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Art as projective medium: an educational psychological model to address unresolved trauma in young adults.


People are daily in a process of creating meaning in their lives through expression. These meanings are based on their personal and unique experiences. One could therefore assume that the disturbing contents in their artwork, as well as the negative behavioral patterns displayed by the art students, are indications of traumatic experiences in their lives (Macnamara, 1995:3).

The use of art as an expression medium is as old as man himself (Janson, 1995:18) and forms an integrated part of a person's structure of being (Myburgh & Van der Watt, 1999:3). Artwork are therefore perceived as a meaningful form of projection with regards to the context or living world in which the artist finds himself at that point in time. Within a postmodernist framework with a phenomenological approach as a premise, this means that artwork represents the artist's personal perceptions of the world he finds himself in (Hassard, 1995:303). Vick (1996:97) states that each human expression could be interpreted as a form of projection. Seeing that artwork are perceived as projections of the emotional content in the artist's life (Natale, 1996:16), creative expression can therefore be applied as a non-threatening manner in which experienced problems could be identified and addressed.

Problem Statement

During the course of their education art students are exposed to a wide variety of life situations that they have to express by means of art. Given the fact that artists are sensitive observers and that their artworks are discussed in class, negative comments and criticism could possibly intensify existing emotional problems. Therefore, people with unresolved emotional trauma from their past, can either respond with aggression/rebellion, or become totally withdrawn and depressed (Abraham, 1990:401). Art lecturers from a Tertiary institution observed this tendency within their students. In addition to negative behavioral patterns and -interactions displayed by the students, it was also noticed that their artwork mainly contains themes of explicit violence and sexual elements.

The question arose with the lecturers whether the observed expressions could possibly be a reflection of personal exposure to some kind of abuse or an indication of experienced aggression and internal conflict. The lecturers wanted to know whether it was possible to use a more reliable method to gain information about the art student's emotional state of well being as well as an explanation for the violent themes expressed in their artwork. These aspects were discussed with colleagues at a University and the following question were formulated:

* How can art as projective medium be used to identify and address emotional problems or unresolved trauma experienced by art students?


The purpose of the research is to develop a model in which art is used as a form of projection to identify and address unresolved trauma in the lives of young adults. The goal of the facilitative interaction--that took place between the educational psychologist and young adults--is a practice-orientated attempt to stimulate self-awareness,--insight and--empowerment so that mental health and well-being are obtained and enhanced.

Research Design and Method

The research design is qualitative, explorative, descriptive, contextual and theory generating (Chinn & Kramer, 1991:79).

The study is described as qualitative because an in-depth study was done (Smith, 1994:31) to gain insight and understanding of the personal meaning that could be attached to the themes and expressions in the student's artwork (Burns & Grove, 1993:26). The researcher entered the field and conducted the research open-minded--bracketing all preconceptions, personal opinions and expectations--in order to explore all possible existing phenomena (Burns & Grove, 1993:30). This was done by consciously annotating the methodology, course of research, perceptions and interpretations by means of a dense description (Strauss & Corbin, 1990:22). The study is contextual bound--linked to a certain time, space and value context (Botes, 1991:7)--in the sense that the educational psychologist used art as projection medium and, through a process of facilitative interaction, were able to identify and address unresolved childhood trauma experienced by the art students. The fieldwork resulted in a practice-orientated model, developed during a process of theory generating, according to the principles of Dickoff, James and Wiedenbach (1968: 415-435). This process entails four steps that formed the basis and gave direction to the research. The four steps that were followed in the process of theory generating consist of the following:

Phase one entailed fieldwork in which the identification--, definition--and classification of concepts were formulated. Step one of theory generating was divided into two phases. During phase one a Gestalt-therapeutic exercise, "The Rosebush" (Oaklander, 1978:32-35), was done with the students, where-after they had to write spontaneous sketches about their life history on unlined paper. The spontaneous sketches were given to a graphologist for the purpose of handwriting-analysis. Handwriting can also be perceived as a projection medium--having the ability to reveal people's characteristic features and emotional experiences (Hargreaves, 1990:7). The findings of the graphologist were, later on, used as external triangulation to confirm/reject the themes that emerged through data analysis.

Step one contained in-depth interviews with students that reported voluntarily (Mouton, 1996:135). The respondents consisted of a multi-cultural group between the ages of 18 and 24--having different languages as mother tongue (Afrikaans, English, Zulu, Sotho, French, Polish and Taiwanese). During the interviews it was endeavored to understand the life contents and expression there-of in the student's lives by analyzing and discussing the personal meanings attached to the rose drawing and a previously completed cartoon/ comic strip. The interviews were audio taped and transcribed verbatim by an independent person. Data saturation was obtained after 30 respondents completed both phases of the data collection (Lincoln & Guba, 1985:210).

During the analysis of data, central concepts (themes) were identified and verified by means of a literature control (Woods & Catanzaro, 1988:136; Poggenpoel, 1994:2). The central themes were further verified by an independent coder--a person, with a doctorate in educational psychology with experience in the qualitative research methodology, theory generating and model development. Copies of the transcriptions, rose drawings, cartoons and field notes were given to him for the purpose of independent analysis. After a discussion with him, to reach consent about the identified concepts, the information from the graphologist were incorporated to, once again, verify the themes/concepts found during data analysis. These central concepts were then defined according to the combined three-step method of Wandelt & Stewart (1983:64-65) and Wilson (1989:20-38). This implicates that concepts are defined and clarified by making use of dictionaries, subject related descriptions and by constructing a model case. The classification of concepts took place according to the survey list from Dickoff, James and Wiedenbach (1968:415-435).

Step two contains the construction of theoretical relations between the abovementioned concepts. During step three a practice-orientated model was developed, described and illustrated by means of a visual graph. This was followed by step four, consisting of a description of guidelines to operationalize the model, in which art as projective media were used during a process of facilitative interaction to address unresolved childhood trauma experienced by young adults.

Theory development is a sophisticated and complex process that took place through a number of logical reasoning strategies. The reasoning strategies, used to develop and compile the model as result of the research, were analysis synthesis, induction and deduction (Walker & Avant, 1988:131-171). During the process of theory generating, the inter subjective interpretations of the qualitative researcher should be kept in mind and therefore the whole research process were described thoroughly (Parse & Smith, 1985:17). In order to obtain and establish trustworthiness, the researcher made use of Guba's model (Lincoln & Guba, 1985:300-317; Zwane, 1997:39). Trustworthiness was thus built in deliberately by the researcher through strategies of: Prolonged engagement; Reflective--and sustained observation; Participant control; Peer examination and Triangulation (Creswell, 1994:168; Krefting, 1990:215-218; Lincoln & Guba, 1985:316-318). These conformability measures lead to the establishment of an audit-trail while all raw data--up and to the final product--were carefully safeguarded to enhance the credibility of the research (Loock, 1999:42-47).

Research Results

During the collection of data, it became clear that the art students used their artwork to express personal traumatic life events and experiences. One respondent stated the following: "I use my art as an emotional waste paper basket" and another said: "My art is almost like a record of myself" (Loock, 1999:73)

By using art as projective media during the process of facilitative interaction, it came to light that the respondents were victims of abuse during their childhood years. Abuse in all its forms--physical, emotional, verbal abuse, as well as neglect--(Bear, Schenk & Buckner, 1993:42-47), were expressed through works of art, handwriting, interviews and spontaneous sketches. It seemed as if these destructive exposures during childhood harmed their self-perception and had a negative influence on their relationships and behavior (Chaffer, 1995:23-24; Natale, 1996:16; Loock, 1999:73-75). Brendtro & Long (1995:52) and Bear (1993:42) explains this tendency due to the fact that human behavior arises and is influenced by experiences from the past. Epanchin & Paul (1987:18) and Thompson & Rudolph (1992:187) confirmed that the subconscious thinking processes arises from childhood experiences and, to a large extent, gives direction to human behavior. According to these research results, unresolved trauma leads to barriers that have a negative influence on relationships with others and oneself.

In order to help these young adults to overcome the barriers of negative emotions, perceptions and interactions, a model was compiled. The aim of this model is to provide a framework to assist young adults to obtain a realistic self perception, to deal with their past trauma, become empowered and live a life that reflects a state of mental health and well-being. It was noticed that the research processes itself already lead to some extend of relief and empowerment. This was because they had the opportunity to share their experiences in an empathetic environment--where they were allowed to give expression to their emotions in a concrete way consisting of symbolic meaning (Loock, 1999:100). The information obtained from the research were used to develop the following model:

Description and Operationalizing of the Model

The concepts, as identified during the fieldwork, were used to compile a model in which art as projective media directed the process of facilitative interaction to address unresolved childhood trauma experienced by young adults. A graphical design was developed; containing the concepts, people involved, roles, aims and proposed outcome (See Figure 1.1) of the model. With this graphical design as premises, the concepts and context are explained next.

The two role players, the educational psychologist and the young adult, are both presented as a whole person. This means that each consists of body, soul and mind and functions in terms of their own internal- and external living world (Oral Roberts University: Anna Vaughn School of Nursing, 1990:136-142).

For the purpose of this study, educational psychologist are defined as the trained person with specific knowledge and skills to fulfill different roles and perform the task of facilitator to guide and empower people towards insight obtaining and promoting a lifestyle that reflects mental health (Loock, 1999:134). As a result of the educational psychologists' widespread training and contemporary extended roles--where a person's development from birth to death are studied and seen as domain of practice (Kriegler, 1988:87; Sharrat, 1995:221),--facilitative interaction takes place with the young adult by using facilitative elements like respect, acceptance, positive regard, empathy, trust and certain communication skills.

The young adult is perceived as a person between the age of 18 and 24 years, experiencing impaired relationships and falling prey to self-destructive behavior as result of a traumatic past. Because of this, he struggles with barriers, experienced as feelings of pain, confusion, mistrust, isolation, aggression and depression (Loock, 1999:134).

The process, where art is applied as projective medium during facilitative interaction between the educational psychologist and young adult, consists of an encounter-, work- and termination phase. The context, in which this model will be applied, is with young adults who experiences emotional difficulties due to unresolved trauma.

During the encounter phase the educational psychologist explains the nature, purpose and use of art as projective medium to the young adult. The educational psychologist makes use of facilitative elements to win the trust of the young adults in order to establish a working relationship.

Facilitative interaction is accordingly defined as a voluntary bond and contains mutual responsibility of the educational psychologist and the young adult with unresolved trauma due to childhood abuse. During this process the educational psychologist takes the lead and uses specific communication skills to exploit art as projective medium and elicit information. Hereby a warm and understanding relationship is established to facilitate mutual interaction. The respect, acceptance and unconditional positive regard from the educational psychologist makes it easier for the young adult with unresolved trauma to take the risk and share confidential information during his search for self insight. Facilitating interaction creates the opportunity for the educational psychologist to listen and support to enable personal growth and self-help within in the young adult. It also offers the young adult a chance to acquire insight, to accept the responsibilities for his life and to make new decisions in order to overcome his obstacles (Loock, 1999:133).

The work phase consists of two parts. Firstly, the Gestalt-therapeutic exercise, The Rosebush, is implemented according to the description of Oaklander (1978:3235). Through this, young adults are guided towards an enhanced self-awareness about the "here-and-now" of their lives. Self-awareness takes place through an enhanced- and conscious focus of the external world, as well as the inner experiences, emotions and thought processes of one self (Selwyn, 1994:47). The Rosebush, as symbolic expression of the young adult's life, obtains projective value and leads to the reassessment thereof (Abraham, 1990:391; Rabin, 1986:5). Letting the young adults write spontaneous sketches about their life story on unlined paper follows this. Because a person's handwriting consists of projective value, these sketches have to be analyzed by a trained graphologist (Hargreaves, 1990:7; Loots, 1998:4).

For the purpose of the study, art as projective medium is thus described as the creating of a situation/stimulation where an artist, or any person that has the ability to construct a work of art, can react as freely as possible to communicate his life world experiences and perceptions (Reber, 1998:53). These contents, coming from his subconscious mind, can be interpreted as a reflection of the artist's emotions, personality and behavioral patterns. Through his art, he can get the chance to discover his own realities and inner-world perceptions. This can help him to get acquainted with his perceptions in order to address and overcome his problems--which can lead to an enhanced self-esteem (Loock, 1999:131).

The second part of the working phase entails artwork analysis during the in-depth interviews with individuals. Analysis of the rose drawing gives the young adult the opportunity to observe the rose as a symbolic representation of the "here-and-now" of his life and to attach personal meaning to it. After the deeper meaning of the rose drawing is revealed, the young adult's cartoons are also analyzed in terms the personal projection value it consists of. The artist is allowed to explain--and discover--the personal meaning of his work in order to come to a deeper understanding of his subconscious world (Natale, 1996:13; Caffaro, 1995:32). Art analysis can have a therapeutic function if the educational psychologist continuously uses facilitative elements, providing guidance and support through emphatic interaction with the young adult (Rogers in Moller, 1992:144). During this process the young adult can achieve self-insight in terms of discovering the link between current problems and the occurrences and incidents that took place in his life. It holds the implication that he may realize that he sometimes plays a roll in the continuation thereof--through negative behavior and interaction. Self-insight represents those aspects that mobilize the will-to-change.

The termination phase takes place when the educational psychologist becomes aware of the fact that the young adult has the ability to focus on his core need or experienced problem in order to complete a Gestalt-Therapeutic cycle according to Perl's (1969) approach (in Thompson & Rudolph, 1992:110). This cycle entails the following aspects: an enhanced self-awareness enables the young adult to identify a problem or a need and to focus on it. When he experience the so called, "aha-feeling", it indicates that he has acquired insight regarding the formation and maintenance of the problem--after which it is possible for him to plan a solution or bring about the necessary change (Dolbec, 1996:17-19; Selwyn, 1995:5-7). As soon as he starts to exercise new choices of healthy thinking and positive behavior, he is in the act of empowering himself. Self-empowerment means that the young adult takes up the responsibility to acknowledge the events of the past and understand the influence it has on his life. He then chooses to take control, to act differently or to voluntarily seek help. Mental Health is experienced when a person makes peace with the circumstances of his past and exercises new choices by acting and responding differently in order to bring about possible changes. This indicates that inner growth has taken place and that the person experiences a sense of wholeness. As a result of this the psychological processes of the young adult can lead to the integration and interaction between his internal and external world (Poggenpoel, 1994: 54-57)--which can be seen as the ideal outcome of the model.

Evaluation of the Model

The evaluation of the model is done according to the criteria set by Chinn and Kramer (1991:128-138). In terms of clarity, it is important to make sure that all major concepts are clearly defined within the frame of the specific discipline. Consistency of explanations, terms, examples and structures should lead to a flow of sequence in reaching conclusions.

Simplicity is reflected by the way in which the theory is structured and the relationships of concepts are organized. A graphic design helped to simplify the model and to indicate the relationships between concepts visually.

Generality represents the areas in which the specific model can be used. The model, as described in this article, is found to be of such a nature that it could be apply in a wider context by various health workers.

Empirical applicability refers to the way in which the concepts and empirical indicators are identifiable in reality. Clear definitions of concepts and the formulating of statements and hypothesis within a specific context, enhances empirical applicability.

Consequences are reflected by the significance of the study in terms of having practical value or the potential to influence research or aspects of educational psychology. The fact that the procedure of this research took place in a real life environment as result of an inquiry from the lecturers indicates that it is a practice-orientated model. Within the knowledge of the researcher, no other study had a similar multi-cultural background or made use of the combination of these specific aspects of art as projective medium (Spontaneous sketches, graphology, in-depth interviews, analysis of comic strips and "The Rosebush").


This research was conducted because of the inquiry from lecturers, who were concerned about the fact that some art student's artwork, behavior and interactions in general reflected a pattern of negativity--which could be an indication of emotional problems. An educational psychological model was developed in which do as projective media were used during a process of facilitative interaction to address unresolved young adults experience trauma. The success of this model was already noticeable in the enlightenment that the participants expressed after art as projective media were applied and they could step into facilitative interaction with the educational psychologist. Graphology, as external triangulation, showed a striking correspondence with the information made known by the participants.

The evaluation of the model indicates the practical usefulness of this model with young adults who battle with unresolved trauma due to childhood abuse.


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Author:Loock, A.C.; Myburgh, CPH; Poggenpoel, M.
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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