“Laura” paints tough-looking, thick-necked women in tight skirts and high-heeled jackboots. She does lots of paintings like this, and they’re not self-portraits. Laura turned out to be delicate and petite, with a gentle, apparently happy, thankful and optimistic nature. Now 40 years old, she told me she had been sexually abused as a child and had lived in a series of foster homes and was processed by a parade of social workers and psychiatrists. For obvious reasons, I’ll not disclose her real name or show her work, but I have asked her permission to write about this.
The question of why some of us choose trees and rocks while others choose houses and barns while others choose figurative subjects or complete abstraction is a mystery worthy of study. Laura’s situation is what we might call obsessive. For her, the female Amazon image is like a glass of wine that she can’t help reaching for. While she loves her work and relishes the joy of working alone, she knows she lacks a professional’s touch. Laura feels stuck and would like to make progress away from her fixation.
I’ve drawn Laura’s attention to some relatively new and easily accessed therapy known as Cognitive-bias Modification. CBM is based on the idea that some people have built-in biases that propel their behavior and influence their interests and attention. For example, a young woman who had been abused by a male might gain comfort from the sight of a strong and dominant woman. Fact is, we artists have a tendency to keep making and remaking our comfort. Laura may be creating visions of her own safety and thus reinforcing her power.
A typical CBM technique for treating fears and anxiety is to show the client two faces on a computer screen — one frowning and disgusted, the other neutral. A stressed client tends to become fixated on the frowning visage, mirroring feelings of disapproval or threat. CBM treatment involves superimposing a series of positive visual experiences near or on top of the fixated face. The idea is to neutralize the repetitious reinforcement and make the imagery benign by association.
While strong biases can make for compelling art, we have to keep in mind that some artists want to change. As a therapy, CBM is less time-consuming than talk therapy and less invasive than drugs. Best of all, an artist who employs CBM is more likely to understand and retain her free will.
PS: “CBM helps people take a step, before they have time to consciously think, ‘Should I take a drink?'” (University of Amsterdam experimental psychologist Reinout W. Wiers)
Esoterica: Among my immediate acquaintances are artists who are fixated on dolls, cars, arachnids, girls, boys, flowers, horses and Martians. Goodness knows I’m fixated on trees and rocks myself. The idea is to live our passions well and to explore their potential. But when change and evolution are in the air or there’s a need for a dumping of unpleasant baggage, new association is a valid ploy. These artists need a strong, self-managed program to overcome what has become an addiction.
Good wishes for Laura
by Teresa Chow, Vancouver, BC, Canada
Laura’s situation is heartbreaking. I cannot imagine what she had gone through in life but I sincerely hope that she would eventually be healed. We are all mortals of various species and kinds. Some mortals are abusive and find joy and happiness in hurting others. The abused sometimes grow up to be the abuser in order to show the abuser that he/she is now stronger and more powerful than the abuser. By finding a victim to abuse, he/she finds a comfort zone. It’s a vicious cycle but best left alone for the professionals to deal with. Others are never able to bounce back and drift away. It’s sickening to lose a precious life like this. May Laura find comfort and peace and live her spiritual and creative life to the fullest.
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A necessary obsession
by Basil Pessin
For some, an obsession is the rock upon which they stand. Remove it and there is nothing but an abyss below. If obsession does not hurt anyone and in fact contributes to a unique style, as many artists are aware of, why remove it? Rather than arm chair psychology, why don’t you offer to help her improve the quality of her art which is your area of expertise and what she is looking for? To tell her to have her head examined, I would think, is not the best approach! Look at your own art and tell me honestly that it is not obsessional. When was the last time someone told you to see a psychologist to improve your art?
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Proactive instead of reactive
by Kelly Borsheim, Firenze, Italy
The idea that came to mind when I read the description of this therapy method is that it could totally backfire and have horrible consequences. To show images of expressions of disgust and disapproval with images depicting positive ideas might just train someone to misread another’s body language in real life. We do that enough as is, but to teach a wounded or healing soul that a real expression of disapproval actually means something positive could have disastrous results, setting up for future hurts. While each person is different, I would think that it might be healthier to create a totally new fixation based on a totally new experience or idea. Instead of re-associating memories, why not create something new and born of love? Instead of using concepts of safety and strength, maybe she could focus on different concepts, such as joy or playfulness. Proactive instead of reactive.
A survivor to respect
by Mary Jane Q Cross, Newport, NH, USA
Powerful women painters who survive trauma emotionally can be reminded of Artemisia Gentileschi, woman painter 1593-1651. Mistreated similarly to Laura and then again publicly in a trial, her personal response (or revenge) lives on in her stunning and memorable success as a woman painter bucking the “old boy” system of her day. Subjects that she is known for are Judith beheading Holofernes, Judith and her Maidservant, and Susannah and the Elders. I understand the models, in some cases, resemble the people who abused her and the ladies in control were powerful or women of heroic proportions. Her public did not let her forget and as she subsequently painted some of these scenes or themes over and over, it made her quite financially self-supporting. It seems her subject resonated? She may have really enjoyed the print process that we have available to us today, but it may not have been as therapeutic.
Your lovely petite optimistic happy woman, artist in her 40’s, seems looking for a smoother painting voice to say what is therapeutic and perhaps move on. Perhaps God gives us this mechanism when there is no apparent justice. I think the fixation therapy is trying to circumvent dealing with the helplessness women may feel at this lack of justice. I am impressed with this woman’s coping skills. If she is optimistic and happy, I suspect she is a survivor to respect.
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Where’s the problem?
by Haim Mizrahi, East Hampton, NY, USA
Why is there a problem with Laura’s conduct and why do you choose to write about it? Laura should be encouraged to continue to create regardless of what the subject matter is because the creative engagement itself provides the strength to make sense of a threatening reality, of memories that are imprinted like a tattoo on our foreheads. My childhood was full of misfortunate factors but I don’t believe I need to seek the advice of the so-called professional mind readers. Who has this kind of money anyway at $200 a session? The real problem is when an individual cannot find a medium through which one can elevate life’s sensations to their rightful height and from which life’s celebration is constant. Leave Laura alone, she is doing just fine. Encourage her to continue and do more of the same and the rest will be addressed by Mother Nature.
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Life, Loss, and Healing Workshop
by Anna Hogbin, Martinsburg, WV, USA
I am a professional counselor, retired, and would like to share a resource that is excellent for Laura. Laura can get the highest professional, healing help by attending a Life, Loss, and Healing Workshop led by the staff of the former Elisabeth Kuebler Center. Elizabeth has passed on, but was/is recognized as ‘the’ international expert on loss and grief. Her work started as she stood in the German death camps after WWII and felt the souls that had not passed. She was a medical doctor and her books have been groundbreaking. The website for the workshop is www.externalizationworkshops.com. The cost is only $495 and includes tuition, room and board. It is located in Durham, North Carolina, USA. It will set her free – it did me and hundreds of others!
(RG note) Thanks, Anna. For those who may be interested in getting information about this workshop, please call Nancy Mullins in Kansas City, KS, USA at 413-268-7342.
Emotional Freedom Techniques
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
Every painting is an outward expression of our inner landscape. Our inner landscape mirrors our mental health. If our mental health is good, our art can reflect joy, love and ultimately the freedom of our potential. Obsessions are manifestation of mental health problems, where we are ‘stuck’ in a rut of our past experience and cannot move forward. Instead of experiencing freedom, we are like a junkyard dog tied to a post with a short chain. Our potential is imprisoned in a cell of our own making. From your description, I am not a fan of CBM. It sounds like psychiatry in general which seems to me to be like a drip of water poured into a vast desert. Laura knows where her problems lie. Even if we are lucky enough to find the exact problem, how to we go about fixing it? How do we effect change? I am a new devotee of EFT ( Emotional Freedom Techniques) which is a simple process where a person taps on the acupuncture points or ‘meridians’ of the body while verbally speaking about the problem or trauma in question. As wacky as it sounds, it seems to be effective in removing painful energy blockages which we store in the body. EFT has been found to be very effective in treating both victims of sexual abuse and post traumatic stress disorder. It has helped me and I believe it would help ‘Laura’ move on and paint images of hope rather than continued images that salve her pain.
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by Gordon Soaring Hawk, Hildale, UT, USA
Although your focus in this website may be from a painterly approach, it does also touch others. I am one of them and this last entry struck a chord within me. I too, survived horrendous physical and sexual abuse that most people cannot comprehend would be survivable; yet I did, and am striving to find a balance in my life. I have known what it is like to be homeless, I have known poverty, and I have experienced the loss of an adult child through suicide.
My saving grace has been that despite the circumstances of my life, I have always been drawn to the fine arts and sought solace and expression through art. Unfortunately, I am one of those who, like Salieri, were condemned to only have talent sufficient to appreciate art in its many forms. I do not draw well and though I have sold a few sculptures and love the feel of clay or the sense of creating something as a print, I have had to accept the fact that the various media of the fine arts elude me as a means of expression.
As a Native American, I have maintained an avid interest in the various skills and life-ways that were once common to my people. I have taught workshops in which people craft things with their hands — artifacts and tools that were once primary occupations of all of our ancestors. Perhaps it is not art per se; however, people can express themselves to create something from their heart, with their hands. And they can feel safe to do so, even if their expression may seem to falter.
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Drawing our way out of anxiety
by Suzanne Tesh, Swansboro, NC, USA
Rather than addiction, consider whether obsession might not be a better choice of word. Addiction is usually associated with physical substances and addictive behavior, like sexual addiction, is associated with serious social pathology, except for accepted legal substances like tobacco.
Sounds to me like the story you are telling is more a repetitive soothing behavior that in this artist’s case is entirely functional — it is helping her! So the issue is more that the soothing exercise is more of an obsession and if it works, I think that is fine. Maybe she needs to paint hundreds or thousands of Amazons before a new scene can form in her mind’s eye. Maybe she needs to draw and paint them in new settings and use the paintings to tell stories. Maybe she needs to imagine she has become the Amazon and what that Amazon would want to draw and paint.
In addition to the therapeutic technique you describe, I would direct her to an experienced art therapist, who could guide her through different exercises that could help her to complete the story through her artwork and make it possible to get beyond the loop. Drawing the beginning and end of the story cartoon-style, or drawing daily Amazon mandalas or whatever — I am not such a therapist but it’s very clear to me that many uses may be made of our inner inclination or need to create a certain kind of imagery. And that we can draw our way out of our anxieties and heal ourselves with our art. Drawing is one of the most powerful forms of meditation I can imagine. Is it art or is it art therapy? Does it matter?
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The Farm II
oil painting 11 x 14 inches by
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes M Frances Stilwell of Corvallis, OR, USA, who wrote, “Norman Rockwell painted the world as he wished it was.”
And also Nigel Thorne of London, UK, who wrote, “We are all part of everyone we have ever met, and some of them need to be sent on their way.”
Enjoy the past comments below for Dealing with fixations…