Counselling in Chichester &
West Sussex

Counselling, artwork and a different point of view

A book written by the influential psychotherapist Patrick Casement entitled Learning from the Patient has rightly been regarded as important reading for many counsellors. Casement encourages therapists to acknowledge the personal learning opportunities which inevitably arise when working with clients.

I was reminded of Casement’s ideas by a recent comment made in my counselling room.  The speaker has provided me with permission to mention albeit anonymously this remark which relates to a painting in my office which is in the centre of Chichester, West Sussex.

The content and layout of a therapy room is an interesting topic in itself. There are different views on what should be displayed within a therapy room. Some counsellors are very careful to keep the content of a consulting room as bland as possible with an absence of any personal effects and a sense of neutrality. This functional approach is intended to avoid any distractions to the counselling process.

These ideas may feature in counselling approaches such as psychodynamic work.  For some who work within that school the presence of art works in the therapy room could certainly be contentious. Although these issues can be overstated I understand the concerns raised.  Irrespective of whether the therapist is working as a psychodynamic therapist or with a more didactic technique such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) there will is broad agreement within the counselling world that it would not be appropriate for the counsellor to have personal photographs on display.

Nevertheless I do have some unease about a fundamentalist approach to any counselling methodology and particularly one which calls for a therapist to be completely anonymised.  The counselling environment is important but this does not mean that the room has to be stark or devoid of features.

It is important for the client to feel a sense of safety and security within the room. That can be helped by the provision of a comfortable space which allows the client to be as relaxed as possible. Paintings and pictures can have a role to play in softening the four walls of the therapy room. If that prompts a client to form a view as to who or what the therapist is and how she or he looks out at the world then so be it.  The therapist should be authentic and real in the therapy room.

For my part it is also helpful to work with clients in surroundings that hold interest and can stimulate. For these reasons I am happy for my choices in artwork to be reflected in the drawings and paintings on my wall. Those works include one painting which is my favourite piece. It was this which prompted that unexpected comment.

The painting is of a figure who is probably female. She has her back to the viewer with her arms outstretched going from side to side across what is a rectangular canvas and frame.  Perhaps it may help to describe the image if I liken this portrait to a smaller pictorial variant on Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North. The background which the figure is facing towards is a bright blue.

Art is perceived in an individualistic way. For some there will be a need to see meaning within the work.  For others particularly with regard to abstract art, the interplay of colours and shapes may provide the necessary focus or stimuli.

I can certainly recognise my personal inclination to always look for symbolism or association in art and that is probably unsurprising given the nature of therapy work. Given that approach I have held two constant interpretations of this particular painting.

The first interpretation is that the woman is pushing outward against the forces that surround her. She is looking to expand her boundaries, to increase control and ownership of the space about her. She is confirming her individuality and her independence from those around her.

The second interpretation is of someone being subjected to external pressures which are threatening to overwhelm her. The stretching out of her arms is a way of actively resisting, of pushing back and keeping those external forces at bay.

The painting is powerful with a central character who will not be bound or fettered. I have long regarded it as a work with a serious message. It was therefore intriguing to be suddenly offered a fresher and much lighter interpretation.

This alternative was more strongly representational. The painting was seen as being that of a woman caught at the moment of flinging open windows on the balcony of an apartment. She is looking out across water.  This is at the start of a new day somewhere across the blue Aegean. Perhaps the location is a warm Greek island with the scent of the Mediterranean drifting into the room with the early morning breeze. The picture is seen as being full of light, laughter and freedom.

In looking again at the painting I could identify with that interpretation and it has stayed with me. Now when I walk into my room I can choose to recall that description. It has the potential to bring a feeling of warmth which was not present with my earlier rather more intense and severe interpretation.  It will certainly be a useful perspective to sit with on a cold winter’s day!

This lighter reading does not replace my initial thought about the paintings. I am still at ease with my original interpretations but this new insight provides a welcome alternative insight that I can now turn to.

So what does this revelation tell me? I take two specific points from the experience.The first is an endorsement of those benefits which can come from just hearing someone express a very different point of view to that which I hold. That can be on a subject of general interest such as this painting or on something much more profound such as an emotional challenge or a relationship issue.

The second point is to acknowledge that we can all sometimes become a little stuck if we continue to look at issues, people or relationships in the same rigid way.  Perhaps a rather disquieting insight is that we may not even realise how entrenched our views have become. If we can be more prepared to invite or listen to an alternative view we may find a way to experience something rather important.

Well that is what I would regard as my Patrick Casement moment.  If you are interested in seeing this painting just let me know. I am not able to insert an image into this blog but I can send a photograph as an attachment.  If you would like to see the work just let me have an email address with the shortest of message. I will then forward the image to you as an email attachment.

And a final thought.  I wonder what is currently on your wall……………?