Susannah Paterson Painter, Ceramicist & Psychotherapist

Growing Myself Up

I think it’s blindingly obvious that my art is closely informed by my work as a psychotherapist, but in case you hadn’t noticed … The human struggle of being loved, liked, accepted, happy has always intrigued me. Like many people in the helping professions, I studied psychotherapy to heal myself . After all these years I don’t know if anyone is ever truly “healed” . I’ve come to think of it as a lifelong project.

Having said all that, I know I went through stage of feeling pretty “healed” and stable, only to get knocked off my pedestal by a number of things. The first was professional burn out and some PTSD from the vicarious trauma of listening to so much distressing material. On reflection, it’s not so much the content, but the process and the psychic energy it takes to “hold the space” for years on end for somebody who is being consistently abused by a partner, but is trapped in a relationship. To hold the space with someone who contemplates suicide week in and week out. Holding the space with another who is so possessed with a life threatening addiction and who just can’t seem to surrender fully to the idea, and so on.

The second thing that knocked me was bumping into the reality of being a creative person and dealing with rejection after rejection. I joked with another therapist/artist friend that learning to deal with the inevitable and repeated rejection is the ultimate in personal growth. Gone is any illusion that I will be the next super dooper successful painter or potter. Gone is the dream that I will be “discovered”. The truth is that it is a grind, and it’s plod plod, and it takes years and years to develop your own visual voice, and the confidence to go with it.

You have to hold onto your belief in yourself like clinging to an anchor in a hurricane. Its easy to think that either you will never be good enough so why bother (whatsthepointitis), or you keep changing your style to the latest abstract artist who seems to be doing well , jumping on someone else’s wagon of success … and in the process, abandoning yourself.

I’ve been rejected from 90 % of art prizes I’ve entered, and I’ve had people promise to buy work, never to reappear again. There’s the endless unsolicited advice from well meaning people - and you need a strong internal boundary to deal with it. There’s the paintings that don’t work. The pots that looked fabulous before they were fired .. the breakages, the returns, the judgements.

On the other hand, the practice of a professional artist challenges and forces me to confront the bits of myself I don’t like, more than any Gestalt group I’ve ever been in. I can be lazy, impulsive and a bit disorganised .. oh no no no, there is no space for those things in a rigorous art practice! The public is no kind therapist inviting me to gently explore these things, it is a harsh nope, that won’t do. And of course, this is right. Art is pushing me, shaping me, forcing me to grow up and get real, and I am beginning to grudgingly appreciate it.