Wednesday, 13 August 2008

The Artist's Hand


by Susan Leopold The following case study revolves around the creative process involved in making the collage entitled “The Artist’s Hand”. Providing a thorough analysis of the steps involved in creating this collage and linkage of the steps to humanistic, psychoanalytical and cognitive theories of personality is crucial to understanding this artistic process as a means of connection to conscious and unconscious.

In addition, a discussion of consciousness and its relationship to the creative process is essential in order to comprehend the proposed rationale(s) as to why this individual artist/illustrator chooses self-expression through art. It is important to note that stylistically the creator of this piece works in an intuitive manner and in an abstract (nonobjective, nonrepresentational) style as opposed to a realistic (representative) style in which the artistic process deals primarily with creating a recognizable person, place or thing. This realistic style of working involves a more conscious manner of problem solving and following established rules and techniques. In contrast “An abstract image can be grounded in an actual object” or “it can give visual form to something inherently non-visual, like emotions or sensations” (Atkins R., pg.39).

The intuitive, expressive style used to create “The Artist’s Hand” collage enables the artist to connect to hidden aspects of consciousness previously outside of mental awareness. In some ways the intuitive artistic process of this individual can be seen as a bridge or connection between various states of consciousness. Steve Winn writes in a recent San Francisco Chronicle article that “Only by mastering certain rigorous skills and navigating a highly conscious sequence of decisions can an artist hope to unlock the deep chambers of human experience that make the end results matter. It’s in the delicate negotiation of craft and inspiration, conscious choices and the summons of the unconscious, that art finds its form and communicative power” (Winn, S. 2007).

“The Artist’s Hand” is described in roughly five stages in the following discussion. Each stage involves creative processes connecting the conscious to the unconscious and vice versa in order to facilitate the process of creation. A comprehensive analysis of the complexity of debate regarding the terms “conscious” and “unconscious” is well beyond the scope of this discussion. For the purposes of this essay “Information processing in the brain can be divided into two classes: processes that are accessible to consciousness and processes that are not. The processes that we are not conscious of we label unconscious, or outside our mental awareness” (Gazzaniga, Heatherton, 2006, pg.142).

The demarcation between fine art and illustration is in fact irrelevant in today’s age of marketing and branding. Throughout the history of art the marketplace has played a role in the life of the “fine” artist and in the production of artwork. Contemporary artists/illustrators increasingly have seen the need to generate and license their own work in response to a changing marketplace in addition to being aware of protecting their creations through an awareness of intellectual property, contract and copyright law. For simplicity’s sake the term fine art illustration is used to describe a form of visual art that is used to communicate either the personal vision of the artist or client for an end use media or user, which includes the “fine art” gallery arena. The case study of “The Artist’s Hand” is an example of fine art illustration that communicates a concept for print publication (end use media) for an audience of readers (users). Simultaneously the artist illustrator expresses a highly personal view in an original piece of “fine” art that will ultimately be displayed to an even wider audience. An additional distinction that is made between fine art and illustration is that of deadline and time constraints. However, that argument is up for debate when consideration is given to the fact that galleries must market and advertise (at considerable expense) art well in advance of the exhibition.

The stages involved in creating this artist’s collage can be divided into and gathering reference revolving loosely around the abstract metaphor of “hand”, letting the concept emerge as a sketch, physical creation with materials, combining/gluing/sewing and finally embellishing the surface of the work. With commissioned work an initial client consultation is essential, however with an artist generated project the consultation is much less specific as in the piece discussed here. Within each stage of the creative process a dialogue between what is seen and what is hidden becomes an integral part of the creative process. This process relates to Freud’s process of free association in psychoanalysis in that it “allows free association to temporarily bypass the censoring mechanism the ego employs” (Burger, 2008, pg.56). As a result the artist accesses the unconscious or alternatively defined as another level of awareness.

The first stage of gathering reference consists of speaking with the client(s) or end user(s) to determine pertinent information regarding the work (contracts, deadlines etc.) and assembling physical materials such as handmade paper, historical anatomical references, dolls, acupuncture modes, plaster and gauze fabric hands, old letters and odds and ends around the studio. All material must relate in some way to the “hand” metaphor. This stage involves consciously observing materials and the environment in order to select the physical elements to form the collage while at the same time “absorbing” the metaphor of the hand into the artist’s mind in order to let the concept percolate. These artistic decisions and associations are made intuitively. Perhaps this process occurs using many states of awareness simultaneously or through what some would call an altered state. “These altered states are associated with unusual subjective experiences” and “enhanced levels of self awareness” (Gazzaniga, Heatherton, 2006 pg.146). Many of these artistic decisions occur at lightning speed and often the artist is not aware of them as they are more guided by a bodily sense of what feels right. There is an inner confidence of trusting artistic impulse or inspiration. This stage particularly involves the visual and tactile senses as the artist handles and chooses materials and objects. It could be proposed that handling of materials evokes connection to early memories triggering emotional states that are part of the process of accessing that other form of awareness previously described. The creative process is the “bridge” itself and the inspirational spark (energy?) travels in both directions between states of awareness throughout this process. As the materials and environment inspire the artist to connect to previously unknown thoughts, dreams and ideas previously outside of conscious awareness, the creation of the art as a separate entity enables the artist to bring into conscious awareness those previously hidden dimensions, which in turn further inspire the continuation of the artistic process. In the collage under discussion the chosen elements must embody relevant characteristics to the hand metaphor and also to the as yet to be discovered implicit themes inherent in the artwork. This is an intuitive process that includes Freud’s free association method in addition to the concept of schema that comes from the cognitive approach to personality. According to Burger “One of the main functions of schemas is to help us to perceive features in our environment” (Burger, pg.434, chapter 15). In this case the artist is conscious of looking externally to activate memories, associations, dreams and desires that remain outside of awareness but will all contribute to layers of meaning in the art. It is the goal of this artist to create a work that is meaningful on many layers, some obvious and some more veiled.

The artist in this analysis used a hand as focal point in the art initially because it seemed a simple and obvious choice. The hand is a universal symbol especially relevant to the visual arts and has many layers of meaning. In this sense the hand might be seen as an archetype from the collective unconscious, a concept attributed to Carl Jung’s school of analytic psychology (Burger, 2008, pg.106). However there is an additional layer of meaning to the hand that will only emerge upon completion of the work. This experience of discovering a surprise or hidden meaning upon completion of a piece is a frequent occurrence for the artist. The subject finds the research and gathering stage often leads to creating and relates to the psychoanalytic process in that “if the client truly expresses whatever enters consciousness, both client and therapist could be surprised by what emerges” (Burger, 2008, pg.57).

The second stage is that of using the act of drawing (creating a sketch), while simultaneously letting the largely unconscious material percolate and emerge to form additional layers of implicit meaning in the collage. The concept consciously chosen to base the collage around was to portray a hand (as cocoon) releasing a butterfly (the creative spirit). The very physical act of drawing led to the mental associations of mummy wrappings, the use of very old, quill pen scripted correspondences and old Buddhist rubbings. These associations are made outside the level of conscious awareness as is much of the artistic decision making process. The unconscious associations between material and imagery are apparent in the depiction of metamorphosis and the choice of the artist to make rubbings from an old wooden block with ideograms referring to ancient Buddhist texts which complement the East meets West typographic component of the “Hand”.

The realization of the piece begins with the third stage of physical creation of the collage. Techniques employed in this example are handmade paper forming and sculpting, painting, encaustic (hot wax) and printmaking. These activities involve artistic/illustration techniques and skills that are employed on a conscious level to facilitate completion of the artwork. This stage is a form of dialogue between the artist and the artwork, requiring immense concentration in order to facilitate resolution of the work. Mihaly Csikszentmihali describes this intensely rewarding experience as optimal experience, or flow (Burger, 2008, pg.305). “Optimal experiences are intensely enjoyable but they are usually not restful, relaxing moments. On the contrary, most often flow experiences are quite demanding” (Burger, 2008, pg.305).

One element that must be noted as part of the creation of any fine art illustration is the consistent time dimension or deadline. For this artist/illustrator working under the restrictions of a deadline frequently enhances the creative process. Time pressure and the boundaries of the specific assignment create sharper focus and editing power in terms of both concept and product.

The fourth and fifth stages combine synthesis of elements both consciously and also on a level outside of conscious awareness. By gluing, stitching and finding ways to combine the parts (familiar/old) into the final (unfamiliar/new) piece, the final discovery is that the individual and familiar elements of the collage are transformed into a new combination relating to Aristotle’s formal cause (whole-part). Perhaps this transformation refers as well to cognitive processing of information in that a new way of looking at existing elements has occurred. The final fifth stage is to embellish and make conscious choices as to where to add final touches of color and texture. Usually the artist will let the piece “rest” or find a way to create some distance in order to facilitate completion. It is at this point that the unexpected surprise element may appear to the artist. In “The Artist’s Hand” the implicit meaning of the piece became apparent rapidly upon completion. The initial choice of the hand metaphor was chosen to solve an illustration assignment from a client. The problem this assignment posed was how to communicate the concept of artistic creativity as simply as possible to an audience of aspiring artists. On the most obvious level the artist solved this problem by using the hand releasing the butterfly as a metaphor for creativity while creating a work of art. The surprise or hidden level revealed more personal emotions and hidden concepts relevant only to the artist. In this way this artist’s process my also be a therapeutic one. Perhaps the creative process for the subject provides a means to overcome or resolve fears or early childhood trauma. As Harvard psychiatrist Dr. Arthur J. Deikman said “Creative action platys with the unknown. But as the child fears the dark, full of big dogs and mental monsters formed from fantasies, the adult child will be fearful too, faced with the dark world of the unknown mind, with vast concepts looking enormous just beyond the front yard. Peering out, he sees no parents in the darkness of that land where he has never been. The unknown is uncontrolled no strategies exist that will enclose the endless territory or the new. Only trust in yourself and in the world can carry you past the watchdogs of your fears and out of the iron gates of the already-known” (cited by Deikman, M.D., A.J. 2007). By seeing the final art reflecting back these hidden elements the artist is able to understand and make connections previously outside of conscious awareness thereby facilitating mind/body healing. In this sense the art is both a commissioned piece for a client, a problem–solving vehicle for the artist or what is commonly called “a personal illustration”. The creative process itself is of the utmost importance to this artist. As evidence of the high regard/respect for personal process inherent in creating “fine art illustration”, this artist employs many steps such as fine stitch-work on the back of the art, unseen buried imagery in the layering of paper and textiles, use of archival material to ensure the life of the original art beyond the secondary print use and excellent archival documentation of the work. While the end product ultimately will be used in reproduction, many of the finishing techniques go beyond the reproduction stage in that the original art maintains its own integrity beyond the “camera readiness” stage. The original art can be described the remains of a particular process taking place in real time and as such it takes on a life of its own in its relevance as a psychological “mirror” for others after completion and more immediately as art for secondary media use.

This article has discussed how the artistic process utilized in creating the collage entitled “The Artist’s Hand” serves as a bridge between the conscious and unconscious and supports that concept with psychoanalytic, humanistic and cognitive theories. The artistic process may also be a therapeutic one by providing what Abraham Maslow defined as peak experience or what he called “a visit to a personally defined Heaven” (Burger, 2008, pg.304). Perhaps the creative process also provides a means to overcome fear as well. There are many extremely self-actualizing aspects to making one’s living as a fine art illustrator. Abraham Maslow famously said “Finding one’s lifework is a little like finding one’s mate” and “If you are unhappy with your work you have lost one of the most important means of self-fulfillment” (Burger, 2008, pg.310). Many feel fortunate to be paid for creation and self- expression. As psychologist Carl Rodgers said “Whether one calls it a growth tendency, a drive toward self-actualization, or a forward-moving directional tendency, it is the mainspring of life” (Burger, 2008, pg. 292). Connection to self, sense of completion and unity with something larger than self is achieved through the creative process and is the ultimate reward for the artist. For this artist those are the reasons to continue to make art along with the fact that it is a joy to feel fee to experiment, explore and play.

Maslow, A. H. (1968). The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. New York: Viking.
Gazzaniga, M. S., & Heatherton, T. F. (2006). Psychological Science (Second Edition ed.). New York: W.W.Norton & Company.
Burger, J. M. (2008). Personality (Seventh Edition ed.). California, U.S.A: Thomson Wadsworth.
Deikman, M. D. (2007). Personal Freedom: On Finding Your Way in the World. Retrieved July 20, 2008, from
Winn, S. (2007, May 29). What Happens to us When Art Connects Us to the Unconscious. The San Francisco Chronicle, p. 2.
Atkins, R. (1997). Art Speak (Second Edition ed.). New York: Abbeville Press Publishers.

Susan Leopold received a BFA in Fine Art from the University of Michigan (1979) and an MA in Medical Illustration from University of California (1982). She has been on faculty of Ontario College of Art and Design. Since 1983 she has been a full-time practising artist.
Her work has won numerous awards both in Canada and the USA, and has been featured in publications nationally and internationally including a new book called “The Art of Feminine Drawing” which showcases contemporary artists from around the world and also many of the Fiberarts Design Books.

She was recently invited to exhibit at the Eisner Museum in Milwaukee in a show called “Right Here in the USA”.

Her work is currently featured in the winter issue of “Cloth, Paper, Scissors”, a magazine about contemporary collage and has been featured in Somerset Magazine.
Currently teaching as course leader at Sheridan College and Instructor at the Ontario College of Art and Design, guest lecturer at McMaster University and the New Brunswick College of Craft and Design Susan will be heading up the art program at Voice Intermediate School in the Distillery District, Toronto, where she maintains her studio/gallery space.

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