The Final Image - Art Therapy in Hospice
As part of my internships in graduate school, I did 2 semesters of art therapy at hospice. One of the most touching art therapy sessions I ever had was with someone who was in his 90's and had been an accomplished plein aire pastel artist. Plein aire is a French term for art done outside. He had been very sick for a long time and had quit doing art several years, possibly a decade, before due to depression and later, illness. So when he found out there was an art therapist at hospice he was like, “Oh I have to do art therapy! I must meet this person, I need her!”
Our first session, he gave me a tour of his home and studio which was full of his artwork. He was hurrying with his walker and oxygen tank, his soft words full of pride and excitement to be sharing this part of his soul with me. At the end of our tour he had to lie down to rest from the exertion of his efforts.
Because of his background, I had to approach things very differently than how I approach a typical client who does not have an art background. If I didn’t come to the table from a fine art perspective, he wasn’t going to take me seriously. He needed for me to be an expert as well. My main goal for him was for him to put away the formal artist critique. I encouraged him to engage with the art making process and enjoy the materials as well as not criticize himself. This was hard for him! It took him a while to stop criticizing himself.
So I saw him every week for about 2 and a half months. I had been bringing in still life stuff like flowers, fruit--anything alive because he was not well enough or mobile enough to go outside to draw. I brought the life in to him.
For the last session I did with him, he shook things up a bit by bringing a printout of a photo that he wanted to work on. I got everything set up for him, as he was so weak that he can’t hold his arm up to reach into the pastel box to pick out a pastel to use. I would bring the box to him and put it next to his lap for him to tell me which color he wanted, and I would put it into his hand because his hand was too heavy for him to lift up. He worked feverishly for 60 minutes straight. The image was from a photo that one of his children had taken of cliffs by the ocean, with sun streaming through the clouds, and the waves crashing along the rocks at the base of the cliffs. He was falling asleep as he was finishing the piece, so I take the materials out of his hands. He wakes up a little bit and looks at the piece that I propped up for him to see on the desk next to the recliner where he was sitting. The nursing aide returned, to help him maneuver or get anything he might need to keep him comfortable. He looks up to the aide and tells her, with pride in his voice, “This one is good. I want to frame this one.” He fell back asleep, exhausted.
I was taken the whole time while he worked by this striking image and the underlying symbolic meaning. From a Jungian perspective, land (mater) is the mother, each person walking through life given by the archetypal mother. The ocean is the collective unconscious, so the cliffs are the steep drop off between life, and the return to unconscious and to the collective, through death, the relinquishing of the ego and of consciousness at the time of death. The sky and the light may be indicative of a sky-father god or of logos or spirit. Thus this image shows the threshold between the individual reaching a precipice at the end of the life journey and meeting with the archetypal feminine and masculine, spirit and logos with the unconscious depths. The whole experience illustrated the last stage of the hero’s journey, with the artist’s Herculean effort that it took answer the creative urge, as well as sleep overcoming him at the end of his work.
I went to my car and cried outside his house, so moved by the experience of witnessing and holding space for that amazingly awesome, and archetypal event to occur. As I cried, in an act of synchronicity, it started raining through the sunlight. Synchronicity is something that happens in the outer world that, because of its timing, or content, strikes a chord of personal significance for the person experiencing the event.
From a Jungian perspective, the therapeutic container, held by the clinician with reverence and presence is something that Jung called temenos, which is Latin for sacred space. The therapeutic session in time and a secure space, conjures symbolic images of the womb, the mother’s embrace, and the oroboros, a snake eating its own tail, and finally, the mystical stance of the ceremonial magician’s magic circle, where man, who is made in God’s image, brings forth images into manifestation through the act of creation.
I didn’t get to see my client again. That was his final art piece and he died 6 days later. We didn’t have to discuss the meaning of the artwork. I don’t know who received a greater gift that day, for I’m going to carry that treasure with me for the rest of my life. Jung also said,
The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed. We should expect the doctor to have an influence on the patient in every effective psychic treatment; but this influence can only take place when he too is affected by the patient (Jung, 1933).
This is the beauty of the work that I do through the translation of the dream image and as an art therapist. Through the archetypal image both the therapist and the client are transformed. In the therapeutic process, healing occurs, and archetypal wholeness is fostered. Like my patient who found increased energy through the healing his relationship with art, clients likewise find insight, inspiration, increased energy, and more generative relationships from the creative engagement of the image through art therapy. Archetypally speaking, theses treasures include logos, libido, and eros.
Jung, C. (1933). Modern Man in Search of a Soul. KJLR, Apple Books. https://books.apple.com/us/book/modern-man-in-search-of-a-soul/id662287838