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Art as Therapy, Therapy as Art

By Terri Stone

Creation is cathartic. Leslie Hall Brown knows this better than most, as she is both an artist who creates to make sense of the world and a psychotherapist who uses creativity to treat clients.

While she shot film for many years, she later moved into digital photography. She discovered endless possibilities in the new medium.

“I like working in that space between real and not real, and I like irony, whimsy, and metaphor,” says Brown. “With Adobe Photoshop, I was free to create whatever I could imagine. I began making montages and adding my own color, and playing with creating worlds that were real but yet not. The Dualities series evolved because I saw so many possibilities for each image.”

In the series, a background shot becomes a stage that she populates with her photography and found images, building two mirrored realities. The results are sharp, colorful, and steeped in art history, surrealism, and metaphor.

A diptych from Leslie Hall Brown's Dualities series.

A diptych from Leslie Hall Brown's Dualities series.

Brown confesses that Dualities was partially inspired by clients, but ultimately her own story shapes her work on and off the clock.

That story reads like a grim novel. When she was still a child, her family moved to California. She had to grow up fast: Her mother’s emotional health was crumbling and the local kids were violently unfriendly. The wayward twelve-year-old fell into a rough-and-tumble life. When the family decided to return to the Midwest, their problems followed. Her mother became a violent alcoholic, provoking Brown to drop out of school and leave home.

Art was her salvation. She studied sculpture at a local college before finding her muse at a photography exhibition. A few years later she was married to her professor and had become a teacher and a parent.

But trouble was never far behind. During a three-year photo project on hospice care, her youngest brother died, her mother attempted suicide, and her father filed for divorce. She tried to make sense of the world by photographing her family. She also went back to school to study counseling, specializing in family therapy with an emphasis on women’s treatment and child art therapy.

The experience was eye opening. “I realized somewhere through all the upheaval that I had lost my playful self,” she says. “I picked up a Diana [a low-fidelity film camera] with the idea that I needed to learn how to play again. I wanted to disengage my analytical, thinking brain and just see.”

Brown began allowing curiosity and intuition to guide her therapy and art. She exclusively shot with the Diana for 25 years, which made going digital a daunting prospect. But happily, she found a new playground for her inner child. After almost 30 years of practice, Brown is ready to focus more on visual art and less on psychotherapy. 

This image is a diptych from Leslie Hall Brown’s Dualities series.
This image is a diptych from Leslie Hall Brown’s Dualities series.

“The same experiences that made me therapist material also made me have to create,” says Brown. She remembers being four years old and “looking down as I walked to watch the shiny black shapes of my patent leather shoes gliding back and forth across the red brick sidewalk.” It was the day she decided to be an artist, and she’s never wavered since that decisive moment.