Art as Therapy

I have just watched a stimulating YouTube video by Alain de Botton called ‘Art is Therapy in the Rijksmuseum’. (links at the bottom) Wow! He really made me think about my own work- how it is therapy. For me and for others. As I was watching, I glanced up at my recent work ‘Sentinels’ and was struck by the power of this lens of viewing. So this blog is an attempt to frame my recent work through the paradigm shift he describes. I will start off with the work Sentinels.

Art as Therapy for me the artist.

Silver wattles Guarding the path into the rainforest beyond
Art as Therapy – Sentinels

Sentinels – Crowds in Landscape No.2

First – stop and look. I have made the work full width -so you can immerse yourself in the painting.

Immersion - into the dark beyond - Art as Therapy.
Immerse yourself.

It is mid 2022. It has been a hard three years for everyone. COVID: isolation, withdrawal, vulnerability, not knowing the future, it looks dark and bleak. What lies beyond? It is winter. This is a winter painting. Yet one of the overriding comments people have made about this work is that one could walk into it to go down the path into this unknown. Somehow it is inviting.

There are pillars – almost pillars of light, guarding this darkness and unknown. These are the sentinels of wisdom. Yes old and moss covered, but guarding and protecting. Separating light from darkness. I could go on about the place of the Silver Wattle and its relationship with the Myrtle forest – but I have done that on the more didactic page about this painting in the gallery menu.

My struggle

As art as therapy this work functions as a primal architype of the unknown future. It is the Hansel and Gretel story. Goldilocks entering the wood off the beaten path – into the unknown. For my life, that was what last year was. Having moved from the security of employment into developing an arts practise. Not yet knowing what the pillars which will support us will be. Questions of paying for diesel, as a real metaphor of fuel for life .

The struggle with the weather – painting outside for the first time in a Tasmanian winter. Being only able to paint once or twice a week – the light restricting me to one canvas a day. The fears of the unknown – being medically vulnerable to COVID, and been physically vulnerable with a knee injury.

What were the COVID years for you? – Can you put yourself in this picture as I have done? I now realise, thanks to Alain de Botton, I did just this as I was painting it. I was painting more than what was simply before me – the work was also my therapy.

Into the Woods.

There is a whole Sondheim Musical on that title! What lurks inside? Red Riding Hood, wolves and woodcutters. We don’t like to live in deep forests much. Perhaps our cultural heritage is very happy with the woodcutters clearing paradise to put up a parking lot. With easel and assorted comforts and technical equipment I ventured between these sentinels into the woods. This first painting I did in this forest was very much to do with woodcutters.

Renew: Stump in rainforest

Renew – Figures in landscape No.4

The old woodcutter got this one. Again, stop and look.

Renew: Stump in rainforest
Immerse yourself


Open your eyes and look. Its not hard to imaging sitting there, light dappling through the trees. Leaves dancing, and ferns floating in the sunlight. Light changing, highlighting this and that. Then immersed in shadow again. Your eyes like butterflies flitting from one part of the canvas to another. Discovering newness. Unless you go into the forest, the dark foreboding forest in the previous painting, you would miss the beauty that awaits the risk takers.

Light needs darkness to see. Without the dark, without the shadows that light brings, the light will have no glory. Neither would the rainforest. It is a place of light and dark. Now imagine also the cold dampness and warming promise of heat from the sun. Imagine sitting here, fingerless gloves keeping the blood flowing to the brush. Imagine the mosquitoes who call this home. Risk bought this beauty. For me, the artist, it was forty hours of immersion, risk and benefit. Forty hours of wonder, beauty and amazement. Hours and hours of feeding my soul.

Stump of renewal

Now see the stump. Cut off at the roots – literally. A life changed, challenged. Yet this old life, the heritage of the forest feeds the new. From this root, this Root of Jesse – to use another metaphor comes new life. Comes restoration, not just renewal of the forest its canopy threatened by the axe, but renewal of life itself. Immerse yourself again.

Renew: Stump in rainforest
See life – be renewed.

More than an image of life. Imaging as I experienced the chatter of birds, the special visits I received from the Blue Fairy Wren and the wonderful Pink Robin who tried to land in my painting. Hear the sounds of the distant creek, the sounds of life, the sound of the falling tiny myrtle leaf.

Marvel as I have done that, through change comes new life. It is through hardship and struggle that perseverance is born, and perseverance develops character and character brings hope. And hope does not disappoint, for it it the seed of all life.

Take time to ponder these things.

Art is for pondering.

Also in this remnant Myrtle rainforest is found my next painting.

Immersion art as therapy Image of small sassy sassafras tree
Sassy Sassafras

Sassafras – Figure in Landscape No 39.

By now you will perceive a pattern. Yes, expect an immersion. But first let me tell you / remind you of an comment Mr Bean made in Mr Bean the Movie. He turns up at the Chicago Art Gallery – mistaken by the Gallery as an art expert. Bean is asked, what exactly he does? (he is actually one of the faceless security guards. ) His answer was profound. “I sit and look at paintings” The art elite are profoundly stuck by this. Who knew – art is for contemplation. I expect that Alain de Botton – the author of ‘Art as Therapy’ would also loved Beans reading of ‘Whistlers Mother’ at the end of the movie as well.

Immersion art as therapy Image of small sassy sassafras tree close up
Intimate closeness

This was my view, the artists view. Seated on the ground. A small, knarly, aged but stunted sassafras of very little consequence. Perhaps his teacher said he had so many flaws he wouldn’t amount to anything. In the shadow of a giant Myrtle just over my left shoulder this tree lives. Honest, eking out a living. Planted where it is. Living with the hand it has been dealt. Visually the tree forms a hand so literally and metaphorically.

What does the fact I have invested in this painting, say about me?

My aesthetic, my Therapy

I have come to realise that I have dedicated a lot of my life – particularly my professional teaching life to the disadvantaged and struggling student. I have championed the misfits and those who found school was torture. For those who don’t know I founded and pioneered two secondary schools for disadvantaged young people. It is very clear from my body of work that I paint the small and disadvantaged tree as often as I do the iconic giants. My life and artistic work is a whole, and wholesome in its consistency.

At the end of 2020 I stepped out of my educational role in one of these schools straight into this forest. And this was the first painting I chose to paint!

Now I need to stop and think on this.

Close, personal, intimate.

To be understood as to understand. Not so much to be loved but to love another. – The words of Saint Francis

– also the words used by John Michael Talbot in a song I regularly listen to on my way to paint this forest. Immersion is more than being there, it is being there. Bringing the baggage, the thoughts , even the songs, the life lived to the canvas. This is the artist.

Thanks Alain de Botton for your gift of insight and giving to me a new way into my own work. Here is the link – it an hour long talk but wow, worth the investment.