Beyond the Mind’s Eye:
Using Mail Art as a Component in Community Based Art Therapy.
Author’s Note: The title of this work Beyond the Mind’s Eye was the name given to the first exhibition of art created by people with a mental health condition at the Stockyard Gallery, Foster, Victoria, Australia in 2011.
I was born in London and moved to Australia in 1973. I come from a mixed background of art and design, teaching and psychotherapy and I have a particular interest in psychoanalysis and neuroaesthetics. Since 2011 I have been working in a community house in the small town of Foster, which is in the State of Victoria, Australia. The facility offers a range of activities that include accredited trade certificates, skills share courses, community cooking, gardening and more. There are also a variety of arts and crafts classes as well as practical home maintenance workshops. Other services include a foodbank, café and lounge, opportunity shop and specialist representatives from government departments such as social security. My role is in education and welfare. I teach practical philosophy and I run an art therapy group, which is called Art for Health and Wellbeing. My clients come from all walks of life and span many age groups. I see young people with mental health and addiction problems, as well as the elderly, some of whom come to the house from a nearby aged care facility. I am also outsourced to other organisations, such as schools.
Some people come to the Art for Health and Wellbeing group simply to learn a skill, then they leave and take up their hobby or enterprise at home. Others come to the group when they are lonely or in a bad head space and are seeking counselling. There are no fixed rules and no one particular methodology is used. There are a variety of materials on offer to experiment with including adult colouring books, which are very suitable for eliminating stress; paints, crayons, charcoal, magazines to cut out, stickers, stencils, tapes, string and computers. There is a strong emphasis on art as a form of mindfulness and meditation and people work to the sound of soft meditative music. A healthy lifestyle is also encouraged, but there are no judgements, members of the group are asked to teach by example.
The overall aim of the group is to break the isolation that comes with living in a rural farming community, where expectations are generally conservative, rigid and sometimes unrealistic; especially for women and migrants. Isolation is a huge issue in the area due to a lack of services, little entertainment and there is only minimal public transport. Running a car is expensive and people who do not drive tend to be stuck in very limited circumstances. Added to this, established rural communities can span four generations of intermarriage, which has its own sub-set of health and welfare problems.
Undoubtedly, there has been a general sense of entitlement and exclusiveness amidst Australia’s federation families, which in turn gives rise to property driven class divisions, especially within the rural landscape. Old mythologies and symbolism can also be a handicap to progress. The community house in Foster operates out of the old court house, which for a long time enabled an elitist and hierarchical tradition to be maintained. Historically, the court houses in rural communities were symbolic of social order in an otherwise rowdy environment of prospectors, settlers, bushman, gold rush camp cities, prostitutes and the odd bureaucrat all vying for power and fortune in an atmosphere of colonial degradation and violence. Most of the population who were processed through the courts were working class people who were there for drunkenness and disorder or political dissidence and many, especially women, would go on to be housed in prisons or other institutions. Colonisation is long gone, but the consequences can be generational. For example, nowhere in Australia are the First Nation Aboriginal people given equal rights and Australian Aborigines live in conditions that are worse than those in many developing world nations.
In recent years, the primary focus of the community house has been to change the old guard and create an atmosphere of total inclusiveness, which meant opening its doors to Aboriginal people, migrants, single mothers, people with disabilities and anyone else who may have been previously excluded. In 2011, the community house facilitated the very first art exhibition for people with mental health issues and their care-givers, the response was overwhelmingly positive signifying that the climate in Foster was changing. Since then, the community house has moved forward with gusto and inclusiveness has been achieved, albeit one cannot always change community attitudes so quickly.
The changing landscape of the region and the concomitant changes in the community house clientele prompted a rethink on how to deliver effective community supports through tactile activities, counselling and psychotherapy without going down the purely pedagogical or clinical pathways. Teaching philosophy provided the opportunity for people to question old values, including their own and this was followed with programs to improve self-image and boost confidence and self-esteem. The main focus of my group is on mindfulness and social cohesion.
The easiest pathway to mindfulness is through the making of art. The very action of creating a piece of art takes concentration and thoughts away from pain and negativity, instead it directs them towards experiencing the moment and new productions. However, making art alone does not always deal with the issues of isolation and while many people are learning to use the Internet, some older or poorer people miss out. As part of remedying this situation the Art for Health and Wellbeing group was introduced to the idea of mail art. Mail art is not technical, scary or threatening, it does not cost much and anyone can do it. I conducted several workshops and talks on mail art in local galleries and gained significant support. Shortly after a workshop in Toora, a small town not far from Foster, the Toora Gallery held an exhibition housing examples of mail art.
In Foster the aim was to use mail art to recover a more realistic image of the changing population. Foster was experiencing new immigrants from eastern and south pacific nations, many of whom worked in the health and allied industries. The changing face of the region’s culture needed to be accepted and understood. The once conservative farmers were giving their support to refugees and business people were raising money for troubled communities abroad. The community house has had an important role to play in these forward changes. By 2011 Foster was beginning to look quite cosmopolitan, but there was still fear and stigma surrounding people with mental health issues. In 2011 five workshops sponsored by local charities, the hospital, medical practitioners and Rural Arts Victoria, brought people together for a better perspective on mental health issues and as previously stated the culminating exhibition was a huge success. All of these events gave rise to the current group, which could be seen as largely rehabilitative.
The roots of discrimination still exist in small pockets of old school residents and I cannot say it has not been a rocky road to recovery, but since the community house has become a fully-fledged social enterprise with a focus on welfare, health and wellbeing, its status and the status of its clients has improved.
The Art for Health and Wellbeing group has had to evolve within of the social and political context and I do believe the introduction of mail art, which has opened the way for sharing ideas with overseas artists, has aided in the process of changing the values at home. There is certainly more tolerance and empathy for others within the groups I facilitate.
Generally speaking, most middle, class white people have a pretty good life in Australia, and people have been protected from the tragedies that occur elsewhere in the world. Mail art lifts awareness on many issues, it helps to reconnect people to the outside world and it helps to bring about empathy, understanding and tolerance of peoples’ differences. Mail art also assists in establishing new friendships.
Neither mail art nor art therapy are a panacea for all the world’s problems. I have come across several intractable cases that have been a roller coaster of successful change, relapse and disaster, but as a collective the Health and Well Being group is there for people and we never give up on anyone. Indeed, it constantly amazes me how tiny pieces of artwork that reach out to strangers on the other side of the world can be such a powerful vestige for enabling hope, endurance and a sense of personal fullfilment.
Art and mail art therapy; why it works.
Any relation between art and therapy is always going to raise issues of disparity especially when one element is working in pursuit of anticipated freedoms and the other is highlighting the need for some behavioural regulation or discipline. Nonetheless, attention needs to be given to the connections between art and mind and what gives rise to art in the first place. Various questions need to be addressed, the most important question being: What is it about art and mail art in particular that makes it a useful addition to psychotherapy? I have answered this question at a very practical level, by describing the context of my work at a community house, now I would like to highlight the science behind the ideas and introduce the commonality between art and the brain and why art works so well for healing body and mind.
First, what do art and the brain have in common? The eye is an integral part of the brain, but what the eye sees and what the brain reproduces are very different. Neither the brain nor the artist can produce an accurate picture from the image the human eye sees. By the time an image hitting the retina is processed by other parts of the brain a very different picture emerges. Similarly, the artist cannot produce an exact replica of an object. A drawing or painting cannot be a facsimile of the natural environment, a portrait can never reveal every aspect of the person. In reality, no one can actually see the world as it is given; or as we believe it to be. All we have to work with is distorted memories and concepts. The human mind must create its own interpretation of a viewed image and it does so by way of memory and exaggeration created by a mix of chemicals and electromagnetic signals that travel though the brain’s pathways. It is because all art is truly conceptual that it makes a very good tool for creating behavioural change. In turn, mail art further propagates the relation between art and the brain by way of expanding the field, thus enabling further growth in neuron activity.
Art is conceived out of ideas and possibilities not realities. Art is necessarily culturally bound and trapped in a regime of social mores. While it might be the artist’s quest to escape constraints there are still limits on materials, landscapes and outcomes. That said, the process of making art can be liberating because it draws on a spontaneity that is beyond the rigors of the everyday language, hence it can be pushed beyond accepted norms and values. That art is beyond conventional language is particularly noticeable when working with people who have aphasia (loss of production or comprehension of speech) or people with memory and/or behavioural difficulties. Art can tap into old and forgotten memories and restore comprehension, balance and direction.
It is because art is first an abstraction of sense based memories buried deep in the unconscious that it is primed to serve as a soft entry into the deeper levels of the unconscious and its troublesome issues. Art works to penetrate stored material because all creativity is based upon the abstraction of forgotten memories. Hence, art therapy uses concepts to unlock the stored memories, whereby the mind can convey messages that have no need for interpretation, logic, grammar, syntax, semantics or other rules that are perceived necessary for the making of traditional art. Within art therapy there is no order or grammatical context, entities are replaced by a metalanguage rooted in feelings not words. It is these unique combinations of a language and a metalanguage that make art particularly useful for individual healing as well as for bringing about a complete sense of mental and physical cohesion within the group.
Art therapy has its origins in the health domain. However, creativity is a necessary component in all life. All human beings have the urge to create. Art connects us to our evolutionary origins as well as prompting us to invest in new realities. A lack of creativity can cause mental distortions. To be succinct, mental disorientation happens when the act of creativity gets lost or confused and is replaced by a troublesome object, usually something from the past or a fear of the future. Sometimes a person is not reading the world objectively and this leads to heightened anxieties and a reduction in feelings of personal security and motivation. Art taps into the more quiescent aspects of the mind, thus calming the thoughts and restoring the senses. Art requires mindfulness, which in turn induces relaxation and regular breathing so one can reduce anxiety and gain a sense of self and belonging in the world.
Everything begins with a thought, but not every thought is conscious or rational. All too often thoughts are attached to painful experiences and unresolved traumas. The objects of thought can be extremely troublesome and destructive. In psychoanalytic therapy the aim is to carefully surface the troublesome object and separate it from its subject with the use of alternative representations, which helps the brain to illuminate safer pathways that bypass the fears and obsessions. Art can serve to dismantle the blockages that obfuscate healthy thoughts and production.
Something magical happens when we attach unconscious mental ideas to conscious representations; what occurs is a kind of alchemic transmutation. It is not always an easy process and it takes time to build alternative frameworks for happiness when a life has been sad and problematic for a considerable amount of time. Nonetheless, a commitment to art can be as good as a commitment to change.
Unlocking the unconscious.
The questions most people ask when they come into art therapy are:
“ Who am I?”.
“Why can’t I fit in?”.
“What am I doing here?”.
“Why do I feel so alone”.
At some time or other most of us have experienced this kind of questioning, perhaps artists more than most have been subject to this kind of inquiry. The questions cannot be separated from the experiences that give rise to them and the particular parts of the brain that become simultaneously activated. In reality, none of us are master or mistress of our own house, science tells us that almost two thirds of the human brain is given to the unconscious life. This means almost all decisions are not made in full conscious awareness and bad decisions are usually repeated because they are generally based on the unconscious memories of past traumas.
Sigmund Freud used dream work to unlock the language of the unconscious. He believed that by using random imagery one could create a process of association that liberated unconscious thoughts. These thoughts also surfaced images that could be used to create symbolic narratives through which people could engage their psychic fantasies and repressed pain. Freud saw dreams as a dynamic interplay where one image would correspond to others in an accumulative manner, these could then be translated into a human story. Once unravelled and understood for their emotional content, stories could be rewritten for more positive future prospects. [i] With this in mind Freud paid strong attention the use of dreams and slips of the tongue (parapraxis) in his analytical and therapeutic work.
With the inception of feminism Freud and psychoanalysis were given a bad name. Undoubtedly, there were patriarchal and power related issues in psychoanalysis that needed to be addressed. It happens in history that pioneers are often remembered for their errors rather than their inventions; yet despite bitter complaints about psychoanalysis for several decades it still forms the foundations for today’s many and varied psychotherapeutic methodologies and epistemologies.
I studied psychoanalysis in the 1990s and among the many works that drew my interest, were those of Julia Kristeva and D. W Winnicott. Both writers give a strong focus to fantasy objects, often brought about by inner conversations and/or miscommunications, and how these account for various human impulses, including art. Freud and his contemporaries noted that it was the attachment to objects that was causing most of the human misery in the world, including the rising mental health problems. The idea is not entirely new, the Buddha had argued that attachments were the cause of unhappiness five thousand years before western medicine.
It was during my studies in psychoanalysis that I came across a book titled, ‘The Double Bind Theory of Schizophrenia’. It was a theory put forward in the 1950s by Gregory Bateson and his colleagues that suggested schizophrenia was caused by irresolvable communication breakdowns in families. All humans are dependent on their relationships for the satisfaction of needs. The group or family relation and the quality of their interpersonal connections is crucial to good mental and physical development. Bateman argued that since these relationships with others are so important it is essential for the individual to master what he called “metacommunication”. According to Bateman, disturbances and breakdowns in metacommunication could have very serious consequences, or what Batemen called a double bind. [ii]
The double bind theory suggests that when we are sending specific verbal messages, we are also defining through metacommunication what kind of relationship we have or would like to have with the person involved. For example, a person’s anger can also send a message of deeper distain or abjection, this in turn triggers an emotion, which is then stored in the sense memory of the brain as a troublesome object. It is also clear how the care-giver’s own inherent problems generate specific difficulties for the child and any other close relationships. A person with a history of emotional deprivation for example can have problems with intimacy because intimacy becomes a trigger for anxiety. At the same time the individual has an intellectual knowledge of how he or she should behave to impart warmth and caring to loved ones, but this only exacerbates the problem, hence, the double bind. The double bind occurs when the voice articulates one message and the metacommunication conveys the more negative aspects of the communication. Bateman’s book became the inspiration for many of the ideas I would use in my research and groups, in particular how art could be used to undermine fears.
Batemen’s views formed the basis of a 1960s critique of the nuclear family and heralded the anti-psychiatry movement. In the 1960s, there were many challenges to psychoanalysis and mainstream psychiatry. The anti-psychiatry movement declared the very basis of psychiatric practice a constraint oriented move toward social engineering, oppression and control. Psychiatrists involved in in the movement included Jacques Lacan, Thomas Szasz, R. D. Laing, Silvano Arieti and David Cooper. David Cooper coined the term “anti-psychiatry” in 1967. [iii]
The meaning of therapy.
The word therapy has its origins both in the Greek and Latin words for medicine and healing (therapeuein and therapia) so although I became an anti-psychiatry adherent of sorts, I could see a role for myself in a form of therapy predicated on personal growth and spiritual awareness. I am not a religious person, but it does not take long to observe that depression and similar conditions cause a loss of spirit or that secret ingredient that keeps life moving forward. Today, I liken the notion of spirit to various shifts in consciousness, some good and others problematic and delusional, but all of which are resolvable.
One of the most prevalent shifts in consciousness happens in dreaming. Dreaming is a universal function that cannot be separated from desires. In Freud’s view dreaming harks back to a primitive time and the oldest part of the brain, the limbic system. The problems arise if the centre of this system the amygdala goes into full flight and behaviour becomes irrational and out of control. The amygdala controls the survival mechanisms known as fight and flight. The amygdala also regulates sexuality and the heartbeat. Extreme forms of anxiety will activate the amygdala and cause serious psychotic episodes, but these can be minimised though mindfulness and art.
There are close neurological correlations between dreaming and the creation of art. Freud called the laws governing dreams, condensations, displacement, symbolization and secondary elaboration. [iv] Freud considered the dream as typical of the human mind’s workings as well as the seat of creativity. Moreover, dreams are the unique the property of the dreamer so they can be exceptionally empowering when troublesome material gets released. Conversely, dreams can be debilitating if there is an unwillingness to let go.
Dreams cannot be accurately interpreted by a therapist or anyone other than the person experiencing the dream. The art therapist can provide the incentive to explore a dream through spontaneous images, which can then make a subjective/objective connection that the dreamer can analyse. Self-trust is an important component in this process and this can also be enhanced through art, especially when the artwork is mailed or exchanged, thus widening the social setting. Within the group letting go of a piece of artwork for some people has been difficult, this is remedied by the use of email or putting art onto products such as t-shirts and cushions, mobile phone cases and bags. It should be noted, that the end product is not the main focus of conventional art therapy, but I have allowed my groups at the community house to explore these opportunities because it provides a sense of achievement.
The therapist can help the artist to locate fellow artists who might like to receive a work, this task has become relatively easy with the help of the Internet and sites such as IOUMA. It is though important not to lose sight of the overall intention, which is the transference of a problem onto an external object for the purpose of letting go. Mail art clearly assists this purpose. The psychoanalyst Ella Sharpe Freeman examined the variations that occur when feelings are transferred to an external object. She noted the constant use of objects in the works or Rembrandt and Turner and surmised that the repetition of a particular type of lighting in Rembrandt’s pictures is determined by a predilection rooted in forgotten experience. Turner repeatedly introduces a similar bridge into landscapes which were inspired by countries widely separated geographically. [v] Repetition is a key pattern in the retrieval and examination of forgotten memories and it generally takes place through metaphor.
Forgotten experiences are best brought to light through a metaphor. As Freud pointed out we can remember things more easily by association. When forgotten experiences are brought to consciousness they are then allied automatically to emotions. In art therapy the forgotten experience is often depicted by an object, such as a building or a rock, the artist may not be aware of the purpose of the depiction, the object is just placed in the work on impulse. The extension of the object placed into the drawing creates and extension of the ego boundaries. In psychoanalytic theory, the ego can be split into parts, these are called the psychic ego and the bodily ego; but the distinction between these two parts is often blurry. Many alternative therapies aim to undermine the ego, in psychoanalytic practice the ego needs to be strengthened in order for the subject to function properly. This strengthening also needs to be qualified with the knowledge that the ego must not be allowed to run out of control.
Conceptual art therapy.
Both psychoanalysis and art therapy deal in concepts. Conceptual art covers a wide domain of theories and applications beginning with its earliest of expressions in Palaeolithic cave paintings to the various modern and post-modern movements such as Dadism, Surrealism, Suprematism, Abstract Expressionism, as well as the Fluxus and Mail Art movements. The most prominent feature of conceptual art is the way in which it provides agency to the artist. Conceptual art is not commodified with an automatic entry into markets. Rather, conceptual art is the rejection of art as a component in any tradition or system of moral authority or conformity. Instead, conceptual art finds its locus in vision and the exploration of ideas that separates the concepts from its objects, this idea sits at the core of psychoanalytic art therapy.
It is because conceptual art is focussed on the workings of the mind and because the artist can make the distinction between the senses and the emotions, that it has proven effective in examining and changing human behaviour. Conceptual art has given art a new utilitarian purpose beyond the old notion of art as a thing of beauty. Conceptual art was declared free art that coincided with other forms of modern freedom. The use of conceptual art, combined with psychoanalytic theory, as a basis for therapy has given rise to an art that holds its rightful place within the health sciences, but not without contest.
Neuroaesthetics and mail art.
Conceptual thinking is usually understood as the ability to identify patterns or connections between disparate situations. Conceptual art has cognitive value rather than aesthetic appeal. Analytical thinking is understood as the ability to examine known relationships. Both are fundamental to our understanding of the world and to creativity. Importantly, conceptual art changes the definition of art and it makes a clear distinction between the realms of art and the realms of thinking. This has paved the way for a new relationship between art and science.
In 2002 conceptual art found a home in a new discipline called neuroaesthetics, which is the scientific study of the neural bases for the contemplation and creation of a work of art. [vi] Neuroaesthetics uses a multidisciplined approach to understanding what is happening in the brain when a work of art is created and it is a very important tool for revealing why art works can influence behavioural change. Neuroaesthetics can help in improving therapeutic applications. Research is still in the early stages, but I am personally very excited about the possibilities. What we do know is that concepts are metaphorically constructed; we experience and understand things in terms of other things. Metaphors are not a matter of language, but a matter of meaning; they are devices for understanding. Metaphors prepare us to imagine so metaphors can be said to create realities, because they are a licence for a certain kind of activity.[vii] This happens because meaning can be constructed where meaning did not appear to exist.
Through art and mail art we can train our brains to think new and more harmonious thoughts, in this way we can reclaim our power from habitual thinking to mindfulness and true creativity. We can all enjoy better lives, which in turn makes the notion of a better world possible.
[i] Louise Bourgeois (2013) Distortion and Disguise in Dream Work. Chapter 2 in Art and Psychoanalysis. Ed. Maria Walsh, London, I.B. Taurus.
[ii] http://www.stanislavgrof.com/wp-content/uploads/pdf/Gregory_Bateson.pdf Retrieved 5th April, 2017.
[iv] Ella Freeman Sharpe (1937) Dream Analysis A practical handbook for psychoanalysts. London, Karnac p13..
[v] Ibid p13.
[vi] Neuroesthetics at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neuroesthetics Retrieved 6th April, 2017.
[vi] George Lakoff and Mark Johnsen (2003) Metaphors we live by shu.bg/tadmin/upload/storage/161.pdf Retrieved 6th April 2017.