The Joy of Everyday Creation: A Psychotherapist’s Perspective on the Art of Fotini Hamidieli

“Art is a kind of innate drive that seizes a human being and makes him his instrument.  The artist is not a person endowed with free will who seeks his own ends, but one who allows art to realize its purposes through him. As a human being he may have moods and a will and personal aims, but as an artist he is ‘man’ in a higher sense—he is ‘collective man,’ a vehicle and moulder of the unconscious psychic life of mankind” (Jung, p. 101).

 

In The Spirit in Man, Art, and Literature, Jung explored the multiplicity of the artist’s life and his or her connection to something deeper that links us all as viewers.  We participate in the work on an aesthetic level—how the color and design make us consider and feel—but we also engage with the art by how it stimulates conscious and unconscious reactions that tie us to others.  Fotini Hamidieli’s art lends itself extremely well to consideration for both its amazing formal quality and its layers of psychological and spiritual meaning.

The connection between dreams and creativity was also explored by Jung and many other analysts and therapists.  Dreams offer the opportunity to anyone, artist or not, to make contact with a world of image and meaning, though the images and meanings are often not precise and widely open to interpretation.  Much dream analysis today rejects a single interpretation using fixed symbols or archetypes; the dreamer is instead asked how that dream relates personally to him or her and then broader connections are sometimes suggested.  This seems like a wise course in art interpretation as well—trying in a reductive way to determine the single meaning of a painting is too limiting of both the artist and the viewer, however tempting such an easy explanation might seem.  My interest here is not to mine Fotini’s art for nuggets of truth; instead, I want to suggest ways that viewers might enter her fertile and evolving world and connect with its broader themes.

That Fotini’s art has such depth always seemed apparent to me.  When two online pieces were published about my psychotherapy work, I asked the editor if we could use Fotini’s paintings as illustrations.  I had no precise thematic connections in mind; in fact, my first consideration was that they were wonderful, engaging art that would draw readers in, whether or not they were especially interested in my topics.  But I also definitely felt that her paintings conveyed an emotional resonance and complexity that worked well with the subject of psychotherapy.  Today, there is much focus in treatment on symptom relief, as there should be for people suffering from depression, anxiety, and other kinds of emotional pain.  But underlying those symptoms and at the core of psychotherapy are the ultimate human questions of who am I, what do I want and need and what is the difference between what I want and need, how can I connect with others, what is my place in the world, how do I understand and attain meaning in my life, and so forth.  Until those questions are addressed, even if never completely answered, it is difficult for any patient to achieve healing and balance.  I believe these core issues are found throughout Fotini’s art.

Some years ago, I sent Fotini a note saying that I saw a similarity in her work to that of another contemporary artist.  She very kindly and politely demurred, and, when she did, I realized that she was right–there were almost no formal similarities in their styles of art.  Then why had I so strongly felt a connection between them?  I realized that both artists had the ability to create an immediately recognizable and particular world that the viewer could inhabit at once—it’s more than just appreciating a single painting.  Fotini’s work is very accessible: one does not need any formal training to appreciate it.  She also has a very distinctive style that is endlessly expandable, not limiting.  I think this is because her style flows from a very organic substance: her work is rooted in human experience, not art theory.  The artistic expression is primary—art’s for art’s sake, on that level—but the personal connection is always present as well.  For example, I would never term Fotini as a portraitist in the manner of a John Singer Sargent: she is not primarily interested in conveying the realistic details of a subject.  Yet faces and human figures abound in her work.  And they are often in juxtaposition: doubles, similar looking figures that suggest a family connection, larger figures dominating or looming over smaller figures, and so forth.  This calls to mind both the self and relationship.  The artist is over and over examining issues of who we are to ourselves and to others.  As with Paula Rego, moods and feelings are evoked rather than simple, didactic statements offered.  Fotini’s paintings are not solely about specific people or ideas, yet people and ideas inhabit them naturally.

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And nature itself is another common trope and theme.  Flowers, plants, birds, and bodies of water often seem to connect or highlight the figures.  Nature, abstract images, and even people seem to burst from the heads of figures—suggesting a fertile inner life of thought, creativity, dreams, and connection.  The people in her paintings are not Warhol celebrities or representative of current political personalities; no, this is the symbolism of the everyday, of any of us.  It brings us in, not excludes us.  The figure could be Fotini or it could be us or both.  The doubles in her art suggest a duality that Jung noted in every artist—and a psychotherapist sees in every patient.  We are all composed of seeming contradictions; in time, in life and therapy, we try to find a rough balance along a dialectic spectrum.  Not a false perfect balance in the middle, but more like a Buddhist constant inner reevaluation that seeks to work through to a healthy course.  It is no wonder that boats make appearances in her work—sometimes in scale to the figures, sometimes not, suggesting both real and psychic travels.  Her art is a life’s journey that absorbs both the beauty and dark side of nature while conveying the mystery of trying to connect with others along the way.

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For every psychotherapist, the session is the thing—our creative, unpredictable, professional, yet personal vehicle for exploring the inner life of our clients.  The ongoing relationship is our medium–the stuff that therapy is made of.  I couldn’t resist reaching out to Fotini, not for a session (she has never been my patient) but for its cousin, the interview.  I wanted to test out some of my theories with the subject herself, and she graciously agreed.  For her, “the visual is paramount,” and I think this is what saves her work from being obvious and lecturing.  She thinks in forms and shapes and colors first.  She will wrestle with a work, even giving it artistic “mouth to mouth” resuscitation if it is not easily brought to life. She resists when others attempt to put a single interpretation on a particular work, but she also is aware of personal and larger meanings she is trying to convey.  For example, she spoke of one work that features two women figures who are meant to represent her–the figures looming large over a box with a small figure inside.  She said that she didn’t want to say what the meaning was, although, she added, it may be obvious to the viewer.  She often feels exposed in this way by her work—it conveys deep messages about her that are veiled in order to keep her deepest self “sheltered.”  This is very similar to the therapeutic process: it is not composed of a single, startling revelation that brings the patient to the truth.  Rather, it is a series of small openings, of difficult exposures of the self, that eventually form a more complete picture or understanding of the patient.

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Fotini also said that her figures can represent and memorialize relationships she has had, while also allowing the viewers to see their own relationships reflected back to them.  She wished her mother and sister, both now deceased, could be back with her, and, in her created world, they can.  In painting, there is a soothing and healing aspect to color and form and design itself, as well as the opportunity to work through current conflicts and issues in the work as a whole.  In both these ways, her art is therapeutic.  Even the feeling and sound of a pencil on “nice crunchy paper” brings some relief to her.  Appropriate to the theme of self-reflection, Fotini did a series with mirrors, where she attempted to portray seeing beneath the surface.  But when I pressed her if she saw anything spiritual or religious in her art, she said no.  She did acknowledge the feeling of art working through her—how she can have a 2 to 3 day period of inspiration and elation, where everything comes out great–not common but always “magical.”

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Finally, Fotini told me that dreams are a fuel for her work, and we together interpreted one of her dreams as a metaphor for her growth as an artist and a person.  For years, she had a recurring dream of her studio being in such disarray that she couldn’t get any work done.  One day, in a dream, she cleaned the studio and wasn’t anxious anymore.  She said this paralleled her growing ability to feel more settled in her actual life.  But, paradoxically, this order did not result in more caution and predictability in her art; on the contrary, with her personal life more structured, she felt free to be less “careful” and instead “tread on more dangerous ground” in her art.  Jung felt that an artist’s personal life often had to be sacrificed to the art and that the “creative impulse can drain him of his humanity” (p. 102).  With due respect to Jung, I think Fotini’s path is equally valid—and a lot healthier.  Whether with a therapist or on our own, if we can bring the conflicting forces of our life into a better balance, and achieve some measure of peace and happiness, our creativity, whether artistic or everyday and personal, will blossom.  We don’t all have Fotini’s exquisite skill, but we all have the ability to live imaginatively and choose our own outlets.  We can all be grateful to her for providing an art rooted in the joy of everyday creation.

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References

Jung, C.G.  The Spirit in Man, Art, and Literature.  Translated by R.F.C. Hull.

New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1966.

© Andrew Nargolwala

Andrew Nargolwala, MSW, LCSW, MA

Co-founder, Clinical Director, and Psychotherapist

Advanced Psychotherapy & Healing Associates

Cresskill, NJ

 

 

Learning to Parent Ourselves

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As psychotherapists, we are often impressed by the range and variety of things parents will do for their children.  At first, most parents minimize their contributions, and, when we ask them to list how many things they actually do, they are amazed.  In contrast, when we ask parents what they do for themselves–that is, how much time, energy, and money they devote to their own self-care–the answer is often very little.  This even applies to homes where resources are not an issue.  You don’t have to be a parent to learn how to parent yourself; you just have to acknowledge that it’s not selfish to exercise good self-care—to consider your own needs as much as you do others.

Although many parents are more involved in their kids’ lives than ever, there is a price for that close attention: many believe that they have an indelible influence on their children’s lives and they are afraid of causing some kind of permanent damage by making a mistake.  Our field itself is partially to blame—putting much more emphasis on what happens at home rather than considering the many influences on a child (cultural, biological, temperamental, and so forth).  When we ask parents if they would blame themselves if their child was depressed, a surprising number say yes.  So hyper-vigilance can occur and a devaluing of the parents’ needs.

Of course, this is not just true of parenting—how about work, for example. Many people put extreme amounts of time and effort into their jobs and avoid self-care.  Kids and work are conversation stoppers—ready made, often legitimate excuses for isolation.  Our society’s definition of self-care is somewhat at fault: many equate self-care with selfishness and meeting one’s own needs with narcissism.  Good self-care is actually very healthy—like putting the oxygen mask that drops down in a plane on yourself first, as they instruct, and your child second.  The message is clear: you can only help your child in an emergency situation if you are ok, and the same is also true for everyday life.

We can all develop a self-care checklist based on what we would be willing to do for our children.  For example, if we saw a child who never went out, we would take steps to encourage or insist that the child socialize.  Same with free time and play—we give kids permission to let their hair down but often don’t schedule it for ourselves.  And, paradoxically, in the busy modern world, if you don’t schedule that unstructured time for yourself, it won’t happen.  How many parents or professionals have let their passions and hobbies go?  It’s not just an issue of time; we make time for what is important, and we have to see self-care as a vital priority.

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Finally, we’ve all heard the phrase “It takes a village” regarding raising children.  Many now recognize that successful parenting requires setting up a family and community support system to share many responsibilities.  But how many adults have a personal and professional support system for themselves?  For example, do you get a yearly physical?  Do you make time to exercise, possibly with a personal trainer?  Have you been evaluated for depression or anxiety?  If you are on anti-depressant medication, have you seen a psychotherapist to look at the underlying causes of your mood issues and explored yoga or meditation as an additional treatment?  Do you schedule unstructured or recreational time for yourself?  Do go out with your spouse or your friends regularly?  Have you let your past hobbies or passions fall to the wayside and neglected to cultivate new ones? Are you considering the role of meaning or spirituality in your life, whether or not that involves formal religion? In our work, we define treatment as any healthy thing you are doing for yourself.  So creative outlets like reading, writing, painting, cooking, photography, travel, hiking, and many others are a vital part of being emotionally fit and happy.

We know it isn’t easy to make time for ourselves—we struggle with it too.  Guilt is often a factor.  Remember that everything you do for yourself is benefiting the people around you.  And you burning out is not going to help anyone.  A therapist can help you take stock, but, however you approach self-care, the time to parent yourself is now.

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Article by Andrew Nargolwala and Alicia Nashel-Watts

Art by Fotini Hamidieli

Copyright 2016 by Andrew Nargolwala and Alicia Nashel-Watts