Carla van Laar
Doctoral Dissertation,

What can happen when a woman’s stories are seen? My topic “Seeing her stories” combines my fascination with the power of seeing artworks, commitment to sharing women’s stories, and interest in discursive perspectives. The findings of this inquiry have implications for how we conceive of what art therapy can be. This study shows how aspects of creating and seeing artworks can be life enhancing in a diversity of ways that could be described as therapeutic, without being activities that might traditionally be understood as therapy. This research adds layers of meaning to understandings about what happens when artworks are seen. I examine complex intersubjective relationships between people and artworks, in which seeing is at once a sense activity, a relational process and a discursive practice.


Art based research is the underlying and surrounding methodological approach of this practice led, interconnected and organically structured inquiry. My methods included art making, interviews, a focus group, autoethnographic narratives, experiential handling of visual and textual source material, and writing as inquiry. I used my own artworks as examples of a woman’s stories, and investigated what happened when they were seen by myself and other women. My art making practice continued and developed over the course of the research. The process and paintings reflected, influenced, documented and pre-empted both the phases of the research and the content of the findings of the inquiry. The relationships between my art making, the cycles of inquiry and the findings are described in detail in the thesis.

It has been important for me to look at what actually happened, listen to participants’ descriptions of lived experiencing, and learn from this grounded source material. I engage in dialoguing with predominantly art therapy literature throughout the thesis. I compare and contrast the understandings that have been generated in this inquiry with what has been said by others in our field, with the intention of deepening, enriching, challenging and contributing to how we theorise about, communicate about, educate about and practise what we do. The findings are presented as meaningful themes that are illustrated multi-modally through the inclusion of my visual artworks, quotes from participants and discussion in relation to the literature. These distinct threads of meaning are presence, embodiment, context, risk and safety, change, continuity, relationship, connection, co-creation and life enhancement. In conclusion, I consider how art therapy practice can be opened up in ways beyond clinical and studio based models, and the possibilities of being an artist / art therapist. Ideas about stepping outside conventions, making time and space for seeing artworks, and ways in which we might facilitate multi-layered seeing experiences are considered. I then look at what it means to see and be seen, and how making our stories visible through art makes a difference.


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