On Making Art: A Conversation Between Terry Hanson and Peter Hopkins (part 1)

Terry Hanson and Peter Hopkins are both therapists who practice in Seattle, Washington. They have worked together on a number of classes and projects, especially related to the writings of Harold Searles, Wilfred Bion, and Donald Meltzer. What follows is the first part in a two-part series.

Peter: We’re here to discuss our interest in art, art making, and the relation of our artistic processes to psychotherapy. How has your experience of painting influenced your work as a therapist?

Terry: As we both know, it is so difficult to articulate what art means. It was not a topic much at all in my analysis. In some ways it’s something I work to not think about, in terms of verbalizing. But I also end up thinking about it a lot. When I’m painting, I’m not analyzing what I’m doing. I’m thinking, obviously, and I’m processing. There aren’t words going on in my head. I’ve never talked to anybody about this. It’s like driving; it’s something I do. When you are painting, is the verbal part of your mind active? Do you put into words what you’re painting?

Peter: No, not at all. I think the verbal part of our minds is still secondary in therapy too.

Terry: Well, yes. Although when I’m listening, I’m listening to words… What are you thinking in terms of that?

Peter: I think dreams are an example of this. You need words to describe dreams, but they’re primarily images and narratives, which is a different landscape. It’s hard to describe what that landscape is, but words can often bring in a different dimension. Not always, obviously poetry is an exception. I love words, and I’ve written a lot, so there’s nothing about it that I don’t like. But when I do any kind of abstract work it’s a little bit different because there isn’t even an image there, though one could argue that it’s a different kind of image. I find working abstractly to open up something else.

Terry: I’m interested in what you’re saying here about dreams, and about another dimension. I find I’m primarily oriented to color when I paint, but I’m also interested in shapes. I often painted landscapes and was happy if the landscape turned out and was interesting to frame. But the primary thing was the experience of color, and the landscape was in some ways an excuse. Painting abstractly with color was interesting, but probably too psychotic for me, too open and scary. I needed the landscape to give about the way watercolor interacts and different colors behave. Some colors are much more aggressive, and some colors are more retreating—just the way they combine as you paint them. Just putting the color onto white paper was something too.

Peter: I love this idea that colors can behave. Which of course means that they can misbehave.

Terry: I’ve always related it to when I was in graduate school. I took some training on the Rorschach test, and the particular system I was taught put a lot of emphasis on the card when the color appears. The first cards are all black and white, and then grays, and then suddenly there’s just a little bit of red. And that’s the crucial moment. What does somebody make of this little bit of color? Can they make anything from it, and can they work it into a story? It appears so starkly. You feel in people the psychological challenge of processing this color and being able to weave it into any kind of coherent story. The most troubled people don’t acknowledge it at all, or they see it as blood, or something raw and visceral. They can’t form it into the structure of the story.

Peter: That makes me think about processing, and for you, processing what color means, the significance and experience of it. Even the shock of it. One of the things that struck me when I was painting, especially when I started to do it a lot, the paintings would take on a life of their own. Which on one level is absurd, because it’s a canvas and paint. But there was this feeling that I wasn’t in control. At best it was a conversation between me and the painting, and that—as one of my friends said, he’s a poet—the poem would start talking back to you. I not only found this interesting, but also helpful as a therapist. Because as a therapist you feel entirely responsible for the therapy. But if on some level it’s not just what you are doing, but that there’s a reciprocal process happening between you and the other person, then it felt much more dynamic. For me it also shed some of the weight, so to speak, or the feeling that I was the only one that was supposed to make anything happen. I think it’s much more complicated than that. But I really discovered this first through art. And that’s also the layer where I’m not thinking about words. You feel like something is happening. It feels a little bit weird saying that this canvas is talking to me, but that’s the best way to describe it. The painting pushes back, and then I push back again, and we see what happens.


“It is in playing and only in playing that the individual child or adult is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self.”

– D. W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality

Terry: I feel both the relief and the fearfulness. The relief of: There’s something here that’s happening that I don’t need to control or figure out. There’s so much of my personality that’s been overwhelmed by the feeling that I need to figure everything out. The relief that there’s something here. I’ve gone into meditation in recent years, and being able to sit, that’s all I need to do. To just sit here, which I can do. I don’t need to figure anything out. At the same time, the other side is: My god, I don’t know what’s happening here. I’m not in control.

Peter: Right, you feel like you’re not in control at all. Something else has taken over.

Terry: I’ve been painting animals recently and it’s clear to part of my mind that these are real animals. They are living beings. You could say a child at two or three years old invests in stuffed animals this sense of them being alive and real. At the same time they’re stuffed animals. I know it’s an image, although the fact that I painted the image seems entirely unreal. The fact that I know intellectually that I’ve painted the animal, but it also feels that the animal has somehow sprung up out of the mist. It’s disturbing, and if I let myself go with it a bit it becomes a psychotic feeling. I don’t know what this is. Who is this? What is this? Something quite strange, and more dream-like. More of the feeling of deep unfamiliarity and disturbing presences. I can say intellectually that it is coming out of my own mind. You can say that about dreams, that they are all a part of me, but that’s a very thin intellectualization. That’s not what it feels like at all.

Peter: I feel fairly comfortable in the dream-like place, but what does get opened up for me when I’m painting are feelings of failure, or more accurately, the question: Is there anything here worthwhile? In some ways that can be an important question: What do I really think is worthwhile? I started to realize, though, that when I felt close to that place while I was painting, as difficult as it was, it meant that I was working really well. But what came with it were a lot of feelings of uncertainty and the unknown. And then came in the voices saying: This isn’t good, or This isn’t working, or, Is this working? I found over time that if that question is in the air—that this could be on some level not working— that that was a good sign, odd as it sounds, because it meant that I was on the edge of something. It’s a little bit similar to what you describe about the sense of the psychotic. The lines do get blurry. I’m thinking of Van Gogh, who actually had psychotic episodes. In my office building there’s a print of his painting titled Roses. It’s a wonderful painting of a vase of flowers, but you can feel how close to the edge he was. It took me a long time to learn that the place at the edge is where you actually want to be, because it’s so hard to be there. You don’t know what’s going to show up in your painting. You don’t get to choose what image is going to come in, or what shape or color might pop out. The painting starts to develop a mind of its own. I think it’s hard as an artist to let that happen. I often feel like it’s my job to determine what’s happening, but that’s not nearly as interesting as this place where something is evolving. If we can trust that this is important and useful then all sorts of interesting things can open up.

Terry: You used the word failure a couple times. What is success for you? What does that mean in terms of painting? I suppose it’s a question of: Why do you paint? What makes the experience meaningful or not?

Peter: To my mind those are two different questions: What makes a painting successful and what makes the experience meaningful? I can feel my superego wanting to jump in here, to try to say something definitive about what a successful painting is, which I’m not going to do. But I would say that I can have a meaningful experience making something and then can also feel after it’s made that it doesn’t quite work. That is a frustrating reality, at least for me. There are a number of painters who I’ve listened to talk about what makes a painting successful, and they always struggle to come up with words for it. I’m thinking of Susan Rothenberg. For her it had to disturb or upend, something had to get under her skin in order for it to work. For some artists that ends up being an enlightening or a meaningful experience. Some painters, I’m thinking of Francis Bacon who did these extremely disturbing works, there’s an element of raw experience that gets communicated. It has to come alive, and sometimes I finish a painting and it’s not coming alive. And when it feels flat, that’s when I find myself frustrated.

Terry: It raises a lot of questions about what it’s like for you. What is the actual experience? That’s the thing I’m most interested in.

Peter: A lot of the most interesting artists, their work is childlike. Their lines, their gestures, their forms, are childlike. That opened up something for me to see that if you’re drawing a dog— I went through a period where I drew some animals—it doesn’t have to look like a dog for it to be interesting. You don’t have to get the ear just right, or the nose or the eye, in order for it to function as a painting. And then, some of the paintings I did were basically a single color. You follow the thought through, and maybe there doesn’t have to be an image here at all. Maybe this can just be. And I was using muted colors at the time. Maybe this can just be a white painting, and I can just paint white. This is probably similar to your interest in meditation. Maybe I can just paint white over and over again and see what happens. And then I found out that other painters had done the same thing. Gerhard Richter, for example. I had been doing these paintings that were basically a single color, and I found out he did a whole series where he only used the color grey, every one of the paintings. They were all almost identical, but obviously variations on a theme. And Vija Celmins, a Latvian American painter, who would paint these pictures of the sky at night or outer space—star fields. She would paint the star field meticulously. If she felt like she didn’t get it she would sand it down and then repaint the image on top of the old one. And she would develop these paintings over and over again, and it would take her something like two years to do a painting. They would develop this, I think she called it memory or history to the painting, of her working on this image over and over again. There’s a lot to learn from these artists. I often thought it had to be something. It couldn’t just be a grey painting. If it was going to be a figure it had to look right, it had to be …I guess the word would be ‘professional.’ Once I learned that artists can pretty much do whatever they want, it was like: Oh, this is much more interesting.

Terry: It sounds like you have a sense that in painting you are working something through. You are working something out about your superego, or about a pressure to have it look a certain way. You are freeing up something in yourself.

Peter: I think that’s a lot of it. Always looking to expand that circle in one’s self and in one’s work a little bit further.

Categories: Feature InterviewPublished On: July 14th, 2021Tags: