Tag Archives: group psychotherapy

Ploughed fields and boxing hares

2018 has not been a good year for the blog. I’ve been caught up with writing and editing a book about psychogeography and psychotherapy, in between trying to civilise a whippet puppy – work in progress! But now, right at the end of the year, I’m not only determined to resuscitate the blog, but have become part of a threesome of aspiring printmakers.  We set ourselves the task of producing something under the heading ‘November landscape’, which was a good way to encourage us all to look more closely at our surroundings.  The outcome for me wasn’t a new print, however, but this blog. It set me thinking about clichés; in this instance, ploughed fields with winter trees on the horizon. I’d driven past just such a scene and in the early morning light it was beautiful. Then, perhaps foolishly, I googled ‘linocut ploughed field’ and discovered what a popular subject matter it was! In fact there were some very good images of exactly the scene that I had in mind.

Then I thought about some of the other clichéd images – chickens, crows and ravens, foxes, boxing hares, sunsets, teasels, poppy heads, etc. etc. Was the only way out of the cliché trap to search for something original, or move towards abstraction? On the other hand, I have spent many years asking ‘why’ before devising a solution; why change the habit of a lifetime, to quote another cliché.

Why was there this problem? What was it about ploughed fields in winter, for example, that made them so appealing – or boxing hares, or any of the other images that have been repeated so often that they have become fashionable and commercial? And why did I resist joining in?

All the visual clichés I thought about were related to the natural environment. Struggling to understand our place in the natural world, our relationship to landscape and animals, is a constant and enduring thread in human life, even though it has been battered and distorted by industrialisation, capitalism, globalisation, and greed in general. This very human endeavour, to discover and acknowledge our own natural heritage, is perhaps part of what draws us to images of hares and crows, foxes and chickens. I wonder if I’d been born in another part of the world whether I’d have the same fascination for these particular images – or whether it would be the kangaroo or the leopard that had the magic attraction? We intuitively are drawn towards the land and the wildlife that inhabits it, I think.

But what about those clichés not related to the natural world – cars for example? Teapots, watering cans, beach huts, wine bottles – the list seems endless. What is it that draws artists to these subjects? Is it a shorthand for a particular lifestyle; the connection between possessions and personal power; the desire for acceptance; money? For once a subject has become an accepted, coded form of desirability, like a car, then reproducing that brings commercial success. The images become taken over and hollowed out as they turn into consumerist slogans.

What about our very own personalised clichés? I’m thinking about those habitual thoughts that swim around our mind. Some of them are stereotypes, as in ‘women are more emotional than men’ that are shared amongst large numbers of people. Some feel far more personal, as in ‘ if I don’t do it, nobody will’, or ‘whenever I get close to someone, they let me down’, but are also shared by lots of others; some seem even more idiosyncratic and only you will know what I’m talking about!

In psychotherapy groups, the common one, held by so many people, was “I don’t fit in. I’m the odd one out.” Each group I worked with was more or less entirely composed of people who gradually revealed their firm belief that they were the odd one out in the group. Where were these others who were ‘in’, we wondered, when we were able to talk about this.

I don’t have a problem with the idea that there is very little that is new; that we are continually searching for, finding, losing, refinding and refining images, ideas, and skills that have been current for generations. But there is something alive that gets lost in the cliché or the stereotype. We stop paying attention, glibly skating over whatever it was that was struggling to be heard. Behind every assertion of ‘being the odd one out’, for example, lay a detailed, complex history with its own unique trajectory. Perhaps behind the image of the boxing hare or the ploughed field there once lay another nuanced and personal response to the scene that has been stripped away by casual repetition and commercial exploitation.

I noticed in my online search that every now and then I came across an image that made me pause. It was not usually the ones that were detailed and ‘accurate’ representations of the subject, but those few that to my mind and eye had caught something of the character or nature of the crow, for example. It made me think of Gerard Manley Hopkins’  inscape – where something concealed had been revealed. I used to be part of a portrait drawing class, and there were rare occasions where someone’s drawing seemed to have discovered the person that we were trying to draw. I suppose this is in itself another cliché, that this is how we identify true ‘art’.  When is a cliché a truism?

To conclude, I’d like to re-introduce you to ‘Neville’, my first attempt at a Japanese style woodcut. Yes, you could call him a cliché, but despite this I have become attached to him. In my eyes, he has personality – something about him that makes him stand out from the crowd, or flock. It might of course be a sort of ‘parental’ delusion – all my children/artworks are unique and special.  What do you think?

 

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Where we come from: Place and Colour

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‘I know where you are coming from’.

If I hear this is a group therapy context, I’m expecting it to be followed up either by a version of – let me tell you about my own experience – or – but I think you’ve got it wrong here. It’s a statement of solidarity and a permission to disagree at the same time, which could be seen as another version of family: People who know the most about you, who can be on your side and also oppose you.

Our language is awash with geographical metaphors used to convey often complex emotions and interactions. I’m increasingly pondering the “geographical’ in that sentence, having spent years of talking and writing about internal landscapes. I’ve always been focused on the emotional content, but now I’m taking the actual physical terrain more seriously.

I’m wondering about our earliest experiences of place, and the ways in which we attach to/detach from this place. There’s no easy correlation, as in people born by the sea always want to get to the coast, or those whose first years were spent in high rise flats love climbing mountains. But I believe that there are influences; that the impact of place is never erased, however subtle or hidden. Perhaps rather than attach to a location that can be described in terms of contours and features, we resonate with the mood of a place? So how  do we ascribe a mood to a place ?

Colour and light immediately come to mind. Beyond any simplistic associations – cheerful yellows, angry reds, gloomy greys and so forth – colour plays upon, expresses and creates emotion. In a recent tribute to Howard Hodgkin, Colm Toibin writes,

 ‘There was no colour in his work, he emphasised, for its own sake; he was not involved in making decoration. Nor did he allow colour to stand for some generalised set of emotions or experiences. He always thought of himself as a representational painter. The paintings arose from precise occasions, precise emotions, from a memory, something very specific and personal.’ (The Guardian 11.03.17 )

 Colour is for serious artists.  I describe myself as someone who is ‘not good with colour’, but that is a sentence, like the one that precedes it, which is too glib for comfort. I like greys – and blue-greys, green- greys, brown-greys and even yellow-greys. Why?

There are many possible factors, but the one that I am thinking about here is childhood landscapes of the Thames estuary. I remember it as muted, overcast, and yes, mainly grey! I’m not sure if it is a landscape that I am ‘attached’ to, but I do feel that its colours have seeped into me somehow. In my sketches I have periods where I consciously try to use vibrant, noisy colour – but I always either blot it away or just don’t like the end result. Colour and place are entwined. I’m not at home in hot vibrant noisy places any more than I am drawn to hot vibrant colour.

Psychotherapy enables us to go beyond our early programming, but reminds us that certain aspects of ourselves are foundational. I’m thinking that also applies to the way we respond to and use colour. It can connect us to the geography of our lives and that of our preceding generations, and it can introduce us to new ways of appreciating the current places that we and others inhabit. So to challenge the idea that I am forever entranced by greys, here are a few of my latest lino prints. You may know where I’m coming from, but look where I’ve got to!

 

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Waste products in the back passage

I have drawn my garden and my street so many times I can’t generate any enthusiasm for yet another try – whereas the back alley is virgin territory – as far as sketching goes, I mean. It certainly doesn’t have a virginal look about it, even though these sketches make it look cleaner and tidier than it is.

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Here the wheelie bin rules, along with difficult to dispose of hard-core, building materials and general rubbish. In my newfound role as psychogeographer-cum-urban-sketcher, I found myself pondering the links between the wheelie bin, consumerism, capitalism, and of course, psychotherapy. Psychotherapy, psychogeography, sketching – the words don’t roll off the tongue easily, but there is a fluid interchange between the three areas as far as I am concerned.

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There is probably a long established sociological discourse on the wheelie bin, but apart from this interesting research project[i], I haven’t been able to track much down yet. So these are my uninformed thoughts!

The rise of the wheelie bin could be a metaphor for the rise of consumerism and an encroachment on the public by the private. Somewhere in the 1990’s it came to replace a system where ‘bin men’ – local government employees, collected metal bins, emptied and returned them to our gardens and backyards. Now it is the householders’ responsibility to take the wheelie bins to the public space of the pavement or roadside, and the ‘binmen’, working for private contractors, empty them and return them to any point along the street.

Many recycling centres – shared facilities- have gradually been overshadowed by roadside collections. Rubbish is a private affair, unlike for example, the French system where rubbish is taken to a communal area. Litter in the street is now deemed the responsibility of the council, whereas my grandparents would sweep the pavement outside of their house and expect the neighbours to do the same.

The size of the wheelie bin – about one and a half times that of the old dustbins –has legitimised a significant increase in waste as we buy more and more Stuff, along with its packaging. The way we handle rubbish illustrates the break down of a sense of community and shared ownership, the rise of consumerism and the packaging industry as well as the commercialisation of disposal. Waste is big business.

All this can be discretely ignored if you live in a large enough house to have a side entrance, or a large front garden to conceal your wheelie bins. Those in Victorian terraces with no/ tiny front gardens are forced to live with the bins as permanent plastic Daleks by their front door, who in time become disregarded and ‘normal’.CCI24082015_2

In the 1990’s too, my local alleyways were gated as a ‘security’ measure, no longer pedestrian pathways though the Victorian Edwardian housing stock. They passed from public into private space; a space where by and large, it was possible to deposit and forget any inconvenient truths – like the link between our consumption and climate change, for example. Again, the wider the alley (posher houses) the greater the space available. Poorer people can’t get away from their rubbish so easily, it would seem. If you can afford a new build however, Eric Pickles came to your rescue with new building regulations, which, whilst freeing developers of some inconvenient requirements to consider the environment, insisted that wheelie bins must have their own dedicated space.[ii]

So what about psychotherapy? Putting our emotional rubbish out of sight and trying to forget about it is a familiar story in all our lives. What we most fear to acknowledge is the back story, where our own culpabilities and shameful secrets lie at the bottom of the wheelie bin, concealed by more acceptable rubbish. The bad things people have done to us, traumas inflicted by others, are terrible enough, but our own cruelties and complicities are often more painful to acknowledge.

We are generally ashamed of our bodily functions, of mess, shit, pus, semen, vomit. We have designed a sewage system to sweep these down to the sea and beyond – where they can poison somebody or something else. But there are other things that won’t fit down the toilet that linger in our back alleyways and wheelie bins. Humans are messy, capable of unspeakable horrors that although repressed, damage the self, others and society. [iii]

It is one of the great strengths of group psychotherapy that it can provide a space where this distressing, painful remembering can take place, witnessed by others struggling with their own back stories of mess. Acknowledging culpability, discovering regret, facing up to past actions and the responses of others – not just the therapist – can begin a process of re-integration and healing.

Look again at the wheelie bin. What can it tell us?

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[i] No. 08-2003 ICCSR Research Paper Series – ISSN 1479-5124 Hidden mountain: The social avoidance of waste Edd de Coverly, Lisa O’Malley & Maurice Patterson

[ii] Architects Journal 13 May 2015 G.Wilkinson 

[iii] Phil Wood writes about Lviv and the related attempt to forget the inconvenient and bloody history of genocide, in Walking Inside Out, ed, T. Richardson.