Sunday, November 29, 2009

Something fun

Cornerstone Gardens in Sonoma, California.

Gardens that are actually artwork. I found it through watching the Victory Garden on PBS today. Unfortunately, my browser doesn't like the site. So, if you also have problems, try this link instead.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Jerusalem and Stendhal Syndromes

Before we go any further, let me define the term syndrome as: A group of symptoms that collectively indicate or characterize a disease, psychological disorder, or other abnormal condition. Or in other words, a syndrome is a reoccurring set of symptoms that suggest a disorder or disease. Whenever I see the term syndrome used, I usually keep in mind that it is a condition defined by symptomology and not a definite cause or overwhelming reaction. As far as I am concerned, a syndrome is what we used to define something until we can study it and get a better idea of what's going on.

So the whole notion of adding "some experts don't believe this actually exist" when discussing a syndrome, strikes me as unnecessary. If there was firmer data on it, then the condition usually gets renamed something else and the syndrome part dropped, because it is no longer being defined as "a group of symptoms". At the same time, vehemently denying a syndrome exists is luricrous. The groups of symptoms exist independently of what people believe, what is actually being debated is whether or not this grouping defines something specific or not. But that cannot be scientifically determined until we test it. And to do that, we need to identify the set of symptoms to be researched, thus the designation of a syndrome.

Yeah, I know. We can argue that this is just my interpretation of the matter, but since I am only going to throw out some extra ideas about these syndromes (after describing them) in this post, my interpretation works for the mental exercise ahead. I'll start by explaining that sometimes these syndromes are triggered in people with mental illnesses. However, there have been reports of people who didn't have a mental illness, who subcomed to the syndromes and then quickly recovered. Unfortunately, many of those refuse to talk about it after their recovery.

So what exactly are these syndromes and why are they connected?

These two syndromes are forms of culture shocks. The Jerusalem Syndrome centers around a religious or spiritual element. I bring it up because it actually has more case studies than the Stendhal (or Florence) Syndrome, while having many similarities. The major difference is that people with Stendhal Syndrome rarely begin to think that they are religious personages from the past. However, in the less severe stages of both syndromes, the sufferers feel the following symptoms: anxiety, agitation, nervousness and tension, plus other unspecified reactions. Both syndromes usually occur when the sufferer is separated from friends and family. They feel as is something had opened up inside them. Both groups of sufferers (if the syndrome is not occurring with other psychopathy) feel an extreme reluctance to discuss the experience. To quote Bar-El, in regards to the Jerusalem Syndrome: "Upon recovery, patients can usually recall every detail of their aberrant behaviour. They are inevitably ashamed of most of their actions, and feel that they have behaved foolishly or childishly."

While Jerusalem Syndrome deals with religious cultural experiences, Stendahl deals with being overwhelmed by art. Listen to Digital Flotsam 59 – Stendhal Syndrome by P. W. Fenton, as he recounts his encounter with Stendhal Syndrome. Like those of Jerusalem Syndrome, Stendahl sufferers also feel this shame of being physically overwhelmed, only by art. Quoting Bar-El again:

The condition most closely resembling the Jerusalem syndrome is the Stendhal syndrome identified by Magherini (1992), which describes a particular acute psychotic reaction arising among art-loving tourists visiting Florence. The syndrome is named after the French writer Stendhal, who described feelings of déjà vu and disquiet after looking at works of art in Florence. Magherini in her book Sindrome di Stendhal (1992) presented the statistical, socio-demographical, clinical and travel-related variables of 106 tourists who were admitted to hospital in Florence between 1977 and 1986. She described cases in which a small detail in a famous painting or sculpture evoked an outburst of anxiety, reaching psychotic dimensions. According to her, such reactions are usually associated with a latent mental or psychiatric disturbance that manifests itself as a reaction to paintings of battles or other masterpieces and culminates in the full-blown Florence or Stendhal syndrome.

In more recent news, a Russian woman threw a terra-cotta mug at the Mona Lisa last August. Based on the news article, severe Stendahl sufferers can just as violent as their Jerusalem Syndrome counterparts. While most of them appear to have the transcendent overwhelming of the body, I can think of reasons why the woman may have had a violent reaction to the Mona Lisa.

First possibility: she have become frightened by the bodily sensations of Stendalh Syndrome and went into fight mode to take control of the situation. I've almost done something similar during a panic attack, but being aware of what was going on, I was able to remove myself from the situation before I did harm to anything.

Second possibility: she was shocked by the reality of the Mona Lisa versus her mental image of it, and reacted violently to this disruption of her world view, coupled with the Stendahl Syndrome (or maybe not). I have never seen the real Mona Lisa, but according my art history professor, most people are shocked to see it smaller than then they thought. Often when we see depictions of it in movies, cartoons, and comics, it is often made to look much bigger than its actual 77 cm × 53 cm (30 in × 21 in) size. This article on the attack actually gives you a better sense of its size. Another possible surprise for those who haven't taken art history, the Mona Lisa is painted on wood, not canvas. I'm not sure how obvious that part is, but it is something most people don't know.

Third possibility: she made some personal connection to the painting and acted on that. The Guardian article suggests that possibility itself. Apparently, she was denied French nationality, according to some sources. However, as the Guardian pointed out, she could have easily picked another, unprotected, painting to attack. For all we know, Mona Lisa may remind her of someone she felt rejected her in life.

Learning from primitive cultures

In my last post, the second video I embedded by Gever Tulley mentioned how the Inuits taught their children how to use knives at a very young age, thus allowing them to gain better control of a basic tool of their life. In my foundations of sociology class, I had the opportunity to read and critique a wonderful article by Richard Sorenson on the Fore culture, which had some amazing cultural social stucture.

I like the talks, because they give me a way to share ideas without totally bogging people down with my wordiness. I had thought I had found an excellent talk about documenting endangered cultures; however, while the efforts shown are commendable, I truly feel that the speaker is missing out on the real lost of these cultures. It's good to know that there are other cultures and other ways of doing things, but we also need to save the lessons of life from these culture and learn from their social structure. We obvioiusly can't apply everything we learn and some of it we may not want to, but some cultures can give us wonderful examples on how to deal with others and life.

So, instead of treating you to a video (which you can find here on, I will instead give you my critique of Sorenson's article. Yes, I'm lazy when it comes to repeating information, but my friends already know that.

A Doerr
April 3, 2008

Growing Up as a Fore Is to Be “In Touch” and Free (from Readings for Sociology)

The thesis of Richard Sorenson is that the reduction of cultural diversity may rob us of some very important knowledge and influences. He bases this on his observations of the Fore people in Papua New Guinea. It is obvious that he considers their original cultural to be a utopia of human interaction and child rearing. His downplaying of the fact these people have patterns of settling and then migrating when the land no longer can support them shows a willingness to overlook the fact that if the survival rate of the people improved, they would have eventually developed like many other ancient cultures who found that with success comes an increase in structure.

However, his point that we would do well to record these cultures before they become “corrupted” by Westernization, is a very valid one. Knowledge and skill can just as easily be lost as gained when a culture changes. Art professors have commented that their students no longer have the fine skills the artists of previous generations did because they no longer have to do as much by hand. By knowing what we have lost, it is possible to perhaps relearn it or at least modify it to work to our own cultural benefit. In the case of the Fore, the most precious knowledge would be that on how to raise confident and wise children with few emotional problems.

Sorenson’s article also shows how quickly a culture can be changed when it is naturally inquisitive and opened to ideas. Indeed, he states that this was the downfall of the Fore culture. Something as simple as a road can make a great deal of difference. But his article shows a lot more than just that. It shows how people in primitive cultures actually have comparable intelligence and mental sophistication to be able to adapt to a more industrial way of life if they are open to the concept, belying the ideas of inferior races. It shows how rushed cultural changes can “toss the baby out with the bath water”, suggesting that we would do well to revisit our own cultural pasts to see what we have left behind.

This article is worth keeping in any family counselor’s personal library. While the Fore culture can never be regained in this world, there is enough there that may help us sort out dysfunctions in our own family relationships. In the end, Sorenson’s point about learning about primitive cultures before they are lost, is more than aptly made.

I know, it would probably be more helpful if I directly quoted from the article. If you are really curious, you can read some of Sorenson's work here. It's not the same article I critiqued, but it covers some of the same data.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Art and Thinking

When I read some of the theories about how art began with humanity, I can't help but compare them to how drawing develops in children. There is such a strong connection between drawing development and cognitive development, as well as manual development, in children that it is hard to believe that "art" began as some dream state as some might claim. I'm not saying that it doesn't create an altered mental state, because it does. I'm just saying that art's beginning is entwined with the process of thought and the communication thereof. The existence of pictographs before writing also strongly points to a hand and hand relationship between art and communication. There is research that shows a connection between language and cognitative ability:

Neural correlates of Early Stone Age toolmaking: technology, language and cognition in human evolution.
Does Language Shape What We Think?

So it really shouldn't be that hard of a leap to connect drawing to the cognition process. Recently, I watched an older TED talk which showed this connection in a interesting way. I'll let Gever Tulley explain...

His observation that the act of decoration is part of the creative problem solving process, a method for letting the mind wander freely for a while, presents an possible insight into how our minds work. Tulley takes things a step further, introducing how manual development helps us mentally in this next talk.

I like the idea of his tinkering school. I like it even better that he can back his views up with anthropology and other science.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Trying to understand world views

Devdutt Pattanaik, Chief Belief Officer of The Future Group, explains how the mythos of the East and West affect their business plans, art, and world view. I love how he illustrates the difference between "my world" and "the world", because no matter how much we want to believe that we are seeing "the world", we are still seeing it through "my world". This is why I have investigated perception in this blog--more specifically the perception of our basic senses and how they actually work, which is just as much subjective as it is objective. The truth is that our own physical natures, our mental biology and physiology are built around the idea of what is useful to our individual organism. As such, we, as living beings, can never truly escape the subjective side of our nature.

In fact, it has been my observation that the more we try to deny our subjectivity, the more likely it is that we will become a victim to it. It's like having a broken step in our staircase of thought and refusing to believe it is there. If you believe it's not there, then there is no reason not to step into the area . . . and then falling into the hole of your own biases. If you accept that the step is broken, then you can step over it, or step lightly on it; thus avoiding becoming stuck in your own subjectivity.

In psychology, the phenomenon of denying one part of one's nature and over-emphasizing its opposite is called suppression. It's great for short-term crisises (all coping mechanisms exist for a reason), but it's probably one of the greatest causes of neuroticism. Joseph Zinker in his book Creative Process in Gestalt Therapy, gives vivid examples on how "owning" one's suppressed characteristics can actually improve the desired one. As he states, "if I don't allow myself to be unkind, I can never be genuinely kind." (p 202) I know of several people who are so caught up with the notion of having to be nice, that they are actually more cruel because of their rigid beliefs in what nice should be. Some of them go even to the point of being domineering and controlling of others, chaining them to situations or solutions to the point that person being "helped" by these beliefs of "niceness" could conceivedly find death a less painful experience.

As hard as it is to believe, there are many case examples of people becoming more of what they desired, by accepting what they disdain in themselves. This doesn't mean becoming Mr Hyde. As Zinker points out, a healthy person may not always approve of their darkness, but acknowledging it allows them more freedom to be more effective with their lightness. John Bradshaw, in his book Healing the Shame that Binds You, likens suppression to hungry wolves at the door. It takes a lot of energy to starve and block out your dark side. When you let it in and feed it appropriately, several things happen. First, you usually find out that your dark side isn't as bad as you feared. Second, you have better control over your dark side. In fact, if you treat it more as a tool in your toolbox, than a demon to be banished, you can use it to your benefit. Instead of "giving in to the dark side" and letting it take over, you are truly taking the reigns and giving your darkness direction. You are the one in control of your desires. Also, you have more energy. By making your "wolves" work for you, you can get more done. Bradshaw has a wonderful exercise in his book, called "Making peace with all of your villagers". In it, not only do you identify the parts of yourself you are suppressing, but you find out how those parts, properly used, can help you in healthy and acceptable ways.

If you want another way to look at it, consider Viktor Frankl's theory on paradoxical expectations. My son has used it for years to control some of his more anxious behaviors. I don't know why it strikes such a chord with him, but it works better for him than me. I guess I'm not so convincing to myself.

So, tying this back to Pattanaik's talk: to understand people, it helps to understand what you are prizing in your world view and what they prize in their world view. I believe that each encounter between individuals has a cultural clash involved, which may or may not create misunderstanding. I was going to use a book I recently start reading to explore this, but as I began to analyze the differences in my world view and the author's, I discovered that what we really had was a congruency clash, not a cultural clash. Books I have culture clashes with do take longer to read, but I usually walked away with a better understanding of people, even if it doesn't transform my world view. Books I have congruency clashes with are another matter. I can more or less read anything non-fictional as long as the writer is congruent in his or her views. I may still disagree with them, but I can stick with their idea development. However, if they can't stick to their own idea development, I start to become agitated. If they can't stick to their own idea development AND start writing in a defensively persuasive way, I had to push the book away. As someone who is very skilled in defensive persuasion herself, I can spot when someone is writing out of a fear-based agenda, even if they are claiming to have the objectivity of a computer.

Anyway, I could try to force myself to continue reading the book out of an attempt to be open-minded, but these types of books tend to make me more narrow-minded because of their combativeness. Reading it out of principle would subvert that principle. So, I am going to put this book aside and see if I can find a book on the same subject written by someone who is less defensive.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


Naming science as his chief inspiration, Mathieu Lehanneur shows a selection of his ingenious designs -- an interactive noise-neutralizing ball, an antibiotic course in one layered pill, asthma treatment that reminds kids to take it, a living air filter, a living-room fish farm and more.

And by science, he includes behavioral science too.

Unfortunately, this video is not on YouTube yet, so you might need to go here to see it.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Adding another wish list

This one is just for books I want for research purposes. In other words, it's only being made public for the curious. So far I have a lot of books on art, cognition, senses, psychology, art history and color.

In particular, I also have a book on color science. This is deliberate on my part. I used to be a packaging quality assurance lab technician for a top Fortune 100 company and I had to learn color science for one of my projects. While I don't need the formulae, I do remember some very interesting science in regards to color and I would like to review it.

So here it is, for the morbidly curious, Cosmic Siren's Research Book Wishlist!

Thursday, November 12, 2009


In his talk about compassion, Daniel Goleman mentions that the most important factor in determining whether or not someone will act like a good Samaritan is if whether or not they feel rushed. Along the same vein, Carl Honore's talks about the need to slow down in this world that is speeding towards the future:

But is slow always the answer? Too often people go from one extreme to another. Luckily, Philip Zimbardo gives us a healthy view on time:

The past gives us roots. The future gives us wings. The present gives us energy. The trick is to know which focus to use when.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Compassion from a Secular View

I may address compassion, using most of the TED talks from the Charter on Compassion, along with other sources in my religious journal during the holidays, but for now I'll just share these secular views of the evolution of compassion.

Couldn't find this video on YouTube. If you cannot see the embedded video, then go to

Covers the genetic reasons for the Golden Rule, Game Theory, and economic interdepencies. Also introduces the concept of "moral imagination", otherwise known as the age-old adage of putting yourself in another's shoes.

The next talk shares some of the science research dealing with the psychology of compassion. This is a very engaging talk and quite enjoyable.


It is interesting that the research Dr. Daniel Goleman shows that while we are all neurologically wired for compassion, what determines whether we will do a compassionate act or not is usually how hurried or pre-occupied we are.

I am also stuck by the fact that neurological studies show that the act of doing something for someone else, usually triggers the circuitry of compassion in the brain. I can give several quotes and truisms from my youth and religion, which attest to this phenomenon, that I have found to be very true myself. Likewise, he shares an insight gained from a serial killer, who once said, "If I had felt their distress, I could not have had done. I had to turn that part of me off."

To expand your vocabulary, Goleman shares the word "pizzled" - the emotion one experiences in that moment when someone suddenly answers their cell phone, iPhone, Blackberry, whatever, and acts as if the first person no longer exists.

While I agree that the act of noticing is a major step towards compassion, it takes more than just noticing to enact effective compassion. As they say, "The road to Hell is paved with good intentions." To give quality compassion, one needs to take a little more time to find the root cause and not just do bandage compassion all of the time. A bandaid in the wrong place can sometimes be worse than no bandage at all, but it doesn't need to happen if, along with noticing, you also listen. Then you will better know whether the bandage needs to be here or there, or if maybe you need to help the person get to a doctor instead.

When I was young, I thought I was a compassionate person, and in my defense, I did strive to be one. But as I experienced more of life's obstacles, I realized that some of the acts of my younger self were not really as compassionate as I thought they were. As Carl Rogers was fond of pointing out, the only person who really knows what is going on inside a person, is the person themselves. So, listen as well as see, and you will increase your changes of giving quality compassion.

Left Brain/Right Brain Components of Art

Cutting and pasting part of the capstone paper again. ;)

Perception in the left hemisphere.
If there are two words that describe how the left hemisphere perceives the world, those words are "details" and "boundaries". This might be explained by the fact that, while the ears and eyes send data to both hemispheres, the left brain hears the higher frequencies of sound and sees the shorter wavelengths of light. The higher frequencies of sounds helps the left hemisphere to distinguish vocalizations and language sounds, the sounds that the speech areas of the brain need to interpret. The shorter wavelengths of light helps to show lines, edges, and boundaries. (Taylor, 2006) Dr. Howard Sachs, a retired neurologist, decided to continue doing art after he suffered a stroke to his right hemisphere. The following image of his art shows some of the typical traits of artwork done by the left hemisphere: many details, but poor proportions, spatial relationships and overall coherence. (Springer & Deutsch, 1998)

Painting by Dr. Howard Sachs, MD. PhD. Used with permission.

In a very real sense, the left hemisphere cannot see the forest for the trees. While it focuses on details, it does not keep track of the relationships between those details. Relational data is often fuzzy, something that it is not well equipped to deal with. The left hemisphere tells us the boundaries of our environment and the boundaries of our own bodies. (Taylor, 2006). Ironically, it pays the most attention to the right side of the body, sometimes causing a degree of attention neglect to parts (and even the environment) on the left. (Springer & Deutsch, 1998)

Perception in the right hemisphere.
The two words that describe how the right hemisphere perceives the world are "novelty" and "global". The right brain hears the lower frequencies of sound and sees the longer wavelengths of light. The lower frequencies of sounds helps the right hemisphere to distinguish bodily and nature sounds, such as intestinal gurgling and thunder. The longer wavelengths of light blurs lines and edges, making areas and the relationships between them more obvious. (Taylor, 2006) An example of this is Edvard Munch’s painting, The Scream, which shows some of the typical traits of artwork done by the right hemisphere. If we ignore the deliberate distortion of the main subject, we can tell that the perspective and spatial relationships are accurate, with sparse details. (Springer & Deutsch, 1998)

The Scream by Edvard Munch (1893).
An interesting side-note: when Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor (2006) was recovering from her left hemisphere stroke, she didn’t give any consideration to colors until her mother pointed them out to her. This could be considered just a case study anomaly, except for the fact that anthropologists and linguists studying color have noted that the more primitive the culture, the less colors they will have names for among the general populace. Berlin and Kay's (as cited in Gates, 1999) evolution of linguistic development, in regards to color, states that there are seven stages of color recognition: from black and white to black, white, red, green, yellow, blue, brown, purple, pink, orange and grey. More recent studies show that Western civilization has around twelve colors in common usage, in addition to various colors that come and go as fashion dictates. In every culture, artisans will recognize and name more colors than the normal populace because the distinctions are useful to them. (Gage, 1999) It would appear that while the right hemisphere can see colors, it takes the left hemisphere to find a use for them and give them consideration.

Cooperation between the hemispheres.
Most of the tasks done by the brain require input from both hemispheres. The ears, eyes, and sense of touch send signals to both sides, though the signals are stronger for the hemisphere opposite of them. To help the brain adjust to possible injury, each hemisphere can do many of the same tasks, but in their own way. One of the problems that researchers face is the fact that hemispheres are so adept at covering for the other that it can make narrowing in on significant differences difficult. Both Dr. Taylor (2006) and Dr. Sachs (2008) were able to recover some of their damaged hemisphere’s functions through the training of the other hemisphere. Five years after Dr. Taylor’s stroke, she was able to do division and other simple mathematical problems. Two years after that, she was teaching Gross Anatomy again. As of 2006, she was a consulting neuroanatomist at the Midwest Proton Radiotherapy Institute, helping stroke survivors neurologically rehabilitate themselves. (Taylor, 2006) Dr. Sachs, in his 80s, is retired and living in an assisted living center. Even though it takes lots of concentration on his part, he still paints on occasion. He is fascinated by the lines and furrows of his fellow resident’s faces, though they will not sit for him. Here is another painting by Dr. Sachs in which the defects of his right hemisphere injury are not as apparent:

Painting by Dr. Howard Sachs. Used with permission.

When there isn’t an injury, there are many times symmetrical responses in the hemispheres while doing tasks, even if one side initiates the task first. It is through the process of "cross-cuing" that the hemispheres share information with each other. However, not every task gets originally sent to the hemisphere best suited to perform it, though the hemisphere always performs the task consistent with its own style. Some studies suggest that the mental task to be performed is usually more important than the nature of the stimulus when it comes to hemisphere selection. (Springer & Deutsch, 1998)

Gage, J. (1999). Color and meaning: art, science, and symbolism. Berkeley : University of California Press.
Sachs, H. (2008, August). Drawing from the left side of your brain. Howard's Weblog. Retrieved May 21, 2009, from
Springer, S. P. & Deutsch, G. (1998). Left brain, right brain: perspectives from cognitive neuroscience. 5th ed. New York : W. H. Freeman and Company.
Taylor, J. B. (2006). My stroke of insight: a brain scientist’s personal journal. New York : Viking.

Friday, November 06, 2009

A Color Exercise

Just something fun for you.

  1. Go to
  2. Select your favorite colors in order of preference.
  3. Go on to the second part - you don't need to worry about the time wait this time.
  4. Select the colors in order of the frequency you wear them.
  5. Save the results you get.
  6. Wait a day or two (or at least a few hours).
  7. Take the test again, but this time pick the color the attracts your eye first as the tiles dwindle, wait the time suggested between parts, and do it again.
  8. Compare results.

While the first results may have some truth to it, if you're like me, the second results will be more accurate for your current situation. This is one of the techniques I have found in therapy art to be the most useful - going with the mind's immediate response versus going with what you normally would claim an affinity to.

One thing the "about" page misses is the fact that Luscher actually measured body responses to color too. His original subjects were wounded soldiers, if memory serves me right. I've lost my copy of his book during one of my moves. However, when I used to do this test with my own set of tiles, I found the chapters on physical responses very useful. It is rather interesting to see how people are more drawn to the psychological aspects. But then, the physiological results usually indicated problems not easily fixed, and therefore more depressing than the psychological results.

But like I said, I'm doing this from memory, since most of the online stuff about Luscher deals more with what I consider the more fluffy stuff. (Okay, I'm minimizing here, since to be honest, today's results were so on the nose, I would be hard pressed to get more accurate results.) However, I have found this site => and once I get another set of color tiles, I'm thinking of checking it out. Well, if I have the money to spare too. I might be better off getting another copy of the original book again.

Aesthetic versus Psychological Placement of Art Elements

One thing I have found while working with art is that it is the actual doing of art that is the most therapuetic part of therapy art. Yes, art can be used to diagnose things like schizophrenia and possible sexual abuse; but that is not therapy, that is diagnostics and should only be done by someone who has training in doing it.

There are several reason for this, but one of the major mistakes I've seen made by people, who attempt to do this because they think they can know people better than the person themselves, is that they don't understand that not all elements in a work of art are there for psychological reasons. I once questioned the reason why art therapists are required to take studio art classes, because I found that my art professors had a tendency to insist on certain elements in their student's work. This outside control may make good art, but not good therapy. I understood the need for learning how to do the art, in order to help the client use the materials, but I often felt at odds with my profs. I finally accepted the fact that my art professors were only doing their job and teaching us aesthetics.

Even though an art professor can encourage a student to do something of personal meaning to them, they still will introduce elements into the student's work. Take a look at this lithograph I made last year.

Sing a Song of Sixpence by ~mamaslyth on deviantART

Now, there is a lot of personal symbolism in the piece. I am the first to admit that. However, while discussing this piece with a counseling professional without art therapy training, he asked me about the symbolism of the floor tiles. I said in a rather reactive fashion that the floor tiles had no real significance, though I then added some possible symbolism for it. My reaction was emotional because I didn't make the decision to put the checker board tiles in the picture. It was my lithography professor's idea. My reaction was from a neurotic need of mine to not take credit for another person's ideas. This tends to be a very big deal to me, hence the knee-jerk response.

My lithography prof had me introduce the tiles because I had too much white space for a good print. Even though I could come up with possible symbolic reasons for the checkerboard, none of them had any real connection to the actual meaning of the print, itself. I chose to copy the element in other prints in the series because part of the assignment was to make the series coherent and repeating elements is a quick and dirty way of doing that. Had the counseling professional had the same exposure to art education that I had, he would have not put much significance to an element added there to improve my grade in a class.

If you want more proof that checkerboards really aren't that significant to me, feel free to check out some of my other art. You will see that, outside to the American Mutt series, I rarely use checkerboarding in it.

More art

Another major mistake, one most frequently made by lay people (and some professionals, I'm not going to let them off the hook, either) is not understanding that the most important meaning of a symbolic element is what it means to the artist. In my understanding, there are at least three levels of symbolism: the personal, the cultural, and the archetypical. As someone who has written poetry since the age of seven, I have had the cultural and archetypical meanings applied to my work by strangers with really amusing results at times. Because of this, I always make a face when someone wants me to proof read poems.

My favorite example of the differences between levels of symbolism is the color yellow. Archetypical, yellow represents things like the Sun, warmth, joy, intellect and a host of other things with are common among most humans that live on this planet. An example of cultural difference is how yellow can mean cowardly to one culture and divine in another culture. We can also have subcultural meanings. Take the sports fan - depending on what team they cheer for, yellow can be either a good thing or a bad thing. Then there is the personal level. For me, personally, yellow is a color I usually avoid wearing because it emphasizes the yellow tones in my skin, making me look like I'm sick. For a friend of mine, yellow is one of her favorite colors because when she was a kid, she used to hide among her grandmother's yellow rose bushes when she needed peace and quiet. For her, yellow means peace and security. For another friend, yellow is a terrifying color that can trigger flashbacks because it was a color that had ritualistic importance to her abuser.

Of the three of us, I am the most likely to use yellow for aesthetic reasons in a work of art. In fact, the way I found out about their personal meanings for yellow was because, several years ago, I used yellow as a major element on a webpage and they shared their reactions to it. I almost changed the element for the second friend, but we agreed that it was my webpage and I needed to go with what I felt would work. I did, however, avoided using yellow on certain pages for her.

I am willing to admit that 80 to 90% of the time, you can get really close using the cultural and archetypical results. It's that other 10 to 20% that's going to mess you up. That's not really a problem if you are reading something for your own benefit - you should find your own meanings in art and literature. Just don't attribute it to the artist or author!!! In fact, by taking responsibility for your interpretations - that it is truly yours and not another's - you will actually gain a better understanding of yourself and your world, in my experience. Besides, that 10 to 20% lets you, the audience, become part of the work.

In regards to personal therapy, though, this is a bad thing. It is better for a therapist to avoid putting too much of themselves into a client's piece of work. The idea is to let the client have their voice and express their thoughts and feelings - not to echo the therapist's philosophical systems. Some connection needs to be made between the therapist and the piece, but a good art therapist can say "This is how I view the piece and this is how the client views it." And once the client has made their view known, the therapist can share their view to show that they also have been touched by the work, as well as offer possible alternate ways to look at it. If any of the alternate views strikes a chord with the artist/client, then the therapist has a better understanding of what is going on than when no chord is struck.

Anyway, the point is personal symbolism will trump the other symbolic meanings of an art element. If you don't know the personal symbolism behind the elements, or how the elements were chosen, then chances are you will be wandering in the wrong direction, while attributing meaning to a piece of art. In the strict audience sense, that's fine. In a therapuetic sense, it's not.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

How the Internet Enables Intimacy

Stefana Broadbent's research shows how when given (or taking) the opportunity to communicate with other people, we usually spend around 80% or our time in contact with 2 to 4 specific people.

I had sort of a disturbance within myself when she pointed out how separating work and intimacy was an artificial construct from the industrial revolution, because I really do not believe that your home and work worlds should intersect . . . to a point. But as I thought it over, I realized that the things I had the most problems with and had seen the most disruption form, were situations where someone tried to force an intimacy that wasn't already there. Especially when managers or supervisors are involved. I've seen supervisors try to set up employees to date their children. I've had one supervisor who was actually very offended with me because, while I WAS AWAY FROM WORK, I called my family, instead of her, for a personal problem. And people there wondered why I was so hestitant to share what happened to me outside of work.

Then I considered the research done on "job spouses" and other intimate relationships that develop in the work place because people spend more time there than with their own families. I thought about how the cost of broken homes finds its way into the work place, despite management's thinking that it can dictact how a person spends their mental time. It seems to me that this need for having intimate emotional contact is so basic to the human spirit, that if it isn't met in some constant way, it will be met in another.

I think we need a study comparing the family stability and rates of individual stress in work places were management tries to strictly prohibit employees from talking with those they are emotionally intimate with and companies that do not. I suspect that if we remove those few people who spend an exceeding amount of time on personal drama, that the data will show that people are usually more productive and healthy, when they can send little messages to friends and family every so often.

Of course, certain businesses, such as the one I currently work for, cannot allow cell phones in the work area for sercurity reasons. However, we are allowed to step away to certain areas so we can text family and friends.

As for the personal business abusers, in my personal experience, most of those who are bad about spending lots of time on personal issues, usually will find some way to be just as disruptive when they can't talk to people outside the office. The two worst coworkers I had in this area had the impulsive need to interrupt the rest of the people in the office. In fact, there was a time when I almost went to HR and asked them to take the restriction off of one of them, because she was interferring with MY productivity so much with her neurotic need for attention.

Monday, November 02, 2009

A Splog???

Well, you learn something new everyday.

I showed several of my more savvy friends a list of "profitable blogs" and they shared the following insights with me:

I suppose there are a couple of models of blogging for profit. There is the
Instapundit thing, where you gain a huge following and put ads up, which is
what you are talking about. Then there is the pyramid scheme model, which
seems to be what [they are] advocating.

The difference is that people read Instapundit intentionally and the other
method looks more like high view count due to google-bombing.

You might have stumbled onto a splog -- a spam blog. They scrape stories
(automatically sometimes) from other places and intersperse them with the
spam, so that they get a higher google rank (from the scraped stories) for
the spam and search hits. I had one a couple of years ago that was scraping
my entire feed.

I don't think I actually was following a splog. But I do see it as more of the pyramid-type of blogging. And I suppose that's okay for some folks. Though I must admit that many of my friends and I mostly share the opinion of my friend Irix:

Sounds dirty and dishonourable to me, only a slightly better way to earn your living than email spamming. Of course, I may be not in a position to judge, with my cushy job and opportunity to leech on the employer's resources, I don't have to struggle to make ends meet.

Still, leave it to my best friend to send the definitive reply to the whole situation:

"I don't think that list is a good representation of the people who "quit" working. I think it's a good representation of people who are bragging about it.

The sites I frequent are interesting and engaging; I don't have a lot of time to waste on a blog that tells me how to waste less time.

But hey, I see no harm in putting up your wishlist. It's not like you're out there pursuing the almighty dollar."

So, with that advice, here is Comic Siren's Little Wishlist.

And thank you for reading this blog.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Private and public artistic exploration

I firmly believe that art is an effective means of personal exploration. Even if we do not gain great insight or find personal significance in doing artwork, our minds gain visual and kinetic experiences that help to fine tune our mental processes. I touch on this concept briefly my last post. The following film clip shows some representational examples of artists who explored their medium.

Warning: there is profanity in this clip. You probably don't have to watch it to understand my next points, so feel free to skip it if you wish.

The way I see it, the artists did gain a lot from the creation of their art. Their personal exploration probably did help them to reach a better understanding of their world. However, I do side with the established painter cohersed into juding that art show. It was the actual process and not the finished work that created that transformation, so the art itself said nothing because the context had passed.

All art is useful, but not all art is communicable. There is a difference between the act of making art and the finished work. Cultural art is something that should speak to observer. If it does not, then the conversation that should happen between masterpiece and observer is missing, and there is no enlightenment nor increased understanding.

Personal art needs only to speak to the artist. Under the right circumstances, a single line on a piece of paper can open the gate to passion, clarity, and wisdom--but it will only speak to that artist. It is the artist's conversation with the universe. Such a piece of work should rightly be treasured by the artist, but not necessarily enshrined for the rest of humanity. That would be telling people that this line has now been done, there is no need for more. Instead, the line should stay with the artist's heart and she should encourage others to find their own lines, to unlock their own passions and wisdom.

Which type of art is more valid? The very question itself is blasphemy in my opinion. Without cultural art, we lose our soul as a society. Without personal art, we can lose our very minds.

I must take a step back from my philosophical gushing and point out that even personal art needs to be shared to fulfill its purpose. In art therapy, this is known as "witnessing". Witnessing is when the artist shows the work to a supportive person, who lets the artist tell them what it means to them personally. There is no critique, no suggestions, just an act of listening to the sound of one person's soul being reveal.

At the same time, there is much to be gained by playing around with the art of others, as long as the original works are left physically untouched. It provides an interaction between the artwork and the audience, making the original piece more meaning ladened and important as the conversation continues. The following talk, though mostly meant to be humorous, is a prime example of entering into conversations with well-known artworks.

Granted, the conversations can become turbulent in some cases, but once you develop a personal relationship with a piece of work, it becomes alive and part of your mental fabric. Your brain now has a larger visual vocabulary to work with.

Here are a few sites online that will let you have your own conversation with art. Enjoy the process!

Jackson Pollock

Shockwave needed.

Mr. Picassohead

art therapy in prison

Creating Safer Prisons Through Art
By Amanda Doerr

Originally written April 24, 2007

The first questions many people have in regards to art in prison are probably along the lines of: “Why should we make life easier for these convicts?” “They’ve broken laws and now we’re going to let them play?” “Why should our taxes go for such a program, when there is so many other things we could fund?”

The best answer to these questions comes from Ed Howe, the activities manager at the State Correctional Institution Pittsburgh, who says "[Art] also keeps us safe. If prisoners have idle time, they find their own recreation." (Menees, 2001) This is not a good idea by any stretch of the imagination. If some of these people had healthy outlets for their boredom, they would not be incarcerated in the first place. They are in prison because they are unable to function in a conventional social environment. (Gussak, 1997, p 1) Case in point, convict Jeremy Pinson spent his time in prison planning revenge and writing threatening letters because he didn't have anything else to do, adding more and more time to his own prison sentence with each threat he mailed. (M. G. Preisz, Oklahoma City University Forensic Psychology lecture, April 17, 2007) This is not an isolated incident. The Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons also found in their research that "few conditions compromise safety more than idleness." (The Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons. [CSAAP], 2006, p 14)

Art's effect on violence

Can art actually affect the level of violence? According to the 1983 California's Brewster Study, inmates participating in AIC [Arts In Corrections] at two state prisons had fewer disciplinary problems. (Menees) In one institution, the reduction of disciplinary reports written was 80%. (Gussak, p xix) How much violence could art reduce nationwide? Unfortunately, not enough data about non-lethal violence is available to properly assess the costs of violence to the prison system. Some facilities keep no record at all of the assaults within their walls. (CSAAP, p 15)

Art can help in several ways. Crafts often build self-control within inmates, even those uncomfortable with drawing and painting. (Hall, 1997, p 32 and Milligan, 1997, p 181) Creating expressive art can help an inmate avoid a confrontation by giving him a way to work out his anger. (Hall, p 33) If the means are available and conditions favorable, aggression can be channeled through the creation of physically demanding three-dimensional objects. (Ronaldson, 1997, p 179) Releasing emotion can be problematic in a prison environment, for it can either be considered threatening or a sign of weakness to both guards and other inmates. Inmates who engage in art making are less disruptive, having less of a reason to act out. (Hall, p 39) This was true whether the art was created in an art class or in isolation in a cell. (Taylor, 1997, p 200)

Art also works with mentally ill inmates. Board Certified Art Therapist, David Gussak, one of the editors of Drawing Time: Art Therapy in Prisons and Other Institutional Settings, has "seen examples of nearly every DSM IV diagnosis" while working with prison populations. (Gussak, p xv) The sad reality is that there are still people being sent to high security prisons, who pose no threat to the populace, simply because they are mentally ill. (CSAAP, p 16) Art is a powerful tool for dealing with depressive symptoms while incarcerated, though not as much anxiety symptoms, possibly because heighten states of anxiety are needed for survival in prison. Still, art helps the mentally ill inmate cope better with his situation. (Woodall, 1997, p 116)

Making art safely

There are no total guarantees in life, not even with art. Safety must still be maintained. Scissors, long pencils and paintbrushes can be weapons in the hands of a determined inmate. Clay can be used to make a key or disable a lock. For these reasons, many normal art making supplies are not allowed inside many prisons. (Ursprung, 1997, p 18) Even common art solvents such as turpentine can be forbidden because of the potential risk they can pose. (Menees) Art therapists and facilitators in prisons have discovered many alternative sources of art supplies, often through the ingenuity of those under their care. Found art is common, but other art media might include: foil potato chip bags, socks, hair, nuts, Kool-aid and M&M candies as pigments, magazines, cigarette wrappers and a mixture of toilet paper and soap, which when "mixed with water and combined in the right consistency" becomes a modeling paste that can easily be painted. (Ursprung, p 19 & 21) One inmate grew his hair for five months in order to make his own paintbrushes. (Dobnick, 2006) Through much of the literature on this subject, the need to create in a hostile environment is commented on again and again. (Ursprung, p 17)

And on their own, therapists and facilitators come up with ways around the restrictions. While making masks is usually prohibited because they might aid in an escape, Gussak's solution was to have the inmates make masks with paper plates that couldn't possibly resemble a real face, thereby allowing him to still use a very powerful art therapy technique. (Gussak, p 69) He also taught the inmates to create Plaster of Paris three dimensional works that not only could be accounted for after the session (thus satisfying the fear that it would be used on keys and locks), but also created an art experience in which inmates had no expectations of seeing a recognizable form in, eliminating feelings of inadequacy based on their art skills in most of those participating. (Gussak, p 63)

Even when normal art supplies aren't used for dangerous purposes, care must be taken so they won't be stolen. Art supplies are a valuable commodity in the prison black market because they are means to earn goods and services from other inmates. Portraits, handmade stationary, posters, and decorative objects are often purchased as gifts for loved ones on the outside and for personal use. (Hall, p 36 & 37)

Art and guards

The relationship between guard and inmate depends on a great many variables, not the least of which is the managing culture of the prison they are in. Because of their duties, prison guards and other staff can and do affect how art is created in their institutions. They can't stop it completely, but they can help or impede its creation.

Positive staff involvement can bring about significant results in a prison arts program. It can even generate inmate sympathy towards the correctional officers, as evidenced by an inmate at Folsom State Prison, who said that even the guards didn't need any more negative publicity. Even as far back as 1930s, the connection between the guard and the guarded can be shown, when "a convict named Ralph Pekor painted 'The Last Supper' in the prison chapel . . . The warden loved the fresco until he realized the convict had painted him as Jesus, the inmates on condemned row as the disciples, and, for good measure, tucked himself in underneath the table." (Menees)

Jung once said "The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances. If there is any reaction, both are transformed." Whether this transformation is a positive or negative one depends on the correctional staff more than the prisoners, since they, by their position, hold most of the cards. In a positive manner, staff may become involved through helping in the display artwork in shows that help breakdown the stereotypes of incarcerated people. (Ursprung, p 15) In addition, prison staff may buy inmate artwork, allowing their own prejudices to be dispelled through the admiration of the creative works and giving the inmates a means for purchasing more art supplies. (Ursprung, p 21) The effects of this transformation can be far reaching, even across generations. A Sing Sing guard who encouraged and helped an inmate artist to sell works which allowed the artist to send money to his family even in his incarcerated state, was survived by his daughter, who even now tries to find the descendents of this prisoner so she can give them some of his artwork. On her living room wall is a portrait of her mother, done by the same artist and it is obvious from her interview that she, too, has respect for those her father used to guard. (NYCHS, 2007)

However, not all prisons have a culture that is conducive to positive staff involvement. In those, it is advisable to not have guards in the actual art room, since it may inhibit the inmates. (Hall, p 28) In some correctional institutions, officers may be so paranoid that they feel threatened by the images and either react with alarm or belittlement towards the inmates' creative expressions, further dehumanizing them. Even with paranoid reactions from prison staff, art therapy specifically can help inmates by its ability to allow an inmate to work out issues on a nonverbal level, beneath the radar of those who might otherwise be threatened by inmate expressions. However, this requires the art therapist to allow the staff to continue to see the art as benign and simplistic. (Gussak, p 60 & 61)

Based on the results of the positive staff interactions in several institutions, it seems possible that by carefully involving the prison staff in the display of a public exhibition of prisoner art, a highly strained and possibly abusive atmosphere could be affected in a beneficial way for both staff and inmates. It would have to be done in a manner which would not create resentment on either side and require a great deal of patience on the part of the person managing these events. Such an individual would do well to read Gussak's chapter "The Ultimate Hidden Weapon: Art therapy and the compromise option." in Drawing Time: Art Therapy in Prisons and Other Institutional Settings for advice on how to survive in the destructive dyadic relationship between staff and inmates that exists in some prisons. Changing the atmosphere of an institution does not happen overnight. It takes a lot of work and diplomacy.

A possible theme for an inmate art show that would be relatively benign, yet still beneficial to the inmate artists, the staff and the community, would be to have inmates create images of local historical interest. An elderly inmate at a Pennsylvanian correctional facility decided on his own to do such works, which were then put on display in a local mall. His works not only gave him a reason to research the history of the town, but gave other seniors outside of the prison something to talk about and engage their mental processes with. (Wisker, 1997, p 236) We talk about criminals paying their debt to society, what better way to do this than to educate people through their art, while grounding them in the very community most of them will eventually be released into?

This would, of course, be only the start of the art journey for an institution which has no positive art program history to draw from. It is hoped that eventually in these institutions, art could be done in a freer fashion, allowing both sides to benefit from it. As the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons states, "We must create safe and productive conditions of confinement not only because it is the right thing to do, but because it influences the safety, health, and prosperity of us all." (CSAAP, p 2)


The Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons. (2006, June). Confronting Confinement. Retrieved April 21, 2007 from

Dobnick, V. (2006, December 10). In prison, art supplies are likely to be coffee, candy. Associated Press. Retrieved April 18, 2007 from

Gussak, David E. (1997). A Brief History. In D. E. Gussak & E. Virshup (Eds.), Drawing Time: Art Therapy in Prisons and Other Institutional Settings (pp. xv - xx). Chicago, Illinois: Magnolia Street Publishers.

Gussak, David E. (1997). Breaking Through Barriers: Advantages of art therapy in prison. In D. E. Gussak & E. Virshup (Eds.), Drawing Time: Art Therapy in Prisons and Other Institutional Settings (pp. 1 - 12). Chicago, Illinois: Magnolia Street Publishers.

Gussak, David E. (1997). The Ultimate Hidden Weapon: Art therapy and the compromise option. In D. E. Gussak & E. Virshup (Eds.), Drawing Time: Art Therapy in Prisons and Other Institutional Settings (pp. 59 - 74). Chicago, Illinois: Magnolia Street Publishers.

Hall, Nancy (1997). Creativity and Incarceration: The purpose of art in prison culture. In D. E. Gussak & E. Virshup (Eds.), Drawing Time: Art Therapy in Prisons and Other Institutional Settings (pp. 25 - 42). Chicago, Illinois: Magnolia Street Publishers.

Menees, Tim, (2001, September 30). If not art, then what? Pittsburgh Post Gazette. Retrieved April 7, 2007 from

Milligan, Nancy (1997). A Barbed Wire Garden: Art therapy in a maximum security prison for adolescents. In D. E. Gussak & E. Virshup (Eds.), Drawing Time: Art Therapy in Prisons and Other Institutional Settings (pp. 175 - 186). Chicago, Illinois: Magnolia Street Publishers.

NYCHS [New York Correctional History Society]. Fine Art Behind Bars. Retrieved April 19, 2007 from

Ronaldson, Claudia (1997). The Lucky Ones: Probationary students in a special education school. In D. E. Gussak & E. Virshup (Eds.), Drawing Time: Art Therapy in Prisons and Other Institutional Settings (pp. 167 - 174). Chicago, Illinois: Magnolia Street Publishers.

Taylor, Marcia (1997). Growing Old the Hard Way: Art therapy as an intervention in gerontology and criminology. In D. E. Gussak & E. Virshup (Eds.), Drawing Time: Art Therapy in Prisons and Other Institutional Settings (pp. 197 - 209). Chicago, Illinois: Magnolia Street Publishers.

Wisker, Carol (1997). What One Museum Does for Prison Art. In D. E. Gussak & E. Virshup (Eds.), Drawing Time: Art Therapy in Prisons and Other Institutional Settings (pp. 231 - 239). Chicago, Illinois: Magnolia Street Publishers.

Woodall, J., Diamond, P. & Howe, A. H. (1997). Art Therapy in a Managed Care Environment. In D. E. Gussak & E. Virshup (Eds.), Drawing Time: Art Therapy in Prisons and Other Institutional Settings (pp. 99 - 126). Chicago, Illinois: Magnolia Street Publishers.

Ursprung, Will A. (1997). Insider Art: The creative ingenuity of of the incarcerated artist. In D. E. Gussak & E. Virshup (Eds.), Drawing Time: Art Therapy in Prisons and Other Institutional Settings (pp. 13 - 24). Chicago, Illinois: Magnolia Street Publishers.