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Art and art therapy

I have had a life-long interest in art, both as a practitioner and as a theorist. As a medical student, (Birtchnell, 1959), I wrote an article in a student journal about what I thought art was. In my forthcoming book (see section on the outer me and the inner me ) I have a chapter on the arts, which again is an attempt to explain the arts. I have a particular interest in Chagall's art (Birtchnell, 1985, 1989b, 2002a). Recently, I also wrote a paper on surrealism (Birtchnell, 2002b).


It was likely that, at some time, I would combine my interest in art with my interest in psychotherapy. The opportunity arose when I was on a one-year training course for the Diploma in Psychotherapy at the Ross Clinic, Aberdeen. The art therapy department at the clinic was run by the eminent, Scottish, art therapist, Joyce Laing. Together, with the assistance of a cine-cameraman in a studio at Grampian Television, we made a film about the art productions of a patient who had been treated at the clinic for dysmorphophobia. The film, called A Young Man Preoccupied With His Nose, was completed in 1969. Later (Birtchnell, 1973) I wrote a paper about the same patient, and later still, the paper was reproduced in a book (Birtchnell, 1975). I joined the British Association of Art Therapists in 1969, and served on the Council of that association from 1970 to 1975. In 1993, I was awarded the position of Art Therapist in Residence, in the Art Therapy Department of the Academy of Performing Arts, Edith Cowan University, Perth, Western Australia. In 1995 I was made an Honorary Member (for distinguished service to the association).

In 1979, I was invited to be a workshop leader on what was then the five-day, residential, Spring-School in Art Therapy at Leeds Polytechnic. Later it became the Summer School, and the Polytechnic became Leeds Metropolitan University. This has remained an annual event and I have remained a workshop leader. Over a 22 year period I have developed my own particular style of art therapy (Birtchnell, 1998) which involves sitting on the floor beside the person (usually in a group setting) while the person draws and talks about her/himself and her/his interrelating with others. I make quiet, prompting remarks and write some of the person's more emotional statements verbatim on the picture. This often evokes cathartic reactions. A session usually lasts about two hours, during which, several sheets of paper get covered with drawings and words. Towards the end of the session, we talk about what has been happening, and bring in the other group members.

I have written a number of papers and book chapters on art therapy (Birtchnell, 1977, 1979, 1981, 1984, 1986, 1989a, 1998, 2002/03).


Art therapy film

A Young Man Preoccupied With His Nose



This film was made around 1970.I should like to make it clear that I never met the patient who produced the pictures that are shown in it. I mentioned to Joyce Laing, the art therapist at the Ross Clinic in Aberdeen, that I was interested in patients who were preoccupied with aspects of their faces, and she handed me a pile of about 60 pictures that had been produced by this particular patient. By this time he had left the clinic.

I took the pictures home with me and, over a period of weeks, I left them propped up against the walls of my rooms. Gradually,I was able to place together pictures which appeared to be related to each other. I also gained access to the patient's case notes. There was no reference to the pictures in the notes but there were some interesting details about the patient and the relationships within his family. For instance, his father was tyrannical and his mother was meek. He was nineteen years old and he believed that his problem had begun when he was thirteen, when a girl told him that he was ugly. From that point on he shunned social contact. In his notes, there was no reference to his receiving psychotherapy, though the clinic he was in did have a psycho dynamic orientation.

I returned the pictures to the art therapist, They probably no longer exist. It would have been more satisfactory to have used them as the basis for a course of psychotherapy, though it is unlikely that the patient would have been aware of the messages that they were conveying. I did have a paper published about them  called "An analysis of the art productions of a psychiatric patient who was preoccupied with hiss nose" in the American Journal of Art Therapy (Vol 12, No 4, 1973). I do acknowledge that my interpretation of them may have been wide of the mark, but they do appear to have been a quite remarkable collection of pictures, which like most pictures that are produced in an art therapy department, are not  aesthetically pleasing, but appear to be saying something very important.



Birtchnell, J. (1959) Art as I see it. Jabberwock: Edinburgh University Review, 45-48.

Birtchnell, J. (1973) An analysis of the art productions of a psychiatric patient who was preoccupied with his nose. American Journal of Art Therapy, 12, 211-224.

Birtchnell, J. (1975) An analysis of the art productions of a psychiatric patient who was preoccupied with his nose. In Ullman, E. & Dachinger, P. Art Therapy in Theory and Practice. New York: Schocken Books Inc.

Birtchnell, J. (1977) Alternative Concepts in Art Therapy. Inscape, No.15, 11-14.

Birtchnell, J. (1979) Catharsis. Inscape, 3 (1), 3-6.

Birtchnell, J. (1981) Is art therapeutic? Inscape, 5 (1), 15-17.

Birtchnell, J. (1984) Art therapy as a form of psychotherapy In Dally, T. (Ed.) Art as Therapy: An Introduction to the Use of Art as a Therapeutic Technique. London: Tavistock.

Birtchnell, J. (1985) Chagall 1887-1985. Bethlem & Maudsley Gazette, 32, 39-42.

Birtchnell, J. (1986) Why don't British Psychiatrists use art? British Journal of Clinical and Social Psychiatry, 4, (1), 17-23.

Birtchnell, J. (1989a) The Leeds experience: A five-day experiential art-therapy workshop. Inscape, Autumn, 5-9. (invited)

Birtchnell, J. (1989b) Chagall's erotic imagery. In Dalley, T. & Gilroy, A. (Eds.) Pictures at an Exhibition: Selected Essays on Art & Art Therapy. London: Tavistock/Routledge. This chapter is based upon a paper read at An International Review of the Arts in Therapy, Goldsmiths' College, London, September, 1965.

Birtchnell, J. (1998) A Gestalt art therapy approach to the treatment of family and other interpersonal problems. In Sandle, D. (Ed) Development and Diversity: New Applications in Art Therapy. London: Free Association Books Ltd.

Birtchnell, J. (2002a) Chagall. British Journal of Psychotherapy, 18, 426-432. (invited)

Birtchnell, J. (2002b) Surrealism: Desire Unbound (Tate Modern, London, 20th September, 2001 - 1st January, 2002) British Journal of Psychotherapy, 18, 556-563. (invited)

Birtchnell, J. (2002/03) The visual and the verbal in art therapy.
The International Arts Therapies Journal
(Online) Volume 2 (2002/2003)