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The Time When We Invented the World

Transformations in Therapy and Art Processes

The word “transformation” relates to a change of form, appearance or structure in a concrete or metaphorical way. The word comprises the prefix “trans” (representing passage between geographical zones) and “form”. It is interesting to think of the prefix’s connection with the word “trance”,11 See the thesaurus, ... which is pronounced similarly and describes lack of self-control. The similarity of the words suggests the possible connection between changes and passages: holding on to what is familiar prevents change and the emergence of new forms, and it creates stagnancy. Therefore, the passage to a new mental state, like the passage between continents, involves rising above oneself and relinquishing control, thinking and theorizing.

Masha Zusman, Untitled, 2013 (photo: Elad Sarig)

The paper presents transformation as it happens in art therapy processes, when the therapist and the patient are required to give up what is known and familiar in favor of dedication to something unknown, which does not belong exclusively to any one of them. The therapeutic position presented in this paper is inspired by the relational approach, which regards the therapeutic process as developing between two subjects who search for and construct a common path.

The paper attempts, among other things, to point at the connection between content and form as it is expressed in the process of creation, in the art object and in the therapeutic process. It points at the manner in which transformations occur in matter, in the mind and in the therapeutic relation, nonlinearly. In an interview published in the catalog for the exhibition Side Wind (2014), the artist Masha Zusman relates to stratified creative processes such as this:

At any rate, I am not occupied with the plot; the story is embedded in language and that is what connects everything together. Perhaps, in a sense, this is the answer to the frustrating and restricting inarticulateness that I feel in ordinary speech, since no language of those that I speak gives me the freedom to express the complexity of the experience […] In painting, I do not feel this. In painting, my limitations are those of the body. I invent language and I conjoin anything at hand. It is very idiosyncratic, but surprisingly I feel that precisely this way offers so many more possibilities of communication (ibid., p. 26).

Matter and form in the language of art in general, and of art therapy in particular, are essential – an unconscious form of communication. The therapeutic interventions offered by the therapist are also often made out of unconscious “thinking”, which is a response to an unconscious message sent by the patient. The psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas often stresses the “intelligence of form”, and argues that “we must necessarily turn to the aesthetics of form – to the particular way something is conveyed – as an important feature of ‘unconscious communication'” (Itamar Levi’s introduction to Bollas, 2015, p. 45).

One of the goals of art therapy is to create a safe container for processes of change. For the transformation to be possible, it is important that the artistic work be developed independently of the constraints of verbalization, logical thinking and consciousness. The artistic-mental transformation has a logic of its own, which is derived from enquiry, discovery and inner development. It takes place when being inside a form is possible.

From Abstract Blotches to Defined Shapes – from Random Assemblage to Mental Meaning

Through the open door, Dalia’s head pokes: “He-llo, what do we do here?”, she says, as she steps into the room. I invite her to sit with us, explaining to her what we do in the group. Dalia looks at me and apparently does not understand me. Despite this, as soon as I finish she asks: “Can I have crayons?” I smile and ask what kind of crayons. She answers: “It doesn’t matter – aren’t we painting here?” I leave her with the oil crayons and I move among the group members, wondering what will happen next. To my surprise, Dalia paints two paintings describing dreams that she had, and tells through them about herself and about her long-deceased relatives.

In our next meeting, she arrives late, her face expressing bafflement and confusion: “What’s going on here today? What are we doing?” After a similar explanation and a reminder of the last session, she sits down and asks for crayons. She is ninety years old, and she suffers from dementia. The caretakers tell me about her condition, her memory problem and the resulting disorientation. Thus, for several sessions, Dalia works, but she experiences every session as a first. The therapeutic container, which is continuous and safe, has not yet formed. She forgets what she did before, and she is surprised to see her works, struggling to figure them out. In our sessions, Dalia tells stories that mostly are characterized by mystical tones, and she reminds us from time to time of her tassological abilities.

Listening to her stories, I offer Dalia to create works in a technique that involves black coffee mixed with paper glue, a work that combines the liquid coffee with the thick grounds. Dalia gladly accepts, “reading” the coffee blotches that she creates on a cardboard surface. I invite her to surround these blotches with an outline that would match the narrative she relates. This is a significant change: the abstract and elusive content is fixated into a biographically meaningful shape. Out of these stains, Dalia creates the figures of her brothers, her mother and of herself. She describes real situations while telling me about the fabric of relations between the figures. Here, an important transformation takes place: Dalia, who mostly forgets what happened in the last session, or “what we do here”, starts to weave on her own a fine thread between the sessions. Now, it is possible to return every time to the blotch, whose meaning was decided, and to search within it for further meanings and layers.

A work by Dalia

In our next session, she recalls what she created and asks to continue the work. Later she would ask, to my great surprise, the paintings she created in her first session, to incorporate them in her new works. As the sessions go by, a rich language emerges from her works, which become more integrative and narrative. The “memory condition” that inflicts her is vastly improving. The woman facing me displays self-confidence, starts to remember and to create connections. Is she the same woman who asked, every time she saw her work from the previous week: “Who made this? What did I draw here?”.

Visual art is inextricably linked to matter, whatever is may be, and breathes life into it. There is a strong link between alchemy and art, in that the two fields lend matter and the working of it a meaning that is not merely illustrative, but rather expressive of a spiritual-mental essence. Art is transforming, and it validates the relation between the transformations occurring in the creator (or alchemist) and those taking place in matter. At the beginning of our acquaintance, Dalia experienced the world as a random assemblage of events. I, too, have experienced her this way, in a certain sense. My suggestion that she work with coffee contained an element of acknowledgment of her capacities and her inner core, which is relieved of judgement or rational thinking.

The mind gropes for an expression of its unconscious experiences. Art enables these deep mental processes, while executing them and embodying them. From the moment of embodiment in matter, art acquires a life of its own, enabling a feedback: a reciprocal and incessant transformation driven by the interface between and mental material and the materials of art.22 See also Ruth ... Only be acknowledging Dalia’s inner core could the continuum of consciousness and matter be constructed. It was as if the scattered coffee grounds turned into tiny metal particles at once attracted to a powerful magnet.

The Therapeutic Container as Transformational Container – the Fissure and the Fountain

It is possible to define “staying in a form” as inhering in the “potential space”, a term coined by Winnicott in 1953 and that has become common in our discourse (Winnicott, 1995). This term relates to the liminal zone of experience, spanning fantasy and reality. It is the space that encompasses game, cultural experience and creativity (Ogden, 2003, p. 161).

The therapeutic encounter takes place between two “unknowing” parties, who together search for the path, mutually constituting a potential space. From a state of being inside the unknown zone, a discourse emerges that is free of conventional error and correctness, but which is a testing lab, a womb for conception.

For a prolonged time, Itamar has been “drying out” the therapy. Only after a while do I become aware of this indistinct feeling, and it takes some more time until this feeling can finally be articulated. We have been working together for several years, and he has always arrived at our sessions on time, friendly and polite. However, some time into his therapy, I have increasingly become aware of the fact that he does not provide me any lead. His answers to my questions are laconic: “Everything’s OK”. Recently, he stopped sharing his emotional life, as if some thin and transparent veil formed around his inner world and the relations between us. His works have become gradually duller. He works with “Art Line” markers, which make a terrifying screech as they glide on the white paper. I discern, through the veil of courtesy surrounding us, the reveries that I have of a desert landscape. Dry, arid, parched soil.

We work in art side by side; our works are engaged in a nonverbal dialog. They grow where words are perceived as detached from experience. Bollas describes it thus: “Interpretations which require reflective thought, or which analyse the self, are often felt to be precocious demands on the patient’s psychic capacity […]” (Bollas, 2011, p. 9). I sense that Itamar needs me in “lateral attention”. Thus, I am aware of his work processes, but I am not focused on him completely, since this can be interpreted as too intrusive by him.33 For further ... Working alongside him allows for a gentle echoing within the work process, and for an indirect forming of novel ways for using the materials.

“This was the time when we felt and watched – mostly in silence – not through the screen of knowledge and of words, the time when all our senses were alert, the time when we became sensual and visionary, the time when we invented the world” (Pontalis, 2000, p. 83).

According to Bion (in Symington & Symington, 2002), a key component of the therapeutic work is the container that the therapist constitutes for the processing of raw mental materials and for their transformation. The relational approach stresses the path that the patient and the therapist need to clear in order to advance from the position they occupy on a line, toward the divergence of this line out to a mental-liminal space; a space of living and thinking, breathing and moving spontaneously, a space that will enable extrication from a two-dimensional relation, which merely repeats what already exists.44 See also Aron, ...

Most of the time, Itamar does not relate to my paintings at all, but one day he suddenly looks at my work and asks: “Do you know this technique that, you know… when the colors look like that?”, and he points at my work – a drawing made with pencil and marker pens.55 See the figure: ...

We then try to figure out together what he talks about, and I ask, “marbling?”, and show him images of the ancient technique on my smartphone.66 “Marbling” is ... Itamar seems undecided, but he is drawn to these images. I promise him that I will bring the appropriate material in our next session. Thus, a new chapter in our work begins.

Before the next meeting, I make several attempts in the studio to work in a technique that is unknown to me. I don’t possess the special paints, and I try to work with colored ink. The ink dissolves and disappears in water – it does not float. I go to sleep at night thinking obsessively on this matter, and a phrase reverberates in my mind: if the paint is not light enough, the water should be made heavier.

My work next to Itamar’s

At nighttime, I dream. In my dream, I watch my hands lifting rice papers, dampening them and extracting the starch into a bucket of water. Upon waking, I dash to the studio to try the solution given to me by the dream. Great joy fills me when I see it actually working. Like magic, I watch the paint gently spread on the “heavy” water, remaining on the surface and creating concentric, colored ripples. This is how Bollas describes dreaming: “Each night we are immersed in the mysteriously creative process of dreaming. We feel that our lives are enriched if we have conscious contact with our dream life. It gives us a sense of depth, resonance and communication with inner sources” (Bollas, 2011, p. xxi).

I bring this experience of searching, discovering and rejoicing with me to the next session. I share with Itamar my attempts and encourage him to experiment with me. The bodily dimension is a very significant part of the art creation. This, among other things, distinguishes art therapy from verbal therapy. Sensation, sensuality and corporeality lead both of us away from the linear stagnancy the has characterized our sessions so far. We use the knowledge stored in our bodies, not only in our thoughts. Together, we examine the number of rice-paper sheets required and the effect he is looking for; squeezing, dripping, pouring and filling. Suddenly, the therapy becomes “wet”.

Itamar, foray into marbling

“We need the object to release our self into expression” (Bollas, 2011); it touches us deeply and drives internal creative processes. Our search for such objects is carried out, mostly, unconsciously and intuitively. The evocative object also stems from our inner world, a memory that surfaces from our depths. What is, then, the “evocative object” that revives our therapy? It seems to me that here, one could think of the entire technique, involving paint, water, paper and action as a key for breaking out of stagnancy; the technique enables absorption in and dedication to a different state of consciousness – “trance” and a passage to another “zone” – trans-. Itamar and I work spontaneously and excitedly like never before. A phrase echoes in my head: “living water, living water”. Like thirsty desert wanderers, we both finally quench our thirst, which we did not realize was so severe.

During the writing of this paper, I stumbled across the poet Sabina Messeg’s perspective on the process of creation (1991), and I encounter the “heavy water” of my dream:

Perhaps as in alchemy or heavy water production

The same thing should be written countless times.

To mix or to refine the same materials

When only the cosmic rays and the interpersonal forces


Sealing tightly the maddening Sulphur vapor

And waiting

In the attic

Near the fireplace

Or at the shore of the Sea of Galilee

For the glamorous transformation

For the great work

For the sublime marriage of life and word

(Messeg, 1991, p. 47).

Itamar, marbling piece

During a few sessions, we repeat the process: pouring water from a bottle into a mold, gently squeezing rice paper, cutting papers in different formats, dripping colors and printing abstract blotches. In one of these instances, Itamar tells me, casually, that this is not what he meant when he had pointed at my work. He explains that he thought of a technique in which you create an effect of cracks by using crackle glaze. I laugh and think that he, in fact, proposed to create cracks, which express dryness, whereas I proposed to create something wet and saturated. What a fortunate misunderstanding. It can be said, perhaps, that the “mistake” in my encounter with Itamar originates in unconscious attention to a deeper layer of the mind. But another perspective can be offered: out of the crack, a spring can burst forth. A crack can be the result of dryness, but also of tectonic shift. Cracks can form even in a fortified wall; they can create an outlet for a leak, a trickle or a ray of light (Siano, 2016, p. 51).

The aesthetic-artistic experience can be regarded as one of merging: of interior and exterior, past and present, conscious and unconscious and articulated and non-articulated (Stern, 1983). It is about the body’s recollection of primordial memories, which can take place both in observing objects of art and in the creative process itself. While working with patients, the suitable container must be created for this primordial experience, to enable processes of “dreaming in matter”.

The concept of “transformational object” (Bollas, 2011) describes a process and an environment, despite using the word “object” (that signifies something with well-defined boundaries). The mother (in the therapeutic context, the therapist), who, for Bollas, is all these things, transforms literally the baby’s world (in the therapeutic context, the patient). At the same time, the baby’s developing capabilities also induce transformations in his or her world (ibid., p. 19). That is to say, the mother does not only contain: she receives unconscious content, creating with it an unconscious dialog, containing it and actively assisting in the emergence of a potential self in her baby.77 See also Alvarez, ...

Itamar’s therapy has been going on, as mentioned, for a few years and the therapy room has already been established as a safe environment, in which one could talk and keep silent, work and rest. our work is introduced into this space, with a mold full of water, which constitutes a “container within a container”. Working in the “marbling” technique greatly resembles other printing techniques and even photography: the composition forms on the water surface, but it is hard to see its full glory and the depth of its tones until it is transferred, inversely, onto the paper.

In subsequent months, a regular ritual takes form, constant in its procedure. This constancy inspires a sense of confidence in a sound foundation. It allows new and transformational experiences, which could take place because it is now possible to leave the familiar and to return to it.

The playful creation, unplanned as it is, reduces Itamar’s fears of failure. Together, we are a team of “explorers” setting out for a joint sea voyage in which we both get wet by the same sea.88 Winnicott had ... We work together in “marbling”; we take turns dripping color from the tips of our brushes.

After a while, an additional metamorphose makes itself felt: Itamar requests to work alone. “Although the potential space originates in a (potential) physical and mental space between mother and the infant, it later becomes possible, in the course of normal development, for the individual infant, child or adult to develop his own capacity to generate potential space” (Ogden, 2014, p. 121). Itamar gradually learns to recognize his powers and abilities and he also learns how to decline, being attentive to his own needs. Through his body language, he clarifies that he does not need me in the same proximity as before. Now he changes his environment, adapting it to himself and learning how to situate himself in it while negotiating internally and maintaining his relationship with me. In Winnicott’s terms (1958), the infant’s ability to be alone grows with the mother’s presence. The transformational object, the water container with the drops of color floating on its surface, signifies the separateness within the unity and the unity within the separateness (ibid., p. 416-420).

Itamar at work

Art as a Transformational Object – A Broken Heart is a Whole Heart

Shani creates split, disassembled and fragmented images in her therapy. Even when she draws a whole image, on closer look one reveals that the lines never connect to one another. Her images tend toward extreme graphical flattening. Often, her image appears at the bottom corner of the page, cut by the edges, and it does not allow itself to be seen completely. Other times, the truncated images appear from the back, anonymous, their alien identity is suggested by their pointed ears or large heads. Shani’s speech is also interrupted: words slip away from her, they do not flow smoothly, and her speaking is stammered.

Ogden reminds us that “When premature disruption of the mother-infant unity occurs for any reason, several distinct forms of failure to create or adequately to maintain the psychological dialectical process may result […]” (2014, p. 127).

Shani was forsaken by her mother at a very young age, after her parents got divorced and kept this fact hidden from her for many years. The explanation given then for the mother’s disappearance from her life was her working far away from home. Shani only learned of her parents’ divorce and of her new family from her friends, who reported to her that they accidentally saw her mother with her new children.

In our sessions, I propose that Shani start sculpturing with ready-made pieces; broken toys, dysfunctional appliances, painted ceramic fragments and so on. My proposal draws from the feeling that at this stage of her therapy, Shani repeatedly reconstructs the breaking up of her family and her personal security in its unprocessed from, and she does not succeed in transforming the fragments.

The aesthetic space allows for a creative enactment of the search for this transformational object relation, and we might say that certain cultural objects afford memories of ego experiences that are now profoundly radical moments […] but in the arts we have the location for such occasional recollections: intense memories of the process of self-transformation (Bollas 1979, p. 11).

In Bollas’s terms, it can be said that Shani uses the aesthetic space to recreate the experience of disintegration that characterizes her early ego experiences. The proposal to create a sculptural object composed of pieces is, then, an invitation to create a transformational object, through the belief that the physical parts may thereby express the parts of her ego, which are still disintegrated and are experienced as fragments. This is augmented by the feeling that she needs something concrete, which is not of her doing (just like her life circumstances), and into which she could inject some order and logic of her own.

Shani joins the pieces to one another in different ways. Sometimes, the connection is accentuated and it becomes an integral part of the work: a masking tape that binds the pieces together, hot glue oozing from the cracks. At other times, the seams are concealed cleanly and accurately.

The object that Shani creates at first look like a random assemblage of pieces: one sculpture consists of plate fragments decorated with bluish flowers, attached by hot glue to a straight, blue plastic piece that used to serve as the base of a toy car; these two fragments are connected to small pieces from printed electronic circuitry, randomly attached in various points. One sculpture comprises a rectangular metal duct bound by a metal wire to wooden sticks and disassembled jewelry parts. Shani often turns and flips the sculptures over while she works. When I ask her how they should be positioned, she answers that she does not know, half placing, half tossing them on the table at random, and says: “Whichever way you like, it doesn’t matter”. Her compositions do not call for narrative thinking, but they seem as a chaotic, if restrained, accumulation.

Shani, small objects

Although we are dealing with sculptures, the pieces comprising them are quite flat. The discursive space on the objects in this series is also very restricted, and it is made possible only by my gentle comments, reflecting the method of work yet avoiding interpretation of Shani’s choices.

I feel that I do not know enough about her experience, and that I need to restrain my urge to organize my thought and stay with her in an ambiguous state in which things lack any intent. At this stage of therapy, Shani is unaware of the fragmentation underway within her, and I, too, am not heedful enough to the severity of the split in her mind. She reacts through materials to the inner experience that she recognizes as her life. With her, I remain in the formless, unintelligible and unfathomable spaces of “absence”.

Traumatic states involve dissociation: a split or disconnection between body and soul. Therefore, they do not contain knowledge that is founded on language and speech. In the fascinating book series Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante, Lila, one of the characters, describes her traumatic experiences as a blurring of outlines. Thus, for example, in the novel’s fourth installment, Elena tells that:

She wanted me to understand what the dissolution of boundaries meant and how much it frightened her… She said that the outlines of things and people were delicate, that they broke like cotton thread. She whispered that for her it had always been that way, an object lost its edges and poured into another, into a solution of heterogeneous materials, a merging and mixing” (Ferrante, 2015, pp. 175–6).

Upon her mother’s sudden departure, Shani profoundly experienced the fragility and dissolution of the outlines defining her life and the delicate seams between them. Her sculptures reflect, simultaneously, the dissolution and the traumatic anxiety of connection. Only in retrospect, I understand their tight connection to the sudden and incomprehensible departure of the mother from Shani’s life. Only from this perspective can I regard her preoccupation with various ways of gluing as an essential examination of attachment of various objects to one another: within herself, with external objects and of course – with me.

[…] She exclaimed that she had always had to struggle to believe that life had firm boundaries, for she had known since she was a child that it was not like that – it was absolutely not like that-and so she couldn’t trust you in their resistance to being banged and bumped. Contrary to what she had been doing, she began to utter a profusion of overexcited sentences […] She muttered she mustn’t be distracted: if she became distracted real things, which, with their violent, painful contortions, terrified her, would gain the upper hand over the unreal ones, which, with their physical and moral solidity pacified her; she would be plunged into a sticky jumbled reality and would never again be able to give sentences clear outlines. A tactile emotion would melt into a visual one, a visual one would melt into an olfactory one […]” (ibid.).

Patients who have experienced trauma often need a therapist to witness their disintegration,99 For further ... and the state in which violence penetrates and dissolves the outlines, blurs the boundaries and creates a chaotic experience. Art may provide a bridge to these materials, and it allows for access to areas in which words are in fact absent. In these situations, the therapist’s role is primarily to create a platform enabling the nonverbal testimony to emerge in the presence of a witness – who, at this stage, is mute.

Following many weeks of work with Shani, a collection of small sculptures, which seem as having been torn apart from a larger object, is put together. I suggest that we put up an exhibition of them in the room and look at them. Pondering their organization in our space, Shani begins to sort and order them into small groups, in which the objects “interact” with one another. For the first time, she looks at them and conceptualizes the formalistic progression among them. The sorting belongs to the developmental stage in which the infant’s conscious mind begins to grow, as does the organization of the external world in a meaningful way, by identifying similarities and differences (Sroufe, Cooper and DeHart, 1992). I feel that Shani experiences anew the primary developmental phase, and rehabilitates her previously dissolved foundation.

I ask whether, in her opinion, the small sculptures can connect to one another to create a larger and more complex object. She is willing to try, and creates an elongated object: part totem, part tree. In doing so, she adds three-dimensional, anthropomorphic and roundish elements to her creation: unidentified body parts of dolls, fragments of animal statues, round plastic beads. Her aesthetic sensitivity is astounding and she creates delicate balances of shape, color and weight.

The choices Shani makes from the multitude of object parts that I offer her indicate that she begins to assume responsibility for her inner chaos; first, in introducing it into her therapy and in expressing its form. Even when the parts do not yet integrate, the very work with the disconnected parts is the beginning of a journey of reconnection. To create a true connection, Shani first was required to see and to show the dissolution. She needs me as witness to this process. The traumatic experience can be thought of as a stagnant, static lump, where no movement occurs. In her work, Shani invites me to remain with her in the unknown, to experience with her the dissolution of form and meaning. This is the only way for the lump to disintegrate and for the components to be processed and transformed into building materials. This is not a reconstruction of a whole that preexisted there, but rather a construction of a new form, which serves to transform existing building materials. To induce this transformation, one must approach the stagnant lump in the right way, to start dissolving it with prudence, to consider destruction as a material and mental essence that must be incorporated in the new constructed object.

Rolling Transformation – Using Therapeutic Tools in an Educational Context

I have so far presented examples of transformational processes in art therapy, which occur in the materials, in the creators and in the therapeutic relationships. Now, I wish to examine a different aspect of transformation, which could also occur in an existing environment, by changing the perception of physical space and reapply it to an additional end.

In the winter of 2015 I founded Matat (Therapy and Culture Space in Hebrew), which operates in the Ashdod Art Museum. It is a division for art therapy that strives to combine professional fields that are usually seen as holding different agendas: art, art therapy and art education. TCS transforms the museum’s role: to the latter’s role as a cultural institute that has an educational significance, TCS adds the role of therapy-giving institute.

The combination of different fields brings about expansion, broadening and a spiral movement between the therapeutic thinking and the cultural circles of which art is a constituent. TCS proposes the art museum as a transformational space for both patients and trainees: the encounters in this division consist of looking at artworks displayed in the museum’s temporary exhibitions and of creative work in the art room. The experience of guided viewing at the exhibition and the workshop activity that immediately follows allow for the reverberation of an inner content that is not invariably articulated through the encounter with the artworks.

n a therapeutic group of people with mental health problems, which has been held weekly for several months, Nili works with aquarelles. She does this after the first part of the encounter, in which we viewed abstract blotch paintings displayed at the museum,1010 We viewed the works ... and discussed the meanings of these blotches for the viewers. She tries different modes of work, letting the colorful blotches spread into one another, switching brushes and applying layers. During her work, she murmurs to herself, “wow, there is so much light in my painting!”. At the end of the session, when we hang our works side by side and look and them, she said excitedly that she is amazed by the force of emotions arising in her during the creative work, and by the way this painting echoes and intensifies the processes that she undergoes in her personal life. Nili tells us that the painting she created is a refined expression for her of the passage from darkness to light that she experienced in her life lately. By means of painting and working with the materials, she feels alive and able to connect with her healthy forces.

Incorporating the experience of artwork viewing into the therapeutic process stresses the museal space’s role as a space of contact and communication. Occasionally, a relation of identification with the artworks is formed, at other times it is a relation of validation or else the works may provoke opposition, debate or anger.1111 For further ... The gallery talk, which is an integral part of the process, is held from a phenomenological perspective,1212 See also: Mala ... for the sake of suspending knowledge and interpretation, developing a flexible space and a ludic capacity as well as a dialogical ability based on attentiveness (Shalita, 2013).

The rolling transformation finds expression in TCS not only by using the museal space as a therapeutic space, but also by using therapeutic tools in an educational context. The ongoing teacher trainings at the unit are conducted in the format of supervision. TCS enables teachers to process what happens in their classrooms: the educational dilemmas and the unconscious processes occurring beneath the surface, in the choices and responses of the teachers as well as the pupils. By viewing the museum artworks, teachers enhance the tools at their disposal and develop an awareness of the hidden layer of the educational processes they promote.

The teachers develop their observational skills by suspending “knowledge” and criticism and by creating an unmediated link to the content with which they work. It is a development of an inner space that characterizes therapeutic thinking and that can assist in educational thinking. As art therapists, we work on opening up the space that allows for the profound experience of the patient’s works, with all their implications. In the teacher training, we try to learn to remain in something that still has neither name nor concrete form and to open a potential space for the emergence of different meanings, hoping that a similar space could exist in the classrooms.

In this context, Hagit, an art teacher, speaks of a significant insight she gained regarding the importance of perseverance in the art process. She shares with the group her difficulty in maintaining the continuity of her work with the pupils, and tells us that when she plans to do it, the class always ask to do “something new” and she has to give up her initial plan, without acknowledging its worth. Now, she says, “I see how important it is to stick nevertheless to what already began. This enables to discover something new and to explore the depths of what has already begun to develop”. This is an expanding transformation: Hagit discovers new possibilities in herself and their inherent value. Thereby, she drives a change in her work with the pupils, who will, in turn, learn how to delve deeper into a subject instead of looking for excitement in their next exercise.

Julia, a science teacher, is an analytical type and reacts with cynicism to ill-defined content. Mostly, she struggles to relate to abstract things, both in the artworks that we view and in our group conversations. During work, she says excitedly: “I get it. I finally understand this thing with the blotch!”. I approach her desk, curious to know what she figured out. “I understood what a blotch is – the power it has: every time you look at it you see a different shape; it can become many things”.

Writing these lines, I think of Julia’s remarks and recall Gombrich:

You should look at certain walls stained with damp, or at stones of uneven colour. If you have to invent some backgrounds will be able to see in these the likeness of divine landscapes, adorned with mountains, ruins, rocks, woods, great plains, hills and valleys in great variety; and then again you will see there battles and strange figures in violent action, expressions of faces and clothes and an infinity of things which you will be able to reduce to their complete and proper forms. In such walls the same thing happens as in the sound of bells, in whose stroke you may find every named word which you can imagine” (Gombrich, 1987, p. 159).

In a group-sharing conversation concluding one of our sessions, Julia tells the group that a task I gave them, to work on top of an existing work, irritated her initially. She says: “For me, it was already finished. Perfect just as it was! I was thinking, why does she make us continue the work and ruin it?”. I reply that my instructions were indeed to work with additional material, but a choice was given between working on an existing substrate of starting a new one. Julia says: “It is true. I must have decided that I wished to cope with this nevertheless, that there is something here that can interest me. When I decided to commit to this, I could rediscover some playful tendencies that I thought I’d lost. Something more childlike, like staring at the clouds and finding familiar shapes in them”.

[…] Period. Space. New Sentence

Just as the therapeutic encounter takes place between two “unknowing” parties who search together for the path, so it happens in the writing process. I came to write the present paper with an amorphic idea and mere flickers of thought regarding transformation in therapy.

I wished to attain a concrete expression of my inner idea regarding the relation between content and form, as it appears in the creative work, in the art object and in the therapeutic process. To succeed in writing on this abstract entity, and to describe the transformations in matter and form as an unconscious mode of communication, I was required to stay in an unknown zone, and to build myself a container in which my ideas could develop.

I began with presenting the transformation, which is one of the key goals of therapy, and I shared the challenges inherent to processes of change and growth, the feeling of ignorance that sometimes dominates the therapeutic process, the frustration and the manner in which holding on to the familiar hinders the rising of a new form. Thereby, I tried to describe how the passage to a new mental zone, like a voyage between continents, involves taking off and relinquishing control.

Throughout this paper I have dealt with “staying in a form” as a condition of material and mental transformation. Therefore, I found myself reconstructing moments from the therapy room, reliving them, letting go of what I assumed I knew and committing to the here and now. The various examples that I relived in my consciousness and presented here illustrate why it is important to me to suspend interpretation, memory and knowledge and to connect to the dream space as a compass; to create meaning, by passing from an abstract, disintegrating, masking and bewildering content to a well-defined form; at the same time, to return to the blotches whose meaning was determined, and to search for additional meanings and layers within them.

By presenting the various cases, I discussed the conditions that enable the construction of a safe container for these processes of change in therapy: art work that results from exploration and discovery and that develops without the shackles of words and thought. I wanted to illustrate how working with art helps in building a container for the soul, and enables deep mental processes, while allowing them to attain physical expression. It was important to me to show how art gains an independent life, thus becoming another subject present in therapy.

While kneading the materials, I strongly felt the challenge inherent to writing; I felt how the process of inquiry, creation and discovery can be preserved, even if my artistic material this time is the word. How could I keep on “dreaming in matter”?

I narrated the way that being attentive to the dream space, which is so rife with creativity, is for me a working tool; how unconscious contents organize into a veritable action plan and yield an experience of searching and excitement that “wets” the arid zones and assists in overcoming obstacles.

I wished to create a new foundation for my patients, which would enable the expansion of their context in a way that preserves the spirit of the therapeutic processes we went through together.

For me, these processes were also “dreaming in matter”: both in viewing the artworks, in conversation and in therapeutic interventions. Now I consider the phenomenological viewing of the artworks as analogous to the suspension of knowledge and to staying in the spheres of “absence”, which cannot always be conceptualized. From a wider perspective, I realized how this position helps me to locate and enlarge cracks through which the potential for significant mental shifts can be discerned. I hope that I succeeded in conveying the sense of exploration and discovery the characterize the therapeutic process and “the intelligence of form”: the art materials and the manner of working them, the intonation of the conversation and listening to the “lower frequencies” as keys to creating a shared meaning.

In the paper’s last section, I discussed the possibility of using the cultural space (the museum) and a transformational space for patients and trainees. I described the manner in which a space that holds gallery talks and viewing of artworks created by others echoes, in various ways, non-verbal inner content. These are examples of the contact between one unconscious and another, or, in Agi Mishol’s words:

When I swam in my brain’s cosmic soup
I met another dreamer
who happened into mine, saying:
if you want to get there,
swim butterfly

(Mishol, 2003, translated by Lisa Katz)

The realization that transformations occurring in the cultural (and therapeutic) space expand to adjacent spaces and generate changes in the participants’ worlds and circles of influence – this realization is significant for me.

I hope that this paper can serve as a starting point for further physical and mental transformations for the readers, too.


   [ + ]

1. See the thesaurus, dictionary
2. See also Ruth Netzer, 2004
3. For further discussion, see Moon, 2002. In her book, Moon writes about her work with and alongside patients. She notes the danger that the therapist may “use” the artistic work to satisfy a personal need rather than to address the patient’s needs (p. 226). Nevertheless, Moon stresses the importance of letting the patient witness the development of the therapist, and thereby to substantiate the process as well as the doubts – not only the end product.
4. See also Aron, 2013; Benjamin, 1990; Ogden, 1986
5. See the figure: “My work next to Itamar’s”
6. “Marbling” is an artistic technique that relates to a wide variety of decorative applications on paper, which are similar in texture to marble slates. The technique, which has been widely used in Europe and in the Far East, involves floating dyes on a liquid surface, mixing them and printing them. In the process of printing, a sheet of paper is laid on the liquid mold and then removed, creating a unique monotype. It is a complex process of interactions between materials and of preserving the tension between floating and sinking, viscosity and fluidity. This technique was used for various decorative objects, and especially for creating the insides of book covers until the mid-19th century (for further discussion, see Wolfe, 1990).
7. See also Alvarez, 1992
8. Winnicott had written extensively about therapy as a region of shared play between the therapist and the patient. In the case studies of his child patients, and in the “squiggle game” that he developed, he emphasizes the importance of being immersed in experience and in gameplay. Winnicott deals with the need to let go of therapeutic technique and knowledge. In the “squiggle technique”, in which the therapist and the patient complement, for one another, some meaningless squiggles into meaningful drawings, artistic talent or the therapist-patient hierarchy are inconsequential. Winnicott creates a playful intervention with well-defined rules, to enable mutuality, calmness and the freedom of imagination.
9. For further discussion see Amir, 2013.
10. We viewed the works of Smadar Eliasaf and Lihi Turjeman in the exhibition titled Local Compilation, curated by Yuval Beaton and Roni Cohen-Binyamini.
11. For further discussion see the video of Alain De Botton in the Rijks Museum, rijksmuseum (accessed November 12th 2017).
12. See also: Mala Betensky, What Do You See? Phenomenology of Therapeutic Art Expression, 1995


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Thesaurus, http://www.dictionary.com/browse/trance (accessed November 12th 2017).

Winnicott D.W.  (1971), Therapeutic Consultation in Child Psychiatry, London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis.

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Winnicott, D. W. (1958), “The Capacity to be Alone”, The International Journal of Psycho-analysis, 39: 416-420.

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Zusman, M. (2014), Crosswind, Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv University (in Hebrew).

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