Intersubjectivity and the arts

As most of you will know, over the last two and a bit years I have been engrossed in a research project as part of my Masters in Experiential and Creative Arts Practice at the MIECAT Insitute. I have just completed the thesis (more about this is the next post.)

One of the key methodological approaches and themes in the project was using the arts to respond to the data and to the research participants. This was informed predominantly by the work of the MIECAT Institute founder, Warren Lett and his development of Intersubjective Responding in the therapeutic context.

For me, the MIECAT form of inquiry has opened up a whole new way of making art with and in response to others. This is an excerpt form my thesis, direct citations are in italics (see Garden-Thompson, 2014, pp. 22-33):

“The MIECAT procedure of intersubjective responding was pivotal in the collaborative companioning sessions. Intersubjectivity is based on an existential-phenomenological tradition in psychotherapy. The focus is on “being with” the client in the present moment, on bringing together the “story” which is told by the client and the content that emerges from the therapeutic relationship.

The therapist in this mode of being is thus responsible for participating in story-telling in a way that has both freedoms and limits. The flights of imaginative possibilities require a form that binds the central experiential issues the client has expressed (Todres, 2007, p. 87).

Intersubjective responding has unshackled me from the role of “expert” and placed me in the role of collaborator — enabling me to respond using the same medium the participants used in representing their experiences. Dr. Warren Lett, the founding member of MIECAT, developed the procedure as a way for therapists to utilise their creativity in the therapeutic relationship. He describes it as a phenomenological alternative to diagnosis in the form of an artistic representation of what the companion has felt, understood and responded to, in the other’s story. For Lett (1997), it is also a collaboration that says, “I think this is what I heard you say” (p. 18). He further describes how:

The quality of the intersubjective response lies between the pre-reflective and the conscious awareness of emergent possibilities. Some such responses are reflective and considered, whilst others are spontaneous and intuitive; but however they are formed, they are delivered as a felt resonance to the form of the interaction that lies between             participants (p. 278).

Like a conversation, art presents an interactive picture — an interaction between what is remembered, the art materials and the content-in-process arising in the therapeutic relationship.

As in a conversation between people, what is made has come from the between, rather than just from the ‘inside’ of the artist, or a representation of the world out there, and has taken place over time in its own rhythm, like the verbal conversation between members of the group (Skaife, 2001, pp. 47 – 48).

Although there are risks involved in responding to others in this way, I am reassured by Thornburn and Hibbard (2008) who say “we may never really know at all if our response is appropriate — we simply enter into the phenomenological stream of emergent material that is gathered around the individual’s experience and use an expressive modality to externally represent it” (p. 155).

Not only has this approach informed my research but also my practice as a visual artist and creative arts therapist. Last year when working as a Creative Arts Therapist in Supported Residential Services, I ran pop-up “Open Studios”. It was an opportunity for residents of the services to participate in art making using a range of processes and materials. Most of the participants developed to a point that they could initiate their own art making and for those that needed encouragement I often made art alongside them. At times I we worked collaboratively on the same image…a conversation without words but through art. Here are some of those images:

making with 3 copymaking with 2 copy
making with 7 copy
At the end of the year I had a huge stack of artworks that I had made during sessions. As a way to contain my own experience of facilitating art groups, I decided to create something out of them. I imagined a cape which I could wear for protection, reflecting self care. First of all I cut up the artworks and clustered them into piles of the same type of imagery.
clusttering copy
I then lay out the individual pieces to work out the position they would each have on the “cape”. As I did this process the cape changed shape into an “apron”. I always wear an apron when making or facilitating art! It seemed quite fitting that my representation had taken this form.
constrcution copyI sewed the cut outs onto material. It was slow and focused process, giving me lots of time to reflect on the moments shared when I had originally made the artworks.
I finished it the day of my last supervision at the MIECAT institute which was part of my Masters by supervision. I set up a performance space with the table cloths I had used in my art therapy groups. I hid the apron underneath. I began by exploring the space, moving to some music by the Knife. Then I revealed the apron and put it on. I danced and moved to the music with my apron. I was witnessed by my supervisor and four other peers.
I was surprised at how vibrant and energetic the apron was. The uncertainty I had experienced as a budding art therapist
had transformed through creating the representation of the apron. There were many positive and affirming experiences that had been shared with the residents of the Supported Residential Services and with other groups I facilitated. These were now held and presented in the apron.
As a final step I decided to photograph the apron and print it out to make postcards for all the participants in the programs I had facilitated in 2014. I framed the photograph for the managers and organisers of the program. I wrote individual messages for each participant. This was my Intersubjective Response to the overall experience of working with them for a year (and in some cases longer).
Reverse side of postcards – ready to distribute to participants in my art programs

reveerse side copy

The apron now hangs on my wall as a celebration and reminder of the power of the arts and the potential for incorporating Intersubjective Responding in my practice.

Natalya Garden, 2013, The apron, paint, pastel, pencil, curtain material, thread, ribbon

apron apron close up 2 apron close up 1



Garden-Thompson, N. (2014). Life After Arts School: An Inquiry into Fine & Visual Art Graduates’ Experiences of Creative Stuckness. Melbourne, Victoria: The MIECAT Institute.

Lett, W. (1997). How the Arts Make a Difference in Therapy (pp. 10-23). Melbourne, Victoria: Australian Dance Council.

Skaife, S. (2001). Making Visible: Art Therapy and Intersubjectivity, Inscape: Formerly Inscape, 6(2), 40-50. doi: 10.1080/17454830108414030

Thorburn, K., & Hibbard, S. (2008). Multimodal conversations – methods for shared  moments of meaning with vulnerable young people. In P. Liamputtong & J. Rumbold (Eds.), Knowing differently arts-based and collaborative research methods (pp. 141 – 166). New York: Nova Science Publishers Inc.

Todres, L. (2007). Embodied Enquiry: Phenomenological Touchstones for Research, Psychotherapy and Spirituality. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

4 thoughts on “Intersubjectivity and the arts

    • Thanks very much Sid. Great to hear that you enjoyed reading this. And also affirming that you have thanked me for sharing. My thoughts about intersubjecivity and the arts have been brewing for awhile and I’m glad that I have finally shared some of them with the world!

  1. LOVE the Apron Natalie!! Wonderful, love your expanding vision for yourself in self-care as a creative art therapist…

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