KCAC Forum Magazine Summer 1983
The Therapist as Artist
by Jim Roberts
Our society has tended to create a false barrier between those touched by artistic inspiration and the rest of us. As a therapist I have rebelled against this barrier by insisting on thinking of my work as an art form.
I was reminded of the connection recently when I was in the home of a friend of mine who paints and sculpts. In a rare moment of idle time, I picked up a pad and pencil and began to draw her picture. She sat down a few feet away and did the same.
Without schooling or experience in the art of drawing, I proceeded slowly. My pencil moved cautiously and haltingly over the pad. I figured, “as rare as it is that I do this, I better do it right.” I was determined not to make any mistakes; to do it perfectly the first time.
Each time I looked up from the pad, I noticed my friend dashing off bold strikes with her pencil; making rapid, sweeping movements over the paper. As she flipped one page over to move on to another, she giggled, “You’re going so slowly!”
Of course I was. it’s the same thing I did as a beginning therapist. And the same thing I do even now when I become too attached to the outcome and forget the significance of the process.
Not only do I sometimes go too slowly. Sometimes I get “stuck.” Getting stuck in therapy is a common hazard. It’s one that is shared by other artists in the form of writer’s block, stage fright, and so on. Being stuck, for me, occurs most often when I am unfaithful to the primacy of process; when I become overly concerned about what others might think, preoccupied with “right” or “wrong” and when I become too focused on the end result.
Getting unstuck, I’ve decided, is simple. It’s not easy. But it is simple. It involves the right balance between the eternal combination of reflection and action. The first step, reflection, means taking fearless inventory of the all-important here-and-now. “What am I feeling, thinking, wanting, in this very moment? What are my impulses, my urges, my hunches?”
The second step means acting on the new awareness. Being “stuck” is much like a microcosm of depression. Doing something is both an impetus for resolving a depression and an indication that the depression is resolved. While worrying about whether the new initiative is “right” or “wrong” is a good way of staying stuck, having made a truly honest assessment of the here-and-now is the best assurance that it won’t be “wrong.” Whether the stuckness is with a client who hasn’t changed, or with a canvas that isn’t going anywhere, the solution ultimately lies in doing something.
As therapists we press our clients in the directions that we press ourselves. But in the same sense in which Michelangelo “released” his figures from stone, a good therapist gets out of his client’s way. We know that to be authentically creative in our art (to most effectively release our figures) we must expect ourselves to fully feel, fully think and fully do. We must experiment, test, explore, push, attempt, imagine and we must take risks. We wonder if they shape our art.
And ultimately, we wonder when it is that the piece is done. “Is it what I expected it to be? Does it need a little more here, a little less there? Should I come back to it later, or leave it alone?” It’s fitting, I think that artists and therapists would have trouble with endings. But, fortunately for you and for me, if an artist is anybody, she is somebody for whom things made matter only a little; somebody for whom the obsession is making.