Same Project: Psychologist, Artist, and Client | Part I

on October 15 | in Being vs Non-Being, Psychology | by | with No Comments

Note: This piece is split in half.  There are six numbered entries with this post and there will be another seven on December 15th, 2011.  If you enjoy what you see here, please stop back next month for the second half!

Clinical psychology and the creative arts seem to me to have some basic similarities that I have been trying to put my finger on for some time.  It’s not uncommon to see professional psychologists dabble in the arts as painters, poets, photographers, writers and storytellers. Looking back on my own artist journey I realize that it was deeply tied to my clinical psychology training.  I first began exploring poetic expression as I was greatly influenced by the phenomenological teachings that I studied at Duquesne University.

Phenomenology attempts to describe the “things themselves” and somehow when I was trying to learn how to do that I also began to find a poetic voice.  When one describes something, one begins to find that there is a slightly more precise way of saying what has occurred; and, when one takes the extra time to describe the what–that-is-there, one finds that there is more meaning in life than one had previously thought. Phenomenology doesn’t teaches us to squeeze the meaning out of the fruitful events of life–as if there was a limited amount of juice to obtain—rather, it helps us see some of the meaning that has always been there but has been overlooked before.

Similarly, art often points to something that we have overlooked. Photography might be the easiest example of this because the photographer has to take a picture of something and many photographs capture objects that might be never even noticed while we walk down the street in our everyday lives. So the photographer is saying to the public, “Stop, look around, see that there is beauty surrounding you everywhere. You don’t live in a dead world but a world that is alive everywhere and filled with meaning”. So I don’t think that artists create meaning as much as they save or re-discover it.

Caption: This photograph by the author reveals a deteriorated window covering that has made a very organic shape despite being made out of Styrofoam possible one of the least biodegradable materials on earth.

In the following numbered passages I try to share some other similarities that I see between Clinical Psychology and Art and more specifically being a psychologist, being an artist and being a client. I shared these brief reflections in a talk at the First International Existential Psychology Conference in Nanjing, China back in 2010. This reminds me that traveling, in addition to Psychology and Art, is also a Human-Building activity.

Psychologist, Artist (and client)

1. Both psychology and art are interested in what humanity currently is and what it can become.

When a psychologist attempts to help a client, the goal for the psychologist is to meet the client where the client psychologically is. The therapist tries to be open to the individual as a person who is struggling with conflicts in one’s life.  But the therapist also recognizes the client as a person who has the heroic courage to face those struggles as well as one who has the humility to realize that, at this junction, those struggles appear larger than one’s current ability to handle them. The goal of therapy is to help the client develop a psychological flashlight that will allow them to illuminate a path toward a future person that the client would want to be. The now-self is helped by the future-self because the future-self provides a destination for the now-self who must determine how to get there.

Art, in many ways, does the same thing for culture as a whole.  Art expresses commentaries on the current conditions of humanity. It suggests the highs and lows of the human activity.  Like therapy, art typically does not lecture or direct–it only implies, hints, shines a light on some forgotten corner or deeper level of meaning. Art is like pointing with your eyebrow; the observer has to be tuned-in to see the signal.  Art asks us to question what we are and where we are going, but also what our culture is telling us to become and what will happen if we listen to those commands.

Caption: Here is a wall-based sculpture from the author of a human figure made out of computer mother-boards.  The piece is “Tomorrow, tomorrow and today,” channeling the famous Shakespeare lines, but also suggesting that we might already be more machine than we think.

2. Both psychology and art require inspiration and motivation in order to properly shape the release of emotions.

Psychological change and creative artwork both need inspiration. The psychologist and the client have to be able to imagine that the client is able to become a different person. The client, in a sense, has already taken the biggest step in seeking help – that step comes out of the feeling that a different life is envision-able.  The work of changing one’s life is not easy.  Most life-messes have been years in the making and the solution to those conflicts requires months of clean-up. In addition to time, there are skills and potential new psychological habits that must be learned and practiced.  So the inspiration for change is often something the therapist is not involved with; but the opportunity to help the client with their motivation is an extremely important part of the therapist’s guidance.

Each new artistic project also requires inspiration.  If someone has writer’s block, one cannot simply wait for inspiration to strike.  Often the futility of lackluster work is what creates ideas and even working on a crappy project is what frequently triggers that inspiration.  The writer finally says to himself,  “This really sucks.  What would be more interesting….How about if …” Once the inspiration happens then the real hard work needs to be done. Having the idea is one thing, but artwork is often very tedious to actually finish. It can involve hours of repetitive work and even then the project doesn’t look like what the artist had imagined; frequently the artist even doubts that he can get close to the previously imagined vision that had flashed before his mind.

Caption: The following piece by the author called “Identity” sat 90% finished in my basement for 2 years.  I knew it was not quite right, but I couldn’t figure out how to make it better.  I liked the piece but it just did not go far enough.  Finally, I had the second insight I needed and added under-painting and crackle paint and even some blood to show the dead ends, pain, and festering issues that might all play significant roles in our identity.  The piece promptly won an award at a regional art show.

3. Both psychology and art attempt to create a mental space that allows the freedom to play and to create meaning.

The therapy session is a canvas for the client and therapist to start creating the mental images of a future that is much different from the past and present.  The play may include new ways to respond to the aggravations that seem to repetitively occur. The therapy session is a place to imagine having a conversation with someone else and how it might work out.  It is also a place to try out new ways of being.  In other words, a rut is trying the same thing over and over with only change being using more force. Play is ability to change all conditions, including time and outcome, in order to understand how the meaning of now has gained from the then.

The Artist has to let go of her own judgment. She must work to un-filter herself and to open the iris so that more light can come in.  The artist cannot succumb to a recipe or formula for her art because then she falls into the same rut as the client seeking therapy.   The artist has to live in a malleable reality that includes do-overs, take backs, mixing and matching opposites/extremes, and fine tuning things to an almost imperceptible detail. Most of all, play is a non-judgmental approach to what ever appears in the imagination.

Caption: Woman dancing: This is a whimsical piece of art that I made out of tomato cages.

Client and Artist

4. Freedom comes from the ability to express what is difficult, confusing, or obscure.

The Client is given a safe space to express feelings that either have been too painful or too embarrassing to say to anyone else.  But secrets are poison to the soul and the antidote is the ability to articulate that which one feels they should never say. Like a festering splinter that has finally been removed with therapeutic tweezers, the wound can now naturally heal itself.

Artists also find themselves stuck on a theme.  Sometimes this is purposeful and others times it can be more unconscious.  We recognize that the artist goes through a period where he or she is following a certain motif. In this case the writer or painter seems to be attempting to express the same thing in various ways or is trying to hone in on what she is really trying to say.   Often times a “masterpiece” is the culmination of several years work that seem to surround a theme and that masterpiece is the final work that strikes the bulls-eye. Now the artist can move on to her next great adventure.

Caption: This piece is a found object that I called the human condition.  It both reminds me of DNA in the tangledness  and the sort of  un-functional existence that most humans living. It is a phone cord that should allow some distance from the phone with which one is talking, and yet it is so tangled up by itself that it has become worthless.

5. Clients and artists can be guided by a Therapist, Teacher or Master but must do the hard work on their own.

I believe that humanistic psychotherapy is a kind of solitude-with-a-guide. This means that the client has come to a psychologist who has been trained in tangles that other people have gotten into but that each individual has one’s own special circumstances that can not be solved in any formulaic fashion. The client can receive help if he is willing to engage in the untangling process.  The therapist may hint at what part of the knot may be the most susceptible to untwining., but the client will have to be the one who does most of the gentle pulling and loosening of the knots.

The artist can be inspired by a master or a teacher. This mentor can give the artist certain projects that may help develop an artistic eye, and can help the artist develop skills, and attempt new projects that stretch the artist’s abilities. Eventually, after gaining some of these valuable tools, the artist must break away from that teacher and follow one’s own vision.  Imitation must eventually give way to innovation.


Caption: One of my earliest paintings is a replication of a Matisse painting. Hopefully, the artist moves from replication to innovation.  In the second painting, I have made a nude figure preserving the anonymous aspects of Matisse but clearly not in his style.

6. Must struggle against habits to keep producing vital experiences and artwork.

The client’s problems often originate from habitual responses to habitual problems. The cycle has to be broken and with some guidance from the therapist, the client will be called upon to take new psychological risks that will hopefully lead to new actions. To try something new takes confidence, therefore, the therapist’s encouragement and aid in building the client’s self-esteem are not intended to store up confidence indefinitely – those efforts should allow the client to take their next leap.  Self-esteem is only there so that the client can risk that esteem on a new venture.  The goal is that—succeed or fail—the client realizes that one is better off having tried to live dangerously rather than to simply repeat what has failed before.

The artist too needs to try projects that are not necessarily in one’s comfort zone.  If the artist always begins projects that they know will work then the art is not pushing the boundaries of one’s own skill. The artist’s work is likely to become monotonous.  So the artist has to live on the edge of one’s self and is in a delicate position of fighting a habit, while trying to constantly outdo one’s self.  This accounts for a vulnerable psychological position that we often find encountered by artists. On top of that, consider the frequent rejection of the public, or even before that, rejection of the jurors, and there is a lot of factors that affect one’s artistic confidence.

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