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Friday, March 14, 2008

PTSD Sculpture Therapy: One Woman's Clay Journal

Recently, a sculptor pointed me in the direction of her series of figurative pieces created while she was in therapy for PTSD. At the Tri State Sculptors website, Kim Marchesseault (who blogs at Spackel) says of her work:

My work is about relationships among people, with self, with the universe. It’s a study of why we are here, what makes us who we are and how each one of us affect everyone and everything around us. I move shapes and lines until they work together to soothe and heal.

Kim, who in the past has practiced a wide variety of art expression including bronze casting and mural painting, was kind enough to answer a few of my questions regarding her ethereal ceramic sculptures. I believe her creations and answers offer us a glimpse into the heart of someone processing their PTSD. Her impressions are deep, funny at times, and always thought-provoking.

A heartfelt thanks to Kim for sharing so much with us.

Ed note: The accompanying images are used with permission and have been artistically rendered. Additional pieces and clearer examples of Ms. Marchesseault's work, along with dimension and medium descriptions, are found at her Tri State Sculptors page.

Ilona Meagher: Your pieces tell an incredible tale of the soul finding strength in adversity. How difficult were those first pieces to produce?

Kim Marchesseault: Thank you.

I made the first piece, "The Pawn", in a sculpting class at NC State Craft Center and it was all I could do to make myself go.

I didn't know what was wrong with me, but I was scared enough to start seeing a therapist. I was having flashbacks and nightmares. I was terrified of even the most normal, commonplace interactions.

I was afraid someone was going to hurt me if they saw my sculpture. I tried my best to pretend everything was alright. I didn't want anyone to know. I just kept sculpting.


IM: Your clay journal, as you describe it, moves from 'The Pawn' to 'Free Diver' -- can you offer up any insight into the personal meaning each piece (or the meaning of the overall collection) holds for you? Which expressions are most transferable to the wider world today in your opinion?

KM: I see universal patterns in almost everything in life.

"The Pawn" represents being in situations that are beyond our control. Her eyes are closed. She has no arms. No hands to fix things with. The woman who modeled for us was crying the last night I worked on this piece because her cat was dying of a terrible illness. I thought if I made a change to the sculpture, she wouldn't have to be sad so I divided her hair/head into three parts.
I think this represents dissociation -- the thing we use to get us through the crisis. It is the separation of intellect from emotion and physical pain.

"Agony" is hurting. People might not realize just how much pain we're in. They don't believe us. We look like we're not really that bad off, but just acting, being dramatic. They reject us, discredit us. We're alone.

"River's Dawn" is a bit of hope. Hair (former living cells of our body -- our past) becomes water (cleansing, tears).

"Why?" Why did you do this to me? Expresses anger with God. Something that is taboo.

Waves crash against his legs.

"The Truth" is the most philosophically universal piece of art I have ever made. Jim Fatata and I shared a model, but I completed it later, alone. I changed the position of the head and the hand he's looking at. A lot of what happens in my work is intuitive. I usually experience things in my life that I see echoed throughout the universe on many different levels. I know that sounds silly.

Truth is elusive and I believe absolute truth is perfection of knowledge, which we as human beings cannot ever obtain full understanding of. So in his hand he believes he's holding the truth, but has he ever really seen it before. Is he hiding it? Preserving it? Protecting someone from it? Will he destroy it? Is he actually grasping the real truth? Or is it in his other hand? (the one behind him).

I thought about making a version of this piece that is not nude, but I don't know if I should cover up "The Truth"!! :P~ This is us trying to make sense -- to understand the memories and flashbacks. It's always a challenge to separate popular opinion -- what people in control want us to believe and what we want to believe -- from what is actually true.

"Letting in the Light" is exposing, revealing or demanding the truth. Pulling the facade off -- removing the minimalization; eliminating wrongful justification; peeling away the denial -- facing things head on.

It was at this point I was having the worst flashbacks. This was the most daring, most dramatically empowering and painful part of my therapy, a turning point.

"A New Direction" represents choosing a new path. It took me a long time to finish this one. I didn't think I was a good enough sculptor to complete it.

Around this time I eliminated destructive relationships from my life, realized I am worth protecting, that I need protection and learned how to protect myself in a healthier, more acceptable way.

Here I differentiated between what is and what is not a real obstacle. I was finding a safer way around the the real obstacles to reach my goal.

"Reverie" represents reflection, quiet contemplation. At this stage I pictured how I want the people around me to feel, visualized what I want my life, the lives of family members and friends to be like and how to achieve happiness.

"Free Diver" represents freedom. Flashbacks are gone. It is safe to simply exist and to be ourselves without fear.


IM: Do you express yourself artisticly in other ways, too (write, paint, compose music, etc)?

KM: I enjoy writing. Sometimes I'm chained to reality. Other times I head off in abstract, comedic, off-the-wall directions with my writing. Music is just for fun, sheer improv when I'm singing or beating out a rhythm or goofing around on the piano. My best instrument is probably the kitchen countertops. Is that an instrument? I have a few paintings that came from my dreams. They are meaningful to me.


IM: How do those art therapy forms differ from what you get out of sculpting?

Writing/words are more of a commitment. They have meanings you can look up in the dictionary. I don't always want to commit. I want the freedom to interpret, feel and evolve that comes with visual art and music. Of course words enter in visual art as titles and descriptions, in music as lyrics. And I do find new meaning in old books I haven't read in a while. I believe the various forms of art enhance each other and overlap at times.


IM: What have you found are the benefits of using art to process trauma?

KM: Art quietly invites you to reflect on your life, your world, your relationships while at the same time offering comfort. Good sculpture allows you to see what you need to see -- to project onto it the things you need to work out. The forms can be soothing and can communicate gracefully and directly without intruding, without a word. You choose to look or not.

There is no right or wrong.

Creating your own art causes more trauma when you are hard on yourself, perfectionistic, judge every mistake you make with cruelty. Eventually you learn to relax and know in your heart that nothing is wrong in art. You are improving with each piece, you begin to work quickly, finish, let it go and do better on your next piece of art -- then it becomes a growing, wonderful experience. You suddenly find you are being productive instead of beating yourself up.

Every work you do expresses your ideas, your emotion, your experiences. You see that you have some paintings or sculptures you like and others you're not as crazy about, but you know you can do better next time. Ideas for more art begin to flow. You discover you've become resilient and this manifests in other parts of your life.


IM: Had you been an artist before your trauma incident? If so, how was your work changed?

KM: I had Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder with trauma beginning when I was an infant. I've always excelled in art classes and dance when receiving instruction, but I was afraid whatever I created on my own would be stolen, ridiculed, broken and that I would be attacked for it. I didn't feel safe enough to truly express myself in art until recently in my life.


IM: How might your artwork help veterans returning from the combat zone?

KM: It would make me happy if our veterans going through the flashbacks and emotions of PTSD see with their own eyes in these sculptures that we can beat this thing.

There is hope.

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