An Artist-Therapist Travels with Arts Processes in Gestaltland

Niela Miller discusses bringing arts processes into interactions with clients

By Niela Miller

I take special delight in working with artists of all sorts, probably because I feel like an artist myself, even though I have not earned a living as a professional artist, but more as an arts process educator and therapist. To understand how I came to this propensity, and how it relates to my Gestalt therapy interests, it would be useful to give the reader a bit of my background. I will then provide some anecdotes about my first experience using Gestalt principles with gifted youngsters, followed by brief examples of what I have done with other artists using Gestalt approaches.

I was born into a family all of whom expressed themselves through the arts. My mother was a writer, painter and dancer. My father and his brothers were musicians who played in a trio for many years. He was the violinist. My aunt (mother's sister) was a pianist and my teacher for a good portion of my childhood. I went on to major in voice at the High School of Music and Art where I studied composing and conducting. I majored in Creative Arts/Theatre at Antioch College, continuing my conducting studies for a year, then throwing myself full force into acting, directing and other aspects of theatre while also taking classes in creative writing, fine arts and dance.

It was while I was on one of my first co-op jobs as part of Antioch's work-study program that I discovered Gestalt therapy. Randomly (or not, depending on your belief system) I pulled off the shelf of the Arts and Psychology balcony at Scribner's bookstore in New York City, the book by Perls, Hefferlein and Goodman (1951). I had an unanticipated epiphany while browsing through its first section with suggested exercises in awareness. I felt as though I had come home. Intuitively, I understood this approach to life and learning; it was the first step in my becoming a Gestalt therapist.

After I finished my master's degree in education, I taught at a large high school in the Bronx. The chairwoman of the English department asked me to develop a creative writing curriculum for a small group of bright kids who were eager to write. The first time I met with them, I brought in the famous Gestalt figure-ground pictures of the young woman-old hag and the vase-profiles. This immediately engaged them in an exploration of what we see as reality, what we choose to focus on, how foreground and background can shift, giving us new perspectives. Out of this came a writing exercise in which they were asked to make up a character, become it, speak, walk, express themselves as the character and develop their story from the inside out, i.e. what were they aware of as the character, where were they, who else was there, what was happening. They were invited to create dialogues between characters by becoming each in turn and seeing what happened at the contact boundary when these characters interacted. It was evident that they were discovering all sorts of characters who lived inside their own psyches. The stories flew out of them and landed on paper without the kind of dry, laborious exercises encountered in many English classes.

Once I became a Gestalt therapist, I began to bring arts processes into my interactions with clients. I formed a study group to experiment with different expressive media, their uses and effects in different situations. Along the way, some of the clients I attracted were artists of one sort or another. The rest of this paper is an attempt to describe how I worked with some individuals and groups of artists, both in educational and clinical settings.

Barry was a composer who had run into an impasse in which he just couldn't get beyond a certain point in a composition. I had him imagine himself as the composition singing various parts to Barry and, in this manner, he moved past the stuck place by listening to the composition speaking to him and moving him beyond where he had gotten bogged down. He also became aware of how he contracted his body when he felt defeated. We experimented with his ability to conduct and move in ways that helped him feel more alive and present in the here-and-now. This, in turn, led to the experience of his music flowing through him on to a score or the piano rather than creating an interruption of the flow and shutting down. He went on to create a unique form of community musical theatre getting local people involved in telling the stories of their towns and writing the libretto and score for the show.

Dorothy was a quilt maker and a painter. When she came to see me, she was going through a difficult infertility challenge and finally decided to stop trying to have a child. We worked on her decision-making process largely through art. She painted her feelings and imagery from dreams which gave her guidance along the way. We used Gestalt to help her contact each part of the painting, give it a voice, have dialogues between different parts, make use of insights she acquired from this work in addressing her life concerns. We focused on her body awareness since she had shut down much of her feeling of aliveness in reaction to the fertility struggle. The central question became: "If I am not going to give birth to a child, to what do I want to give birth?" She created an art quilt incorporating various aspects of her experience and hopes for the future. Over time, and largely through her explorations as an artist, she realized how important spiritual development was to her and she began to explore ways she could create through her church and service to others.

Several years ago, I worked with a group of young actors in the theatre department at Antioch College. They had two projects: one was a production of "Mad Forest" by Carol Churchill, concerning the Hungarian uprising. It contained a number of powerful images and strong dialogue. The director wanted me to help the students, post-production, to assimilate their experience, something theatre people rarely get to do. (I also worked with her individually on creating dialogue for a play she was writing). I pulled out single lines from the play and asked each student actor to pick one that had some power for him or her. Through the use of drawing, movement and sound, they got in touch with the emotion and personal meaning of the line they had chosen and formed ensembles to put the lines together in improvisations. We paid attention to what happened at the contact boundary as they interacted and said their lines to each other and what they were aware of in their bodies. I had also asked them to record dream images during the time the play had been in production. There were some weird characters like vampires and talking dogs in the play. At first, the students were resistant to the idea of working with their dreams, claiming they were meaningless. As we worked with the resistances, they recognized their fear and anxiety about working with material and modalities that were unfamiliar and powerful. The excitement of Gestalt work emerged as each student embodied an image and allowed it to come alive. As they interacted with each other's dream images, new levels of meaning opened up for them, not just about the play content, but about their own lives.

The second project was a class called Autoperformance in which the students, over the semester, had to create a performance piece from autobiographical material. I was with them for a week at the beginning of this process. Among many other Gestalt experiments I did with them, one of the most thrilling was having them explore their relationship to the audience and what happened at that contact boundary when they were disclosing personal material in the context of an autobiographical performance. I had them be audience as well as actor and stay aware of the array of feelings, projections, resistances that came up for them. A lot of this material was then incorporated into their performance pieces. Joining us for this work was my old theatre professor, Meredith Dallas, now emeritus, who, after years of teaching theatre at Antioch, came to study Gestalt therapy with me and then, on my recommendation, went on to the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland. He did a very touching demonstration in which he simply walked from the back of the stage to the front and looked out at the audience, not speaking. One could see many states of awareness and emotion reflected in his body and on his face. It was a powerful example to the student actors of how staying fully in the here-and-now in a state of awareness can have a profound effect, not only on the actor/person, but on the viewer.

Jim was a multi-talented artist: singer, actor, painter, writer, dancer, videographer. He had a difficult time focusing and wanted help because he had to create a final project for his MFA degree. He was afraid he would not be able to make the deadline. His resistances were manifold. He kept changing his mind every week about what he wanted to do. It was exhausting both for him and for me, and yet, I was excited about his potential and suggested that he find a project that was inclusive, that used as many parts of him as possible. He owned each part in turn. This seemed to release him into a whirlwind of productivity. He bought an old piano, stripped it, painted it, and did paintings on each key. He decided to video himself learning a Debussy piece from scratch while speaking on camera about his session-to-session practice process. He wrote short essays and poems about being a scattered artist and sexually driven man, illustrating and framing each of them. Finally, all of this came together in the exhibit space and was really extraordinary. Along the way, we did a lot of awareness work, cultivating his ability to stay in the here-and-now in each form of expression he was utilizing. When distractions came up, I asked him to speak to the distraction and find out what was happening at the point of contact with the material or experience that pulled him away. Sometimes the distraction was helpful in letting him know when he was becoming obsessive in a process and actually needed to move on. This process led him to be more accepting of his multiple talents and to see how he could form a Gestalt by integrating his various artist parts rather than tearing himself apart.

What I love about doing Gestalt work with artists is the richness of the metaphors that comes out of their creative expression and how alive they are in using the creative process for exploring various states. For an artist, everything that is felt, seen, heard, tasted, embodied, is an opportunity for creative expression. Even when an impasse occurs, the artist can express it through her or his chosen medium or through another less usual medium. The relational aspects are also strong since there is always either a real or implied viewer, audience, or listener for the work that is being created. That relationship at the contact boundary can be explored in a variety of ways using many tools from the Gestalt orientation. The evolution of the artist over time can be helped by the deepening of awareness in contact with the actual art process, with the sharing of it, and with the release of it into the world.

I believe that everyone has the makings of an artist and, given the right atmosphere, can discover the joy of creating in various media. As Janie Rhyne said in her book, The Gestalt Art Experience (1973, p. 6), "Humans both need and want to make things--to do art. That desire is an inherent part of our humanity." Perls suggested that "an amateur plays earnestly with the art, he is responsible to the art (for instance, to its medium and structure) but he need not engage in it; an artist is earnest with the art, he is committed to it." This may be the only distinction one can make between the amateur and the professional artist. Yet I have known many so-called amateurs, myself included, who, when immersed in an art project, feel fully engaged and as serious about the exploration and commitment as any professional artist. In such a moment, he or she is an artist. As a Gestalt therapist, I approach each client as though he or she has that innate desire and ability to create art in some form and do not make much distinction between someone who is able to put together a gorgeous meal or produce a beautiful garden and the professional artist who makes a painting that hangs in a gallery or dances on a stage. In my experience, Gestalt processes intensify the artist's feelings of aliveness, flow of imagination, commitment, focus, problem-solving ability, and productivity. The excitement and discovery-making that has come about in my life and work from the integration of arts processes and Gestalt has certainly done this for me and provided a sensory banquet for me as an amateur artist.


  • Perls, F. S., Hefferline, R. F., & Goodman, P. (1951). Gestalt therapy. New York: Dell.
  • Rhyne, J. (1973). The Gestalt art experience. Monterey, California: Brooks/Cole.
  • Website: PeopleSystems Potential