“Life is given to us for an unknown period of time, and together with it comes a demand to take care of what we hold in our hands… to give form and body to whatever is present in our lives. Formlessness equals neglect; the forming may be difficult, perhaps even impossible, but to refuse its demand on us is contrary to life” (Jacoby, 1998, p. 66).
Expressive Therapies Studio Day 1:
I arrived at the studio eager, maybe desperate, to give a painful feeling a physical form. I was brimming over with this feeling, it threatened to overwhelm me, pushing to erupt, to be born, to be brought into the light.
For 6 hours I gathered, glued, shaped and molded. Materials synchronistically found their way to me. I was in the flow, each new material deepening the symbolism of the evolving form. As the day came to a close, I stepped back to view my creation as a whole and all I felt was disgust! To me, it looked like a manufactured elementary art project.
In a sea of glittery blue tissue paper was an empty tennis ball container, standing upside down like a pillar. The quote on its side read, “Ideal for longer play on all court surfaces”. Mounted on top knelt a clay figurine with purple, green and blue yarn dangling from the head like a horse’s mane and a hemp string tied around the ankle, tethered in place. The whole scene was glued onto a thick white poster board.
I felt betrayed by my own creation, for this was not the aesthetic I intended. The clay figurine was supposed to be a representative of me, poised to stand after a bloody battle, but from a distance, the figure took the shape of a unicorn. Instead of giving form to that painful feeling I had brought into the studio, I had created a glittery gimmick, a cliche gift shop item, masquerading as mythical beauty. How did my attempt to bring such a painful feeling into form turn into this? I left the first day of my studio class disappointed and confused.
Expressive Therapies Studio Day 2: I wanted to show the naive and beautiful unicorn my ugly insides. I was going to make sure this expression really showed my pain. I mixed blood red acrylic paint with water, wrapped layers of crumpled white tissue paper around a styrofoam ring and scooped handfuls of the paint over the tissue paper until it became a fleshy blood-red nest. I placed the nest at the base of the pillar, symbolizing a painful origin, where the unicorn was born.
I dripped the rest of the paint over the entire piece, bringing contrast to the glittery blue sea and pristine character at its center. Next, I fashioned a chariot out of an empty wooden spool and placed it on the other side of the pillar, symbolizing a hopeful future. This was my escape vehicle… or was it my victory ride? What was I escaping and what was I heading towards?
By the end of the morning, my arms and hands were covered in red paint. As my professor signaled it was time for lunch, I again stepped back to view the whole of what I had created. Sweet relief and a deep exhale. There it is! My pain. My ugly. Eviscerated, laying before me, this feeling was finally externalized and fully formed. After giving this ancient pain a form, my roots felt deeper, I felt more alive.
Lunch Break: I decided to treat myself to a bowl of ramen noodles and ate outside on the sunny streets of Cambridge. I sat with my back against a sun-warmed wall and a brimmed hat provided privacy from the passing public. Halfway through lunch, I glanced toward the sidewalk and saw a pair of adorable glittery sandals walking toward me. When I lifted my head, I expected a joyful interaction, but instead locked eyes with a terrified 7 year old girl. I froze, with a pair of chopsticks raised, ramen noodles dangling between their wooden grasp and my mouth. I was locked into this little girl’s fear and swirling amidst both of our confusion. Suddenly, I remembered… I was covered with red paint.
The little girl was staring at my bloody hands and arms. The look on her face said to me, “What is wrong with her?!”. I wanted to explain that I was fine! That it was paint and not real blood. But before I could think of what to say, she was gone.
Suspended in that moment, the impulse to comfort the little girl gave way to a profound sense of validation. I felt witnessed and I was witnessing. It didn’t matter that the blood wasn’t real; my pain, which was very real, had found a way to cross the imaginal threshold and enter the relational space. Through this crossing, the feeling I had brought into the studio was given present day context and a form I could reconcile with.
I returned to the studio noticeably altered and began writing in my journal. Poems and prose flooded the pages with paradoxical questions about belonging, exile, innocence, guilt, purity, ruin, freedom, captivity, love and hate. As I swung between polarities, a middle ground was established. Maybe I’d been missing the point. Maybe honoring my pain by giving it form was an act of beauty.
”Beauty is truth, truth beauty” (Keats, 1819).
I spent the next two months unpacking this experience. I facilitated an intermodal ceremony with myself that included playing the guitar, singing, dancing, crying, writing, fire and the ocean. I brought stuck points into therapy and, within that safe container, I began to integrate parts of myself that had long been in conflict.
Learning more about the unicorn’s colorful history legitimized it as my representative. Turns out, many of the themes I explored in the studio were also themes that appear in myths about the unicorn. To honor the healing gifts brought to me through the unicorn’s symbolism, I titled this piece The Unicorn Complex. A creation and experience that was literally and figuratively multileveled, complex.
Although the content of traumatic events does matter, recovery pivots around the beliefs we adopt through the traumatic experience. As a little girl, I hid my pain for fear of disturbing others. I did my best to look pretty, casting pain as the opposite: ugly. I can’t confirm the actual impact I had on the little girl in Cambridge, but I hope she is well loved and taught that pain is not ugly.
Our acceptance or denial of pain has an immense impact on our lives and relationships. When pain is denied, it rots and looks for other ways to be expressed. This might take the form of violence, toward self or other. Healing the wounds of trauma can prevent them from being passed on to the next generation. Expressive Arts Therapy taps into the healing intelligence within and empowers clients to trust themselves, leading to post traumatic growth and resilience. This is the transformative impact of creative expression, the ability to turn hurt ripples into healing ripples.
Courtney Rose Battistelli, MA Expressive Therapies
(MAPS Study Coordinator in Boston)
To TRF and the Boston MAPS team: You are a pivotal healing presence in my life and many others. I am so grateful to be part of this community and I look forward to sharing more with the TRF audience. Thank you for reading! Leave comments below.