Deep From The Well
Memories and Dream-images Cross Over at the Borders of Artmaking

by Barbara Leventhal Stern

In dreams all certainties are blurred and dimmed.
Dawn and dusk, reality and fantasy merge.
- Eli Wiesel


Barbara Leventhal Stern, Love Extinguishes the Pain, oil on canvas, 4'x51/2', 1996.
Photo by Chris Wisner.


When my oldest friend, Paul Rosenfield, died in Los Angeles, his absence from my life was shattering. Feeling a profound sense of loss that could not be articulated through language, I started to move paint across an empty canvas.

In reality I could not stop the events that led to my friend's death. Yet I had a profound need to feel that at least in my painting, His Voice No Longer on the Line, I could satisfy the desire to provide a container for him as he moved on into the next life. Paul was a Hollywood writer and always on the phone. In the painting, telephone wires are a reference to his work and serve also as a symbol of the link between us. In this painting, Paul is a butterfly, symbol of transformation and freedom. I am an elephant, an animal associated with memory and undying loyalty, a creature that never forgets.

In my work, paintings are often a vehicle for the fulfillment of wishes. My need to make art objects is fueled by the desire to alter reality and to change the outcome of events. It is my sense that all artists have a reservoir of wishes and desires which flow into the art they make. Some of the material from this "emotional well" can be articulated, and some cannot. In Freud's theories on the structure of dreams, he divides dreams into two levels: the surface desires and wishes that are conscious (or the "manifest content") and those that are hidden from our awareness, which he calls the "latent content." Many artists have vivid dreams full of both kinds of content which they can access upon waking. Often these dreams are noted and the material is incorporated into their visual narratives. Almost twenty years ago, after chemotherapy for cancer, I lost the ability to remember my dreams in the usual way.

When I am alone in my studio and enter the process of artmaking, I enter a physical state not unlike a trance. In this mental environment, images and symbols flow onto the canvas. I am literally in a state of "waking dreams" in which unconscious material slips through my normal devices that censor and edit my thoughts and actions.

In his book The Secret Language of Dreams, David Fontana talks about Jung's concept of lucid dreaming which is connected to my experience of waking dreams. He writes, "It was Jung who first put forth the evocative theory that we are dreaming ALL the time, and it's only the distractions of waking life that leave us unaware of the fact."

There is a second way in which my work connects with the Jungian perspective on dreams and image formation. For the last twenty years, animal imagery has formed the core of my visual narratives. Animals represent for me a primitive and vital component of what it means to be human. They are used as symbols in every civilization to represent human emotions and striving. This universality relates to Jung's notions of the collective unconscious in which shared archetypes reflect the residue of man's shared evolution.

In a recent painting, Love Extinguishes the Pain, I found myself constructing an environment in which everything is dying. The sickly blue ocean cannot sustain life, and dead sea birds float on its surface. On the acid yellow beach, a young girl's legs are enveloped in flames like logs on a fire. A kindly elephant carries a weakened bird on its back, while it extinguishes the enveloping fire with water from its trunk.

In dreams there is a compression of inner and outer realities that is unique. My conscious intention was to make a painting that would reflect destruction of the environment. That was the manifest content of my thinking. However as I went deeper into the process of painting, a different theme emerged. I understood that the condensation of images allowed disparate emotions to exist within the same visual representation. The legs of the young girl were simultaneously the legs of a girl playing in the sand and the legs of a girl being gassed in a concentration camp. The flames were both the gas of the ovens, the chemicals that pollute our environment and a symbol of the passions of hatred and prejudice.

In this painting, the elephant is the magical creature who through multiple functions makes what is wrong right. In Indian mythology, the elephant is emblematic of controlling the passions. It has the ability to wash away the poisons that threaten our environment and the irrational passions of hatred and greed. From the elephant's trunk flow the cool and healing waters of love and reason, and the fulfillment of my wishes. *

Barbara Leventhal Stern is a Palo Alto artist whose primary focus is painting and printmaking. She is also a licensed psychotherapist and is interested in the relationship of art to psychology and healing.

Dreams and Fantasies