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Using Contemporary Art to reflect on New Beginnings

By Lyn French, A Space Director

This month our resident therapist, Lyn French, explores how contemporary art can help us to think about how we experience new beginnings. 

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September marks the beginning of a new academic year. Whether or not we are engaged in the education sector, September coincides with the end of summer and usually heralds the return to a more focused, intentional and task orientated state of mind.

Beginnings consciously and unconsciously raise questions for us all.  What do we look forward to? What do we hope will be different? What are we sorry to leave behind? We all know that past experiences, both remembered and forgotten, colour the present. Those of us who have gone through unsettling or even traumatising changes might find beginnings are primarily associated with apprehension rather than with optimistic anticipation.

The theme of beginnings is a useful one to explore with any age group and in any setting. One way of starting is to think about how artists face a fresh beginning every time they commence a new piece.  Whether or not an artist works in two or three dimensions, the concept of ‘a blank canvas’ is a helpful one for thinking about the kinds of feelings that come up when we are at the start of a new year or a new experience.

An artist beginning preparations for a new work might feel buoyed up and inspired by a recent work that was felt to be a personal or even public success. Equally possible an artist in such a position could feel under internal and external pressure to recreate this achievement and anxiety sharpened by fear of failure might take over. If we transfer this scenario to the school setting, for example, we see how pupils could feel boosted or, conversely, persecuted by a successful previous year. Most common will be a mixed reaction featuring varying degrees of anticipatory anxiety and excitement underpinned by questions about one’s own capacities and personal resources. If the previous year was shadowed by disappointment, underperforming or even failures, the anxiety may be about whether these experiences will be repeated or whether one can learn from the experiences and move on.

New beginnings are marked by uncertainty no matter how confident we may be. Consider Susan Stockwell’s image ‘South London Arteries’ from the Emotional Learning Cards set Who are you? Where are you going?

SS. South London Artieries close up. Susan Stockwell 2007 large

You can see how the artwork has been made by cutting out a network of roads from a map.  One way of reading this image is to view it as a set of streets cut loose from their supporting context, leaving them unanchored and potentially fragile.  This serves to remind us that when we are starting something new, we can feel as if our familiar backdrop has been replaced with an empty space that is either experienced as full of potential or as a frightening void. Perhaps more commonly most of us veer between these two positions.

Another take on this image would be to interpret it as a reminder that we all carry internal ‘maps’ which are based on how we’ve experienced things in the past. How do we see ourselves? What kind of person are we? How do imagine we deal with life’s challenges?  We often lay our  personal ‘maps’ over new terrain, that is to say, we try to impose our own familiar way of seeing and experiencing ourselves, others and our ‘worlds’ onto new situations and relationships regardless of whether they’ve brought us pain or pleasure in the past.

We’ll also have ‘maps’ of how we are in our relationships which some psychotherapists call ‘internal working models’. These relational patterns are formed in early life and become prototypes for later relationships.  We’re never the same in all of our relationships but we’ll probably be able to spot certain dominant features.

Most of us benefit from becoming conscious of how we perceive ourselves and then work to actively change negative assumptions or undermining self-beliefs so that we aren’t trapped by old behaviours. Sometimes we just have to act ‘as if’ we have the resources to take on new experiences confidently and competently so that we give ourselves the chance to move towards, rather than away from, new experiences. None of us can change our histories but we can shape our present by consciously choosing to act, think and respond differently.

Of course, implicit in every beginning is an ending. In the educational context, for example, the new academic year might mean the loss of a favourite teacher, a change of classroom or even a change of school.   For older pupils, it can signify the end of childhood and an increase in responsibility that goes with adolescence as well as the opportunity for previously untested freedom and greater independence. Being able to acknowledge losses, mourn them and move on isn’t easy for those who have had too many early experiences of loss or significant losses that have threatened to overwhelm.  Any of us can rush into a new beginning as a defensive escape from the past, avoid new beginnings out of fear or deny the impact of them because we’ve learned to cut off from feeling too much.  Being open to the new can require internal work. We may have to be prepared to take risks and even to re-configure our internal stories about ourselves and our lives so that we have enough self-belief and trust in the future to enable us to move forward with agency, openness and realistic expectations.

Why not download our new, free resource on this subject? They are perfect for teachers and counsellors working with new students. 

Written by Paddy Chatterton