Unnerved – Chapter 14

Chapter 14
Anita Glesta

I’m not wrong am I? To seek the pumping heart in the head, little rose on fire…
( – excerpt from the poem, ‘Tongue on Fire’, developed by Abigail Wender in response to Anita
Glesta’s work, Unnerved (2021)).

Fig. 14.1. Untitled, oil on canvas, 48 inches x 72 inches. Anita Glesta, 2017.

My father died suddenly four years ago. The loss was shocking in ways I had not anticipated.
Though he had heart problems and was not in great health, his passing felt abrupt. The only way
I could connect with how I felt from my loss was through the act of painting. Though I had been a multimedia artist for decades, I never stopped painting. Mostly, I work with ink on paper. However, for some reason, I turned to my very early training in oil painting.

Through a process of layering the canvas with thick impasto, I began to paint an
oversized heart [Fig 14.1]. I squirted the paints out of their tubes and onto the palette. Lining up
the blobs of colour, I arranged them like the colour wheel – secondary, primary and
complementary colours in hefty blobs on an oversized disposable paper palette. Blue, red and
yellow daubs formed the primary trio, and between each of these, the secondaries: orange, purple
and green.

The smell of the oils and turpentine offered familiar comfort. I surrendered myself to the
over-loaded brush, laden with a generous amount of paint. Though it felt a little like rolling
around in the mud, I knew how to handle the paint – physically, working it onto the canvas. I had
stopped painting with oils many years before, but with decades of experience I had the
confidence that it would lead me into a process of discovery. I allowed sections of colour to
bleed into one another, juxtaposing muddy areas with bright, clear colour. From these messy
applications of paint the image of a heart emerged – a volumetric, almost three-dimensional

It was as if – in this state of uncertainty, unmoored by grief – painting offered a means to
navigate the unknown, to find my way back to something known, something that, in this creative
process, could be rendered in concrete and visible terms. Donald Schon, the theorist of ‘intuitive
practice’, refers to this use of skilful practice as ‘knowing in action’ (Schon 1983). He points out
that we do not always think before acting: ‘in much of the spontaneous behavior of skillful
practice we reveal a kind of knowing which does not stem from a prior intellectual operation’
(Schon 1983: 50). It was in this intuitive manner that I was able to capture an embodied experience of grief as it unfolded in advance of any conscious processing. Our knowing, says Schon, is ‘ordinarily tacit, implicit in our patterns’ (ibid.: 49). What I consciously ‘knew’ was that I was attracted by the sensual and oleaginous texture of oil paint because it seemed like a very direct way to connect with my grief. In my struggle to understand what happened to my father, painting was the only possible means to navigate unfathomable loss. And, not only the wrench of loss itself but my anger at the abruptness of my father’s passing.

The distressed heart, as it emerged in my painting, was indeed an ‘angry heart’. I tentatively gave this name to the painting-in-progress (Fig. 14.1). Perhaps I understood that something of our relationship might be kept alive for me in the action of painting an internal organ. I cannot give a precise account of how, when and why I chose to depict the heart, beyond its literal association with my father’s death. That is to say, I am not aware of having made a conscious choice of subject matter. The heart in painting has a history – most obviously through Catholic iconography. But my process-driven inquiry has little to do with this, or with the ironic commentaries on sentimentality that characterize the iconic heart images of

Andy Warhol and Jim Dine. I experienced a driving force to simply do it. Schon (1983: 49-50) suggests that a practitioner in the act of doing might ask these questions of themselves: ‘What features do I notice when I recognize this thing? What procedures am I enacting when I perform this skill? How am I framing the problem that I am trying to solve?’. Through this self-questioning we may not only make sense of the thing in question but uncover an implicit ‘understanding’, which can surface in action. For me, the
unconscious or intuitive process was also a profoundly embodied one.
It was around five months after my father’s death when I found myself engaged in this
act of painting the heart. The process began sometime in November.

About three weeks into working on the painting, I began to feel little skips in my chest – as though a small pony were galloping across it. Such episodes lasted for just a few seconds. I ignored them. I registered a feeling, a sensation, but made no cognitive association, aware only of my need to connect with the physical act of painting. Grief, I suppose, is characterized by the desire to hold on to an
object rather than ‘find out’ or ‘know’ categorically that it is gone. By ‘ignoring’ the skips in my
chest, I wilfully (if unconsciously) reverted to a connection through the painting process that was
intensively felt rather than thought.

My need to paint was less a method of illustrating something known or even something
that happened – an event in episodic memory – than of capturing an unconscious process that
was still overwhelming. It was in essence the feeling of grief, and of the anger and distress
accompanying loss. In The Feeling of What Happens, Antonio Damasio describes this
experience as a biological process:

We often realize quite suddenly in a given situation that we feel anxious or uncomfortable,
pleased or relaxed and it is apparent that the particular state of feeling we know then has not
begun on the moment of knowing but rather sometime before. Neither the feeling state nor the
emotion that led to it has been ‘unconsciousness’ and yet they have been unfolding as biological
processes. (Damasio 1999: 11)

The complex psychological and neuropsychological process that was ‘known to me’
experientially was an unconscious, unthought known (Bollas 2017). But it was also a somatic
experience, linked, it seems now, to a biological process, itself analogous to my painting of the
distressed heart. In Being a character, Bollas (1993: 12) writes that we ‘constantly endow
objects with psychic meaning … we walk amidst our own significance, and sometimes long after
we have invested in a thing, we encounter it again, releasing its meaning’. Though I did not know this at the time, through the experience of painting the heart, I was engaged in an emotional relationship with an object whose ‘meaning’ was later ‘released’ to me as a physiological response.

Persuaded by a friend that my chest pain should be investigated, I finally saw a
cardiologist around a month after the skips in my heart began. ‘Just to be safe’, he equipped me
with a heart monitor halter to wear for a weekend, along with a cell phone to tap whenever I felt
the heart skips. The cell phone would relay the real-time data back to the hospital.
Wearing the monitor but otherwise feeling fine, I went to a cocktail party on the Saturday
before Christmas. At the event, I found myself standing talking with two amiable art dealers,
when a blackness surged through my head. It felt as if my brain was whipping itself into a
swirling vortex. My phone was on the table about two feet from me, but I was frozen in place,
unable to reach for it. I hoped that I wouldn’t fall. I experienced an acute awareness of my
surroundings, which prompted anxiety and a desire to fight against the feeling that at any
moment I might be entirely enveloped by darkness. The feeling wore off after about three
seconds. I politely excused myself and left the party.

The day after the party I went back to the studio to continue to work on my painting. I sat
in front of the huge, brightly-coloured, drooping heart that seemed to glare at me. After a few
hours in quiet dialogue with the image, I received a call from the cardiologist instructing me to
‘go to the hospital immediately’. Apparently last night’s black vortex experience registered 200
beats a minute, and the data indicated crisis.

Beth Israel Hospital in downtown Manhattan was already emblematic of my relationship to my father, who had been an attending physician there for over fifty years. I was met in the
emergency room by a medical team with a gurney. Defibrillation paddles were slapped onto my
chest, and an intravenous needle stuck in my arm. My immediate assumption was that I was the
object of attention as the daughter of Dr. Curtis – as I had been as a child, visiting him at work.
But they had no idea who he was, or who I was.

I had experienced a ventricular tachycardia and was sent on to the Cardiac Care Unit
(CCU) for a battery of tests: angiogram, electrocardiogram, stress tests, radiology, cardiac
sonogram, x-rays and nephrology studies. None of the findings indicated any severe
abnormalities or need for a stent. I prepared to leave after three days in the CCU with no
conclusive evidence of serious heart issues besides early signs of hardening of the arteries.
Before I left, the cardiac electrophysiologist arrived to explain that, though they had not found
anything significant in all the tests, sometimes a rogue electric current from the heart fires up and
causes a ventricular tachycardia. He added that he felt it was unlikely that this was the cause of
my ventricular tachycardia. ‘The circuits went a little haywire’, was all he could tell me. He then
remarked, ‘And sometimes this can be triggered by shock, grief and/or anger’.
In reflecting on how and what I knew of this feeling in my chest, I wonder if there was a
direct connection between what was happening in my body and my intense involvement in
painting, and more specifically, my focus on working with an image of a heart in some distress.
This emerging formulation of experience evokes both the ‘distressed heart’ and the process of
working in a state of distress.

A cardiac event triggered by grief.

After my three-day hospital stay in the CCU, I researched the various causes of ventricular tachycardia. Via the Harvard Medical School (2020), I learned that there is something called
Takotsubo Syndrome, or ‘Broken Heart Syndrome’, first described in 1990 in Japan. In
Takotsubo cardiomyopathy – so named because the heart takes the shape of a ceramic octopus-catching vessel known as the Takotsubo – the heart muscle becomes suddenly stunned or
weakened. This is a temporary condition that mostly occurs following severe emotional or
physical stress. Apparently more than ninety per cent of the recorded cases are women between
the ages of 58 and 75 (ibid.). Little has been written of the psychological experience of this
‘heartbreak’ and its nexus with biology.

The subjective dimension of experience does not yield to objective scientific analysis in
any obvious way. There is, however, growing interest in the emerging field of
neurophenomenology – a field that systematically explores the interface between the data of
neuroscience and internal or experiential knowledge of brain processes, highlighting an
‘explanatory gap’ (Thompson, Lutz & Cosmelli 2005). My inquiry may be understood in this
light. However, the language of my experience is, in the first instance, painting. The painting
process was not simply a means to understanding a prior medical event. Painting served as the
means of surfacing embodied knowledge in real-time, as the cardiac event unfolded, and before
the fact
of the medical occurrence.

While a neurophenomenologist might investigate a biological process in an experiential
register, I wanted to look closer at the entanglement between the biological event of ventricular
tachycardia that I experienced, and the ‘shock, grief and/or anger’ from which it may have
stemmed. Initially, my inquiry through paint was surfacing the feeling of what happened – loss,
the loss of my father. Then, as I began to experience tachycardia, my painting surfaced the
feeling of what is happening – those skips in my heart. My practice has since broadened to
explore dynamic relationships between events past and present, and their somatic effects.

On the one hand, my grief seemed to have precipitated a cardiac event. But I was also
predisposed to stress and anxiety. I experienced a range of childhood traumas that included what
might be classified as text-book neglect. I did not receive the consistent care deemed necessary
for ‘secure attachment’ or emotion regulation. According to John Bowlby (1969), the originator
of attachment theory, neglect (that is, the absence of a functional caring relationship in
childhood) essentially compromises self-regulation, which must be learned through a process of
co-regulation; the feeling of being soothed and nourished by a carer.

I sought and enjoyed the company of adults from an early age, and often understood the
nuances of their conversation in a precocious way. However, the denial of the protection a child
needs to navigate their world left me without the resources to assuage anxiety, no doubt
contributing to my often-worried state. Perhaps this predisposed me to the cardiac condition of
ventricular tachycardia?
It is well established in trauma theory that trauma manifests in the body (Van der Kolk
2015), and plays a cumulative role in how our internal systems develop and function. The
implication of this is that the way the body responds to stress in adulthood may also be
conditioned by early development. Everything, it seems, is connected. My broken heart, the way
it skipped – all part of the continuity of my life, which extends, too, into paint.

What’s more, I got to thinking: it’s not just me, it’s me in relation with others, all of us
with our shared mammalian evolutionary history. I found the ideas of Stephen Porges (2001,
2003, 2009) helpful. He writes about the vagus nerve, which is the longest and most complex of
the cranial nerves, and has a key role in the parasympathetic control of the heart, lungs and
digestive tract. The vagus nerve begins at the base of the skull, the brain stem, and from there its
sensory and motor fibres transit between many areas of the body. It is just one part of the
autonomic nervous system, which controls the visceral functions of the body and its fight-orflight response. Porges writes about the multi-directional communication between the viscera, the brain and the environment. He writes, too, about how social engagement provides another
source of input into this system. In other words, he argues that we co-regulate ourselves in
relation to others. The functions of our bodies – our guts, our lungs, our hearts – are linked in
complex ways to the sensory and social inputs we receive from the world around us, and are
linked, too, to our deep evolutionary drive towards safety and social connectedness.
In how many ways, I began to wonder, is the beating of my heart connected to everything
else? Stress, feeling unsafe, loss, feeling grief. Paint, the feeling of it on my brush, letting it
move itself across the canvas. Heartbroken.

Seeking Relief

Fig 14.2. Still from the animation, Unnerved. Anita Glesta, 2021.

I left oil painting behind after my Takotsubo experience. Its visceral qualities had been necessary
to capture my grief. Oil painting is a slow medium and requires time and patience. It helped me
express the feeling of being in that state of grief – the difficulty of letting go of the lost object
that I sought to animate, to keep alive.

I began to think more about the anxiety and tension that I was feeling at the time of my
ventricular tachycardia. In thinking about this, I began to visualize a rock moving along the
pathway of the vagus nerve. Its trajectory began at the brain stem, moving down a constricted
throat corridor and into the heart and the intestines. I found this visualization helped me process
my feelings. I decided to turn this visualization of a rock moving through my body into an
animation – a return to my multi-media practice. Movement and dynamism took on both
psychosomatic and formal registers. I was interested in exploring all that moves under the
surface of our skin, of which we are largely not conscious. I was interested in exploring the way
stress lodges within and moves around the body. To do this in my video, I returned to ink [Fig
14.2]. I like this medium because of its fluidity. I employ it, I make it move, using old-fashioned
stop motion animation. In the doing, my relationship with my own practice shifted from simply
expressing to processing my feelings associated with trauma and loss.

In relational psychotherapy, the therapist does not simply help regulate a patient’s
emotions but is also engaged in a two-way relationship; a series of shared moments that aim to
engender self-awareness (Wachtel 2010). The ultimate outcome should foster a sense of relief.
Allan Schore (2012), noted for his work in neuropsychology and trauma theory, speaks of the
therapeutic encounter as ‘emotional co-regulation that occurs moment to moment’. Since we
experience vicissitudes of emotions from moment-to-moment and we are impacted constantly by
one another’s emotions, my interest is in the potential for something akin to co-regulation to
occur in an encounter with my video animation. In my own personal experience, making art is a kind of co-regulation. Returning to oil painting was a retreat – a place to go, to make an object as the recipient of my emotions. Noreen Giffney (2021) suggests that cultural objects can perform a function akin to self-regulation. Like the nurturing relationship between a mother and her nursing baby, a painting or a moving image might just enable a kind of secure attachment that is forged through the processing of emotion –
albeit without the support that may occur in partnership with a therapist.

While painting allowed me to arrive at a place of awareness of feeling that is inherently
embodied, the method of animation helped me to visualize the weight of my broken heart –
stress and anxiety, trauma, like a rock, travelling along my vagal nerve. Pat Ogden, the founder
of sensorimotor psychotherapy, asks her patients to lean into the pain by asking them to find the
place where it is felt and to stay with it. For Ogden, ‘tuning into these cues can help regulate
arousal, enhance self-understanding, alter negative internal states, and establish new meanings’
(Ogden & Fisher 2015: 2). In my practice, I draw on my intuitive knowledge and a capacity for
visualization that stems from my arts training. I give form to feeling – and to a process of
seeking relief.

Through my animations I want to offer my audience the kind of relief that I have found in
the process of making them. When we talk of viewers and audiences in an arts context we tend to
homogenize, even though it is widely understood that such notional viewers may resonate with
content in different ways. But what if the viewer can use my work in a way that might be
analogous to my own process? Can the viewer experience the work in a way in which they are
attuned to it as a process that affords relief; that engages with and acts upon a state of anxiety or
distress? Perhaps it is more accurate to ask whether the work can act with rather than upon – coregulate rather than regulate? In other words, can we imagine a form of interaction in an
emotional and even neurobiological register?

Teresa Brennan’s theory of entrainment suggests that we have a propensity to be affected
in this way by images. In Brennan’s (2004) book, Transmission of Affect, she proposes that the
physiologic underpinnings of our emotional states are derived from multiple sources, including
our environment. Referring to the multiplicity of ways in which we experience ‘being’, she
states: ‘sights and sounds are physical matters in themselves, carriers of social matters, social in
origin but physical in their effects. Every word, every sound, has its valence; so, at a more subtle
level, may every image’ (ibid.: 71).

Entrainment and co-regulation require a reciprocal relationship with another person. But,
not exclusively. My animations offer an expression of my own process of co-regulation. Through
moving ink, I create the impression of a journey from a state of anxiety, and of heartbreak, to one
of relief. I wonder if this imagery could be of ‘use’ to others. In other words, is my process one
of subjective description, or can the dynamic interaction between self and image be enacted third
hand, between an image or animation and a viewer? I also wonder, can I support not only a
momentary relief, stabilization or calming, but a longer-term reflective process? This raises the
question of how far such ‘use’ can go.

Certainly, animation can offer a graphic and dynamic visualization of an embodied
process. It is thus a stimulus to imagination; a vehicle to ‘hold’ an image of felt experience.
Perhaps when the rock exits the body, a viewer feels a relief that is akin to a catharsis. Allowing
themselves to surrender to the audio/visual imagery in the animation they might experience a
transferal – recognizing the trauma in their own bodies and learning how to shift it.
As survivors of trauma, we must live with states of grief. How wonderful if we might be
able to actively ‘use’ visual art, not just to identify a feeling, but to engage in a process with it.
Since my cardiac event, I have a heightened awareness of my process when I create audio-visual
works. Not unlike a meditation, I experience a surrender. The rock in my brain, in my body,
shifts. I am grateful to lose myself in a process which encourages this transition into a
‘parasympathetic’ state, a more peaceful state. While painting enabled deeply embedded feelings to surface, literally in my heart, the moving image animation gives form to dynamic sensations and feelings of anxiety and relief that form a constant conversation within the network of the nervous system for all of us.

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