The London Art Therapy Centre is the first dedicated art therapy centre for private practice in the UK. Opened in 2010 we have seen the growth in the number of practitioners working from the centre and the number of clients, both children and adults, is approximately 80 people per week. The centre also provides weekend workshops with a focus on clinical specialism, professional forums and CPD learning events. Alongside our clinical practice we have developed an exhibition space which is unique in that it is located within an art therapy environment. The nature of our collaborations with artists have enabled us to provide a respectful space in which the personal processes experienced during art-making whether in the studio, training setting or personal therapy, is sensitively framed and displayed. Previous shows have included the work of Hertfordshire art therapy MA graduates, Roehampton MA graduates, and an Environmental Art Therapy exhibition. In their various ways each show has given the public access to the personal experience of creativity, therapy and healing.
The most recent exhibition is by an artist who had had a positive experience of art therapy and subsequently had become very prolific in painting and photography. Making art had offered new possibilities for her condition – dissociative identity disorder. As she explained “We are living, working and creating whilst experiencing the daily challenge of Dissociative Identity Disorder… the use of art in therapy enables us to communicate and express our experience in a safe way.”
The planning and curating of the show presented implications for clients who use the centre, as well as the artist herself. How could we protect the artist’s request and need for anonymity while at the same time what she was offering was significant personal exposure? How would our current clients feel about any potential artworks that may disturb and therefore, would we have to carefully select the artworks ourselves? And if we were to select suitable artworks, would this be experienced by the artist as us rejecting different parts or identities of herself? How would the artist known as Harli Tree work with us? Which of the eight alters plus host would we be talking to? As it turned out we worked with the host, ‘the big one’, plus a younger and very chatty alter called Charlotte. Sometimes it felt that there were many more people in the room too, each one carrying a different fragment of history, trauma and identity.
Curating the show was interesting. Harli Tree arrived one Sunday with many boxes of framed paintings and photographs. We quickly realised that beyond the usual criteria for hanging a show: thematic, according to colour, size of image, frame, media etc. that Harli Tree’s artwork offered further considerations. The pieces could be hung as a developmental continuum; according to the narrative; landscape or peopled images; images with one person or images with many; and so on. Furthermore the images could be hung according to who made the artworks. Some were made by the ‘big one’, others by ‘Charlotte’ and many by a combination of two or three or four alters. Kim Davies (our art therapy intern and exhibition co-ordinator) and I discussed how much we should be swayed by the knowledge that different alters painted different pieces. We needed to curate the show without colluding with the adaptive splitting processes in DID which meant that we ignored the different alters’ authorship of each piece and focussed on the repair and integration of the artists’ narrative.
We hung the show intuitively, visually, thoughtfully and Harli Tree was delighted. Throughout the process, as the ‘big one’ as well as switching into Charlotte a couple of times, she was engaged, co-operative and open. When gently we asked about the possibility of any of her alters manifesting during the opening event, and how she would like us to manage this, Harli Tree responded with maturity and understanding. She suggested that if Charlotte were to appear on the night that we let her know that the ‘big one’ is calling her. She said that usually worked in bringing the big one back.
As for the art itself, on the night seven pieces were sold with 20% of the commission going to fund low-cost art therapy at the centre. Harli Tree was delighted and felt that the exhibition gave a platform for all her eight alters to be validated and appreciated. We believe this experience contributed to the ongoing process of re-integration and repair that Harli Tree explores with immense courage through her artwork.
For the clients and their relatives and carers who come to the London Art Therapy Centre, the show offered insights into the art therapy process, sharing in a simple way the thoughts and feelings of a struggling inner world. It allowed art therapy to be more transparent without compromising client confidentiality.
Putting on this exhibition has shown us that there is a definite interest in art therapy exhibitions. Thus we have developed a programme of art therapy exhibitions for our space, as well as working in collaboration with other art therapy organisations. The next show will feature artworks by the art therapists at the London Art Therapy Centre and will explore some of the themes that emerge through studio work, workshop art-making and personal process. This show will be followed by the Art and Healing exhibition from 19th April and another art therapy graduate show in the Summer.
A review of the show by art psychotherapist Colleen S. Westling follows:
Artist Harli Tree exhibited at London Art Therapy Centre; a group show, a solo artist. (1 Dec 2012 till 31 Jan 2013)
On December 1st, 2012, the London Art Therapy Centre hosted an evening presenting the work of Harli Tree an artist ‘Living, working and creating whilst experiencing the daily challenge of Dissociative Identity Disorder…’
Visitors to the evening were treated to refreshments and encouraged to explore the artworks prior to prepared speeches. In walking through the exhibit, I tried to stand back and see the show as a whole in an attempt to imagine the artist’s perspective but soon found that I was drawn to a single artwork, that of photograph entitled Fluff Ball The image shows a high contrast, brightly lit fuzzy white dandelion, the kind that a child could blow on causing the smaller seedlings to sail off into the wind. In looking at this image I noted the delicate beauty of the full dandelion head but I also understood its fragility. I felt this could be an intended message from the artist which encouraged me to consider how courageous it can be to expose fragile feelings.
Included in the show are additional photographic images but also many paintings. In the prepared introduction leaflet, Harli Tree explains that they were created by some of the 8 ‘alters’ making up the ‘system’ that is Harli Tree. Within the paintings, simply expressed solitary figures are contained within dreamlike painted environments. Some of the feelings labelled with the works are; fear, hurt, waiting, calm stillness, feeling wooden, feeling trapped, feeling worthless, being stuck, screaming for help, being lonely and being lonely and safe. Also included are some abstract style paintings which appear to embody the processing of feelings.
As visitors moved to sit for the ceremonial opening, The honourable Mayor of Islington Jilani Chowdhury spoke of the importance of the show in highlighting help for those suffering emotional and mental health difficulties. He also gave accolades to the London Art Therapy Centre for its good works toward this end. Speeches were then given by psychotherapists Rachel Wingfield-Schwartz who explained the complexity of Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) and offered that while the diagnoses includes the term ‘disorder’ it could also be regarded as a strength toward surviving great mental distress.
Representing Harli Tree, Mary Brooks spoke of the artist’s experiences with art therapy. Mary stated that through the practice, Harli Tree has been able to see the creative process of the alters and that this has been helpful in allowing Harli Tree to release the tension of having to keep them hidden inside. We were told that the further effect of the art therapy process was that then there is more calmness for Harli Tree. The art works left behind help to encourage communication between the alters by leaving proof for them and for Harli Tree to see. Additionally explained was that through the art work, Harli Tree is helped to communicate to supportive family members what is has been like for each alter.
In their comprehensive book, Art Therapy and Clinical Neuroscience, Hass-Cohen and Carr (2008) compile much researched findings and express that heightened stress hormones released during repeated trauma in the developing brain can ‘include splitting into distinct ego states as in Dissociative Identity Disorder’ (DSM-IV-TR, APA 2000). Hass-Cohen and Carr (2008) go on to explain that the splitting assists in avoiding re-experiencing the trauma through memory or thoughts but that it ‘leaves unprocessed memories vulnerable to reactivation later in life.’ They offer that ‘art therapy applications may utilize higher brain structures to inhibit and extinguish conditioned fear and anxiety responses created in lower brain regions.’ (Carr 2008).
As I contemplated Harli Tree’s story and took in the many artworks of the show, I felt a strong sense of the usefulness of art therapy. While many of the images illustrate significant emotional suffering, a sense of power and efficacy comes through to show that the alters claim their right to their feelings, express them through the creative process and trust enough to put their feelings out into the world. In this way I felt the dandelion head could be seen for the many parts capable of fragmenting involuntarily with the force of a strong wind.
As the evening’s event neared its end, I was left with the feeling that through an art therapy process, there has been a chance for Harli Tree to slow down the separating, and a new way of looking and reflecting through the making of art works has been found.
My final reflection of the exhibition was in looking at the painting titled ‘Walking into the fire’. In the painting, eight figures of descending size, walk forward in line through the centre of the image. They appear to be in tall grass and though the paint has been beautifully applied and the colours are pleasing to look at, the second part of the title ‘We are all going into bad and horrible situations’ tell us not to trust what we see. From this piece I felt quite moved and allowed myself a wish for the alters to one day turn to each other in appreciation for the hard work they have done protecting the whole in which they subsist and exist.
Colleen S. Westling
To see more artwork by Harli Tree, go to http://harlitree.wix.com/photography