Archive for October, 2009

Art and Therapy: expressions of what is not easy to express

Thursday, October 8th, 2009


Find Me in the Hills is a series of works  created by Carol Emerson from the Fall of 2004 onward. Carol’s mixed media collages depict hills, dunes and water primarily in the deserts of the West.

During the period of Hills, Carol was mourning the loss of her partner, David Nutter (see 8/5/09 post). Through this same period she journaled and collected the poetry of others which she explained, “spoke to a depth of expression I could not voice.” For her exhibit she chose bits of poems to accompany each of her pieces. In this way poetry becomes another medium in the mix. The pairing seems to address one of the dilemmas of mourning- loss and despair are so visceral that words are inadequate but “the grief that does not speak”, as Carol drew from Shakespeare, “Whispers the o’er fraught heart and bids it break.”

It is not only the heart that a mourner fears will break, but the very self. I once counseled an adolescent boy whose 45 year old father collapsed on the kitchen floor, one day when he and the boy were working around the house. His father was dead before the paramedics arrived. “I believe we will get through this”, his mother told me one day, “but there are moments when I feel that I will die first”. She felt, as many people do, that grief will kill them.

And then there is the feeling of irretrievable loss. The loved one is lost -and- the self is broken and at risk of being lost for good as well. In one of her largest pieces, The Agony and the Ecstasy, Carol portrays three mountain ridges as sharp as knives rising above a mild stream. With this piece she pairs her own words written soon after David’s death:




I am afraid this pounding, heavy heart will never go away.
I am afraid it will go away.
I am afraid I will never stop crying.
I am afraid I won’t cry enough.
I am afraid I’ll forget how to laugh from my belly.
I am afraid I won’t believe in good things lasting.


Recently Carol and I got to talk about the relationship between art and psychotherapy. It was something that we, like many others, have intuited yet had not really articulated. After all, we are now sitting with our clients in rooms that are also an art gallery. As our clients talk about their lives, their relationships and their losses, they are literally surrounded by art.

It is common for people to remark that doing something creative that they love, whether it be making art, tending orchids or singing with friends, is therapeutic. Yet as Carol thought back on the years of working on Hills , she told me, she never consciously thought of it as therapeutic- though, of course, in retrospect, it was.

The problem may be in the word “therapy”. It is a medical term which means a method for curing or mitigating an illness. So much of what is talked about in therapy is not illness – it is life. There is, after all, no cure for life, for love, or death. These things are experiences, real and tangible. Maybe it is experience that art and therapy have in common. A piece of art depicting a hill somehow captures it, frames it and magnifies it so that we can see the transcendent in it; yet at the same time, the image humbly falls short of the natural beauty of the thing itself, and in that way the hill is honored by the attempt.

A client describing their anxiety, their compulsions or their grief are depicting experiences in the safe and private frame work of the therapy hour somehow captures it from a different vantage point. When the therapist understands the experience – feels it with them- the client feels strengthened and less alone.

Grief is an experience, natural and universal. It is not something to be treated or cured. Being natural does not, however, mean it is not dangerous. Just as in the desert, precipices and the extremes of the elements are natural -but they can kill you. Just as nothing is more a natural part of human existence than the birthing of a child, birthing has been a leading cause of the death of young woman.

Grief, then, as a natural but painful and dangerous experience calls for special ways and places to be experienced: in the artist’s studio, the gardener’s garden, the church sanctuary, the therapy hour. Both art and therapy, then, give grief a way to be framed and experienced in a heightened way, with a different perspective and provide the potential for the grief to be shared.

I caught a glimpse of this the day after Carol’s exhibit was installed in the gallery. I was setting up a wireless printer in the large room of the gallery while our colleague Diane Welsh had a therapy session with a client in the smaller room. Toward the end of the session, Diane led the woman she was seeing through the exhibit. They quietly and reverently traversed the terrains of grief as expressed visually and through the written word. Diane later told me that this was her client’s final session- a woman who came to her weighed down with losses- a newly finalized divorce and a series of deaths. In this way the final moments which Diane spent accompanying her were spent in a silent and shared experience of art and psychotherapy.