An Artist Creates Psychotherapy

This studio visit-slash-experience would be like no other reported on despite this magazine’s nascence, this being only the second issue of Psychology Tomorrow Magazine. Having received a text that the artist, Lisa Levy, was running behind schedule with a “patient,” I decided to browse the graffiti on the ‘Post No Bills’ particleboards which closed off the dead lots of the surrounding blocks around the L train’s Morgan Avenue stop. It was a dismal depiction of the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick. I was surrounded by dilapidated warehouses and construction facilities with long, sloped conveyor belts which transport dirt and sand up high to top off large established mounds of sediments and other deposits for building, well, buildings.

On my tour, I came upon an unkempt park, Justice Gilbert Ramirez Park, where a couple played racquetball in a crumbling court. Another couple argued loudly at the opposite end of the park in the children’s playground which was void of any children playing. This couple seemed like they should also visit the studio I was soon to visit. I decided to sit down on a bench near the park’s garden to wait and to think about what I should talk about with Lisa Levy. You see, you have to have something to talk about when visiting her studio because that’s the whole point of visiting her studio.

Dr. Lisa Levy, S.P., is an artist turned self-proclaimed (S.P.) psychotherapist.  Having dealt with serious depression in her family while still in high school, she began therapy to find support when she started college. Since then, she’s been in therapy more often than not with different therapists, psychiatrists, and she has even been in medical studies on depression.

She studied Illustration at Syracuse University, and then became Art Director at an advertising agency in the city where she was raised as a child.  She says of her choice to study Art instead of Psychology, “When I went to college, I would have studied either Psychology or Art, and Art was more fun, so I went with that.” She also began to make conceptual art such as objects and installations and to experiment with performance art, seeking to incorporate her fascination with psychology. She rented a performance space and began conducting her version of public therapy. Levy solicited volunteers from the audience who would then go on stage and lie down on the couch while she sat behind them Freudian style to inspire free association. It was half-comedy skit, half-legitimate therapy. That was ten years ago and she’s been improving ever since.

For a year and a half she performed Stand Up, Lie Down, a show in which stand-up comedians took to the couch to spill their beans after they did their acts (coincidentally, Levy has had some quoted comedians from Kyle Dowling’s piece from this issue visit her studio for some psychotherapy). She learned a lot from the tough competition that takes place on stage between two performers, especially when paired with tenacious comedians.

I decided to have a one-on-one session with Dr. Lisa before our interview for the magazine. It’s generally practiced that a journalist should remain unbiased and objective when reporting on whatever subject or topic, but that just wasn’t going to work with this visit. I decided to become the subject, to lie down on the couch and talk about the tribulations affecting my life at the moment, and boy was there stuff to talk about. I wasn’t planning on and didn’t really want my thirtieth birthday to be a monumental occasion, but I just about had the rug pulled out from under me in result from some domestic dilemmas that just so happened to pop up at the same time as my thirtieth. I was going through it, and I thought I would use that to experience her studio first-hand, to see if she was the real deal or just another crackpot artist.

It was a great setting for a therapy session, the antithesis of what Bushwick looked like outside the studio. Her studio is located in an artists’ loft where anyone can rent out space to do whatever art they want. Dr. Lisa’s space was more like a den or library but without stately furniture or shelves littered with books and information, or maybe a taxidermied animal posing somewhere. The wood-paneled walls stained dark were bare save for her art work leaning against them on the floor from previous sessions with patients. Some were leaning against the walls on panels just below the ceiling. A small understated chandelier was hanging from the center of the ceiling; a brown mix of rectangular designs. It was a calm studio. There were long windows on that sunny day, and you could hear the L train coming and going; the studio was just above the station. Complementing the setting, it was also nice that she herself seemed so cool and settled. She curses and carries herself without censorship. She was taut and fit in a casual purple pencil dress hemmed before the knee. She had comfortable sandals on her feet. Her hair was straight with bangs to the brow. The rest fell past her shoulders in an orange-red cadence indicative of Tori Amos or maybe even Kathy Griffin given Levy’s upfront demeanor and frank vernacular.

Before this project, during her time as Art Director, she used her free time outside of the nine-to-five grind to paint out the thoughts that were in her head which surrounded her own therapy. She painted canvases with one vibrant color, and then added in white text a healing one-liner as a reminder of what was happening at the time. It might have been a quick anecdote or maybe a suggestion on how to grow. While doing her therapy-performance art, she thought it a good idea to marry her painting with her therapeutic practice. A patient can commission a painting based on their session as a memento, but she’ll also do drawings with markers if you’d like. Those don’t cost as much.

I lay there without knowing what to expect. It was a little unnerving to lie on the leather couch and express my feelings considering I had only then just met this woman. Sitting behind me, I couldn’t see her no less study her reactions. I searched the bare ceiling for something, anything, to focus on, finally locking my eyes on the chandelier.

I started with my story.

I was apprehensive at first. I can compare it to one’s first time at a nude beach. You arrive and think to yourself, What am I doing here?! You take your time in setting up your blanket and umbrella, maybe stand in the sand and stare off into the ocean for a minute or two, and then, there’s no more avoiding it – it’s time to drop trou. You look to the right and to the left, you bite your lip, grit your teeth, your thumbs are under the waistline of your shorts and you hesitate in pulling them down. You take a deep breath and just do it. And once you ‘let down’ your inhibitions and limitations and just get over yourself, you’re able to do or say whatever you want, and it’s the most liberating feeling.

Levy made it really easy to get over my anxiety because she was just so cool. And that her practice is unofficial in a sense, almost like guerilla psychotherapy, I especially felt like I was able to do or say anything because her sessions are unhindered by bureaucratic downers from this psychological association or that governmental institution.

I talked about the drama affecting my romantic life, or lack there of; the troubles of dealing with unrequited love, and we confronted how I’m serially attracted to unattainable mates. I unwittingly expressed the internal conflict by lashing out against anybody, including my roommates. After a particularly bad time over my thirtieth birthday weekend, we decided they would have to move out because of the horrible things I’d said in the heat of these tantrums.

Dr. Levy was very attentive and insightful. She was able to see through what I was not owning up to. When I mentioned my current situation of pining so much for one who doesn’t reciprocate my love, she stopped me immediately to guess that this probably was not the first time I’ve experienced this type of heartache in life. She was right, and she made me acknowledge this aspect of myself; how I’m all thumbs with love. She also led me to think about where in my developmental history I first might have had the sense of unrequited love and what I did about it.

At the end, she wrote a prescription.

Each patient who takes to the couch receives a prescription – a tangible slip of paper, very official in appearance with the little Rx symbol – with one suggestive sentence summarizing the experience:

“Put as much energy as you can into finding the best mates for yourself.”

Friends, roommates, lovers, the like. It was ingenious to get something that would remind me of what happened during our session, but what was even more important than receiving a prescription or painted canvas is that I discovered more of me. Dr. Lisa’s art opened my eyes to see parts of myself that I might have ignored or not recognized. She is a true exemplar, licensed or not, of what Psychology Tomorrow Magazine is all about.  Both art and psychology are meant to provoke those who experience them to reconsider their circumstance. From this studio visit, I gained some new insights about myself which just stopped me short of getting rid of my roommates.

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