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On Witnessing the Aesthetic Process

by Daria Halprin

Tessa is just completing her 2005–2006 L1 weekend training, and part of the completion process is a culminating “self portrait ritual presentation.” One of the opening lines in her ritual presentation was “I am an artist in recovery.” Her statement of her serious life theme was delivered with such a sense of gritty humor, and her dance enactment—movement being a new form of process, discovery and creation for Tessa—had the quality of very serious play, a serious playing with her themes, her emotions, and the images in her life-sized self portrait that hung on the wall behind her. Tessa was moving her images and her life story. And we, her witnesses, were moved by her. “To be moved” is an interesting phrase; it suggests that feeling and imagination are somehow connected to an experience of being in motion. Having always painted, for Tessa being in motion with emotion and imagination is a totally new process: letting her painting move, provoke, open and inspire, illuminates the “everything” (as she calls it) in her life story.

For me as a teacher, watching Tessa’s final piece was framed by my experience of witnessing her process throughout the past year. Her final presentation, or act of “recovering,” is made so much more authentic and potent by my active remembering. The arts accompany us as we remember so that to re-member is to re-join parts and pieces in a new form, with new meaning and with artfulness. I am excited by the ways in which Tessa has immersed herself in this embodied expressive-arts process of reclamation. Could we call it a healing? And are we brave enough to let that remain a verb rather than a noun—brave enough not to call it fixed or claim that the gritty, underbelly, shadow stuff can be made to go away and then I, it, you will be o.k.? Can we stay in-flux, constantly moving, becoming, with layer upon layer encountered and treasured?

Tessa’s aesthetic response to her training experience speaks to this process of reclamation and re-membering—the reclaiming of herself as an artist who feels she could “paint everything in the world” and does begin to paint “everything in her life.” In doing so, the “everything in her life” is imbued with the potency of poetic inspiration, metaphor and creative spirit as much as it is with the psychologizing process. Or we might say, one feeds the other, provokes and inspires the other—a life-art bridging.

The history of Tessa’s struggle with art and academia is given a richness in retrospect, the artist’s retrospective, which renders it a beautiful and archetypal story of redemption. What do I and what do you want to recover from, what do I/you/we want to redeem, we might ask. What struggle do you want to dance, paint, evoke, provoke, or celebrate in poetry?

Tessa made a very interesting comment in her training group as we reflected together on the experience of performing and witnessing. In the same vein as “I could paint everything in the world,” she said that while her own piece was certainly very meaningful to her, just as meaningful was the way in which her feelings and imagination were provoked in watching the performances of her peers. She said, “I have the feeling of wanting to dance and paint and write about the themes I saw in each of your presentations; your family history takes me to mine; your theme of holding and being held—I want to explore that for myself; your moving and spoken foot poem—I want to explore what poems are living in my feet; your life and death dance—I want to explore what is mine.” Tessa’s statement that “I could paint everything in the world” leads us to “I could dance everything in the world” or “I could write poetry about everything in my life—or your dance, painting, poem—I could explore that and discover how it lives in me.”


The art opens me, the art opens me to you, the art opens us to the world and opens the world to us.

Click for full transcript of dialog with artwork by Tessa Barr.

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