On Making Art: A Conversation Between Terry Hanson and Peter Hopkins (part 2)

The following is the second part of a conversation between Terry Hanson and Peter Hopkins on art and the influence of the artistic process on their work as therapists. The discussion left off last time with Peter talking about the feeling of failing that can sometimes happen while painting, and the role that the superego can play in impeding the artistic process.

Terry: I wonder if the feeling that you described when you’re painting, that the painting is in some way failing, is actually your superego defense against something. That you are in fact in an area of risk, a psychological unknown. That the feeling that it’s failing is not because it’s actually failing as a painting, or that it is, in an objective aesthetic sense, a bad painting, but it’s your superego trying to back you away from something that is artistically meaningful, because it’s risk.

Peter: I think that’s right. Our superegos are tricky around that.

Terry: Well, they’re there to protect us, but they often overreact.

Peter: They almost always overreact. Laughter
Terry: It’s nice to talk about this. I’ve actually never talked to anybody about this, about art like this.

Peter: I was fortunate to have friends who said to just start doing it. I started with photography. I started with a friend of a friend. A professional photographer came out to visit and we all had dinner. She had a camera with her, and at some point I said to her, “Do you mind if I take some pictures?” She handed me the camera and I just started shooting. I think I’ve had three or four friends who said: Just start. There can be this notion that you have to be educated or trained. I’m not disparaging that, but you can also just start. It opened up a lot in me to do that. It was helpful to have feedback from people who were further down the road. There was another friend—he’s done a lot of work, shown in galleries across the world, etc.—he didn’t care what my background was. He just looked at what I did, and if he liked it, he liked it, and if he didn’t, he didn’t. So there was this sense of freedom in just being able to work which didn’t develop until later in my life. It’s funny how we can carry these expectations, or hidden “rules,” around in us. Painting is just putting paint on a surface.

Terry: I’m so superego dominated that in order to have any art in my life I’ve needed to keep it fairly private. Like the painting I just painted, I probably won’t show anybody for a long time. I was thinking I won’t show it because it’ll be complicated to process whether people like it or not. But now that I start talking about it more, I realize that’s a cover. The real feeling is that it’s a psychologically vulnerable painting, and there’s shame about the emotional vulnerability of the painting. I think this relates to the superego in a different way.

Peter: Well shame is such a terrible feeling. It can be very hard to think about, to begin to understand it.

Terry: Yes. I also think there’s a difference between the process of painting and the actual painting, or what might be thought of as the finished piece. People don’t share in the process of the painting. What they share in is the result. They see this thing, this painting, or they read this novel or look at this photograph. And then they have this experience of the finished piece. All of this is different from the process. How do you experience people looking at your paintings? Do you like it? I don’t even quite know how to ask the questions. I went to a show of yours. I’m somewhat mystified. I would find that situation emotionally vulnerable if I were to have a show and had a bunch of people looking at my paintings. That sounds very complicated to me.

Peter: I felt more exposed than I expected. I would say that’s true of things that I’ve written too. I was aware of what it would be to write something, not just the writing of it, but emotionally what that would be. I was not prepared for what my experience would be of other people looking at the work. And that’s true for painting too. You’re exposed, and of course that’s actually really hard to do, to be exposed. I haven’t heard artists talk about this much. I’ve watched a number of videos on artists because I find it helpful to hear artists talk. They’re never talking in a linear way, they’re always just talking. And I find that so helpful.

Terry: For your art?

Peter: No. For my life. For my mind. Especially for my work as a therapist. Because it can get so …

Terry: Because psychoanalytic theory can be so linear.

Peter: Well, I think this field wants to be linear. Everybody wants an answer. And there’s no answer. There is no direct answer here. If you come to therapy, and invest in it, some things can change for you over time. Sometimes even major things. It probably won’t be what you expect, but it may be more useful and meaningful to you than you know. That’s why I go to work every day. Because I believe that. I’ve experienced it myself. I’m guessing here, but I imagine because the psychotherapy field is technically a part of the medical field, this pull toward a linear way of thinking is so strong. I find it helpful to listen to artists talk who have thrown the idea of linear thinking completely out the window. They are operating in a different way, and that, to me, feels alive. An architect and glass artist I know, he called it lateral thinking. This way of looking sideways, or around the bend. I don’t know what metaphor to use here. In therapy it’s an enormous task to continue to think laterally. I almost always experience the pressure in therapy to think concretely. This is a place that art has helped me, because thinking concretely in art is just a dead end. It’s a dead object. You are forced to think differently, if the work is going to be alive in any kind of way. It’s hard to keep that space open.

Terry: It’s related to what you were saying earlier about risk. That we’re all terrified of going mad. That linear thinking gives us the fantasy that we’re not going mad. That we are holding together. If we step back from that and are open to something more complex, then we can see something different. I think we’re all terrified of going mad. And it’s not a ridiculous terror. That association between art and madness is a complicated one, but you can look at a Van Gogh painting. Part of what makes it so beautiful is also what makes it so troubling, like the world is coming apart. You can see his world coming apart and that’s what’s so vibrant and everything is alive and moving. Often in a session, I’m listening and I feel quite engaged and it’s like, I’m there. I’m not thinking thinking. I’m not developing an interpretation. I feel like I’m with the person. I feel something connected between us. It always happens suddenly, although looking back it must build up gradually. In terms of my awareness, it’s always a very sudden experience. I’ll feel it in my body, and I feel some kind of anxiety symptom. And then there’s a scramble inside myself. I feel guilty and that I’m not a good therapist. I’ll feel anxious. But that’s, I think, where I hit something. It’s like what you’re saying about there’s a feeling there that I’m failing, quite literally. After feeling badly about it for years, I’ve come to think there’s something good here. Trying to balance out the bad feeling of it, to say that there’s something quite meaningful here between us that I’m absorbing. Something I think is related to a psychotic feeling that is coming up, that I’m getting close to something that’s quite destabilizing. There’s a scramble in me to find some way to not fall over the edge into the abyss.

Peter: I had a patient once who asked me to stand up. He was already standing up in the room, during the session. I think he felt that the power imbalance in the therapy situation was too strong. So he said, “Will you stand up? And I’ll stand over here and you stand there.” And I thought about it and decided to do it. So I stood up. And there we are in my small office standing across from each other having the session. When you’re standing there’s no way to cover. I just felt very uncomfortable. But I think it really helped him. And at some point he said, “Let’s sit down.” I don’t know what it accomplished, but after we did it, it felt useful. Like something had occurred, but I couldn’t say exactly what. Because whatever dynamic we were stuck in—and I think we were close to being really stuck in something—it sort of released it. But in order to do it, I had to feel very uncomfortable.

Terry: That’s very provocative. Where my mind goes is to painting, it goes to the movement. Being a body in therapy. How much we disassociate from our bodies. How much as therapists in general we are disassociated from our bodies, and our patients are too. I spent years in my analysis on the couch, terrified of moving. The frozenness was awful, but the terror of moving, like I would disintegrate if I moved . . . It’s so interesting. My analyst said to me that he went through a period of his life where he could only think when he was walking. And I took it as an invitation. I got up off the couch and started walking. It was enormously helpful to me. Patients expectably internalize this directive that they’re supposed to stay still. They come in the first session, they sit down in one place, and forever they are going to sit in this one place. To move ends up being a huge deal. It’s so interesting how pervasive it is, this kind of frozen feeling that gets established, and how movement becomes so dangerous. And I do think there’s something about the fluidity of me painting that’s both enlivening and dangerous: the openness.

Peter: That’s why—and this is really just my own personality—I was drawn to having limitations. I felt like it helped me. They were self-imposed limitations, I suppose. For a while in my paintings I would only use three colors, and they were white, black, and brown. And all the variations in between as I would mix them. I found a lot of freedom in that. There’s all sorts of associations around what that means for me.

Terry: I’m interrupting you. To me colors are very, I’m embarrassed, they’re living things. Ultramarine blue, for me, is it’s own creature, it’s own personality. Personality not in the way people say wine has a personality. That the colors are creatures. Again, language is failing me. I’m embarrassed.

Peter: It’s okay. My poet friend would say let it fail, and then we’ll see what happens. Language has its own limits too. We come up against them, and then sometimes the language can say more than we think.

Terry: I have certain colors that I’m drawn to their personalities, and other colors that I’m not.

Peter: I’m guessing your palette isn’t white, black, and brown.


Terry: No.

Peter: In some ways the only language we have for some of this stuff is metaphor. We’re saying that colors come alive. I feel very comfortable with that. We’re trying to describe things that you can’t go after head on. You have to play with the ideas to get some sense of what you’re trying to describe.

Terry: The language that maybe is helpful, although maybe it’s also defensive, is Winnicott’s language about potential space: “It is in the space between inner and outer world, which is also the space between people–the transitional space–that intimate

“Artists are people driven by the tension between the desire to communicate and the desire to hide.”

– 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: January 1st, 2022Tags: