Art Can Unlock the Door to the Unconscious

Exploring the unconscious is a crooked path of not only reclaiming ‘forgotten’ memories and dark secrets, but also ‘hidden’ gifts and talents.

Exploring the unconscious is like putting on scuba gear to search the ocean’s murky depths. There, on sandy graveyards, one can find the slowly rotting hulks of great ships, each with intriguing tales to tell of their life and untimely demise. Divers will quickly assure you that lost treasure can sometimes be found. But mostly the ‘treasure’ they seek is to explore the colourful and magical playground of new life that comes to feed in the marine gardens that quickly encrust each broken hull.

The ‘unconscious’ within you is something like this. To explore the suppressed memories buried there, the pain and brokenness hidden away, the cause of destructive patterns that are sabotaging your happiness, and then, to find the treasures of unknown gifts and talents, you need something that will allow you to breathe freely while submerged. Why would you want to go there, you might ask? To weed out the lies and myths and false beliefs – often encapsulating dark family secrets and denial – to find the treasure of ‘truth’, for within truth is freedom.

Painting, drawing, sculpture, photography, dance, music, writing, drama, film making, and even play, can be equally powerful modes of accessing the unconscious. For example, when Carl Jung felt he was living under constant inner pressure, he constructed on the banks of a river a little village of stones using mud for mortar to replicate his childhood passion for playing with building blocks. This enabled him to reconnect with childhood feelings and “was a turning point in my fate,” he wrote.

In a similar way, picking up my brushes and oil paints again in 1979 changed the whole course of my life. It was the year my husband carried our nearly four-year-old son into the kitchen to tell me that he was going to put him to bed as he was ‘sleepy’ after an accident on the family farm. I remember looking incredulously at him because it was clear to me that our son had a broken femur. This event unconsciously connected with a ‘forgotten’ traumatic experience during my early childhood, triggering PTSD symptoms. During a week on my own at the beach some months later, I completed a painting.

A tunnel in shades of blue twisted its way into the centre of the canvas, where a woman grimly held onto its end, arms stretched out over her head as if desperately trying not to fall into a fiery orange void that waited to engulf her, and which looked menacingly like the flames of hell. I had no idea what it was trying to tell me, or even what it meant. Only a vague sensation came to me that I had to jump into that fiery void.

Later that year I attended an International Conference on Community Education, where I picked up a flyer written by the Fitzroy Community School in Melbourne, titled The Whole Child, and read:

We devote a lot of time to adult policies, trying to make a better world. But every reform is frustrated or perverted. The quality of life is not improved, because the people are the same. What changes people? Well any one adult can recuperate from his childhood if he is dedicated to go through sufficient personal torment. But the population will generally behave according to their upbringing. The greatest power over human life is parent power. How you raise a person has a more potent effect on their ability to achieve happiness than any other influence or circumstance.

These words resonated for me at the time because I knew that I had not recuperated from my childhood. Initially I thought it was because of my parents’ divorce and the deep-seated feelings of grief I still had. Was this the “personal torment” I would have to work through? And would it be like jumping into the fires of hell I had painted?

The answer came as a feeling that I would follow a path that would enable me to help “mankind” in some way. How, I had no idea. But I felt the need to enroll to upgrade my teaching qualifications (majoring in art). Although it had been a childhood dream to become a ‘famous’ artist, never in my wildest imagination did I think that my paintings would begin recreating terrifying pictures of past traumas I had ‘buried’, which in turn would eventually lead me to write a book about the ripple effect of child abuse.

My first art assignment at the beginning of 1980 was to do a painting on a square canvas to depict movement. Like a child given a pencil to draw with, I instinctively drew what I loved: horses. But unbeknown to me I was also a child who, according to psychotherapist Alice Miller, “express their traumas in a painting the moment a paint brush is put into their hand.”

At first there were only two horses, but by following the direction to depict movement, I painted the head and part of the body of a third horse which had fallen between the legs of the fighting horses. When the drawing was complete, it occurred to me that the fighting horses were my parents, trampling (psychologically) all over me during their constant fights and arguments. It was a window into my past where I had completely repressed such memories…and the feelings associated with them.

After painting the horses, yachts with wind-filled sails and spinnakers flying became a fascinating theme for me, even though I had never sailed. While working late one afternoon in the art room, a technician came in and stopped to look at my painting.

“I like your bright colors,” he said. “What’s it supposed to be?”

“Yachts caught in a storm…”

He said it took him a while to work out abstract paintings, and then informed me that the waves looked like flames about to engulf the yacht, only it seemed unaware of the danger. “Interesting…” he said. “Is that orange shape behind it another yacht?”

“Yes… It’s about to be flattened by the big green wave.”

“And what’s the white behind it?”

“A sail…” I stood back and looked at it, trying to figure out what it meant when a sudden burst of insight caught me by surprise. “It represents peace…”

The technician raised his eyebrows at this and asked, “Are you at war with yourself?”

A stab of surprise and anxiety ripped through my stomach as if I had been caught totally naked. “I don’t know what you mean,” I said.

“Looks like a lot of raw emotion went into the painting. Red and orange; turmoil…anger…”

I looked away and began mixing some orange, only I couldn’t get the shade I wanted.

“What are you fighting about inside?” he asked as if picking at a scab before it is ready to come off.

“I have no idea,” I said bluntly.

“What is it you don’t want to deal with?”

“Why do you say that?” I stopped trying to mix the orange and stared at him.

“Because I have a war inside myself I’m trying to sort out.”

When I asked him what created his war, he told me how he had grown up in an orphanage after his parents divorced because his mother couldn’t cope with four kids on her own. He rarely saw her after that.

“At least you got to see your mother again,” I said. “I haven’t seen my mother since I was thirteen. My parents divorced too, and I ended up with one of those wicked stepmothers you read about in fairy tales.”

I never talked about my mother, perhaps because the image of her I had in my mind was of an unhappy woman going from man to man, searching for the love she never had as a child. In my early twenties I began writing a book about what happened after my parents’ divorce, but had to abandon it because I cried so much I couldn’t see the paper. Then I squashed all the tears and distraught feelings somewhere deep inside me.

“You haven’t forgiven your mother, have you?”

“What is there to forgive?” I said. “I understand why she left. Isn’t that enough?” The tone of my voice held a note of bitterness. I mixed more paint on the palette so I couldn’t give anything else away.

“It would make you feel better,” he said in a kind voice.

Even though I could not see it then, a journey of healing and forgiveness began with this conversation. It showed me that I needed to have a similar dialogue with each painting I did – especially the ones that evoked a strong emotional response. This then, became the first vital step in bringing painful and traumatic memories to conscious awareness. By remembering what caused such an inner war within me, I would know who I needed to forgive, which would then enable me to find inner peace.

In this regard I learned that art is a powerful probe that not only pierces the unconscious, but also penetrates the hard shell of pain hidden within it and what happened to cause it. Through painting, I was able to cut through the defence mechanism of intellectualization I employed to deny anything untoward had happened to me. After escaping so convincingly into a world of words and intellectual concepts to avoid feeling my feelings, it was a shock when images and symbols appeared in my paintings that evoked disquieting feelings and melancholia.

I remember frequently playing “Melancholy Man” by the Moody Blues after doing this painting, and how comfortable I felt within melancholia as if it was the security blanket I clung to as a child.

It is now 2012, over thirty years since I did the painting of myself clinging to the end of a tunnel, afraid of falling into an orange void. I look back and reflect, yes, it has indeed been a journey of “personal torment” through “the fires of hell” to get my memories back, to reclaim my feelings, and finally express them in a primal scream on canvas.

Yet it has also been a journey of healing, where each painting provided me with a map to guide me into all the dark places where I had hidden the memories that created such a terrible war of self-hate within me. Now as I think about the white sail in my Yachts on a Stormy Sea painting, I see that it clearly showed me that I would find peace by going into and through the storms of my past.

By understanding what caused my pain, a space was created where compassion took root within my heart and grew like a plant, its blooms harbouring the seeds of forgiveness – not only for others, but also for myself. The emptiness pain once caused is now filled with creative works that I can share – hopefully to inspire others to explore their own unconscious memories and the pain that hides in anger, which in turn hides itself within deep-seated feelings of unhappiness that can lead into depression. There are layers and layers of disguises that cloak themselves around pain and the death of childhood innocence.

The book I am writing about these disguises, dark family secrets, the ripple effect of pain within unresolved child abuse and trauma, and why it is important to learn to love ourselves, is just one of the many ‘treasures’ I found in this deep and murky sea of the ‘unconscious.’ Here, I also learned just how important it is to love and value our children and treat them with respect, for it not only enables them to grow up feeling whole, but to feel empathy, to be kind and caring, to feel secure within themselves and in relationship with others. In this way, they have the best possible start in life to share the gifts of love and happiness they were given in childhood. This is the sort of change needed collectively to ensure that the adult policies we make to create a better world can, at last, succeed.

Art, therefore, far from being seen as ‘extraneous fluff’ in the school curriculum, is a vital and life giving tool we can use in the process of becoming whole – not only individually, but collectively.


Jung, C.G. (1995), Memories, Dreams, Reflections.Fontana Press, London.

Resources for Art Therapy

You might also like to read:

Unlocking the Puzzle of Symbols in Art
Interpreting Dreams Through Art: Depression Can Hide Buried Anger
The Worst Form of Pollution: Wasted Lives
The Importance of Loving Yourself Unconditionally
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