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My Soul is the Thing with Feathers

My soul is the thing with feathers (with apologies to Emily Dickinson)

How tuned in and serendipitous is the creative unconscious! This collage was done in 2018, long before  this morning when I heard an evocative poem: “How to paint the portrait of a bird” by Jacques Prevert (scroll down to the end for the full translation).  It is all about attracting a bird, the exact right bird, not just any old bird, by creating a beautiful environment for such a being, and then waiting, waiting, in stillness, until maybe, just maybe, the bird shows up. If it does, and it enters the safe inviting space you have made for it, it gives you the sign that it is your bird: It sings.  If it doesn’t sing, it’s not your lucky day, not your bird. When it comes, you invite it into your heart for a moment. You appreciate the visitation, and then you free it to go its own way.

It struck me that this can be compared with the creative process in therapeutic artmaking:

First we must have the desire and willingness, to seek something out beyond the humdrum of day to day life. Maybe we seek healing or understanding or beauty or growth…

Then we go about making room for something (the bird in the poem) to come to us. We make a space, we open the paint box, we set up the canvas, we make some simple marks, we follow our aesthetic sense of what is pleasing.

We take action.

We take our time, we hide from our usual doing and striving demands, we begin to trust that something will emerge.  Creativity has its own timing.

We wait. Breathe. Surrender expectations. We sit back and let the art come to us.

We accept what comes, good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant. Artmaking isn’t always fun or what we think we want, artmaking doesn’t always work out – this is normal, despite what the inner and outer critics say. We can always start again. What we can do is create the invitation, set the stage.

When the picture comes together, we take our gift. Own our identity as creative beings. Sign our work. Gently and with respect we name what we have brought into being. We set our creative soul free into the world, we ‘paint out’ the bars we ourselves have created that keep us in prison. A courageous act of hope. In the words of Emily Dickinson: Hope is the thing with feathers – That perches on the soul…

Pour Faire le Portrait d’un Oiseau – par Jacques Prévert  (Trans. Eugene Levich)

First paint a cage
With an open door
Then paint
Something pretty
Something simple
Something beautiful
Something useful
For the bird
Then place the canvas against a tree
In a garden
In a wood
Or in a forest
Hide yourself behind the tree
Without speaking
Without moving…
Sometimes the bird will arrive soon
But it could also easily take many years
For it to decide
Wait if necessary for years
The rapidity or slowness of the arrival of the bird
Has no connection with the success of the painting
When the bird arrives
If it arrives
Observe the most profound silence
Wait until the bird enters the cage
And when it has entered
Gently close the door with the brush
Erase one by one all of the bars
While being careful not to touch any of the feathers of the bird
Then make a portrait of the tree
Choosing the most beautiful of its branches
For the bird
Paint also the green foliage and the freshness of the wind
The dust of the sun
And the noise of the creatures of the grass in the heat of summer
And then wait for the bird to decide to sing
If the bird does not sing
It’s a bad sign
A sign that the painting is no good
But if it does sing it’s a good sign
A sign that you can sign.
Then you gently pull out
One of the feathers of the bird
And you sign your name in a corner of the painting.

My Art Therapy Journey

Many people know the term Art Therapy, but few understand the depth and breadth of the discipline. Art therapy can range from colouring in ready-made images for pleasure and relaxation to a deep plunge into the unconscious via the body. How to use the practice safely and therapeutically takes education, training and lots of experience. 

I was first grabbed by the possibilities back in South Africa aged 18.  Invited to a Waldorf watercolour class, I fell into a kind of swoon with the joy of allowing pure colour pigments to swirl and blend freely across the paper.  What a change from art training involving painstaking reproduction of something in the visible world. What a sense of freedom in my imagination and my body.


In England in the 1980s I heard about Art Therapy training at Goldsmiths College.  Alas, my enthusiasm outstripped my qualifications – I wasn’t accepted, having had no psychology in my undergrad, nor any experience in the field.  I was just an artist with a yearning for free expression of what was locked within.

It took many years and twists and turns of the road for art therapy to find me again.  The first course available for me to take after being accepted to the MA in Counselling Psychology program at the Adler School of Professional Psychology (now Adler University) happened to be Group Art Therapy. The heavens opened – A profound and surprising sense of homecoming, pleasure, familiarity, excitement, freedom, subtlety as well as richness in the experience.  From then on I took every elective in Art Therapy I could manage, and have never looked back.  Symbolic language is my mother tongue. Art Therapy has given me creative freedom in my art and my life.  Therapeutic art is a faithful friend.  Stay tuned for more musings on this journey.