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Symbols as the Language of the Unconscious

Having this blog has been a way of keeping my mind ticking over and thinking about art even when I have no art to show. Now in my second year of the MA Art Psychotherapy I’m near approaching the half way point and still finding the course immensely interesting. Not only because of its influence on my own art practice, but also the effect its had on me as a person.

This has largely been informed through the exploration of my own art imagery, helping me to understand how personal symbols can become manifest through art making whilst also highlighting how this process may help cements images in visual form that might otherwise be too ephemeral to describe or show to others.

In thinking about the nature of symbols it is useful to consider Jung’s model of the psyche as a self-regulating system striving to find balance between its opposing qualities. In this model, the goal of the Self is to achieve wholeness in which symbols function as a ‘bridge’ between the unconscious and the conscious (Gordon, 2000: 107).

Consequently, within each individual is a rich store of narratives and images which derive from certain archetypal drives. Archetypes are unconscious collective forces acting in relation to the past, present and future developments in ways not readily evident (Hopwood, 2006). In this instance, Jung highlighted that the ‘transcendent function’ of symbols can by useful as they help inform transitions from one psychological attitude or condition to another (Edwards, 2004: 31).

Hence, the psyche as a structure is not concrete but changeable and can be mobilized through certain processes which actively promote imagination, such as art making, visualized imagery or dream.

Art psychotherapy can be viewed as providing an appropriate framework for these types of meditative experiences; a space defined by its own rules and boundaries, within which the client is free to explore their own symbolic material. However, not all artworks created within therapy will have the same symbolic potential. The client’s ability to work with their own symbols, and their capacity to exercise active imagination, may be revealed through the products and processes of their own art making. Artworks made within this setting may be identified as being either diagrammatic or embodied images (see below), or a combination of both.

Diagrammatic Images:

In an art psychotherapy context, the client maybe unfamiliar with art making in this setting and may feel inhibited about what to do or make.

Diagrammatic images are preconceived by the client and attempt to recall some other event or experience as seen through the minds eye.

Aesthetically these types of images might be likeable to a diagram in which words and explanations are required to supplement their meaning.

The image may not match what the artist had envisioned after the event as these types of mental images are transitory. The artist may therefore identify with these failings within their explanation.

Diagrammatic images are not ‘imbued with life’ and maybe dispensable after they have served their function (Schaverien, 1999:86)

Embodied Images:

May have originated from a preconceived image though not necessarily.

On the other hand, the client may have relinquished the attempt to recreate a preconceived image and may primarily work with art materials in a non-directive/ experiential way.

Embodied images are deeply symbolic, employ visual metaphor and ‘touch depth’ (Schaverien, 2005:45).

The process of making may awaken ‘live ‘ experiences within the client.

Unlike diagramatic images, embodied images do not require verbal explanations to convery their meaning.


Bennett, A., (2011), Using the Jung-Myers Model of Psychological Type
in Systems-Psychodynamic Coaching:
A Case Study, Available at: http://typeindepth.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/PSYCHO.jpg (accessed 02.10.13)

Edwards, D., (2004), Art Therapy, London: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Gordon, R., (2000), Dying and Creating: A Search for Meaning, London: Karmac

Hopwood, A., (2006), Jung’s Model of the Psyche, Available at: http://www.thesap.org.uk/jung-s-model-of-the-psyche (accessed: 21.12.13)

Schaverien, J., (1999), The Revealing Image: Analytical Art Psychotherapy in Theory and Practice, London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers

Schavaverien, J., (2005), Art and Active Imagination: Reflections on Transference and the Image, International Journal of Art Therapy, 10 (2) pp. 39-52, Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/174548305000345959 (accessed: 02.10.13)


It’s been a month since my last post due to commitments related to my course so I’m a little out of sorts.

I often feel my entries onto this blog are overly eclectic. Having read back on a few of my recent posts I sporadically move from one topic to the next frequently. I sometimes wonder whether I need to have more focused and show greater continuity with what I’m writing about.

However perhaps what I perceive to be a weakness about the blog format; the ability to combine and consolidate lots of different themes and ideas, is actually its greatest strength. A sort of melting pot of stuff that may; or may not, be connected.

Backtracking to a few weeks ago I’d been thinking a lot about these ideas of dirtiness, filth and outward appearances. In a previous post I alluded to the similarities between faeces and paint. However in recent weeks I have been readings bits about the qualities of clay in an art therapy context and wondered whether this might be a medium to consider in the development in ideas. As such, I’d been reading a book called Windows to Our Children by Violet Oaklander which outlines a Gestalt approach to working with children and adolescents. What is a Gestalt approach you may ask? Well, I’m not 100% sure myself other than to say that it’s related to cycles and what happens when we get blocked in our own cycles of thinking or working (quite pertinent to a previous post about creative blocks). Maybe that could be the starting point for a separate post. In any case, there is a part of the book where Oaklander details the materiality of clay describing how mushy, soft and sensuous it is. Interestingly, ‘whilst most are put off by the messiness of people clay, it’s actually the cleanest of all art materials, second to water…. Clay has healing properties. Sculptures and potters have observed that cuts heal faster if left uncovered as they work with clay’ (2007:68).

The paradoxical nature of clay to be both messy and clean had a particular resonance with the biblical metaphor of the dirty cup mentioned previously. In addition one could argue that clay (as a medium) is closer to faeces than paint and maybe this could be something that I start to explore as part of the studio practice module offered as part of my course.

Perhaps clay has also been on my mind as I had recently been watching a programme about Edmund de Waal, a ceramic artist working towards his 2012 exhibition, A Thousand Hours. Watching him craft these clay vessels; one after the other, revealed how immersive this practice is and how these vessels might be viewed as units of time. Unsurprisingly I was also reminded of my own persistent interest in containers, a theme which I re-imagined in a series of doodles generated a few weeks ago (see opposite).

As a result, maybe these ideas aren’t as unrelated as I first thought.


Oaklander, V., (2007), Windows to Our Children, Maine: The Gestalt Journal Press

taran333tula, (2013), 1/2 Edmund de Waal – What Do Artists Do All Day ?, [YouTube], Available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=me2EmbWZYH8 (accesssed: 04.12.13)

Edmund de Waal – What Do Artists Do All Day ?