Prescriptive Art
The Healing Dreamscape Process
Article on prescriptive photomontage in Annals of American Psychotherapy
Prescriptive Photomontage vs. Custom Photomontage

Prescriptive Art I Co-Create With and For A Client

I learned from my clients that when you’ve embraced the Dark Side too long, objectivity goes to pot.  For that we have licensed therapists and counselorsspiritual counselors and support groups to companion and guide us. The other aspect of that is, of course – when you’re  depressed, angry or in denial for too long –  it’s a bad idea to write your own prescription. So my thinking was: what if an artist with considerable distance from a client’s issues could co-create art that would be especially healing for them?

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Not unlike prescriptive art, the expressive arts involves a process and a product. Yet where prescriptive art diverges from the expressive arts is that the prescriptive artist wholly executes the product  for a client with the client’s input. In other words, I guide a client in a dark place to articulate what they have learned in therapy and to frame their preferred story.  I then go off and visualize this imaginal picture we’ve created by utilizing the familiar (personal photos) and then re-contextualizing these images to tell an updated story.

Yet unlike the expressive arts, the tangibility of the product is equally as important as the process. Clients often come by referral (via a mental health professional,  or through an “intervention” by a friend or family member). In my experience, the individual is often eager to find a way to hold onto the positive insights from therapy and support groups between sessions.  They are simply holding themselves together as best they can, without the benefit of a tangible object of hope. For many, this is too difficult.

Co-Create The Healing Dreamscape Process

"Prescriptive Photomontage" by Nancy Gershman (Annals of American Psychotherapy)
“Prescriptive Photomontage” by Nancy Gershman (Annals of American Psychotherapy)

This is where the process and product I coin “The Healing Dreamscape Process” comes into play. The healing photomontage I co-create with clients has got to be “written” in the  language of the emotional brain in order to do its job.  Think of the symbolism, metaphors, sensory imagery which define Healing Dreamscapes as a parallel conversation taking place in my clients’ brains!

Therefore, to undo any confusion about whether I facilitate art therapy (i.e. the expression of a client’s feelings through art, music or theatre), in 2010 I proposed a new creative practice called prescriptive art. I published  the first paper on prescriptive photomontage in Annals of American Psychotherapy with co-author and psychologist Jenna Baddeley MA, Ph.D.

So in addition to Celebration and Legacy Dreamscapes, I also make Healing Dreamscapes for clients “stuck” primarily as a result of loss, regrets, and Little “T” traumas. To date, prescriptive artists are predominantly working in photography perhaps because of their intention of a) reaching the emotional brain with “authentic” imagery drawn from memory and b) altering a distressing scenario with a new reality offering catharsis, self-realization and hope.

The therapeutic mission of Art For Your Sake is just that: art for your sake. The service I provide is co-creating a “preferred story” in the form of a custom, fine art prescriptive photomontage. I call these photomontages “Healing Dreamscapes.” These positive visualizations are generally called for in the wake of loss and bereavement, a relationship rift or as a positive reminder of the work done in therapy. Clients come to me on their own, at the recommendation of friends and family, through therapists, counselors and coaches, as well as caregivers and clergy.

I co-create prescriptive photomontages with clients who are experiencing life through a negative filter due to grief, trauma and loss. Playfully reviewing personal photos with my clients, I plumb memory, family lore, as well as talk therapy/support group epiphanies to arrive at a “preferred story” validated through consensus-building. I then digitally repurpose these photos, speaking to the emotional brain in the language it understands best: metaphors, symbols and sensory images. Humor and irony; the notion of play and truth-telling also play a large role in how my clients embrace and ultimately act upon their hope-filled visualization.

I interview the client about a past trauma (example: a “Big T” death or even a “Little T” slight of negligence, aimed at my client when they didn’t have the age-appropriate coping skills to deal with it). I then collect these anecdotes as well as personal photos (ones that particularly resonate) and repurpose them, combining them with whimsical elements (new backdrops and meaningful objects) to transform them in a positive way. I use photo manipulation software to digitally alter the photographs.

If we are to believe that the soul is the sum total of our memories, then it’s not difficult to understand how painful experiences can unhinge the architecture of our memories. These experiences can be both a “Big T” trauma, or a slight heard decades earlier. However, by externalizing and re-envisioning the fragments of an individual’s memory (photos and anecdotes), the prescriptive photomontage can fulfill the wished-for reality sorely missed by that individual. In its final state, this synthesized reality can be internalized again for healing.The essential idea behind Healing Dreamscapes is that when we send the mind to “retrieve” emotional memories (through the actions of vivid or sensoryimagery, symbols and metaphors, and narrative elements), the mind goes into a temporary state of lability. During this period of lability, the new memories created in the Dreamscape can be re-encoded into the brain in a transformed state. What makes the Healing Dreamscape so powerful is its potential to positively influence and overlay the original distressing memory.

Prescriptive Photomontage vs. Custom Photomontage

How different is my healing work from my purely celebration and legacy work? I still collect the back story on your photographs and digitally manipulating photographs (yours or mine). The only major difference is that I am no longer just tackling compositional issues, but also emotional issues that have colored someone’s perception of the past, present and future. By re-envisioning their life as if it were an epic theatre piece, complete with aspirational scenery and props to fit their life and no one else’s – I am providing my clients with a bounty of happier and healthier endings.