Interviewsand Articles


Interview: Rue Harrison: Beyond the Known Territory

by Richard Whittaker, Jan 26, 2005



Photo - R. Whittaker

The following conversation took place before an audience at The Berkeley Art Center. The topic was “Art and the Unconscious.” Rue Harrison, an artist as well as a practicing psychotherapist, reflects about the subject from both sides of her own work. From the perspective of art, she talks about her relationship with the mysterious animal figure who first appeared in her paintings fifteen years ago, eventually evolving into an ongoing graphic narrative that readers of works & conversations will recognize as
Indigo Animal

Richard Whittaker:  How shall we begin with this big subject?

Rue Harrison:  My intention is to explore some questions I have which relate to the topic. I’ve been working as an artist all my adult life, but for the last 15 years, I’ve been working with a narrative which has yielded a lot for me, and I can think about it in two ways: from the standpoint of art and from the standpoint of psychology. Since I’ve become a therapist, I’ve become interested in it in both ways. In general, the idea is that the unconscious is the part of us which remains hidden. It emerges sometimes in images and dreams, and these can become an important part of artmaking.

RW:  Do you think the uncovering of these hidden parts of ourselves could be a transforming process?

RH:  Yes, and I feel that I can attest to that personally. Engaging in an artistic process can lead one to places that you would never know were possible in terms of putting oneself back together.

RW:  I’m not sure everyone accepts the idea that there really is this thing we’re calling “the unconscious.”

RH:  It would seem to me that the unconscious has been verified, even by experimenters, through things like association tests.

RW:  Would you say that this has been verified in your own experience?

RH:  When I was in my twenties, I would let myself go and when an image came up, I’d paint it. I’d have a piece of paper and ideas would come to me, and I’d react to those and try to depict them. Draughtsmanship wasn’t my main interest; I was mostly interested in color, but when the painting would be finished and I’d look at it maybe a week later, or a month later, I’d see something revealed about things that were going on in my life at the time I’d painted it. Relationships, childhood memories; these things would be there, but when I did the painting, I would not be at all aware of that. I’d just be making the painting.
     After awhile, I started to look forward to that time a week later when I would go to the painting and suddenly it was showing me something very graphically. For me, that was verification of the unconscious.

RW:  You mention childhood memories. Are these an important aspect for you in your artmaking?

RH:  Well, for one thing, some of my most vibrant memories go back to first and second grade, the experience of getting that clean sheet of paper and the crayons, and realizing that I could make a world.
     Looking back, I realize that was a special gift. But life intervened and I lost that direct relationship with visual arts for some time. I did a lot of writing, but it wasn’t until I got to college that I got into taking art classes again, and once again, it felt like a very important aspect of my life. There was this familiar kind of quickening; this excitement of being in contact with something that is really alive. I think this is what calls artists to continue this kind of exploration.

RW:  You’d been painting in New Mexico and got a BFA there and you came to San Francisco where you got an MA in art from San Francisco State. But it wasn’t until many years later that Indigo Animal first appeared. Could we jump forward to the appearance of this figure in your paintings?

RH:  Here’s the first painting. [holding up photo] At that time, I was often painting landscapes of the neighborhood, but I would let other things come into the paintings, too. Here, this animal figure appeared in the landscape. I let that figure come in. That’s the first one.

RW:  And there’s that little figure in the middle of the painting, too. Can you say a little about that?

RH:  It literally looks like a shadow figure. This painting actually reminds me of a Jungian psychoanalyst I’ve been reading, Donald Kalsched. Let me read a quote  from his book, The Inner World of Trauma: “In dreams the regressed part of the personality is usually represented as a vulnerable young innocent child or animal-self who remains shamefully hidden. Occasionally it appears as a special animal. Whatever its particular incarnation, this innocent remainder of the whole self seems to represent a core of the individual’s imperishable personal spirit, what the ancient Egyptians called the Ba-Soul.”
     I relate to that with regard to Indigo Animal because its emergence wasn’t so easy. It felt like such a simple little figure, but to have it come out and appear in a painting like this was kind of a risk. The figure had to remain hidden for awhile in these paintings. As far as the little shadow figure goes, I remember when I painted it that it had a lot of energy, and there was a sense of going into an unknown space that was kind of thrilling. The animal figure looks sort of dreamy and completely unknown, while that little figure has the quality of being almost dangerous. So there is this separation between these two qualities in this painting.
     Something else that comes in here is that feeling of having to be successful and well known. You can get very critical of yourself for not being more successful. I was certainly prey to this, and at this point in my painting, I was somewhat despondent.

RW:  Can you say more about the risk of having the animal figure appear?

RH:  It’s hard to describe some of these things. Having the animal appear was fun, but I was trying to give the context of my feeling of some lack of confidence at the time—about this painting, for instance.

RW:  Now here’s the second appearance of this animal figure.

RH:  Yes. That one came probably a few paintings after the first one, I got interested in this creature, and then did this painting. Suddenly the animal here is very resolute. It seems like it really wants to emerge at this point. It has a strong, stubborn spirit which was very meaningful to me when I painted it. 

RW:  The stairway is much clearer and the figure seems more intent on climbing those stairs, too.

RH:  The animal also has eyes in this painting, which later disappear. It seems that both figures in the preceding painting are now merged into this one image. This is the full emergence of the creature, which became a very important vehicle for me.

RW:  There was another painting, which doesn’t survive, in which the animal was facing a portico of Greek columns, as if ready to enter that. I remember liking that painting a lot, but you painted over it. Do you remember that painting?

RH:  I remember I was pushing myself to go beyond a limit, and I met with some disappointment with myself. It was another aspect of being very critical with myself, so I painted over it. There were a few others that haven’t survived either. 

RW:  Eventually you began doing drawings, which led to the cartoon narrative. Would you tell us about that?

RH:  It happened very quickly. I had a job as a graphic designer at the time, and it wasn’t really what I wanted to be doing. I was riding the bus, facing another day going to work, when some words started coming to me. When I got to work, I wrote them down as best I could.
     Then over the next few weeks, I started to draw this cartoon. I was immediately much more engaged by having words with the images than I had been by just doing paintings. I felt much more free and happy.

RW:  It was on the bus that the name “Indigo Animal” came to you?

RH:  Yes, along with the first ideas for drawings and words. That first strip had seven drawings. After a little editing it went: “Indigo’s feelings are inchoate, impossible to understand, formless. Indigo Animal’s thoughts, like shards of light, briefly illuminate the uncharted inner landscape, only to disappear again for unaccountable reasons. Indigo Animal trudges onward, struggling to connect words to images, but more often than not, failing to do so.”

RW:  It’s like a literal account of the beginning of the process of the unconscious coming to light.

RH:  In a way, that moment is the most precious moment. It’s a question of what happens after that. Yes, it’s a powerful moment. It was very exciting that something unknown was emerging. When I started to work with this cartoon, it was so engaging for me that it didn’t really matter what other people thought about it, so it released a sense of play in my work.
     I guess I’d been so critical with myself that I’d always been somewhat inhibited in my art expression. This really released something for me. And also, as a therapist, this is a really interesting process. For Indigo Animal to enter the world and start walking down these streets was, for me at least, a momentous event.

RW:  A new space opened up, an inner space.

RH:  Yes. It always felt very alive. It began to give me a place to let out this part that had always been the most hidden part. The magazine [The Secret Alameda*] allowed me to get it out into the world and to begin to get a little feedback, which was also very important to this process.

RW:  Can we look at some of the first drawings? I know you’ve brought some photos of them with you.

RH:  This one is one of the first. This was really fun to do. It was kind of letting the animal out, and since it was now in a narrative, there was an excuse to keep drawing it. So the animal is out walking through the neighborhood and you can see that the animal looks a little uncomfortable. Also the trees and the shadows are a little bit scary and forbidding.

Question: [audience]  Does the animal have a gender?

RH:  Well, I struggled with that. In the early strips, Indigo was a she. Then I started to like the idea of Indigo Animal’s gender being ambiguous. I’ve tried to write it so it’s not clear what Indigo’s gender is. I also think I’m influenced—for instance, if I’m talking with men, it becomes a “he.” [laughs]

Question:  Do you feel a connection with Chagall? I ask because of the dream-like dissociation of some of your images.

RH:  I think what you’re seeing is one of the reasons I went toward the story in a cartoon format. I felt totally free in this cartoon narrative. It was freeing because it’s not so serious, as I said.
     Let me read another quote here. Sean McNiff, who’s an art therapist, says in his book, Art and Medicine, “The commercial art world is allied with a particular set of economic values, and we make an error when we perceive this context to be the exclusive, or the highest, realm of art.”
     That speaks to something I found it very difficult not to feel hampered by. The market side of art, art as a commodity, kind of rules the experience of many artists. I think every artist has to learn to be able to exist outside of that world in order to be able to continue.
     Those artists who are able to make it in this commodity atmosphere usually do have strong egos, but a lot of artists have been through some sort of a loss or early difficulty. People, like me, who are in that camp, have to deal with this self-critical part of themselves.
     So it can be a vehicle for growth, but in the context of the art world, people can be dissuaded and can give up on a process that eventually can be very healing.

RW:  You touch on something very significant there, but maybe we should get back to how Indigo Animal developed.

RH:  Yes. So here is Indigo Animal trudging onward, and here are just a couple more images from that first strip. The animal starts to walk around in this gray world, and here something finally connects. [shows drawing of Indigo colliding with a tree—audience laughs]
     From there, there were a number of cartoon strips which show, I think, a kind of psychological development that was going on.
     Now there’s another part of this, which I wanted to bring up, the idea of imaginary worlds. This is something I don’t have any resolved feeling about yet, and this narrative definitely becomes for me a kind of imaginary world. I think a lot of people have various kinds of imaginary worlds, and that points to the edge of what I’m trying to understand about my work, and also about anyone who creates an imaginary world. At what point is such a world cutting you off from a relationship to the outer world?
     Imaginary worlds, as an inner process, stand sort of mid-way between being really split-off and dissociated, and starting to gather oneself together through an artistic process. Everyone experiences dissociation, but this is something people who have been traumatized use much more than others.
     So if you create an imaginary world, you are giving your inner world shape, and you’re focusing on it in a way that potentially can lead away from dissociation, but that’s unclear. You can’t say a hundred percent that it’s a positive thing. Sometimes people get stuck in their imaginary worlds.

RW:  Perhaps you could argue that artmaking itself, this involvement in a private, personal world, is a form of dissociation.

RH:  I think that’s a really important question. I want to read another quote from Donald Kalsched. He asks, “through what process of normal development is the world of transpersonal, numinous experience linked up in a dialectical relationship with mundane reality so that life becomes truly meaningful, vital and alive?”
     If you think of the artist in his or her studio working, you could say that the artist is not just in a fantasy world; the artist is actually putting work into mundane reality, also. One thing that often happens is that what the artist makes doesn’t exactly correspond to what the fantasy is. So that’s one way the artist is brought into contact with mundane reality. There has to be some kind of relationship with what actually has been made. 
     It seems like that link to a dialectical relationship—self, other—is essential for growth. It can happen that way, or it can happen if a patient brings his or her dreams and works with a therapist. For the artist, there are all the interpersonal challenges which are part of the problem of getting the work into the world.
     So some kind of connection has to happen. A deepening has to be going on extending into the body and feelings in order, ultimately, for an experience of grounding to take place. Then growth might occur. So how does that happen exactly? All of this remains a question.

RW:  What about the “numinous experience” in your quote, and also the reference to “normal development.” How do you see that?

RH:  Well, in terms of transpersonal, numinous experience, I think that people who create imaginary worlds—which is more where I am involved—that it allows for these archetypes to appear. I mean, they appear in dreams, or they can appear in art work.
     Artmaking can create this play space that I was talking about and that enables these things to enter, representations of something larger than my ego, that is, the parts of myself I know. It brings with it a sense of meaning and connection with something larger than oneself. This doesn’t have much to do with one’s own personality. It’s something deeper. That’s what I think of with this phrase “transpersonal numinous experience.”
     Then with regard to “normal” development, I’m not really sure what Kalsched means by that. But maybe he’s saying that things develop normally if they are connected to mundane reality. If you remain in a world of transpersonal, numinous experience and never find a way to let it stream into your mundane existence in one way or another, it may not be helpful. But this process is more mysterious than we know. 
     Margaret Lowenfield, a social worker who was in charge of a home for WWI orphans, was the first person to make a study of what later become known as “sandtray therapy.” The orphans were given a sand box and all kinds of toy figures to play with—horses, cows, houses, fences, and so on. Day after day the children played creating “worlds” in the sand. At first their worlds expressed their fears and the chaos they’d been through. But without any other interventions from Lowenfield, eventually most of the children began creating more orderly wholesome worlds, and they began to re-engage with life.
     However, what happens with people who have serious pathologies, is that their inner magical world starts to develop scary characters. You don’t want the inner world to get so cut off that it’s peopled by demons. Jung tried to express idea through the alchemical term the lesser conjunctio. That’s when a connection is made, but it’s not this connection to mundane reality.

RW:  I’m not sure I follow that.

RH:  The lesser conjunctio is more like an addictive process where two things connect, but in a way that doesn’t lead toward growth. There’s no grounding in physical reality.

RW:  An obsessive connection? Something that sort of spins off in some kind of cocoon?

RH:  I think so. I think that’s why it’s hard to talk about these ideas. You know, people having imaginary worlds is sometimes equated with being mentally ill. You know that bumper sticker: “I do whatever my Rice Crispies tell me to do.”? So I think that’s why Jung talked about the greater conjunctio which is something that can really move towards growth, and the lesser conjunctio, where something never breaks through to a connection with reality.
     That’s why, in a way, the art process has such potential value. There is such a difference between someone living in a fantasy world—not separated from it, who thinks it’s real—and somebody who is taking that fantasy world and is writing about it, painting it, taking it out and looking at it. Then there’s another space that appears. It’s the beginning of this greater conjunctio starting to take place.

RW:  Well, let’s return to Indigo Animal which, for you, has been an avenue to some of these connections with the worlds you’re describing—the world outside as well as a larger inner world.

RH:  Yes, and basically the story of Indigo Animal is kind of like moving from a place of less confidence, of having weak spots in one’s psyche, to having them begin to get filled up.

RW:  Say more about that, and how the narrative has progressed.

RH:  Well, Indigo Animal watched too much television, but sort of knew that there was a world out there. Indigo had an interest in beauty, but “Indigo lacks purpose.” [holding up a drawing]
     In one of the strips, the TV is stolen and Indigo goes through a long period of depression. But at a certain point, Indigo experiences a moment of kensho, the moment when the theme song from “Jeopardy” finally stops playing in Indigo’s head. [laughter]
     With the TV gone, Indigo does a lot more walking around and becomes even more interested in lawn statuary, because there’s a lot in the neighborhood. That leads to some reading and eventually to a study of the “ancient laws of proportion.”
     Anyway, as the narrative continues, Indigo is able to rally some inner resources and slowly begins to undergo a transformation.

RW:  There’s a drawing we don’t have with us, but while studying the ancient laws of proportion, Indigo Animal took some careful measurements and found that its own proportions perfectly corresponded to these ancient laws of proportion. [laughter from audience]

RH:  It was a win-win.

RW:  Maybe there’s something you’d like to speak to that hasn’t yet come up.

RH:  I’d like to read this one short quote: “How is the magical world of childhood retained into adulthood?” Maybe we don’t have to try to answer that one. Maybe we can just let it sit there. 
     And I’d like to show these last few pictures. Here Indigo Animal discovers The Lawn Statuary Research Institute. [holds up drawing] This is the where Indigo is going at the end of the first book.
     Beyond that, other characters appear. [holding up pictures] These two, I didn’t realize until a couple of days ago, are kind of like parent figures. This is a marmot, Dame Eleanor, and this is Orange Bearcat. They are power-possessing beings in this new world that Indigo Animal enters. Orange Bearcat is the director of the Institute. So this is a work in progress.

RW:  Maybe we could open it up for questions now.

Question:  I’m a therapist and an artist, and I have the kind of training that you do. I was raised to think my art would find its way into galleries in New York and the Museum of Modern Art. By the time I was thirty, I could see it wasn’t going to happen. But the most healing experiences in my own life have been involved with art or meditation, not with talk therapy and I’ve struggled throughout my long career to bring art into the therapy process. I see a parallel between what’s considered important and “higher” in the art world and how it is in the therapy world. In the psychological community, psychoanalytic therapy is “real,” while a degree in art therapy is seen as sort of flaky—unless perhaps it’s adjunct to a medical setting. So the same kinds of messages are going on which alienates me from what I know deeply to be healing, messages saying there’s something not “kosher” about it, just as there might not be something “kosher” about your wonderful painting in the high art world. I’m saying I see a parallel there.

RH:  That is so helpful, because these things, they’re very oppressive, and they’re not usually seen; they’re unconscious. The ways things are separated out can stop one from acting. I think it’s something that has to get lived out. Doing this talk is a way of making it more evident to me, for instance, where limitations are being put that don’t need to be there.

Question:  There’s this one quote you handed out from Prinzhorn, a surrealist artist, “When the soul is depressed, isolated, mad and distraught artistic images appear.” I was thinking about how the TV disappears and Indigo is depressed, and there’s the Void, and then some enlightenment follows. Do you think depression is inherent in the creative state?

RH:   I don’t think it always is. That quote interested me because something came to me out of the blue when I was on that bus, and I really felt rather lost. But I’m sure one can be too depressed. I’m not quite sure what’s really required to have that experience, but certainly in some essential way, Surrealism itself grew out of the tremendous pain of World War I.

Question:  My wife is an art therapist and has seen kids emerge out of depression by putting this stuff on paper.

RW:  In the art world, the high art world, the idea of art being therapeutic—that is, its therapeutic connection with the artist him or herself—is not, it seems to me, an honored concept. I think it’s unfortunate because, in the history of mankind, as far as we can tell, one of the central uses of art has always been for healing.

Question:  Indigo appeared in a very ordinary setting, and was very mysterious. That’s his appeal. That seems to parallel what you were describing, that something was arising in this setting where everything was too conscious and laden with intentionality—graphic design.

RH:  Absolutely. It’s something that couldn’t be fitted into any category. And it’s still true, because I don’t really know what kind of animal it is. ∆

*Eight issues of The Secret Alameda were published from 1991 to 1997. The Adventures of Indigo Animal continue in works & conversations


About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine   


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