Meshing figures with landscapes, artist and art therapist Andrea Durfee says her paintings personify the tension between opposing emotions and inclinations. Her Sleeping Giants series represents our connection to our environment, our past, and each other. Christine Dionese, integrative health specialist & friend to Free + Native often incorporates the suggestion of art therapy into her consulting practice. Inspired by the artist’s latest series, Christine discusses ego, manifestation and mindfulness with Andrea.
Christine for Free + Native: You describe Sleeping Giants to personify the tension between opposing emotions and inclinations. Can you tell us about what this means?
Andrea Durfee: Dialectics are important in the way I view the world; the active/passive, push/pull, that creates harmony and connection. A being, thought, or occurrence can encompass opposing qualities and still be true (and important) to the whole. One can feel sorrow about an event and find it joyful or liberating. A circumstance can rouse feelings of safety and captivity at the same time.
My Sleeping Giants embody much of this dynamic. They dominate their environment and are subdued by their relation to it. They are isolated and still connected with everything surrounding them. They are godlike, yet subject to the same erosion and cycle of life and death as everything else in this universe. So too does my method reflect this dynamic opposition, using intuitive emotional application of watercolor and gouache followed by a more structured cognitive use of ink linework to create a balanced final piece.
F + N: Let’s talk about spiritual bypassing. Instead of identifying and honoring the phenomena as a natural part of our personal journeys, we can sometimes spend too much time allowing ourselves to feel bad or unsettled about it. When gazing at your Sleeping Giants though, one sees lines, curves and plateaus, and begins to understand that life is not even close to being linear. Beyond the social experience of art, how do you perceive art therapy to help fill these gaps in spiritual bypassing?
AD: I highly recommend seeking out a licensed Art Therapist if you are looking to delve into deeper self exploration and healing through art. It is important to have a knowledgeable guide to bear witness to and support this sometimes difficult journey.
We often avoid the opportunity to dissect an experience and learn some deeper truth about ourselves, especially if that experience falls into our “bad” category. This leaves us stuck in feelings like regret, loneliness, and anxiety. Art therapy is unique in that it provides a safe space to open yourself to experiencing and expressing emotion, and leaves you with a physical manifestation of that experience from which to observe and learn. Working with different mediums, like paint and clay, can loosen up those parts of our brain congested with rules and self-restraint, allowing us to truly feel, acknowledge, and release attachments. Humans are creative beings (yes everyone is creative) and were built with the capacity and urge to make, dance, sing... It seems only natural that we would channel this power to teach and lift us.
F + N: When I first looked at the giants I asked myself a question many of us do- am I manifesting from my ego or my higher self? Because of their visual-sensory application, Sleeping Giants evokes relaxation- an invitation to be easier on ourselves to honor what it takes to answer this question by returning to the paintings time and time again. How do you suggest both wellness practitioners and individuals can apply the practice of art therapy to answering this vital question?
AD: I feel this struggle as I have always been a daydreamer, which can be a very ego-centric indulgence, manifesting wants, desires, and fears, instead of connection with the present. Art creation helps keep this in check by providing space for letting go, loosening up of inherited rules, and being in the moment. We tend to cling to maintaining control and direction in our lives, focusing on how we think/want things to unfold. When we don’t get what we wanted or an unexpected shift occurs in our lives, we can spiral, affecting mental, physical, and relationship health.
Art therapy and art creation can teach us to go with the flow and trust in synchronicity. I especially love working with watercolors for this practice because they can teach us so much about how we interact with our environment. Watercolor has properties that require us to cede control to the elements. Too much exertion and overworking by the artist’s hand and it becomes muddied; work with the paint, allowing it to naturally flow and settle, and you can end up with something truly beautiful. Such is life, and through this activity we can begin to experience alignment between our internal and external world.
F + N: While it isn’t always the easiest practice to engage in, I suggest that clients consider responding to internal and external environmental cues first before quickly reacting to them to improve sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system communication. How can we use art as cues to help facilitate this process?
AD: Art therapy is fantastic in this respect as it calls for both action and reflection. I can use my process to illustrate. I first create a sketched framework for my sleeping giants, followed by a more instinctive application of paint, and finally move to ink to outline and define the landscape I find within the paint. Each of these steps involves action, movement, reflection, and response. Throughout each step, I am constantly checking in with myself attempting to remain mindful of my emotional state and interactions with the material (am I resisting? Clinging? Vibing?). If things feel off, I stop, taking internal and external inventory. What is happening in my environment that I am distracted by? What are the thoughts I’m not releasing? Do I physically feel off balance? Since artwork is a manifestation of our physical, mental, and spiritual state, observing our creations gives us insight into how we are responding to internal and external phenomena. Enough observing and we can begin to find patterns, more effectively identifying when we are reacting discordantly and more quickly realigning.
F + N: Please tell us both as an artist and therapist how creating and observing art, especially Sleeping Giants reflects how ego is connected to our core belief systems and in what ways art can set us free when we find ourselves clinging too tightly to the ego.
AD: We have inherited rules etched into our subconscious from many feeds (family, social, culture, media). Our ego then works hard to make sure our actions fall in line with this... Creating art can give us a window onto cognitive distortions, and provide the opportunity for them to be recognized, challenged, and ultimately relinquished.
I often hear, even before brush hits paper, “I’m not good at this…”. Defense mechanisms can try to prevent this self examination from even beginning in the first place. However, the more we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, the more often we can observe that all the fears our ego was feeding us were lies and did not serve us well. Directives such as self-portraits, depicting fears, and dreamscapes, can be helpful in identifying where we are clinging and move toward release.
F + N: How we mindfully attend to our daily lives is as important as the activities we fill it with — how does your work mirror this attitude?
AD: My work focuses on nature, elemental balance, and connectivity, both in process and content. When I really began painting with mindful intent, observing my sensory and mental experience without judgement, I found that it altered how I perceived and moved through the world. It helps open you to fully experiencing moments that may have previously been neglected (the sunlight coming through the trees or the feel of your bare feet in the grass) and that are in reality what feed and connect us to the universe.
It helps reframe what is important in life and what should be washed away.
Photos | Hannah Betts for POST Magazine
Christine Dionese is an integrative health & food therapy specialist and medical & food journalist. She has dedicated her career to helping others understand the science of happiness and its powerful effects on everyday human health by harnessing the power of the epigenetic landscape. Please contact her here.