A Mind in Pictures (Part 1)

24 Mar

From June 2011 to July 2012, I participated in a therapy group in a local clinic. The group met for two full days a week. One hour each week was dedicated to art therapy, during which we were invited to draw, paint, collage and so forth, usually based on some kind of theme. I’m going to publish here forty or so of the artworks I created in these sessions – half in this post, the other half to come. Each one took about forty-five minutes, so they represent a pretty unedited window into my state of mind. Click on the image for a larger version.


As you can see, the rawness and depth of the images tends to increase over time. This next one was a response to an invitation to think about landscape as a metaphor for our internal states. Those of you who have taken the month-long training workshop at Shakespeare & Company will recognise the inspiration for this.


The following picture started with the two pictures cut out from magazines that you see. The landscape in the top half extrapolated, and the bottom half followed semi-consciously:


Memory of a monastery rises

Nestled in a mountain forest.

A lake, rough tree trunk,

Ancient living wood sprouts

Green the smell of life, short and timeless.

A tiny pretty bird sings high and sweet.

Song, colour, daylight, warmth, life and love

Become the smooth warmth of my baby’s back.

This next is my first attempt at a mandala. As it turned out, we returned to this exercise several times over the course of the ensuing year.


I don’t recall what the exercise was that sparked this next one, but clearly it was something to do with the relationship between the built and natural environment(s). The right hand side was inspired in part by a TV show I’d seen some months previous, Life After People.


The masks I wear (clearly I wear a surrealist mask at my most coherent, the other being vaguely Lovecraftian):




This next piece, done on the same day, is directly inspired by the opening canti of Dante’s Inferno. In that wonderful medieval poem, which I had to study in detail in the original as an undergraduate some twenty years ago, When Dante and his guide Virgil reach the gates of Dis, the great city of Hell, over whose gate is an inscription, which I have misquoted (from memory) in my drawing. It should actually say “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate“. Whichever way you say it, it famously means “Abandon hope, you who enter here”. What Dante finds on the other side of this gate is horror beyond imagining. I’ve re-imagined what happens when one abandons hope. The piece involves a gate which opens – the first photo shows the piece with gate closed, the second with the gate opened and what it beyond it revealed.


This next piece is also based around a quote, this time from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, and this time quoted accurately. The piece has a three dimensional component, an optical box, hence I’ve included several photos showing how it works:

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The next piece was done after a brief exercise in which we spent some time with the visual sense switched off, focused on the sense of touch. The art therapist brought in a range of object, and we spent time blindfolded feeling some objects.


The coming of spring, and the fruition of the Shakespeare Prison Project which I was leading at the time, served as the subject of this piece:


This next piece involved some “working out” – the second photo shows the final product, which is actually a collage of five of the group members’ ‘personal symbols’ – mine is on the bottom left. The first picture shows you the evolution of my personal symbol. I knew I wanted to use something based on the Taoist yin/yang – but this eventually evolved into a trinity, rather than a binary set. I knew I wanted love to be represented – I originally played with the idea of a hand-shake representing partnership, but I soon realised it was beyond my abilities, and the heart seemed to capture a more general symbolism. The three colours I eventually chose payed homage to my psychedelic past, without being a direct copy of the three colours of Rastafari or the more usual shades of psychedelic art.

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Here is a familiar child-like theme, but the colours are rather different from those canonically used for this sort of thing:


This pair are the final art-work of 2011, looking back over the year that was, and the first of 2012, with hopes for a new year. I have no idea why I chose to write the names of the months of 2011 in Italian, maybe it was an extrapolation from writing the year in Roman numerals. Looking at it now, I remember what a massive year it was, that began with devastating floods, and saw me play Shylock as well as work on Shakespeare in a maximum security men’s prison.


This is my second mandala, taking some liberties with the form:


Just playing with form and media:


That’s where I’m going to leave it for this post. There are about twenty more art-works to come, and the rest of them actually get significantly weirder. There’s a lot of anger in them, and quite a bit of humour. I hope that these initial works have whetted your appetite for more and that you’ll be back to see the rest in a week or two when I post them.


11 Responses to “A Mind in Pictures (Part 1)”

  1. MiaMind March 24, 2013 at 12:28 pm #

    Awesome and inspiring Rob! And if you don’t mind, I’d like to share this post with my education and creativity students? I’d like to set a task similar to the landscape piece you’ve done 🙂 as a stimulus before they reflect on and write about their emerging creative practice journey that’s taken place in the first 5 weeks of semester?

    • robpensalfini March 24, 2013 at 12:33 pm #

      Hi Mia, yes of course. As long as you cite me in full APA style – heh heh heh 😉

      • MiaMind March 24, 2013 at 12:47 pm #

        Certainly Professor Pensalfini 😉

  2. Sara Webb March 24, 2013 at 8:54 pm #

    Thanks for sharing such a personal journey Rob, can’t wait to see more…

  3. Kate Foy March 24, 2013 at 8:56 pm #

    Morning Rob! I’ve never taken part in any ‘art as therapy’ sessions but I do know, without a doubt, that when I am working on a piece whether a sketch, painting, or in the past, a piece of pottery or sculpture, that my mind and body feel ‘in sync’ – my breathing slows down as my focus increases, and I find it hard to drag myself away from the working. I assume your sessions were a ‘working out’ things – you say anger and humour – but I wonder whether you felt the same sense of calm and focus that the making induced.

    • robpensalfini March 24, 2013 at 10:07 pm #

      Hi Kate – short answer is “yes”. Though probably not as much as yoga or meditation. Then again, focus is not usually one of my problems, unless I’m especially distraught. I’d say what I got the most out of it was acceptance and perspective. Then again, these sessions were on a clock. They ended, we had morning tea, and a full day of sitting in a circle talking and listening followed. But in other contexts I’ve definitely noticed what you mention. We sometimes use drawing or doodling (sometimes directed, more often not) at our QSE meetings. I’d love to see some of your artwork!

  4. Caitlin March 25, 2013 at 3:18 am #

    I feel very privileged to have been present during some of these creations… you know, when I showed up. I don’t know how you remember the individual stimulus behind each one though! I date mine so that I can see where I was at during a certain period – I can match the art to whether I was feeling ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in general – but I have trouble bringing up specific memories. Unless I was particularly proud of or pleased by the piece, in which case I can remember something.

    I’ve taken to carrying my latest art book around with me at all times because the clinic ‘misplaced’ it… the art therapy program has gone to shit since they got rid of the actual art therapists. First they kept moving us around to different spots with different groups for weeks and now we have a very nice therapist, but she is not an art therapist. It completely changes everything.

    Anyway, great post! I have been meaning to put up my art in a post for ages – years, actually – but I cannot seem to get myself to do it. This is inspiring so thank you – and thank you for sharing. You are such a generous person 🙂

    • robpensalfini March 25, 2013 at 3:38 am #

      Thanks Caitlin. Let me know if you want help photographing, cutting and posting any of your art for your blog. Happy to help out. xRob

  5. Caitlin March 25, 2013 at 3:23 am #

    I just wanted to say that I am sharing this post with my current DBT group (one the members set up a private FB group to share DBT related information – very awesome idea!!!)- I pointed out to them that in the personal symbols piece, mine is the smiley face with the heart and star for eyes… I feel famous!

    FYI it doesn’t take much to make me fee famous

  6. James March 30, 2013 at 1:27 pm #

    This is brilliant. I’d love to be part of a group that does this.


  1. A Mind in Pictures (part 2) | The Fifth Columnist - March 31, 2013

    […] is a continuation of this post. This is where the deep stuff starts to come out   As usual, click on the picture to get a larger […]

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