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The Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society
Miscellanea and Ephemeron

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08/27/2005 Archived Entry: "An Interview with Rue Harrison, creator of Indigo Animal"

An Interview with Rue Harrison, creator or Indigo Animal

The following is the transcript of a conversation which took place at The Berkeley Art Center January 26, 2005. The topic of conversation was "Art and the Unconscious." Rue Harrison, an artist as well as a practicing psychotherapist, reflected about her own experience with the appearance of the dark and mysterious animal figure which first appeared in her paintings fifteen years ago eventually evolving into the ongoing cartoon narrative "Indigo Animal." This interview originally appeared in the journal Works + Conversations, which, in many ways, has been and continues to be an inspiration for the J LHLS. The editors wish to express our deepest gratitude for permission to reprint it here.

Richard Whittaker: How shall we begin with this big subject?

Rue Harrison: My intention is to explore some questions I have which relate to the topic. I've been working as an artist all my adult life, but for the last 15 years, I've been working with a narrative which has yielded a lot for me, and I can think about it in two ways: from the standpoint of art or from the standpoint of psychology. I've become interested in it both ways. In general, the idea is that the unconscious is the part of us which remains hidden. It emerges sometimes in images and dreams, and these can become an important part of art making.

RW: Do you really think the uncovering of these hidden parts of ourselves could be a transforming process?

RH: Yes, and I feel that I can attest to that personally. Engaging in an artistic process can lead one to places that you would never know were possible in terms of putting oneself back together.

When I was in my twenties, I would let myself go and when an image came up, I'd paint it. I'd have a piece of paper and ideas would come to me, and I'd react to those and try to depict them. Draftsmanship wasn't my main interest; I was mostly interested in color, but when the painting would be finished and I'd look at it maybe a week later, or a month later, I'd see something revealed about things that were going on in my life at that time I'd painted it. Relationships, childhood memories; these things would be there, but when I did the painting, I would not be at all aware of that. I'd just be making the painting. After awhile, I started to look forward to that time a week later when I would go to the painting and suddenly it was showing me something very graphically.

RW: You mention childhood memories. Do you think these are an important aspect for you in your art making?

RH: Well, for one thing, some of my most vibrant memories go back to first and second grade, the experience of getting that clean sheet of paper and the crayons, and realizing that I could make a world.

Looking back, I realize that was a special gift. But life intervened and I lost that direct relationship with visual arts for some time. I did a lot of writing, but it wasn't until I got to college that I got into taking art classes again, and once again, it felt like a very important aspect of my life. There was this similar kind of quickening; this excitement of being in contact with something that is really alive, which is what I think calls artists to continue this kind of exploration.

RW: Among your various university degrees, I know you got an MA in visual arts from San Francisco State, but it wasn't until many years later that Indigo Animal first appeared in your paintings. Could we jump forward to the appearance of this figure in your paintings?

RH: Here's the first painting. At that time, I was often painting landscapes of the neighborhood, but I would let other things come into the paintings, too. Here, this animal figure appeared in the landscape. I let that figure come in. That's the first one [see cover image].

RW: And there's that little figure in the middle of the painting, too. Can you say a little about that?

RH: It literally looks like a shadow figure. This painting actually reminds me of a Jungian psychoanalyst I've been reading, Donald Kalsched. Let me read a quote from his book, "The Inner World of Trauma" -- "In dreams the regressed part of the personality is usually represented as a vulnerable young innocent child or animal-self who remains shamefully hidden. Occasionally it appears as a special animal. Whatever its particular incarnation, this innocent remainder of the whole self seems to represent a core of the individual's imperishable personal spirit, what the ancient Egyptians called the Ba-Soul."

I relate to that with regard to Indigo Animal because its emergence wasn't so easy. It felt like such a simple little figure, but to have it come out and appear in a painting like this was kind of a risk. The figure had to remain hidden for awhile in these paintings. As far as the little shadow figure goes, I remember when I painted it that it had a lot of energy, and there was a sense of going up into an unknown space that was kind of thrilling. The animal figure looks sort of dreamy and completely unknown, while that little figure has the quality of being almost dangerous. So there is this separation between these two qualities in this painting.

Something else that comes in here is the feeling of having to be successful and well-known. You can get very critical of yourself for not being more successful. I was certainly prey to this, and at this point in my painting, I was somewhat despondent.

RW: Can you say more about the risk of having the animal figure appear?

RH: It's hard to describe some of these things. Having the animal appear was fun, but I was feeling some lack of confidence at the time and I guess in saying it felt risky, I was trying to give some context around this painting, for instance.

RW: Now here's the second appearance of this animal figure.

RH: Yes. I got interested in this creature, and then did this one a few paintings after that first one. Suddenly the animal here is very resolute. It seems like it really wants to emerge at this point. It has a strong, stubborn spirit which was very meaningful to me when I painted it.

RW: The stairway is much clearer and the figure seems more intent on climbing those stairs.

RH: The animal also has eyes in this painting which later disappear. It seems that both figures in the preceding painting are now merged into this one image. This is the full emergence of the creature which became a very important vehicle for me.

RW: There was another painting which hasn't survived, in which the animal was facing sort of a Greek portico of columns. Do you have any thoughts about that painting?

RH: I remember I was pushing myself to go beyond a limit, and I met with some disappointment with myself. It was another aspect of being very critical with myself, so I painted over it. There were a few others that haven't survived either.

RW: Eventually you began doing drawings which led to the cartoon narrative. Would you tell us about that?

RH: It happened very quickly. I had a job as a graphic designer at the time, and it wasn't really what I wanted to be doing. I was riding the bus, facing another day going to work, when some words started coming to me. When I got to work, I wrote them down as best I could.

Then over the next few weeks, I started to draw this cartoon. I was immediately much more engaged by having words with the images than I had been by just doing paintings. I felt much more free and happy.

RW: It was on the bus that the name "Indigo Animal" came to you?

RH: Yes, along with the first ideas for drawings and words. That first strip had seven drawings. After a little editing it went: "Indigo's feelings are inchoate, impossible to understand, formless. Indigo Animal's thoughts, like shards of lights, briefly illuminate the uncharted inner landscape, only to disappear again for unaccountable reasons. Indigo Animal trudges onward struggling to connect words to images, but more often than not, failing to do so."

RW: It's like a literal account of the beginning of the process of the unconscious coming to light.

RH: In a way, that moment is the most precious moment. It's a question of what happens after that. Yes, it's a powerful moment. It was very exciting that something unknown was emerging. When I started to work with this cartoon, it was so engaging for me that it didn't really matter what other people thought about it, so it released a sense of play in my work.

I guess I'd been so critical with myself that I'd always been somewhat inhibited in my art expression. This really released something for me. And also, as a therapist, this is a really interesting process. For Indigo Animal to enter the world and start walking down these streets was, for me at least, a momentous event.

RW: A new space opened up, an inner space.

RH: Yes. It always felt very alive. It began to give me a place to let out this part that had always been the most hidden part. The magazine [The Secret Alameda] (precursor to Works + Conversations. ED) allowed me to get it out into the world and to begin to get a little feedback, which was also very important to this process.

RW: Can we look at some of the first drawings? I know we've got some right here.

RH: This one is one of the first. This was really fun to do. It was kind of letting the animal out, and since it was now in a narrative, there was an excuse to keep drawing it. So the animal is out walking through the neighborhood and you can see that the animal looks a little uncomfortable. Also the trees and the shadows are a little bit scary and forbidding.

Question [audience]: Does the animal have a gender?

RH: Well, I struggled with that. In the early ones, it was a she. Then I started to like the idea of Indigo Animal's gender being ambiguous. I've tried to write it so it's not clear what Indigo's gender is. I also think I'm influenced-for instance, if I'm talking with men, it becomes a "he" [laughs].

Question: Do you feel a connection with Chagall? I ask because of the dream-like dissociation of some of your images.

RH: I think what you're seeing is one the reasons I went toward the story in a cartoon format. I felt totally free in this cartoon narrative. It was freeing because it's not so serious, as I said.

Let me read another quote here. Shaun Mcniff, who's an art therapist, says in his book, "Art as Medicine" -- "The commercial art world is allied with a particular set of economic values, and we make an error when we perceive this context to be the exclusive, or the highest, realm of art."

That speaks to something I found it very difficult not to feel hampered by. The market side of art, art as a commodity, kind of rules the experience of many artists. I think every artist has to learn to be able to exist outside of that world in order to be able to continue.

Those artists who are able to make it in this commodity atmosphere usually do have strong egos, but a lot of artists have been through some sort of a loss or early difficulty. People, like me, who are in that camp, have to deal with this self-critical part of themselves.

So it's a vehicle for growth, but in the context of the art world, people can be dissuaded and can give up on a process that eventually can be very healing.

RW: You touch on something very significant there, but maybe we should get back to how Indigo Animal developed.

RH: Yes. So here is Indigo Animal trudging onward, and here are just a couple more images from that first strip. The animal starts to walk around in this gray world, and here something finally connects [drawing of Indigo colliding with a tree -- audience laughs]

From there, there were a number of cartoon strips which show, I think, a kind of psychological development that was going on. Now there's another part of this which I wanted to bring up, the idea of imaginary worlds. This is something I don't have any resolved feeling about yet, and this narrative definitely becomes for me, a kind of imaginary world. I think a lot of people have various kinds of imaginary worlds, and that points to the edge of what I'm trying to understand about my work, and also about anyone who creates an imaginary world. At what point is such a world cutting you off from a relationship to the outer world?

Imaginary worlds, as an inner process, stand sort of mid-way between being really split-off and dissociated, and starting to gather oneself together through an artistic process. Everyone experiences dissociation, but this is something people who have been traumatized use much more than others.

So if you create an imaginary world, you are giving your inner world shape, and you're focusing on it in a way that potentially can lead away from dissociation, but that's unclear. You can't say a hundred percent that it's a positive thing. Sometimes people get stuck in their imaginary worlds.

RW: Perhaps you could argue that art making itself, this involvement in a private, personal world, is a form of dissociation.

RH: I think that's a really important question. I want to read another quote from Donald Kalsched. He asks "through what process of normal development is the world of transpersonal, numinous experience linked up in a dialectical relationship with mundane reality so that life becomes truly meaningful, vital and alive?"

If you think of the artist in his or her studio working, you could say that the artist is not just in a fantasy world; the artist is actually putting work into mundane reality, also. One thing that often happens is that what the artist makes doesn't exactly correspond to what the fantasy is. So that's one way the artist is brought into contact with mundane reality. There's some kind of relationship with what has actually been made.

It seems like that link to a dialectical relationship-self, other-is essential for growth. It can happen that way, or it can happen if a patient brings his or her dreams and works with a therapist. And for the artist, there are all the interpersonal challenges which are part of the problem of getting the work into the world.

So some kind of connection has to happen. A deepening has to be going on extending into the body and feelings in order, ultimately, for an experience of grounding to take place. Then growth might occur. So how does that happen exactly? All of this remains a question.

RW: What about the "numinous experience" in your quote, and also the reference to "normal development." How do you see that?

RH: Well, in terms of transpersonal, numinous experience, I think that people who create imaginary worlds -- which is more where I am involved -- that it allows for these archetypes to appear. I mean, they appear in dreams, or they can appear in art work.

Art making can create this play space that I was talking about and that enables these things to enter, representations of something larger which Jung called, "the Self." Maybe this is represented by archetypes. It brings with it a sense of meaning and connection with something larger than oneself. This doesn't have much to do with one's own personality. It's something deeper. That's what I think of with this phrase "transpersonal numinous experience."

Then with regard to normal development, I'm not really sure what Kalsched means by that. But maybe he's saying that things develop normally if they are connected to mundane reality. If you remain in a world of transpersonal, numinous experience and never find a way to let it stream into your mundane existence in one way or another, it may not be helpful. But this process is more mysterious than we know.

Margaret Lowenfeld, a social worker, who was in charge of a home for WW1 orphans was the first person to make a study of what later become known as "sand-tray therapy." The orphans were given a sand box and all kinds of toy figures to play with-horses, cows, houses, fences, and so on. Day after day the children played creating "worlds" in the sand. At first their worlds expressed their fears and distress, the chaos they'd been through. But without any interventions from Lowenfeld, eventually most of the children began creating more orderly wholesome worlds, and they began to re-engage with life.

However, what happens with people who have serious pathologies, is that their inner magical world starts to develop scary characters. You don't want the inner world to get so cut off that it's peopled by demons. Jung tries to express idea through the alchemical term the lesser conjunctio. That's when a connection is made, but it's not this connection to mundane reality.

RW: I'm not sure I follow that.

RH: The lesser conjunctio is more like an addictive process where two things connect, but in a way that doesn't lead toward growth. There's no grounding physical reality.

RW: An obsessive connection? Something that sort of spins off in some kind of cocoon?

RH: I think so. I think that's why it's hard to talk about these ideas. You know, people having imaginary worlds is somehow equated with being mentally ill. Do you know that bumper sticker? "I do whatever my Rice Crispies tell me to do." So I think that's why Jung talked about the greater conjunctio which is something that can really move towards growth, and the lesser conjunctio, where something never breaks through to a connection with reality.

That's why, in a way, art process has such potential value. There is such difference between someone living in a fantasy world-not separated from it, who thinks it's real-and somebody who is taking that fantasy world and is writing about it, painting it, taking it out and looking at it. Then there's a space that appears. That is the beginning of this greater conjunctio starting to take place. Shaun Mcniff says the art process in itself can be the teacher.

RW: Well, let's return to Indigo Animal which has led to these real connections with mundane life.

RH: Yes, and basically the story of Indigo Animal is kind of like moving from a place of less confidence, of having weak spots in one's psyche, to having them begin to get filled up.

RW: Say more about that, and how the narrative has progressed.

RH: Well Indigo Animal watched too much television, but sort of knew that there was a world out there. Indigo had an interest in beauty, but "Indigo lacks purpose."

In one of the strips, the TV is stolen and Indigo has to deal with this, and goes through a long period of depression. But at a certain point, Indigo experiences a minor state of enlightenment. This is the moment when the theme song from "Jeopardy" finally stops playing in Indigo's head. [laughter]

With the TV gone, Indigo does a lot more walking around and becomes even more interested in lawn statuary, because there's a lot in the neighborhood. That leads to some reading and eventually to a study of the "ancient laws of proportion."

Anyway, as the narrative continues, Indigo is able to rally some inner resources and slowly begins to undergo a transformation.

RW: There's a drawing we don't have with us, but while studying the ancient laws of proportion, Indigo Animal took some careful measurements and found that its own proportions perfectly corresponded to these ancient laws of proportion. [laughter from audience]

RH: It was a win-win.

RW: Maybe there's something you'd like to speak to that hasn't yet come up.

RH: I'd like to read this one short quote: "How is the magical world of childhood retained into adulthood?" Maybe we don't have to try to answer that one. Maybe we can just let it sit there.

And I'd like to show these last few pictures. Here Indigo Animal discovers The Lawn Statuary Research Institute. This is the where Indigo is going at the end of the first book.

Beyond that, other characters appear. These two, I didn't realize until a couple of days ago, are kind of like parent figures. This is a marmot, Dame Eleanor, and this is Orange Bearcat. They are power-possessing beings is this new world that Indigo Animal enters. Orange Bearcat is the director of the institute. So this is a work in progress.

RW: Dame Eleanor, before she came to LSRI, was the "Fountain Restorer to the Queen of England." [to the audience] I thought you all would like to know that. [laughter] But maybe we could open it up for questions now.

Question: I'm a therapist and an artist, and I have the kind of training that you do. The most healing experiences in my own life have been involved with art or meditation, not with talk therapy. I've struggled throughout my long career to bring art into the therapy process, and I see a parallel between what you're talking about in the art world and how it is in the therapy world.

I was raised to think my work would find its way into galleries in New York and the Museum of Modern Art. By the time I was thirty, I could see that wasn't going to happen. In the psychological community, psychoanalytic therapy "is real," like a museum show, while a degree in art therapy is seen as sort of flaky-unless perhaps it's adjunct to a medical setting. So there's the same kind of messages going on which alienate me from what I know deeply to be healing. It's telling you that there isn't something "kosher" about it, just as there might not be something "kosher" about your wonderful painting in the high art world. I'm saying I see a parallel there.

RH: That is so helpful, because these things, they're very oppressive, and they're not usually seen. They're unconscious, the ways things are separated out that stop one from acting. I think it's something that has to get lived out. Doing this talk is a way of making it more evident to me, for instance, where limitations are being put that don't need to be there.

Question: There's this one quote you handed out from Prinzhorn, a surrealist, "When the soul is depressed, isolated, mad and distraught artistic images appear." I was thinking about how the TV disappears and Indigo is depressed, and there's the Void, and then some enlightenment follows. Do you think depression is inherent in the creative state?

RH: I don't think it always is. That quote interested me because something came to me out of the blue when I was on that bus, and I really felt rather lost at the time. Something just came in, but I'm sure one can be too depressed. I'm not quite sure what's really required to have that experience, but certainly in some essential way, Surrealism itself grew out of the tremendous pain of World War I.

Question: My wife is an art-therapist and has seen kids emerge out of depression by putting this stuff on paper.

RW: In the art world, the high art world, the idea of art making being a therapeutic activity for artists is not, it seems to me, an honored concept. In fact sometimes this aspect of art making is even regarded with contempt. I think it's unfortunate because, in the history of mankind, as far as we can tell, one of the central uses and benefits of art has always been for healing.

Question: Indigo appeared in a very ordinary setting, and was very mysterious. That's his appeal. That seems to parallel what you were describing, that something was arising in this setting where everything was too conscious and laden with intentionality-graphic design.

RH: Absolutely. It's something that couldn't be fitted into any category. And it's still true, because I don't really know what kind of animal it is.

Indigo Animal books can be ordered like this: "Indigo Animal" is $9.95 and "Indigo Animal and the Lawn Statuary Research Institute" is $12.95. Add 8.25% sales tax for delivery in California (so that would be $10.78 and $14.02 respectively, Californians). Priority Mail rate is $3.85 for up to three books; Book Rate is $1.50 for the first book and 50 cents for each additional; First Class is $3.00 per book. Make checks payable to Rue Harrison Whittaker and mail to Porch Lion Press, PO Box 5008, Berkeley CA 94705. For more information, contact the publisher at [email protected] or call works + conversations at 510-653-1146. And, yes, you can contact them through J LHLS if you are so inclined. We're always happy to forward emails.

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