ANIMALS AS PARTICIPANTS IN HOLISTIC ART THERAPY: INTERVIEW WITH BEVERLEY A’COURT
This interview is embraced in a series of publications for a new thematic issue of the journal entitled: ‘Animals as partners: cultural, ecological, therapeutic implications.’ In an interview, Scottish artist and art therapist Beverley A'Court talks about the holistic, environmental/ecological approach in art and art therapy. Considering the role of the environment from the point of view of such art therapy, she dwells on the phenomena of spontaneous participation of animals in creative acts and the art therapy process, their ability to “resonate” with the experiences of clients and respond to their emotional needs. Holistic art therapy is presented as allowing on a new basis to understand the participation of different forms of life in interaction and co-creation with each other aimed at restoring health, beauty and well-being.
Key words: holistic, nature-centered, ecological art therapy, animals, acausal, field, "the web of life"
Brief note about the interviewee:
Beverley A’Court, BSc.Soc.Sci. (Joint hons. Phil. & Psych.), Dip. A.T. After a brief research career in Architectural Psychology, Beverley has been practicing art therapy since 1981, initially employed in acute and long-term psychiatric services, learning disability, special and adult education, then pioneering holistic eco-art therapy via supervision, summer schools, and courses for professionals and students. As a long-term member of the Findhorn Foundation Community, she has contributed to international conferences, festivals and sustainability education programs, and developed many applications of holistic, ecological art therapy. She is an advocate for the recognition of the place of poetic language, the body, ecology, and cultural wisdom traditions in art therapy.
Alexander Kopytin (A.K.): Earlier, you talked about how, as an artist and art therapist, you practice holistic, nature-centered/ecological art therapy, which, in particular, is characterized by attuning to the environment to support human interactions with the environment, the phenomenon of resonance for the perception of information coming from the natural world, different forms of life, in creativity and the therapeutic process. Could you talk today about how different forms of life, an ecosystem, behave in the process of such interaction with the environment, and how this can help therapy?
Beverley A’Court (B.A.): I believe that we are part of an ecosystem, participating in its self-regulating processes, and that our body, mind and "environment" interact in some way in the interests of maintaining our overall health and well-being. This is typical for everyday life, as well as creative activities and art therapy. However, the complex dynamics and effects of our healing interaction with the environment with its resources of self-healing and self-regulation remain largely underestimated.
In a non-dual paradigm, the Earth is envisaged as a unified field within which the substrate matter of all life is shared, elements and compounds endlessly recycled. This implies potential ‘resonance’ among all the manifestations of these materials; common energetic properties, radiating, communicating, echoing and responding, such that the whole field of therapy, containing both client and therapist can be considered alive and potentially responsive and worthy of attention.
Shamanic traditions have always made use of nature’s ability to perceive and involve us and ‘talk back’. When we walk through a forest do we pause to wonder how the forest is experiencing us? Fairy tales abound with whispering forests, talking animals, and saints and heroes who can converse with non-human life forms.
Psychotherapy theory has focused on the human interaction between therapist and client, despite many of our clients, especially those with borderline and trauma-related conditions, having intense, significant relationships with the realms of nature, animals and the man-made world, sometimes seeing nature as ‘primary caregiver’, according to Jerome Bernstein. Eco therapies go beyond the interpersonal concerns of clients by locating them in the world and recognising their reciprocal relationship with the environment.
A.I.: I remember that in your previous interview with our journal you argued that environmental art and art therapy create additional opportunities to support those forms of “communication” between sentient subjects, including humans and non-human life forms, that are important not only to preserve the health and emotional well-being of human beings, but also the well-being and health of the natural world, due to establishing ecological consciousness and lifestyles.
B.A.: Holistic, ecological art therapy promotes a special relationship with a more than human world. Such relationship is characterized by the recognition of a common reality, the experience of closeness between the human and non-human world, which is clearly lacking for many people now. These experiences have the potential to restore our damaged sense of self, eco-identity, that is, seeing ourselves as part of the web of life, and are closely related to our ability to contribute to the well-being of the natural world.
As art therapists who practice this approach, we see nature not so much as a passive stage background that can be used as a source of inspiration or restoration of lost emotional balance. We focus on relationships with the natural world, and just as many indigenous communities use ceremonies and rituals to restore and harmonize human relationships with the natural world, we often use art as a means of building an ecological consciousness and lifestyles.
А.К.: What specific conditions or techniques related to the activation of our mindful interactions with the web of life do you use in art therapy? You mentioned earlier that during art therapy sessions you often invite clients to incorporate the garden as their creative therapy space and leave the studio for fresh air if they choose to do that.
B.A.: In ‘open door’ sessions I invite clients, if they wish, to loosely include the garden in their awareness and to venture outside if or when they feel a ‘call’, sometimes initially to go to a place that intuitively feels right for them. Invariably this place has some supportive or challenging meaning for them and an encounter occurs which enters and colours their therapeutic process. Therapy itself, at times, becomes a narrative, in which causal and other significant a-causal, but significant, connections, appear. Complex, apparently a-causal, synchronistic field phenomena occurring during ecological art therapy, especially during the client’s art-making, can be observed to have a powerful effect, ‘speaking’ directly to the client’s imagination. Seemingly witnessed and affirmed by nature, we may feel less separate, as illustrated in the examples from indoor sessions of the natural world synchronistically entering the therapy.
Stories of animal communication, protection, guidance and transferred wisdom, abound worldwide in myth, folklore and art. In ecological art therapy we can often witness the apparent continuum of imaginary-physical reality via human-animal synchronicities, which do not fit traditional Western concepts of space-time and causality, and accord more with Einstein’s circular model. Such synchronistic phenomena surrounding all stages of therapy from first contact, including animal activity in the field, potentially mirror or express aspects of the therapy.
А.К.: Could you give some examples of healing, significant contacts with wild animals, both in everyday life and in therapy?
B.A.: Animals have always been an intimate part of human life and significant presence in therapy, one which has been growing alongside the re-framing of our species’ relationship with non-human nature in accord with Buddhist and other holistic, eco-feminist and systemic world-views. Awareness of the participation of local wild animals in art therapy sessions arose from observing clients’ engagements with the garden surrounding the therapy studio.
Herring gulls, crows and other garden birds, bees, wasps, butterflies, mice, roe deer, domestic and local feral cats have all played significant roles in sessions. This process intensified 20 years ago when I moved to an area where herring gulls nest on rooftops and are renowned for dive-bombing humans and causing disturbance during nesting season. I joined the Findhorn Foundation Community where co-creation with nature is a founding and guiding principle and animal communication is practised and taught. My amateur wildlife-watching skills deepened into daily practice. Since it is now illegal to destroy nests many home owners install metal roof-spines to deter nesting. Our household tried another strategy; we spoke to the gulls on the day they arrived in April, welcoming them, telling them we were happy to share our roof-space and garden with them. We spoke to them daily and ensured that visitors did likewise. No one was dive-bombed all summer. Reknowned for stealing food from plates and, occasionally, from a child’s mouth, these so-called scavengers proved pleasant house-guests. They circled respectfully when we ate in the garden, escorted their chicks to the roof-edge as if to have us admire them, did not soil our decking or damage property, while neighbours spent desperate days shielding themselves from gull dives, scrubbing guano from their woodwork and aggravated the birds into frenzy by throwing sticks and chasing gull chicks away. We repeat this welcome annually, a practice now tried by villagers, with similar results.
From the many synchronistic events involving animals as human helpers, we must look more deeply into nature’s participation from its own side; animals acting from their own sentience and agency, in relationship to us, seemingly affected and drawn into the relational field of the therapy, therapist and client, just as we ourselves may be ‘dreamed up’, within the intricate web of life into dramas and counter-transferences, to mirror our client’s process in our own body, speech and mind.
А.К.: Do you have any examples of spontaneous participation of animals in the art therapy process?
The studio opens onto the garden directly below where the gulls nest. The gulls began to demonstrate dramatic, atypical behaviours, perceived, both by myself and clients, to be directly related to the art, the therapy and the client’s inner process. Gulls’ intelligence’ is often attributed negatively; referring to their rapid learning where to find food, but is also recognised in other individual and social behaviours. We may admire their play within the field, within which their interventions are unfailingly timely, precisely symbolic, ironic and accurate. I have learnt from them that I can invite the animal realm to participate in therapy, as part of the living field of healing, and receive a relevant response.
Nests as symbols of natural protection and potential, woven from easily handled twigs and soft leaves, moss and feathers often appear in eco art and art therapy as the psyche recovers and develops. A client was weaving a nest from soft wool and twigs when a crowd of tiny garden birds gathered outside the window then flew in synchrony to line up immediately outside the window, facing directly in to where the client sat, as if watching her at her art work. This was a touching moment as she reflected on her recent tragic loss of several family members in a violent accident. This visitation from the birds, traditionally messengers from ‘the other world’ of soul and spirit, was relevant.
Working with nature as co-therapist is not entirely contrary to the psychodynamic approach but can be viewed as a broadening of it. Our childhood social-relational identity and dynamics, especially our fundamental dependency on nature and defences against this, are transposed onto, and manifest in, our ‘transference’ relationship with the whole planet and natural world. Being alive and sentient, the world of nature speaks back.
During another client’s final session, as she was standing and drawing, having arrived at an emotionally charged place in the midst of the art work, struggling to express something, our attention was simultaneously taken by movement outside the room: A roe deer doe had stepped out of the trees and was licking her new-born faun, literally minutes after the birth, the faun teetering on its legs. The doe continued for several minutes to gently lick and tend the faun in a small patch of sunlight in direct line of view from the studio. The client and I watched in silence. The environment was completely still and no one walked or drove past. After some minutes when the faun could balance on its legs the pair withdrew back into the trees. The client exclaimed, ‘That’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve been birthing a new self’ and went on to understand a series of feelings and experiences she had been having difficulty with.
In traditional psychodynamic terms we might say she had identified with the doe, the faun, and the whole scene, projecting her desired meaning onto it. Or that the complex matrix that is life also had an active role in creating this scene at that time and place beyond reductionist analysis. Whichever explanation we choose, this is what we spontaneously do all the time: we receive, we simultaneously ‘render and receive’ reading the world metaphorically to discover ourselves.
The client and I had looked together at the scene as if it had been the art work. Silent looking, as it often does in art therapy, allowing movement to occur in the psyche. For this client, whose problems had included recurrent bullying and isolation and who also had a particular affectionate kinship with animals, this was an especially poignant and appropriate gift. The sitting and looking together in silence itself felt especially significant to me, as much of the therapy had focused on painful dynamics in relationships with women, in her family of origin and those with whom she now shared a house.
On one occasion, when I was doing some art for my own processing, a wild pheasant stepped out of the woods and walked all around the painting-in-progress, an abstract forest image in vivid colours mirroring the bird’s plumage. At the centre of the image was a crack of light breaking through the forest, a glimpse of distant light and invitation to step into some new zone, which the wild bird’s arrival also seemed to echo.
It seems to me, from observation, that often when we drop into creative absorption, a state of reverie akin to meditation, we radiate into the surroundings an ambience of calm and safety, via our electro-magnetic field and hormones etc. into which wild animals feel able to approach. We are the environment, and we co-create it in such moments.
Conversely, when a client is highly activated, making art in a disturbed state the elements and creatures close by seem to reflect this. In the 1980s and early ‘90s I witnessed raw, violent emotions being expressed – ‘pushed out’ of the body and seem to flow into the surrounding area, with harmful impacts, animals seeming to ‘catch’ the energy and attacking each other, with deadly results. This was a severe lesson to take our quantum entanglement seriously in therapy, to enable clients to take positive, creative responsibility for their explosive emotions and how they release energy into the environment. This parallels our global attitude to all our other material unwanted, ‘waste’.
Also, the physical relief of dramatic cathartic expression, while exhilarating can be very temporary and an avoidance of staying close the feelings for long enough to deeply feel and face ourself. Since then, I have taught simple visualisation methods to accompany such expression, out of respect and care for the local ecology.
А.К.: Have there been examples in your experience of how animals are included in relationships with participants in art therapy or relationships between a therapist and a client?
B.A.: One of several sessions with a couple working in managerial roles for the same organisation was held outdoors in the garden adjoining the therapy studio. Therapy had focused on the dynamics of their relationship lived within the context of occasionally conflicting work roles. They sat side by side, modelling in clay; a bowl and a ‘Venus-lady’, when conflict arose concerning authority, rank and decision-making. At this moment our attention was caught by a sudden noisy commotion directly overhead; a hawk was being surrounded and chased away by a group of seagulls nesting in this colony’s area. For several minutes the raptor repeatedly attempted to return and was violently turned back.
Including and addressing this scene brought into focus professional territories, feelings of ‘being chased away’ and ‘mobbed’, and the naming of what was being ‘driven away’ in their situation, allowing expression of pain and frustration associated with their roles. A remodelled the Venus into a ‘jug pouring itself out’, commenting on this as a symbol for how much B knows, how she works and her need to ‘pour out’ her feelings. They discussed rank, power and emotional responsibility, and identified a mutual need to see the commonalities between them rather than getting caught up in polarisations. At this moment of connection two butterflies flew directly overhead, captivating our attention with their weaving dance.
A course participant repeatedly met tiny brown butterflies during mindful walks and when working on her art outside the studio. When one flew as if to touch her, she felt a moment of delight, followed immediately by self-critical doubt, whereupon the butterfly turned and flew away. Disappointed, she wished for the butterfly to ‘come and sit on my hand.’ It turned, flew directly towards her and landed on her hand where it stayed for some time. The butterfly had been a special symbol for her for some years and appeared throughout her art work for the rest of the course, with many insightful connections.
Many such stories came from sending clients and participants around the studio, to its threshold at the open garden doors and outside, with the invitation to relax their familiar agendas concerning where and how to walk and expectations of what they might find, to allow nature or their own body parts/symptoms to guide them by deep listening, paying attention to subtle signals catching their attention; a bird call, a flutter of leaves, a flash of sunlight, the sound of an animal in the bushes. Or to take their heartfelt questions and walk with them held diffusely in mind, watching and listening for responses from the natural and man-made world around them. If the world talks back perhaps the world also listens to us and may even benefit from our attention and involvement.
A.K.: These examples of spontaneous participation of animals in therapy, in processes related to creativity, healing and spiritual growth are truly amazing. How can you explain it?
B.A.: In ancient cultural and spiritual traditions, and in many contemporary Indigenous belief systems, the world is presented as a community of life forms, interconnected with each other, understood as subjects, as presences with their own forms of awareness. This view generates ways of engaging the synchrony between the human body, with its flow of sensory experience, the influencing field of beings, objects and phenomena, together with the flow of imagination and art-making impulses rooted in ecology, culture and myth. The holistic paradigm informing eco art therapy is an alternative rationality with its own internal logic requiring appropriate modes of research.
So, a question for art therapists is, how to honour in our practice and research the ‘integrity’ of eco-art, valuing it as one of many non-conceptual forms of knowing emergent from the communion of subjects, in the process of ‘making meaning’? Honouring the embodied experience and creativity frequently challenges conventional perceptions and values, art’s role historically and its power to energise and liberate. Even what we ‘objects’ and treat as inert, are made of the same elements as our bodies, involved in electron and other exchanges with ourselves.
So, in practice, when I work outside I ‘speak’ to the place and its animals and other resident beings. I ‘ask’ permission to be there, state our positive motivation and pause to allow for a response. Occasionally there is some kind of ‘sign’ to indicate this may not be a good place – a fallen tree directly across our path, a change in atmosphere, a darkening of the sky - and we may move on a little. On leaving, I walk the perimeter of our working area and leave some kind of symbolic offering, a sprinkle of bird seed or oatmeal, or sugar crystals and thank the place and the beings who have supported and participated in the therapeutic process.
Ecological art therapy offers opportunities to validate, and advocate for, such forms of ‘communion’ between sentient subjects; special, non-psychotic relationships with the non-human world and their potential and power to heal and contribute to the multi-faceted consciousness and well-being associated with inner and outer sustainability.
Holistic eco art therapy invites and empowers clients to become their own eco-artist-healers; to attune deeply to their nature-within-nature, the body-mind-as-instrument for communing with nature’s vast field and to listen inwardly and outwardly for its song and find ways to express this. As global medicine increasingly includes eco-psycho-social factors, art therapy has a unique role in revealing the creative, healing self at work within the field of causes and conditions, potentially contributing to the re-framing of many areas of care; from diagnostic imaging using the body’s technology, to attending to the root causes of body-mind and planetary conditions.
A.K .: What is the importance of relationships with different forms of life, in particular, animals, for you personally? What place do they occupy in your work? Could you give examples of your artworks inspired by your mindful connections with animals and more-than-human life in general?
Personally, I have always found some kind of numinous solace in immersion in nature, especially in moments of inter-species communication. Animals always felt like ‘kin’. My Ethology professor at university was a Zen Buddhist master and he infused the subject with the recognition of interdependence. During art therapy training I pursued this interest further in large scale pieces combining expressive gestural painting, words, photographic images and found materials, at first exploring my own body as ‘disputed territory’ and then issues of ecological importance.
Accounts of animal empathy and grieving rituals among wild horses became a series of photo-collages and quotations from 18th and 19th century animal observers who had been dismissed as overly anthropomorphic. In the 1970s, I still encountered the domination of the lab-based, experimental paradigm and often cruel behavioural experiments, that I considered an insult to the intelligence of both animals and humans. In ethology we observe animals in their natural habitats and witness so much invention akin to creativity and how visible behaviour and its drivers in micro-processes of physiology are intricately coordinated, linked by multiple threads to the macro-movement of the elements, stars and planets and our own activities. As a local Scottish example, the dimming light in Autumn triggers a rise in testosterone in our native Red Deer, so starting their mating season. Inner physiology and outer conditions are one beautiful system-of-systems, as ancient spiritual traditions say.
My personal history, being born to homeless parents, gave me a fascination with our place on the Earth. As a young child I would explore the perimeter of our house, along the edge where ‘house’ meets ‘wild ground’ looking for tiny cracks and openings where insects and microbes might find shelter and make nests. There was no sharp boundary, organic processes were happening all along this permeable, naturally eroding ‘border’.
In Scotland the land and its wildlife are a constant inspiration to use art to advocate for, protect and celebrate. From instinct and recent science, it becomes ever clearer that we are our environment, not only are we composed from water, air, heat, minerals. However much we mentally and spiritually learn to manage our states of body and mind we radiate electro-magnetic frequencies and more into the world around us. We are co-creators of the local and possible greater, ‘atmosphere’. It is fun to demonstrate this with groups by intentionally changing our thoughts and emotions and observing what occurs in the room and environment.
The Indigenous parts of ourselves finds companionship in encounters with our wild animal kin, just look at children’s faces at zoos and wildlife parks to see the delight and play that arises. Every ‘conversation’ brings a bodily resonance, recognition of dormant faculties and new awareness of connection.
Following some of my own experiences, at a workshop in St Petersburg I invited people to share personal memories of states of intoxication and lostness, when their human mind was disabled, confused, and they become lost in wild place. Moving stories of animal companionship and assistance emerged, how animals communicated or accompanied us back to safety, as in so many ancient heroic myths and legends.
A personal anecdote, finding myself rapidly weakening with dehydration, and suddenly lost in Brazilian desert, a trio of toucans appeared overhead and somehow, I knew to follow the direction in which their vividly coloured beaks were pointing. They stayed, flying at an even speed, directly above me, until I arrived safely back to the settlement. Apart from their acting as some kind of sky-compass, the feeling of not being alone, their conscious awareness of my presence and predicament was a powerful psychological support that seemed to restore my resolve and strength to keep walking. I was told later by locals that it was extremely rare to see these birds, even more so to see three of them flying low above me.
On another occasion, I had jumped off an old fishing boat into the cold, grey North Sea and ‘stood’ watching for a wild dolphin I had heard was resident in the offshore area. I stood, I presumed, on a sandbank, and it was countable minutes before my brain awoke to the fact that there was no possible sandbank this far out at sea and I was actually standing on the back or belly of the dolphin. It must have swum directly to the boat and where I jumped and swam to and paused, to be there as soon as my feet were lowered underwater. As soon as this realisation dawned, I began to tread with my fins and the dolphin shot playfully up from under me. This was the first of many such experiences. While swimming alongside this dolphin, heading out to sea, before I could complete the thought, ‘I am getting tired’ in my own mind the dolphin would stop and extend a flipper underneath my arm to support me, allowing me to float effortlessly for as long as I needed. Dolphins are supremely equipped to read ‘subjective’ information we emit unconsciously into the surrounding environment and teach us much of what we ignore. Like so many if not all people, I have lots of such examples, primarily encounters with deer, hares, large sea birds, bees, but this whole way of knowing and area of knowledge has been marginalised by academic disciplines until recently.
Materialist science has taken a long time to ‘discover’ what many Indigenous societies have long known and encoded in traditional arts and spirituality; that trees for example, have awareness and communicate with life around them. I’ve asked personal questions and received immediate, dramatic responses; something dropping out of the branches, a bird, butterfly or bee coming close and acting in some way that appeared to me as a clear metaphor or answer to my dilemma.
If imagination is the human mind’s language perhaps for the translation of messages from nature, we could pay closer attention as we do in ecological art therapy to phenomena arising as we create art outdoors. From my experience, and anecdotes shared by clients, these moments of inter species relating are experienced as markedly different from moments of drunken delusion or psychosis, they have a distinctive healthy-feeling clarity, an awake sharpness of focus unlike states of mental disturbance. These experiences and this faculty would be a rich focus for research in eco therapies as an aspect of our self-orienting, self-regulating and self-healing nature.
I feel more at home in this new role for the therapist, as a facilitator, an accompanying travel guide, additional ears, eyes, skin, feet … with the background understanding of psychodynamic intersubjectivity, to help clients awaken to what is all around them, to notice and be open to the constant companionship, helpful mirroring, the ever-present invitation to interplay, the voices of living presences speaking back to them, shining light into their lives from shining eyes and coloured wings.
Thank you for this opportunity to share this approach which I feel is a hopeful way forward for healing our broken relationship with the rest of the life of the planet.
Interviewed by: Kopytin, Alexander
Doctor of Medical Sciences, Professor, Department of Psychology, St. Petersburg Academy of Postgraduate Pedagogical Education (St. Petersburg, Russia)
Reference for citations
Kopytin, A. (2023). Animals as participants in holistic art therapy: Interview with Beverley A’Court. Ecopoiesis: Eco-Human Theory and Practice, Vol.4(2). - URL: http://en.ecopoiesis.ru