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Art and the Artist’s Psyche

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    Sometimes art does seem to be a means of projecting one’s interior world onto the external world of our shared consensus reality.

    I think of a friend, whom I’ll call Chris, that I often stayed with for extended periods during my years on the road some decades ago. He had a spare bedroom in a well-apportioned house – the shower, for example, was large enough to accommodate up to seventeen people beneath its skylight (a number arrived at through trial-and-error one very social Saturday night).

    Chris was president of a construction company – a position he inherited, taking over the family business when his father was ailing (I have a little experience with this personal dynamic and its power to pull one into living an unintended life). Chris, however, was always an artist at heart. The walls of his home were covered with hundreds of his paintings (like living in a museum!). Every spare moment was given to painting – a pastime easily combined with wine, women and song.

    Of course, keeping bohemian hours does not the bourgeoisie support; though Chris could not bring himself to shirk duty to family, his heart was not in it – but he couldn’t quite summon the courage to commit to the risk of wholeheartedly following his bliss. He overpriced his paintings – just dropping the asking price a couple hundred dollars, or even taking a few dozen up to Union Square in San Francisco and selling them to tourists, he would have easily replaced any income lost from the construction business. (I suspect some of his resistance masked a reluctance to part with his creations, so Chris raised obstacles; though he did sell paintings here and there for impressive sums, he practically had to be forced).

    Nevertheless, so much of Chris’s art was self-referential in an unconscious sense. Romantic difficulties, personal conflicts, and internal struggles manifested in his paintings, rarely with conscious intent. An image of a wistful girl, or a distant, lonely train spouting electric blue smoke crossing a snowy plain, or a vague, fisheye reflection of a figure on the side of a whistling tea kettle, all seemed to speak to whatever demons and angels Chris wrestled, but also opened out beyond the personal to intersect with the colors and moods of the viewer’s own interior world

    . . . or at least, that’s how I experienced his images – and conversations with others familiar with Chris’s work reveal similar stirrings.

    I also remember long discussions of dreams within our circle of friends – but Chris rarely had a dream to share. Small wonder – his dreams were fleshed out in oil, pastel, and watercolor for all to see.

    Of course, with so many paintings – well over 500 – there wasn’t room to put everything up at once. Different paintings were cycled into the mix every week or two: there were favorites that stayed up almost all the time (what I think of as the “big dream” paintings), and then many whose place depended on Chris’s mood – and then new images took shape rather quickly beneath Chris’s brush (he was a wizard with the fan brush, layering paint on in a shaky staccato fashion that implied image and nuance, but flexible enough for viewers’ imaginations to project details of expression and movement),

    so there was always a stream of new creations demanding space, and always paintings stacked against walls, especially in the master bedroom’s alcove, which served as a de facto storage gallery.

    One day, helping Chris select paintings from the archives to hang, I noticed something odd when I stood an oil painting with warm, rich colors depicting a nighttime street scene, next to a light, playful pastel of a kitten frolicking on a forbidden kitchen counter that Jim had painted three years later. The pattern of the colors on the left edge of the pastel matched exactly the pattern of the colors along the right edge of the oil painting. Even though the content, style, and age of the paintings differed, the patterns of the colors matched so that one painting seemed to flow right into the other!

    This prompted experimentation with several paintings, holding them next to each other, or one above the other, or even upside down, and yet it never failed: there were telltale patterns, waves of light and shadow and color washing across framed boundaries, as if the images were connected

    . . . and connected they were, born of the same imagination, the same psyche, an expression of the same unconscious, connected and flowing one into another as do the scenes and images of dream . . .

    Of course, with attention divided, Chris’s day job suffered and his construction company collapsed – an external projection of an internal crisis, as Chris descended into madness. Long story there, but eventually, the state intervened (not a pleasant scene, with restraining orders, an arrest,  involuntary psychiatric observation, and much more).

    This descent into darkness was mirrored in Chris’s art. The last year or so before events reached critical mass, whenever I visited I noticed that Chris would be in the process of “touching up” paintings he had taken from the wall. Previously Chris had done this now and then with a few paintings, as over time he’d see them in a different light – but now, this became an obsession.

    The changes were subtle at first, often strengthening the impact of the image, but then they accelerated: a bright red would turn to cherry – then a month or two later the same image would deepen into a ruby hue, followed by a somber mahogany, images dimming, growing darker, ever more indistinct.

    This continued with every painting,

    until Chris was carted off

    and all his art

    faded to black . . .

    Chris stopped painting or drawing the next few years. Over time, with the help of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), he’s learned to deal with his condition. I knew he was on the mend when he started painting again – and he started actually selling his pieces! He has become a beloved, well-known, somewhat eccentric character in the local arts scene.

    So far, Chris seems to experience a major regression at intervals of seven to ten to ten years – usually a sharp break-with-reality that can be unpleasant for friends and relatives, often generating unintended consequences; drawing and painting come to a halt as his inner world is no longer poured out onto the canvas, but gets projected onto the real world.

    There are those who point out that all art is self-referential; often that’s conscious (much of Picasso’s art and Henry Miller’s novels come to mind), but not always; in Chris’s case much of it was unconscious, though less so now. However, the patterns of colors in his paintings still match up when you place them side by side (Chris has no idea how he does that; he once attempted to intentionally connect two different images as he painted them on different canvases – that did not go well).

    I wonder how common this experience is. Those of you who are creative – are you sometimes surprised by what you discover in your work that you had no idea was there?


    A little addendum: in Lecture II.2.2 of the Joseph Campbell Audio Collection (titled “Hermes, Alchemy, and the Voyage of Ulysses), Campbell notes the following:

    In the frame of the canvas, the painter paints. And you look at a painter’s work, you see certain painters tend to certain colors. Others stick to other colors. These colors are projections of the spiritual inflections and moods of the artist himself. He can’t in some cases make it any differently. I remember one artist who was a student of a friend of mine, young girl, her paintings were all extremely dark, extremely dark, and she could never bring herself to paint any other kind of thing, and within three years she had died of a cancer that she didn’t  know she had. I mean death was right there in her canvas. And then you’ll see suddenly the painter’s style changes, his whole psychology has changed, and the colors change. He has projected his psyche into the frame, into the colors.”

    Here Campbell is addressing exactly the same unconscious dynamic manifesting in my friend Chris’ art!

    (Great example of synchronicity as well; I was searching this lecture for references to following one’s bliss, when I stumbled across this snippet.)



    Reading you has reminded me of what I have seen happening with my clients. I have been working with people using perfumery as an artistic medium, and yes, each scent is like a colour…and people quite easily use them when they have someone who can create a safe space. In my experience scents and colours are a language, that we can speak although many times we are not aware of it.

    I have seen people creating perfumes that reminded of summer nights, or forests, or any personal moment, without knowing the meaning of each “colour” they used. There is really something deep in us that know how to express itself, if we allow him/her.



    Thank you for this reminder, Elena, that art is sensual, appealing to the senses – which need not be limited to vision and hearing.

    However, it hadn’t occurred to me to consider fragrance an artistic medium until I read Tom Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume (the first novel he published after returning from a tour of Mayan and Mexican cultural sites with Joseph Campbell). On a few occasions in the decades since I’ve had the opportunity to experience immersive settings where scent is as significant as lighting and sound.

    Your insights about using fragrance to create a safe space resonates as well. To this day, just walking through Chinatown, the blended aroma of steaming tea and incense can transport me forty years back in time to mornings at the Zen Center, seated on zafu and zabuton, mind empty (more-or-less), feeling one with everything no matter the turmoil of daily life.

    I’m curious – are your clients troubled when they seek you out? Is it safe to assume you work in the healing arts (which covers a lot ground – everything from psychology to shamanism)?


    Thank you for your reflections!

    While I was working with aromatherapy I understood that people came to me mostly for inner turmoils, and so yes I studied counseling and I did a Jungian analysis. Since then, my practice with scents has always been a “healing art” and in the last year and a half (the pandemic) it has become more creative than ever since I couldn’t share perfumes in the same place with my clients; so now I am more a creativity coach than a perfumer.

    A friend said to me today “When I have a walk in Nature, I think I will find plants, but then I find myself”. I would say that “this is it”; we may resonate with any medium, and surely with sensorial mediums and at the same time the feeling is that our quest is an inner one.

    I share the podcast of the interview with this friend because it’s worth listening I think (the title of the recording is “The energy of creativity”) :

    Thank you for the Jitterbug perfume, I didn’t know about the book!

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