Archetypes and Imaginal Dialogue: An arts-based inquiry (Chapter 1)

This post includes the first section of the final research project I did as part of my art therapy education at the Vancouver Art Therapy Institute (post-Master's Advanced Diploma). My project was called "Archetypes and Imaginal Dialogue: An arts-based inquiry." While the paper was written for an academic audience, it is still accessible to anyone interested in art therapy, archetypes and imaginal dialogue. I will share the whole paper over several instalments here. Hope you enjoy reading it! Stay tuned for Chapter 2...

- Cathie (Catherine Cunningham-Dunlop)

Chapter 1: Introduction


Love means to learn to look at yourself

The way one looks at distant things

For you are only one thing among many.

And whoever sees that way heals his heart,

Without knowing it, from various ills –

A bird and a tree say to him: Friend.


Then he wants to see himself and things

So that they stand in the glow of ripeness.

It doesn’t matter whether he knows what he serves:

Who serves best doesn’t always understand.

- Czeslaw Milosz

Background to the Study

Art therapists often have a personal practice of creativity outside of work. While some art therapists self-identify as artists, others simply set aside time for artistic exploration and contemplation. Regardless, art making is a way of learning to look at yourself and “stand in the glow of ripeness” (Milosz, 1988, p. 50). Regular art making can help individual art therapists to keep their own internal spark lit and thus reduce stress, career drift and burnout (Brown, 2008).  Art making outside of work also has the benefit of helping art therapists become more aware of their own relation to creativity and thus be better able to play a catalytic role in fostering the development of clients’ creativity (Jansen, 2012). “In order to genuinely invite clients into the creative journey, therapists must be intimately familiar with the creative process” (Harter, 2007, p. 170).

In addition to being more effective as fellow travellers on the creative journey, another benefit of art-making for art therapists is the possibility of transforming their own experience through increased awareness of unconscious forms that might be influencing behaviour (Allen, 1995; Jung, 1963) and through renewed self-compassion by connecting to and affirming deeper levels of experience (Ramm, 2005). Art making also provides an opportunity “to create sacred spaces, to honor the sacred in the everyday, in the broken, in the lost, to continually create new beginnings” (Harter, 2007, p.178).    

As an art therapist and as an artist, I am intrigued by the notion of honoring the sacred in the everyday and creating new beginnings. I am committed to the perspective that art is a way of knowing (Allen, 1995) and, as Allen predicted would happen with such a commitment, over the past two years, certain images have appeared in my paintings in various forms that seem spirit-filled or numinous. According to Allen (1995), these “images are signposts into the depths of your self. They begin to show you what your primary images are. Archetypal images emerge that help to place your personal experience within a larger context of the imagination of humankind…. Such images require witness” (p.87). This final project is a forum for witnessing ten of my paintings that seem to contain archetypal images. This project is also an exploration of art as a way of knowing, with a focus on active imagination (Jung, 1969), and the related process of imaginal dialogue (McNiff, 1992; 2004). By[KD1]  combining the process of art-making with a reflective phase based on dialogue with each painting (imagined and then written), I was able to find a doorway to my own experience with archetypes and come to know them in a personally meaningful way (Fenner, 1996; Laughlin & Tiberia, 2012). “Art therapists serve themselves and their clients best when they engage in this type of self-exploration through art” (Politsky, 1995, p. 19).

Guiding Questions

This final project is based on two guiding questions: 1) How can art as a way of knowing and imaginal dialogue contribute to an understanding of archetypes? and 2) How can understanding archetypes help in an art therapy practice?

Significance of the Study

The topic of understanding archetypes through art-making and imaginal dialogue is significant to the field of art therapy for several reasons. Imaginal dialogue is a technique that could be useful for therapeutic change. Experiencing the process first-hand and reflecting on its value could be helpful for practitioners. As McNiff (1992) explains, showing how an artist dialogues with her own images and “how the many figures of imagination speak through the process [will]…be instructive for therapists interested in methods that they can use with their patients” (p. 4). Also, I share a similar intention with Politsky (1995) that “This manuscript, and the psychic processes of transformation that it represents, will hopefully assist others with their own journey” (p. 19). This arts-based inquiry is also a way to honor the creative process and the skills and methods that an art therapist might use on a daily basis (Brown, 2008). “Art therapists in training as well as experienced practitioners need to keep returning to the personal wellspring of artistic knowing and to research its depths” (McNiff, 1998, p. 123).

An additional way this study is significant to the field of art therapy is to address the “phenomenological gap between talking about archetypes as a concept and realizing them in direct experience—for instance, recognizing archetypal elements in one’s own dreaming life world” (Laughlin & Tiberia, 2012, p. 127). Considering that people tend to gravitate consistently towards some archetypes and these archetypes can be somehow influential in people’s lives (Faber & Mayer, 2009, p. 320), it can be helpful to “meet” one’s own archetypes and enlist them as companions on the healing journey. This study is an exploration of how to realize one’s own archetypes in direct experience, and how to apply that understanding to an art therapy practice. Taking inspiration from the poetry of Czeslaw Milosz (1988), this study is also a way “to learn to look at yourself the way one looks at distant things. For you are only one thing among many. And whoever sees that way heals his heart” (p. 50).

Organization of the Project

This introductory chapter sets the stage for the project. In Chapter Two, I develop the focus of inquiry through a review of the literature on archetypes. I compare various models of archetypes and investigate different perspectives around the origin of archetypes. Next, I consider descriptions of two archetypes: the mother and the shaman. In Chapter Three, I describe the methodology used in this study. First, I explain how an arts-based inquiry is suited to the research questions. Then, I discuss the art-making and imaginal dialogue processes.  In Chapter Four, I present the findings organized around the ten pieces of art and the accompanying imaginal dialogue scripts.  In Chapter Five, I summarize the study and consider the contributions to knowledge, implications, and limitations of the research. In closing, I offer suggestions for future research and end with some concluding remarks linking back to the opening poem. In keeping with the creative nature of this study, the lines of Czeslaw Milosz’s poem “Love” (1988) can be used as sign-posts for the organization of this final project: they are stationed throughout the writing as way-finders.

References (Chapter 1)

Allen, P.B. (1995). Art is a way of knowing: A guide to self-knowledge and spiritual

            fulfillment through creativity. Boston, Massachusetts: Shambhala.

Brown, C. (2008). The importance of making art for the creative arts therapist: An

            artistic inquiry. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 35(3), 201-208. 

Faber, M.A. & Mayer, J.D. (2009). Resonance to archetypes in media: There’s some

            accounting for taste. Journal of Research in Personality, 43, 307-322.

Fenner, P. (1996). Heuristic research study: Self-therapy using the brief image-making

            experience. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 23(1): 37-51.

Harter, S.L. (2007). Visual art making for therapist growth and self care. Journal of

            Constructivist Psychology, 20(2), 167-182. 

Jansen, T. (2012). Lesson 4: Art therapists as artists. GCAP 651: Art Therapy History

            and Theory. Graduate Centre for Applied Psychology, Athabasca University.

Jung, C.G. (1963). Memories, dreams, reflections. (A. Jaffe, Ed.) Toronto, Ont:

            Random House of Canada, Limited.

Jung, C.G. (1969). The archetypes and the collective unconscious. (Second Edition).

            Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Laughlin, C.D. & Tiberia, V.A. (2012). Archetypes: Toward a Jungian anthropology of

            consciousness. Anthropology of Consciousness, 23(2): 127-157.

McNiff, S. (1992). Art as medicine: Creating a therapy of the imagination. Boston, MA:


McNiff, S. (1998). Art-based research. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

McNiff, S. (2004). Art heals: How creativity cures the soul. Boston, MA:


Milosz, C. (1988). The collected poems: 1931-1987. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Politsky, R.H. (1995). Penetrating our personal symbols: Discovering our guiding myths.

            The Arts in Psychotherapy, 22(1): 9-20.

Ramm, A. (2005). What is drawing? Bringing the art into art therapy. International

            Journal of Art Therapy: Formerly Inscape, 10(2), 63-77.