I was fortunate to meet artist, visionary and healer Delfina Piretti at a friend's dinner party. Given our shared history of yoga and a love of creative practice, we quickly had a lot to talk about. As she had just returned from an artist’s residency in Italy, Delfina was busy readying a dream installation and returning to her practice as an art therapist. Curious, I had to ask Delfina more about her work and process and she graciously complied…
DC Where you always an artist? How did you start making the connection between art making and healing?
DP Growing up my art form was playing in the woods—making things. My working class Italian American family didn't include an overt encouragement for the arts. The early images that had an effect on me were the color plates in this large bible of Renaissance paintings. Otherwise, nature that was my palette. We always lived on the edge of suburbia near undeveloped land. I played in the woods—making forts and playing in the red clay mud by streams.
When I went off to community college in Rochester New York.
I studied photography and ceramics. Years later, I made the connection between art & healing when I got a job working as the children's program coordinator at a battered women’s shelter in Mendocino county.
I gave them paper and paint and they began painting images of the violence they had witnessed: adults fighting, dishes breaking, the police coming. I began to see how the art was a means of expressing these complex emotions—getting them outside of themselves and shared.
I began photographing the women and their children—stark black-and-white photographs. You could see it in their faces, the trauma.
I wrote an article for the local newspaper and they titled it something that made it sound like I was an adult survivor of abuse who was working with these children. [Something like]: Battered child worker offers help to children through art. It was like a light went off in my head: 'oh my God- I WAS a battered child!' Before that I had never thought of myself as having been abused. [But] I was emotionally abused and came from a family with Domestic Violence. It's called denial, a way we survive. I now call myself a child of war as I have had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, secondary to my Fathers Post Traumatic Stress from WWII. He was a real monster at times—frequent tantrums-, violent outbursts toward my Mother and verbal abuse to all of us. This is the result of war.
Allora- this work inspired me to go to graduate school and study expressive art therapy and clinical psychology and begin therapy myself.
DC: You're an artist, art therapist, and yogi and have a Vipassana meditation practice—can you describe how you transition between these practices and how they inform one another?
DP I have been practicing yoga and meditation for over 25 years. I guess you could say I have always been a spiritual seeker—curious about how we tick. At a young age living in Utica, New York—an economically depressed textile factory town—I remember feeling 'there must be more that this!'
I was motivated by the anxiety and discomfort I felt in my body and mind. PTSD is sometimes described as having your foot on the gas petal and breaks at the same time! Being an artist is being who I am. Art alone doesn’t necessarily heal people. You need more than that. But it has a lot of offer in the way of healing: it gave me a voice, a place to channel all the rage I felt, a place to be outrageous and break out of [my] Catholic repressive conditioning.
The results from these practices are undeniable—I felt more like myself. It was a way to regulate my nervous system, which was often activated and over charged -and made it hard to focus.
Jumping to present time-, I now view these practices as my life work, what I was put here to do. They offer me a way to 'practice' waking up,
and be present and more tranquil.
I can tell you a story- after my first sesshin (7 day Zen silent retreat- 11 hours a day). Allora- the day after [the retreat] I was getting out of my car and opened my car door on a bicyclist. One thought I had was 'this is not supposed to be happening.' All that awareness practice was suppose to protect me from these kind of mistakes. The good news is that I didn't dwell on my feeling bad about what I had done at that t. I was able to respond to the bicyclist’s needs, and tolerate his justified anger.
Listening to this man screaming in my face, I agreed with him that this was a stupid thing I had done and apologized. I asked him to let me help him. I reassured him I would pay for any damages and so on. What I am saying here is I was able to receive his rage and not get defensive. I was able to take full responsibility and respond appropriately- to focus my energy in helping him.
So with the help of yoga, meditation, therapy, art making I have been able to create new, to be able to not shrink from other people’s anger, be less self-centered, and more compassionate with others and myself.
There's a Japanese proverb something like 'Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare.'
DC In your role as an art therapist, you've often worked with people with who've undergone major trauma. How do you define "Complex Post Traumatic Disorder"? Can you describe the art therapy approach to treating PTSD?
DP I will attempt to answer this in an oversimplified way... Early childhood abuse and neglect interferes with normal development of the right brain. As adults one of the symptoms is difficulty in regulating emotions. Bessel Van de Kolk once said: 'People with PTSD lose their way in the world. Their bodies continue to live in an internal environment of trauma.' We are all biologically and neurologically programmed to deal with emergencies, but time stops in people who suffer from PTSD. That makes it hard to take pleasure in the present because the body keeps replaying the past. The first three years of our development is all about the right hemisphere of the brain. The traumatized child develops a survival structure and the normaldevelopment of the right brain is short-circuited. The connecting fibers between the right and left-brain aren't as developed.
The use of visual art, music, dance, drama therapy, all right brain activity, offers a chance to repair the left and right brain connection and integrate fragmented parts of us. You can go directly into material not accessible to the person with PTSD.
Using art to get the craziness outside of oneself, to put an image across the room, can be helpful in containing and regulating these strong emotions that need to be released in a titrated manner. Making art alone does not heal trauma. It needs to be used in the context of a trained therapist. There are many examples of artists who made great art and their personal lives were a mess.
All that said, making art in and of itself is a healthy and enlivening process. It makes me feel more like myself. Creative activity is a necessary ingredient for a happiness, whether it’s painting or gardening.
In my practice I use visual art, sound, movement, music, combined with somatic approaches such as: somatic experiencing, hypnotherapy, EFT, EMDR and shamanic journeying. It’s a wonderfully creative process the improvisational interweaving of healing processes in the context of a therapeutic relationship that has equanimity. It’s an intuitive process that might very well be described in a more scientific way by someone else. The positive outcomes are evident and it usually takes longer that anyone wishes.
DC What's interesting you most now in your individual work? I know you recently did a project based on dreams...
DP The artist residency I did this past summer in Italy has had a profound effect on my life. I feel like got more of me back! I went to explore my cultural roots and in my proposal talked about how my paintings are influenced by my dreams.
In Napoli I had a powerful dream right at one of the most challenging junctures of the trip. It was about my Nonni Delfina who I was named after. Really it was a visitation of sorts. In the dream she was out in the streets of Napoli, this tiny hilltop medieval village on one of the narrow winding maze of streets, and she was calling out repeatedly: "Sei un portento!"
In the dream I was telling myself 'you HAVE to wake up and write this down, remember this!' I woke up at 5 am riveted with energy. I didn't know what the phrase meant at the time. I had to email my Italian friend to help me translate it.
She told me it was a saying that means 'you are wonderful! special!' it hard to describe how profoundly this hit me. I have never met my grandmother who I was named after. She died before I was born. I’ve never known a grandmothers love. It completely dissolved the fear and doubt I was experiencing and gave me a new strength. Intention is so powerful!
My own artwork is really cooking. When I returned I made an interactive Dream Repository Installation out of a Japanese parachute. I created this cave-like (I visited many caves in Italy) environment with symbols using objects (bird, skeleton), my paintings (wishbone, tiger), a beautiful poem by Antonio Machado, the sound of Tibetan bells.
There were books to draw and write your dreams. I made some tin can telephones for people to speak their dreams. It was surprisingly effective. I was moved by how forth coming people were: by how much they wanted to share very personal, vulnerable dreams. I think it speaks to a need we have as a culture to share the personal and collective unconscious. I'm interested in creating a dream community:
Please mark you calendar - March 20, 2010 at Workspace (2150 Folsom St. SF) ! I am co-producing an event with Heather King Singh titled 'Dream Play.' There will be interactive installations, performance art, and spoken word, all in the spirit of art, play and experimentation. I have a great line up of artists.
The Dream Repository will be up as well as another installation I am working on, 'The Sineater Cafe.' This is a kind of self-portrait. Picture this: an half Italian grandmother-half dolphin that loves to eat the sins of others, sitting at a light filled table in an Italian cafe! People will be able to interact with her. That’s all I'll say for now—except that I’m working on perfecting my Ossi da mordere (bones of the dead) cookies!
What is a sin?? One definition is: Anytime we are off the mark!
DC You've done many public art programs and worked in the prison system. Where would you like to see your work go next?
DP I love doing public art. I often think about the work I did at the Sage project and in the jails. I was deeply effected by it. [I met] very spiritual and brilliant women!.
Currently I am offering painting workshops and art making retreats in natural settings with a colleague and friend: Val Tate. I find that making art in groups and drawing on the energies of nature and each other is the best resource for kick starting or renewing ones creative juices.
The daylong workshop we are doing is titled 'Waves.' It's held in one of the most spectacular spots in the world that's just minutes from San Francisco, the YMCA at Point Bonita in the Marin Headlands. It's one of my sacred spots that frequent. The day will offer a balance between expressive processes to assist in warming up and soul connection with lots of time to paint. No experience is required—everyone has an artist in them. It may not be a painter. But I find immersing myself in different mediums is an effective way to surrender the ego—and jump into the passionate stream of life! If you have (or don't have!) any fear about painting, this is the workshop for you. ciao con creativa!!!!
You can find more information about Delfina's work and practice at the her website: http://www.delfinapiretti.com