Self Portrait

11th June 2011 ‘Self Portrait’ (acrylic on board)

This picture resulted from a self-motivated exercise in artistic introspection, rather than a formal art therapy session and, although it was completed on 11th June 2011, I had actually been working on it for about three weeks before that. I think that it was an extremely important step in my whole process of self-exploration through art.

I began by leafing through the Bible and picking phrases at random, until I found one that stood out for me and resonated in my mind. Of course, any book I respected would have done, but the Bible is particularly rich in meaningful phrases. The phrase that hit me was in the book of Micah, chapter 3, verse 1, “And I said, hear, I pray thee.” The sheer power with which this phrase resonated in my mind told me that it corresponded to an important subconscious message, so I took it as my starting point.

I made some fast “concept sketches” to capture my subconscious thoughts in the way that I had learned in the “creative self-awareness” sessions, and then set to work developing them into the coherent painting that is shown here. I think that it is worth pointing out that it took several months for all the different messages and meanings subconsciously coded in this picture to become apparent.

The painting is sharply divided into the two different universes that comprise my mind – the two parts that have become dissociated because of PTSD. The foreground is occupied by my logical, disciplined, conscious mind represented by a two-dimensional black silhouette on a flat mathematical plain. Beyond that is the creative, emotional, subconscious mind represented by a pair of piercing eyes set in an apparently chaotic, swirling vortex. The division and change of nature is stark. The measurable and bounded conscious plane drops off suddenly into an infinite void and a vortex whose boundaries are blurred and indefinite. But there is, in fact, an underlying similarity, because all the same colours, and only those same colours, are used in both parts of the picture. Two worlds; vastly different, and yet also the same.

On the logical plane the symbols are clear and discrete. The red, cylindrical pillar stands for reason, and carries the words that inspired this picture: “And I said, hear, I pray thee.” The golden pyramid is knowledge, and the floating spheres are exciting new worlds waiting to be conquered. It actually took me several months to understand what the pointed cones stood for, but they are powerful weapons that the logical, conscious mind can deploy and control if force is needed. They look like devastating missiles ready to be launched – and that is, indeed, what they are. The red box is another occurrence of those threatening red boxes that appeared in earlier images; I will look again at this symbol later.

The black figure of a man is the ‘person’ of the logical, reasoning, conscious mind; clear, concise, perfectly formed, and yet two-dimensional, flat and completely without colour. The ‘person’ of the subconscious mind is represented by the eyes looking out of the vortex; I had intended to make these eyes piercing and powerful but, instead, I felt compelled to paint them with a ‘haunted’, fearful look. They are just a pair of eyes that merge into the vortex, and yet I feel I can see more of humanity and complexity in them than in the whole black figure of the conscious personality. But the painting left me asking the question, “Who is asking to be heard, and who is refusing to listen?”

In the centre of the vortex lies a great prize – the shining white and gold symbols of the Ankh and the Ouroboros. The Ankh is the ‘key of life’, and promises life rather than mere existence. The Ouroboros is a dragon – and I did feel compelled to draw it as a dragon, rather than its alternative form of a serpent – that is constantly growing while it simultaneously swallows its own tail, so that it constantly circles without becoming bigger or being consumed. Ever active, and yet also unchanging, it is an ancient symbol of eternity and unity.

To achieve this great prize, it is necessary for my conscious mind to move forward and join with my subconscious – but the threatening red box lies in the way. The box must be opened and dealt with before the prize can be gained. But what is inside this box? Is it something bad? Or is it something good? Or is it nothing at all, just an empty threat? The wonderful prize shines brightly before me, but the red box may contain something that could rip me apart and totally destroy me. Or it may be that this box is a ‘Trojan Horse’, which will release a myriad other threatening boxes if I open it.

Do I take the risk of destruction to try to win the prize? Or do I play it safe, and abandon the prize to keep safe what I have, even though it is inadequate and unsatisfying?

I attended an in-patient admission at a Combat Stress treatment centre immediately after I completed this painting, and I did take the risk of opening the red box: the following art therapy images show the result [I uncovered a deeper understanding of my dissociation, and a symbol of my united ‘Self’ (a friendly dragon of “deepest pink”!)that has been of huge value]. I know that many more ‘red boxes’ still lie dangerously on the path ahead, but I was very lucky that I decided to take the risk of opening this one.

It was a few more days, and several art therapy sessions, before I answered the question of who was asking to be heard, and it turned out to be the subconscious mind that was asking. I was quite shocked when I realised that my subconscious mind was actually afraid of my conscious mind; I had never had a concept to even visualise such a situation. In order to keep functioning through a long period of trauma, my conscious and subconscious minds had dissociated, and the conscious mind had taken control with a harsh discipline. The subconscious mind had been judged unacceptably emotional, and had been ‘shut up’ to prevent distraction. It was quite profoundly disturbing to realise that one half of my mind had been living in fear of the other half: With the best of intentions, my logical conscious mind had become a damned bully.

Richard Kidgell was one of the artists who participated in the Art + Healing exhibitions at the London Art Therapy Centre. We thank him for sharing his personal reflections and experiences on this blog. 

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