the ages of two and ten. O’Brien describes that normal development enables children to organize a story into a continuous narrative that has a beginning and end, but chaotic narrative construction results from trauma experience, affecting reading, writing and communication skills (2004:6). With this in mind one can begin to think about art psychotherapy with children as offering visual clues to particularly traumatic or painful experiences. As Case and Dalley describe….

‘The art process is a right-brain activity, it accesses the right hemisphere’s emotional memory of abuse and neglect; at the same time the relationship with the therapist activates the left hemisphere. Words are found by the therapist to make meaning, gradually integrating left and right hemispheres and unifying the explicit construction of a narrative….’

(2007: 41)

Whilst these descriptions give some incite into the function of play as an important precursor to language acquisition, it’s also important to note the therapist’s role in being able to facilitate play. It struck me that in becoming a fully-grown adult one can feel discouraged from play though this seems to contrary to being an artist, someone who often works in an intuitive way and is open to sensory experiences. I wonder how art and play could be reconciled with my own practice. It also struck me that in these descriptions play is often characterized by a shared interaction or working partnership between the client and the therapist. Perhaps what I’m needing is a community of like-minded individuals (external to this blog) who are gonna push me and my ideas further, other artists to bounce ideas off and to collaborate with. My immediate thought is I need to align myself with a studio again though maybe it need not be this.


Case, C. & T, Dalley (2007), Art Therapy with Children From Infancy to Adolescence, Sussex: Routledge

O’Brien, F. (2004), The Making of Mess in Art Therapy: Attachment, Trauma and the Brain, Inscape, 9:1, 2-13