REVISIONING ART AND NATURE: TOWARD A DEPTH PSYCHOLOGY OF CREATION
Lesley University (Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States), author of books and essays that have been widely influential and translated into many languages. He leads art studios, lectures, and teaches throughout the world and is currently working to further East-West cooperation as Co-Editor in Chief of CAET (https://caet.inspirees.com/). McNiff is the recipient of numerous honors and awards, including the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Journal of Applied Arts and Health for his leadership in advancing art as research and the Honorary Life Member Award of the American Art Therapy Association. He established the first integrated arts in therapy and education graduate training programs at Lesley University from which the field of expressive arts therapy emerged and in 2002 Lesley appointed him as its first University Professor.
This essay was written in response to Alexander’s Kopytin’s questions inviting Shaun McNiff to expand upon his presentation at the Ecological/Earth-Based Arts Therapies Conference in August of 2020 where he discussed the need for a depth psychology of art and nature. Based on an all-inclusive idea of nature and with reference to the ideas of James Hillman and Thomas Berry, the author presents his understanding of art as a force of nature, the mainstream of imagination accessible to all and focuses on the process of painting. He illustrates his statements with his own art.
Keywords: art, art therapy, creation, depth psychology, nature
In response to my opening remarks to the Ecological/Earth-Based Arts Therapies Conference in August of 2020, Alexander Kopytin asked me to expand upon two ideas that I presented—the need for a depth psychology of art and nature to hold and cultivate life-affirming and healing processes; and how the conception of nature as something separate from the person making art is at odds with reality. Two practice-oriented questions relating to the ideas were also posed: Do you invite people in your studio groups to draw from nature, or to facilitate their efforts to establish and develop their bonds with the natural environment and the earth through art?” As one of the artists showing work in the conference gallery , I was asked how my personal discipline of painting illustrates and supports “human bonds with the land and the world of nature” (A. Kopytin, personal communication, August and 16, 2020).
I appreciate these queries which concisely state the positions I tried to articulate at the conference and that I will reflect upon here. My suggestion to readers is that we should all keep returning to the questions, keep them open, and continuously spin-off our interpretations and creative responses to them.
When I speak of nature, I am referring to all of life. This includes what we call the natural realm together with the human community. There is a second aspect of the word "nature" which concerns inherent or essential qualities, the nature of a thing, that I will also discuss.
It is remarkable how nature, in the former sense, is typically defined as the physical world distinct from humans. This split, and its perhaps unintentional anthropocentric perspective, generates many problems. It also tends to characterize thinking and practices related to making art in nature or depicting nature. The separation contradicts ecological principles regarding the necessary interdependence of all forms of life—the reality in which we exist and do not necessarily see. If nature includes the entirety of life, then it follows that artistic expression, and what we call art, is also an integral feature of nature and not set apart from it. I think that an attempt at paradigm and language clarification is an essential first step in discussing relationships between art and nature, painting nature, creating in nature, with nature, as nature, and so forth, and it is especially significant if we are involved in relating artistic and psychological processes to ecological systems and thought.
However, I do credit the prevailing attitudes of division between human experience and nature for informing the counter-perspective of how everything is connected in a truly integral reality of infinite and ever-changing participants in a process of co-creating life and art. Without diminishing our human community and its needs, it is important to recognize that we are part of the whole of nature, depend on it, and are shaped by it. And of course, there are so many human activities that are contrary to the life-sustaining and organic processes of nature, another major topic beyond our scope here.
A psychology is a way of thinking about experience. Depth psychology has been distinguished from the more general orientation to a paradigm of psychological science which is antithetical to artistic discovery, by its inclusion of psychic processes that operate outside conscious thoughts and controlled experiences—especially dreams and various forms of creative imagination and expression. Traditional depth psychologies have been defined by a primary orientation to what they call “the unconscious.” While I share a commitment to the inclusion of the various forms of non-linear psychic processes, I have never accepted the notion of a realm called the “unconscious” nor its binary relationship to conscious processes. In my experience, there are degrees of awareness involving movement between conscious and nonconscious mental processes, as well as different kinds of conscious thinking that include rational and more imaginative modes.
James Hillman (1926-2011) (https://www.opusarchives.org/james-hillman-collection/) significantly transformed depth psychology by challenging its orientation to the singular figure of the individual "ego" as the primary locus of experience, restricting the larger intelligence of imagination. In revisioning depth psychology, he was particularly sensitive to how we humans benefit from closer connection to the natural world and especially the sensibilities of animals. While having the opportunity to be closely associated with James Hillman for many years, I was at that time not aware of how the work of my college teacher, Thomas Berry (1914-2009) (http://thomasberry.org/http://thomasberry.org/), had developed from the mid-1960’s when I took his small classes on Eastern Religions during the period when he had completed his book on Buddhism and was preparing Religions of India. In our classes we also explored shamanic traditions and their focus on the earth, soul, and the reciprocity of all life. What I recall clearly from the sessions was the sense of wonder, respect, and awe that he conveyed in exploring the sacred and imaginative qualities of these cosmologies. The contrast with Western traditions helped to shape my commitment to artistic expression as a vehicle of psychological inquiry and strengthened my affinity to Hillman’s thinking.
It was not until I began writing about how artistic expression can be approached as “a force of nature,” that I reconnected to Thomas Berry. I regretted not having the opportunity to introduce him to James Hillman and helping to cultivate and document a conversation between them. I had earlier brought Edith Cobb’s classic book, The Ecology of Imagination in Childhood (published in 1977 by Columbia University Press with the support of Margaret Mead) to Hillman’s attention, and he re-issued it through Spring Publications in 1993. I believe the bonds between Hillman and Thomas Berry would have run deep.
In describing the often problematic relationship of humans to the earth, in a way that is closely in sync with Hillman, Berry called for “a deep cultural therapy” which entails a questioning of our fundamental assumptions about the nature of reality, nothing less than a revisioned cosmology approaching, “the universe as a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects” [2, p. 17]. In this vision of reality as a process of interaction involving all elements of life, which I see as the basis for a new depth psychology of art and nature, the human plays a role as a co-creator, inseparable from the whole. Berry describes the need for humans to contribute in artistic and soulful ways to the healing of the earth, realizing that the “radical division between the human and the other-than-human” is in need of a cure. His conception of psychology and therapy is based on an appreciation of interdependence whereby in caring for nature, we heal our life-sustaining relationship to it. “There is no inner life,” Berry says, “without outer experience,” a condition he believed to be, dare I say in this era of exclusive focus upon cultural differences, “universal” [1, p. 82].
The new depth psychology is not anthropocentric; it includes a reciprocity of all things, including nature’s transformative processes involving both dissolution and making anew, all anticipated by Alfred North Whitehead’s vision of process as reality and by classical East Asian thought . As with nature, ideas and influences “cross-over’” and fly above our human enclosures.
My artistic practice suggests that an accurate conceptualization of the creative act requires this context of complete interdependence. We are always creating with “others,” even when alone—materials, environments, feelings, memories, influences, inspirations, gestures, colors, forms, etc. Thus, what I call communities of creation might involve working together with other people, but they are also eco-systems of creation involving so many other subtle forces and elements which may both expand and enrich our ideas about nature, our relationships to it, and our imagination of it all. While respecting different artistic disciplines, “art” in my view is ultimately inclusive of all forms of expression, with each medium involving a necessary interdependence of the senses that always work together. This whole art process generates life-enhancing energy and the transformation of afflictions and problems into affirmations of life—all of which corresponds to the metamorphic processes of nature.
The tendency to separate artistic processes from nature may be more distinct in the visual arts, perhaps due to the longstanding history of representing and depicting subjects external to the artist, particularly in the West, which are then fashioned into physical objects. This contrasts to art in the larger sense, especially performance and poetic expressions happening in the present moment.
In helping others to express themselves, I am always trying to circumvent reliable inhibitions and insecurities by presenting the process of creation in the most elemental and accessible way. These worldwide and consistent obstacles are the empirical basis for the way I approach artistic expression as organically as possible. For more than 50 years, I have been engaged with largely unplanned “natural experiments” responding to how people resist invitations to become involved in artistic expression even within safe, supportive, and non-judgmental environments. For example, with painting I say, if you can move, you can paint. The same applies to drawing, and then we can extend this movement basis of expression to all forms of artistic expression.
I present “art as a force of nature” like wind, the rhythm of waves, as fundamental as breathing , all of which is intended to encourage people to relax the controls of thought and simply begin moving and allow the innate perfecting process of gestures and action to unfold.
I consistently see that when people begin to move naturally, the expression is vital and unique. Generally, the challenge is to sustain natural gestures. I see studio participants getting off to a good start and then tightening up when they focus on control or start representing something before them or in their minds. They begin to think too much about it all, rather just letting the natural body movements lead while giving thoughts the chance to reflect and appreciate rather than direct. It is not easy to do. As Miles Davis said, it took a long time to learn how to play like himself. All of this is affirmed by the response to my book, Trust the Process: An Artist’s Guide to Letting Go . People have said that they recognize the problem and innately understand the remedy. We are part of something much bigger than ourselves and our thoughts.
It is remarkable how people everywhere, in my international experience, make compelling and unique art when they permit themselves to move naturally with art materials, and then keep moving until the process comes to a resting point. I admire Thoreau’s belief that “It is in vain to dream of a wildness distant from ourselves” (Journal IX, 1856) and “In Wildness is the preservation of the World” (Walking, 1851-1852), but I do not suggest wild or primal expressions. In addition to how this direction might set up expectations and bias, it simply is not necessary. Wildness and visceral expression happen naturally when we drop into our innate gestures. It is again unfashionable today to talk about what I have experienced as universal, common, and archetypal qualities and processes , another conversation beyond our purpose here. But this issue does relate to the second use of the word “nature” as denoting essential qualities. In my studios I see shared human urges together with the unique features and nature of an individual person’s being and expression—what the Buddhists might describe as their suchness, their intrinsic and inimitable nature.
So while I fully support and admire the increasing focus within art therapy on making art outdoors in natural environments, with organic and found materials, with a sense of connectedness to life processes beyond ourselves, and with a certain reverence and awe regarding the sanctity—the vitality—the beauty—of it all, I would encourage thinking less literally and more inclusively about nature-based and eco-processes.
Painting from Nature and the Space Between Us
In my studio groups I do not think I have ever proposed drawing or “painting from nature”—looking at a particular scene, place, or object and then making a painting in response to it or depicting it. I feel akin to what Jackson Pollock said, when Hans Hofmann asked if he ever worked from nature. He replied: “I am nature.”. As I describe above, I encourage painting like nature, as nature, with the simplest and most accessible acts, making marks and gestures, as shown in a recent film made by the London Art Therapy Centre (https://arttherapycentre.com/galleries/video-how-art-heals-integrating-practice-and-research-prof-shaun-mcniff/). I have found in my studios that beginning with elemental movement is the most accessible way to get started with freedom and spontaneity. As the process continues, people are encouraged to work with their own styles and preferences regarding how and what they paint, but I am always exhorting the naturalness and uniqueness of their expression.
I can envision situations where I might encourage people to “respond” to the immediate environment with free gestures and their innate ways of moving. It can be an important feature of the art therapy experience with an individual person, and I do this with my own painting and drawing (as I will describe), but as a universal starting point in my studio groups, I have not found it to be necessary. It has been effective to focus on the body’s gestures. This preparation in pure movement then becomes a good basis for natural and spontaneous expression if someone then wants to respond to the environment.
Yet I want to be clear that of course people do paint, as we might say, “from nature,” or in response to features of, or places in, the natural world. They are engaging other subjects in the environments in which they create. Thomas Berry’s idea of reality as a “communion of subjects” states this perfectly. As an artist, the nature that I am painting includes me. It can all be viewed as an interdependent eco-system of co-creation. The tree, rock, or place to which I respond in my painting is a co-participant with which I create, and I make something new from the relationship, or what Berry might call “communion.”
As artists commonly say, every painting or drawing that responds to nature involves an abstracting process whereby we create compositions that extract the “nature” of what we see and experience. Even the most detailed and literal representations do this. I prefer art that “suggests” subject matter while maintaining a creative tension between what is represented and the expressive gestures or abstractions—all of which transmit energy. Similarly, classical Chinese painting focuses on the expression of the painters, their feelings, and ways of interpreting a scene, as contrasted to literal depiction. In my view, this is a better source of art medicine for most of us than attempts at representational exactitude. . However, I have learned to avoid making absolute statements. Some might prefer the challenge of detailed and precise representation and then feel satisfaction in the achievement. Motives vary, like all of life. But in my experience, the more spontaneous, movement-based way of painting is more accessible to most people and for me, of better quality. The shadow of my own art is tightness, and I approach it as a guide or ally, helping me appreciate a more natural, often even wilder, way of moving.
Regarding Alexander’s Kopytin’s questions about how my painting relates to nature, for many years I have concentrated on responding to immediate environments in keeping with my constant reference to artistic expression as a response to life situations. Throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s I made art within the residential studios that I led throughout the world. The various physical environments, both organic and human-made, and the dynamics of the studio in which the art-making takes place, work their way into the compositions that are figurative, completely imaginal, and often involve animal-human interaction.
Figure 1. New Mexico, 1992, 20x26”, tempera & aquarelle on paper
Figure 2. Swiss Man in April, 1991, 30x34”, tempera, oil pastel & pencil on paper
My books Depth Psychology of Art  and Art as Medicine , the two that anticipated what we now call "art-based research," happened during this period. Before making art in the studio groups, I gradually left my formative New York City mid-1960’s abstract expressionist painting by making art together with patients in the art therapy studio where I worked in a large state hospital during the 1970’s. The cooperation with the patients taught me how to draw and paint in response to life with my most natural and innate gestures. I see it as part of nature, what I have called “imaginal realism.” And while this developed within an art therapy community with other people, my life context at the time, it has been consistently maintained and developed as I paint alone in my studio.
For the past thirty years I have tried to work closer to home, exploring the infinite possibilities within a very small radius in relation to the place where I live. I am what is called a studio painter and do not think I have ever painted directly from nature—outside—in plein air. I seek out compositions with my camera and use them to study various physical settings and structures. I do make sketches in outside environments, often while traveling, and they inform my paintings. The sketches are themselves expressive interpretations and never exact attempts at replications. They include responses to the actual physical setting as well new features emerging from the process of making the picture. I move as freely as possible, usually with bold gestures—-in keeping with my emphasis on acts of nature.
Figure 3. Pasture Wall, 2019, 9x12”, pencil on paper
The process immerses me in places, environments and forms, and helps me know them better. The innate and spontaneous compositional structures model how I paint on canvas. As I document art made over the years, I do not see a hierarchy between the drawings and paintings. I perceive the former as sometimes presenting my most authentic and natural expression.
Although photos and drawings play an important role in developing relationships with possible subject matter and compositions, I have found that I must let them go once the preliminary structures of a painting take shape. Usually, I will not look at them at all when I begin to work—but they are “familiars” in memory that inform my gestures. Once the painting begins, even if it may appear to directly represent a place or thing, I find that it must take shape unto itself and as a result of my reactions to what exists on the canvas. It is all about the paint and gestures—making “the painting,” and not the thing or image to which I may be initially responding.
The painting or drawing is neither me nor the object of contemplation, but a new and autonomous life that takes shape in the space between us—the medial realm of imaginative artistic expression with its countless contributing influences, the community of participants I described above. It is my response to what I see, or to a situation in which I am living. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=feGmBrLI5J4) Here are two recent paintings that emerged from the process I describe:
Figure 4. Pasture 3, 2019, 33x40”, oil on canvas
Figure 5. Pasture 2, 2019, 29x35” oil on canvas
In addition to this body of work responding to actual landscapes, I sustain the more completely imaginal art that began in the 1980’s where I combine qualities of my current landscapes with the figures I create.
Figure 6. Man & Dog, 2020, 16x20”, oil in canvas
Creating with Disturbing Conditions
In closing, we should consider how difficult and uncomfortable circumstances, especially now during the pandemic of 2019-2021, align with the idea of creating together with our immediate environments. Since I have been talking about relationships with life-enhancing places where I often experience beauty, it might be asked to what extent I embrace or consider the inevitable chaos of life, menacing situations, fears, losses, and angst, as partners in creation.
I believe that the dark and troubling places, the viral and life-threatening forces, are integral to nature. They make their contributions to change and understanding. As Theodore Roethke wrote, “In a dark time, the eye begins to see.” Artistic expression does something life-affirming with loss and destruction. New life emerges from the crucible of the creative process. Disturbance fuels transformative artistic expression—what I have experienced as art alchemies. The way forward may be far from fluid, and is more likely to be a “groping,” as Rudolf Arnheim said to me in considering the transformative role of chaos, “for a new, more complex sense of order” (R. Arnheim, personal communication, September 11, 1994).
I am certainly not asking for these negative things, but they happen. The most challenging aspects of life may make the strongest case for an ecological and nature-based approach to art and healing, where the intelligences and unrelenting adaptations of nature model and support how we humans can act within it.
Reference for citations
McNiff, S. (2021). Revisioning art and nature: Toward a depth psychology of creation. Ecopoiesis: Eco-Human Theory and Practice, 2(1). [open access internet journal]. – URL: http://en.ecopoiesis.ru (d/m/y)
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“Ecopoiesis: Eco-Human Theory and Practice” is the international multidisciplinary Journal focused on building an eco-human paradigm, disseminating eco-human knowledge and technology based on the alliance of ecology, humanities and the arts. Our journal aims to be a vibrant forum of theories and practices aimed at harmonizing the relations of mankind and the natural world in the interests of sustainable development, the creation of Eco-Humanity as a new community of human beings and more-than-human world. The human being is an ecological being, not separate from the world. The Ecopoiesis journal is based on that premise and aims to develop a body of theory and practice within that framework.
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