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What would it look like if therapeutic conversations were turned into art? This was the premise of the project ‘Fine Lines’ which took place at the Blairgowrie Centre for Contemporary Art (BCCA), and is as challenging to write up as you might imagine.

The inspiration to ask such a question came from seeing counselling as a space for all sorts of creation and transition to take place. I wanted to explore these processes by tracing the fine lines which spiral out between therapeutic collaboration and artistic expression – an exercise in making the intangible, tangible.

Of course, the utilization of art within therapy is far from a new concept. Formally, art therapy uses media as a form of expression, where it is thought that as an individual creates, they increase awareness of self and others, potentially enhancing coping and cognitive functions.

This was not art therapy. Rather, artistic expression was being used to channel therapeutic insights, to be shared with an audience made up of the ‘clients’ themselves. In this way it became a hybrid of performance, therapeutic conversation, visual product, and communication. I think the best way to explore such a complex and interwoven process is to just run through the day as it happened.

So, I arrived late. This seemed to be disconcerting for Kate, a founder and host of BCCA, who wasn’t shy about telling me off. There was obvious tension in the group – two men and four women – and I felt my own anxiety rising. I had no idea what to expect from the day, meaning I could not quite comfort anyone effectively, including myself.

After a few introductions somebody served some tea, and I falteringly began a discussion about ethics. As a group, we set rules about confidentiality and boundaries – not just for the day itself, but for write-up such as this. In case anyone was struggling after the event, I provided a leaflet with details for myself and local helping agencies. This led to a chat about previous experiences of therapy, which ranged from never-tried-it, to qualified therapist. However, each did share creative endeavors as some part of their professional lives, and I tried my best not to be intimidated by their vast collective talents.

As the group settled like ruffled dust, I reviewed what I would be doing. For the next few hours, I would hold individual 30 minute therapeutic conversations, followed by 15 minutes on my own creating a tangible product, the exact form of which would be dependent on the session itself.

I encouraged the group to make decisions about how they wanted to spend time together when not with me, and they seemed quite excited about having an independent space to review and explore the day in their own way. As I headed out to the hut which would be my base for the day, I began to realise just how little of this project as a whole I could actually personally review - already, an entire section of the day was inaccessible to me for reflection. This served as a reminder of just how little insight practitioners have outside the therapeutic space.

The conversations in the hut began promptly, and covered a wide range of topics. Each person was very aware of the activity at hand, and shared within safe limits, guided by myself. I suppose it is debatable what process was actually occurring in the space (therapy/not therapy), but each participant certainly adopted a position of client within our discussions, to which I responded from a frame of congruent and non-judgmental listener. Overall, everyone engaged as fully and authentically as they could, even if that took the form of resistance to the process as a whole.

After each session, I went straight to the corner of the room where I had a collection of papers and pens – simple resources to allow speed. Here, I attempted to visually display my interpretation of the therapeutic conversation which had just occurred. While the 15 minute time limit was constrictive, it facilitated an unconscious immediacy, forcing me to commit my thoughts without filter or planning. With each piece, I was truly unsure what to expect as the end product; an exhausting but surprising process.

When all the sessions were complete, the space was transformed into a psychologically collaborative gallery, with each piece echoing anonymously in the very same location it was inspired, conceived, and formed. Five of the pieces took residence on the walls, and the sixth I placed on a window to enhance the translucent effects I had attempted with the paper. As agreed by the group, I did not initially reveal which artifact belonged to whom when they arrived.

It was at this point that the project took on a vivid life and depth. I was incredibly nervous to invite the group in, primarily in how they would respond to my ‘art’. This was in consideration to both technical skill, and what it communicated to them emotionally. However, there was an immediate positivity when they walked in, rewarding my obvious vulnerability with the same compassion I had shown theirs. Their new control and input brought electricity to the group, and the whole room became a dynamic gallery of engagement.

Amongst the discussion it felt important to reiterate that what I had created was representative of a moment in time, from my perspective, and not a display of the complex individual as a whole. I was also compelled to share what it was like to create, and how I had wanted to change the images; that when I looked at the finished pieces I wanted so badly to edit it them to remove all the sad and challenging parts.

The group ran with opinions and interpretations, and there was a real sense of excitement. I was concerned the images might be too abstract, but not only did people correctly identify themes and tensions, they picked up on where pieces interacted with each other – something I had not even been aware in creating. It felt as though the art had come alive to speak the words I didn’t even know I wanted to say. Overall, I was prompted by the images and the discussion around them to realise and share far more of my own perspective than ever before.

While some pictures resonated with people immediately, there were those which elicited strong rejection. It was challenging for me to listen to such negative reactions, as I felt guilt knowing I had created it. It felt bad that they did not want this to be theirs, when it was. The inability for some to connect to images brought up discussion of transference on my part, and I had to admit one particular piece held elements of my own feelings. This made it difficult for the ‘client’ to recognise and connect to.

When the pictures were officially assigned, the mood changed again. It was heavy, and I really felt the collective weight of everyone considering and reflecting. It was as if actually acknowledging these interpretive extensions of themselves was draining. The previously vague and objective nature of the art allowed the group enough distance to openly share, and now that distance was gone, they were reluctant to embrace its permanence.

I removed the images from the wall and gifted them to their owners, who each retreated to absorb the moment. For my part, I took the opportunity to breathe in the now (emotionally) empty space.

A short while later, we came back together for a meal. This was to be a celebration of the experience, as well as a chance for further discussion. Again the dynamic shifted, and the pictures took on a new life, with two participants choosing to publically edit their pieces, allowing them to transition into a unique collaborative insight to their current emotional selves.

One, which had a large eye in the center, was edited to add an eyelid. This gave the whole piece a gentler aesthetic, less jarring, and became immediately more intimate as the physical excerpt of change-in-process.

Another participant chose to rip his image into equal sections and redistribute them amongst the group members. One piece, with the slightest of effort, became many pieces. Each new section was held to the light and considered from a new perspective, changing focus for us all. It was saddening to see my original creation pulled apart, but a reminder that it wasn’t mine to begin with. I would never have torn that image, but the participant was braver than me, and together we built the foundations which culminated in a wonderful collective moment.

The content of the images themselves became a source of discussion, with one theme in particular providing a gentle voice for the group to tease one another. While emotions and issues were not explicitly called out, reference to content served as public acknowledgment of individual struggles. This felt very supportive and caring.

Eventually, the conversation turned to the processes highlighted during the day itself, specifically the nature of performance. It was suggested that within a therapeutic space, a counsellor is as much confined to a role as the client is; both bound by specific expectations within a designated space. The fluidity of roles throughout this project – collaborative artist, to individual client, to creative critic, to dinner guest - highlighted this fact, and emphasised the strength in permitting and embracing such collaborative transitions.

John Dewey (1934) states “communication is not announcing things… Communication is the process of creating participation, of making common what had been isolated and singular”. For me, this project embodied such philosophy, capturing art from human connection to bring a singular, vague experience into a concrete community. In this way, new voices were traced and declared, and I learned that when therapeutic conversations are turned into art, it looks like a collaborative evolution.

As I reflect on this project as a whole, I think I have probably been left with more questions than I began with. However, they are questions that I might never have thought to ask without the experience. Questions about my own identity, about therapy as performance, and about methods of communication. Overall, Fine Lines was incredibly rewarding, and I can only hope the participants feel the same.

A participant responds.

It's four months after the event now, nearly two months since Fiona's write-up arrived, and all this time I've wanted to say something about what happened.

Essentially, I want to emphasise what an exciting moment it was to be part of the group entering the summerhouse to be confronted by six largely abstract, markedly varied images that related in some way to the conversations that Fiona had had with each of us individually. To stand there and have a conversation about the images (without Fiona's definitive input) was a challenge in several ways. First, the challenge of being an art critic, making some kind of sense of the aesthetics and the symbols on display. Second, of recalling what one had said in the therapy session and relating it to the images or at least to one image in particular. Third, knowing something about the other participants and deciding how much to offer an opinion about the images in relation to those other people.

I tried to explain why I felt one image was 'mine'. How I thought it was just possible that a second image might pertain to me. And I tried to suggest why I couldn't see myself, or my conversation with Fiona, in relation to the other four images. When FIona eventually let us know (or should I say, in most cases confirmed our consensus view) which image was produced in relation to a conversation with whom, I learned that it was the 'just possible' image that related to our engagement.

As Fiona notes in her above statement, the atmosphere at the bcca changed when each of us was left to take responsibility for the one image. I remember having negative thoughts about certain aspects of 'my' image. And I didn't want to express these for fear of offending Fiona or of giving away too much of my view of myself. If I had said: "Too many straight lines, too neatly bordered. I'm more intuitive than that," I could imagine the rest of the group bursting out laughing. So I didn't say it. I didn't even manage to say what would have been taken as a conscious joke: "I don't get it. The biggest, brightest image is not me, and no-one has even suggested it might be!"

Fiona tells us above that at the dinner table a couple of individuals at least partially took responsibility for their images. Not so the majority whose images quietly dropped from view and conversation. Perhaps it was too much to expect us to regroup so soon and come up with an analysis and perspective on how what we had said to Fiona, filtered through Fiona's intelligence, tact, intuition and counselling skills, had resulted in these particular lines, colours, shapes and allusions.

Note: If other participants wish to add their retrospective views, either privately or to the website, please email us. Apologies from the bcca for not circulating Fiona's write-up sooner.