Debbie Michaels

Debbie Michaels - Between ‘me and not me’, 2016, video still
Between ‘me and not me’, 2016, video still.

My research is concerned with the role of artist, art object, and the reflexive art-making process in interrogating unspoken narratives between the individual and the institution in health and social care. It involves aspects of my ‘self’ (artist, art psychotherapist, researcher, teacher) being immersed in a reflective conversation with the materials of the situation, using praxis as a way of thinking through doing. The enquiry is situated in process-based visual arts and reflexive art practice, where the art-making process is the primary means of discovery, and of understanding and examining experience at personal, psychosocial and cultural levels.

With little formal art training and a background in psychoanalytic thinking and art psychotherapy, I confess to sometimes feeling like an outsider in the fine art world. My art practice does not follow a conventional path through art education. It has developed primarily through my experience of art-making as an art psychotherapist, in response to personal and clinical material, and as a way of thinking reflexively about feelings and unspeakable aspects of experience where words fail to give meaning. My work comes from a place of not-knowing, of seeing what comes to mind, of dialogue with the materials and the emerging form.

In seeking to undertake a reflexive practice-based Ph.D. within this context I am venturing into unfamiliar territory bounded by different rules, conventions and discourses to those of art psychotherapy. I am repositioning aspects of myself and my art practice from a private, intimate and non-judgemental space to a more exposed, public and critical arena. This journey is fraught with personal and professional dilemmas, uncertainty and risk, but also offers exciting potential for new discoveries and learning.



‘at, into, or across the space separating two objects or regions’

‘indicating a connection or relationship involving two or more parties’

‘in the period separating two points in time’

This experimental work is a testing ground. It explores and documents the reflexive dialogues that emerge in the spaces between unmaking, re-making and exhibiting an ‘art therapy object’ within a fine art research context. Using art-making as my primary means of discovery, I investigate what gets activated through a re-examination and re-siting of the object, and the conversations and questions that arise in response to this.

The ‘art therapy object’ came into being in the context of my role as art psychotherapist co-facilitating a Community Arts Project.1 It was not made for the art world or public exhibition, but developed without conscious intention in response to the facilitation process, in a space between myself and the group. For the past ten years it has remained on the wall of my art therapy room, a private, intimate space, set apart from public view and the demands of every- day life, a place used primarily for the purposes of reflection on interior life and the troubles that bring a person to psychotherapy. The ‘object’ exists in a space between internal and external, ‘me’ and ‘not me’, as described by psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, a space where there is both separation and connection.2

The constituent parts of the ‘object’ have no material value. Its value for me has been to do with its function as a container, akin to a talisman, endowed with layers of personal emotional meaning. Within the art therapy space it performs a separate, but connected function. In this symbolic space, the ‘object’ remains anonymous, without an identity of its own until it is brought to life in the transference by the imaginative engagement of a client. This is not unlike Lygia Clark’s concept of art as a living thing.3 Repositioned within an art-as-research context, the ‘menot me’ object serves a different purpose again. It has become the subject of an intense investigation. In this I am both participant and observer of an unfolding research enquiry which considers the art-making process as a means of investigation both by and of the subject. No longer afforded the anonymity, privacy or relative safety of the therapeutic space, the ‘object’ is exposed to detailed scrutiny, undressed, taken apart, destroyed in its original form and rendered naked and vulnerable.

Through exhibiting the work on a mock therapeutic stage, the viewer is invited to participate in the dialogue, to have an experiential encounter with the ‘object’ for the duration of a traditional therapeutic hour,4 to act as witness to its predicament, and to sit with self in relation to the object/other, looking and being looked at.

My research has only just begun. This work is a work in progress. Unmaking, remaking and re-situating the ‘art therapy object’ has both personal and professional implications. It currently exists in a transitional space between what it was and what it might become. What it was is mediated through the video documentation, photographs and journal notes. What it may become is, as yet, unknown. However, to borrow a phrase from Sharon Kivland (2016), whatever form and situation it finds itself in, the ‘object’ will exist ‘only because of and in response to the object that it once was’.


My thanks to the following people for conversations that have influenced my making process and thinking in respect of this work: artists Dr Sharon Kivland and Yuen Fong Ling; Jungian analyst and author, Margaret Wilkinson; art psychotherapist and clinical psychologist Dr Claire Lee; and health service researcher Professor Jonathan Michaels.


1 The object was made in the context of a Community Arts project, ‘A Case for Art’, celebrating arts, health and emotional wellbeing for World Mental Health Day 2006. The central aim was to make public artwork being produced in many different settings in Sheffield by people with wide-ranging experiences of art in relationship to mental health and wellbeing. I was recruited along with another art psychotherapist to facilitate a workshop within a gallery space for mental health service users.

2 In his paper Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena, Donald Winnicott explores an illusory space which both connects and separates the internal from the external, acting as a bridge between subjective experience and objective reality. His concept of the transitional object, which partially represents ‘me’ and ‘not me’ simultaneously, is located in this ‘intermediate area’.

3 In The Do-It-Yourself Artwork: Participation from Fluxus to New Media, Dezeuze discusses Lygia Clark’s work in relation to the role of the spectator participation, where the aim may be ‘[t]o give the participant an object that has no importance in itself and that will only take on [importance] to the extent that the participant will act’, p. 8.

4 The traditional analytic hour is fifty minutes plus ten minutes reflection/note writing. This is based on seeing a patient every hour.


Dezeuze, Anna, The Do-It-Yourself Artwork: Participation from Fluxus to New Media, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010).

Kivland, Sharon, Private Correspondence, 10th May 2016.

Winnicott, Donald Woods, ‘Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena’, Playing and Reality, (London: Routledge, 1996 [1971]), pp.125.