Unlocking the Puzzle of Symbols in Art

The most fundamental reason one paints is in order to see.
~ Australian artist Brett Whiteley

 Art does not render the visible; rather it makes visible.
~ Paul Klee

My discovery of ‘art therapy’ and how it made many vague and unpleasant feelings within me “visible” so that I could “see” their source, occurred in 1989 while I was teaching an adult painting class in Florida. Two women began talking about the feelings their paintings evoked, so I asked them about the underlying meaning of symbols they had used.

Almost immediately they both connected them to various problems they had with their mothers, even though they had used very different symbols. Insights about patterns they were caught in and the underlying dynamics of their relationships, led us to explore in greater depth how art could be used as ‘therapy.’ We sensed that by exposing underlying problems or negative experiences through art, and actually seeing what we were dealing with, would greatly increase our chances of affecting change and healing.

Not all symbols used in art are necessarily universal. While many are intricately linked to aspects of trauma or abuse, others are more loosely linked and can even hide abuse within something pleasurable – like playing chess.

One of the women knew of a psychotherapist who used art therapy with children, and upon contacting her, she offered to share the work she did. She showed us children’s drawings that contained many symbols of their trauma and explained their underlying meaning. She pointed out the spiders’ webs one girl drew to depict her relationship with her mother. Another child drew herself with both arms raised in surrender, which represented sexual abuse and the vulnerability she felt.

This meeting finally confirmed for me that my paintings were trying to tell me much more than I had previously been prepared to confront. Although art symbols are not necessarily universal, a few days passed before I was even able to acknowledge that I had also painted a child with raised arms: a girl at a window staring in horror as a menacing illuminated flower descends upon her.

The second painting is of a nude woman with raised arms as if she is washing her hair. Curiously, while working on this composite painting several years ago, I sensed the presence of an intruder in her private world; a world in which she thought she was alone…and safe. For some reason she was not safe. I distinctly remembered an underlying feeling of rage stirring within me while I painted. To me, the woman looked sweet and innocent; vulnerable, yet out of reach. The look in her eyes drew me into her feelings and I felt her anger…and her betrayal.

The meeting with the psychotherapist marked the beginning of unlocking secrets from the past, for it prompted me to ask out loud, “I want to see what my father did to me,” remembering that two men, on separate occasions the previous year, said they believed my father had sexually abused me, yet I had no conscious memory of it. A lawyer friend later told me that men are able to pick up on a woman’s vibes when she has been abused because it makes her easy prey. Through a meditation technique I had taught myself to access underlying feelings, the memory then returned of the most recent incident of sexual abuse.

The physical reaction I had to this was instant diarrhea with stomach pains. Almost immediately, changes began to occur. The pain I had been experiencing in my left shoulder from a recent car accident vanished. My lopsided posture, where for years I carried my left shoulder higher than the other, corrected itself as if I had released a burden I was carrying. I consciously began painting checkered patterns, sometimes with knights as chess pieces to depict the battle between good and evil. Although black and white knights dominated some paintings, I also painted checkered effects without them.

By exploring this theme, I gradually came to see evil as an out-picturing of accumulated fears and insecurities. I wanted to know what caused these fears, and around this time met an artist who had also been sexually abused, only he had ended up in the crisis unit of a mental hospital after doing a sculpture that brought his abuse to the surface, which he was unable to recognize as such. It was the beginning of trying to understand how sexual abuse affects the mind.

The first time a knight chess piece emerged in my art was in a pastel drawing almost immediately after the initial memory of sexual abuse returned. At the time, I regarded myself as a ‘knight in shining armour’ rescuing all the needy people in my life to put things ‘right’ for them – as I had tried to do with my father as a child. The drawing shows that I had collapsed from exhaustion doing this, which is depicted by the orange ‘shadow’ of the knight, which could also be blood spilling out (and I spontaneously now add: “on a white sheet”). The black and white knights then confront each other within a triangle, which represents my willingness to address what is in my “shadow” or unconscious, and integrate it. This integration is represented by the orange circle on top of the triangle that would enable me to develop spiritual ‘wings’ to explore the meaning of peace and love, and what it means to forgive.

Instinctively I knew that it was like a treasure map I needed to follow on what would become a long journey of healing.

Over ten years later, in 2000, a friend asked me about my obsession with checkered patterns and chess pieces. I told him about the theme of good and evil that still fascinated me. I also said that I liked playing chess, and recalled the times I had played chess at lunchtime with my boss in my mid-twenties. And then, for the first time, I also recalled the unexpected and intensely uncomfortable sexual interest he showed in me one day when he called me into his office.

With this unexpected connection, it became clear to me that my obsession with checkered patterns and knights, and the theme of good and evil, had its roots in several experiences of sexual abuse at the hands of men I had trusted as a child, and as an adult – which I had now recalled. The betrayal of trust was so acute it forced me to confront the ‘evil’ (or shadow side) within people, represented by the black knight, which is quite prominent in this painting. I saw myself as the white knight always trying her best to do good (as I had done as a child), to free myself from the painful shame of doing ‘something’ that caused men to act in abusive ways.

That “something,” I later discovered, was my childhood innocence and trust, along with the natural coquettishness that little girls often have.

I explored this checkered theme in many paintings over a period of about fifteen years. As I was able to gradually unlock my feelings of disgust and rage and begin to heal, the checkered patterns become fragmented. Not only did they portray how the abuse split my mind and the deep agony I felt, they also showed that one day I would heal sufficiently to forgive and rise like the sun, free from the cloud of grief and pain and darkness that had stopped me living to my highest potential.

It has been sixteen years since I last painted a checkered pattern or chess piece. Recently I was able to reach that incredible moment of forgiveness, which brought with it a feeling of peace in my soul. I continue to paint. The integration process is ongoing and my paintings show me where I still need to heal. This is very important because the accumulated childhood trauma and abuse has caused chronic PTSD. Although I may never completely recover, each time I paint I can again find that locus of peace within me. I understand that if this is as good as I get, that is okay.

The rewards of insights, new understanding, and feelings of love and compassion are the magic of this work, and indeed, are its greatest gifts.

Below is a Slideshare of the checkered paintings in chronological order.