REAL DREAM: An Interview with Daphna Saker Massey

Over the last ten years, Daphna Saker Massey has taken elements from expressive arts principles and contemporary art practices to develop her own path, The REAL DREAM Method. The REAL DREAM Method is a process that leads people to deep insights concerning questions they bring to the sessions. While the process and conversations remain private, each individual, couple and small groups session produces artistic outcomes for both Daphna and the participant. After the insightful experience of having my own REAL DREAM session (and ahead of their opening weekend this past December), I sat down with Daphna in the REAL DREAM Studio + Gallery to discuss her aim to expand awareness through art.

Daphna Saker Massey is an artist and an expressive arts therapist in-training. Over the past ten years she has developed The REAL DREAM Method during which time she received an M.A. in Expressive Arts Therapy and qualifying Certificate of Advanced Graduate Study (CAGS) ahead of joining the Ph.D. Program in Expressive Arts at the European Graduate school (EGS) in Switzerland. Additionally, Daphna holds a B.A. in Arts History and Philosophy from Tel-Aviv University.

Sarrita Hunn: What is the REAL DREAM Studio + Gallery?

Daphna Saker Massey: Since we are in this transitional state and the space is not yet organized, I think the sign [hanging on the front of the space] is a good start. Angus, my husband, created the [Yperea Bold Condensed] font on the sign and one of his first pieces was REAL DREAM. I was looking for a long time for a name for my method. Then in one of the sessions somebody said to me that they felt like they came out of a real dream, so you really enter a dream space when you enter a session. The work by Angus was meant to point towards life being the REAL DREAM.  

Because I grew up in a home where art was always a part of life (my mother works with art and loves art), I thought that I wanted my work to be shown at some stage in galleries or museums – and not to get there seemed like kind of a failure. A few months ago, after a visit to New York, I understood that it no longer feels like the best choice for me. So changing the space works for me in the same way that I also work between different art mediums and experiences.

By connecting the studio and gallery, I am interested in the idea of art as a way of expanding your awareness – through inspiration or experience. As a participant or as a viewer, art has this potential of pointing you towards new ways of seeing reality.

first self portrait, 2006.

SH: Just to backtrack a bit, you first of all have a background as an artist. I mean, you were talking about your childhood and growing up around art, and now your work has been mostly based in photography. Or is that just the most recent manifestation?

DSM: When I started to do research for my MA thesis, I focused on a memory of being seven or eight and getting lost in the Prado Museum. They found me in front of a portrait by Velásquez. I was stuck in front of the portrait. I remember it very clearly. I was just sitting there and this man sitting in a dark space was fascinating to me – the portrait and the space that was somehow created through this darkness around him. I always had a desire to paint, but also a very critical voice inside that gave me an early-on hesitation with making art or painting. But when I was 12, I started photographing and I always loved photographing my friends and working in the dark room on black and white portraits.

Then, in the army, I was a photographer. Actually, my first art therapy experience was in the army. At some stage a friend was killed, a good friend of my sister’s, somebody that I really loved. I was quite depressed and I didn’t know if I should leave the army or not, and I went to the army psychologist – not trying to trick him into letting me out, but really having a conversation about where I was – and I was lucky enough that I found somebody who really understood me. After a few sessions he said, “So, what would you like to do?” and I said, “I don’t know, what do you think I should do?” And he was quiet for a few minutes and said, “I think this is not the place for you. I think you should leave the army service, but I will release you only after you make something creative for me that concludes your army experience. When you submit this to my office, then you will be released.” This was crazy, unheard of really, but that’s what I did; I photographed and I wrote and I made an album and I submitted it to his office and I was released from the army.

SH: Incredible.

DSM: Then, later on when I was studying for my BA, I focused mainly on aesthetics and philosophy of religion and different histories of the arts; theater, art history, cinema, music. But  at that time, I was also very much interested in two women. One was Artemisia Gentileschi, a Caravaggesque painter who conveyed mythological stories that had this kind of darkness – and really one of those women that are a lot of the time neglected from the historical narrative. I was fascinated by her work and by her self-portrait and it provoked for me all these thoughts and questions about self-portraits and portraits, and what does it mean to put yourself in the work, and to paint these stories of women. For example, she used the story of Judith and Holofernes, where [Judith] kills the man (Holofernes). She paints the story of abuse. I was really wondering about the power of putting yourself in artworks.

The other woman was Virginia Oldoini, Countess of Castiglione, who was a photographer. Actually, she wasn’t [considered] a photographer, she was also disregarded from art history because she was considered a narcissist. She had hundreds of portraits of herself taken at the end of the 19th century, really amazing works she created with a photographer named Pierre-Louis Pierson. And even when she thought she had lost her beauty (because she was considered one of the most beautiful women in Paris, a courtesan), she would still go to the studio. She would go with a veil. She covered the mirrors at her home, but she would go to the studio and have her portrait taken. She would also bring in scenes from her life, redirect them at the studio, and then send them to people. But I always thought, what was this action giving her? What was this need, what was it fulfilling for her – playing these roles of herself and recreating them?

The real dream method – Guatemala, 2017.

Nonetheless, during my studies I had a hard time photographing and making anything because critical thought (and reading too much) was making it too difficult for me to create work, but then I moved to Italy. I met my husband and I moved in with him in this town called Pietrasanta where a lot of sculptors come from all over the world to work mainly with marble and bronze. So there was this huge shift from seeing and thinking about all the possible different art theories to people taking a stone and trying to make something out of it. And with people like Angus (who’s an extremely talented sculptor), of course I tried all these things, but it remained a complete mystery to me. Then I bought my first digital camera and we started experimenting with it. Before this, I had an analog obsession and didn’t want to touch a digital camera, but then Angus said he wanted to do some light painting and started doing some things at night with flashlights, and something about the way the light hit his face was just amazing to me.

Then for two or three years we worked on a series of these self-portraits. We were mostly alone in this village, so we were just the material that was there, but through this technique I could see all these different faces coming out of my face – all of these different characters. I was also fascinated with this process that created a kind of a performance in the darkness, where you’re taking each others’ portraits, but technically, because of the light, you have to be still. And the way you light yourself brings out these surprises, which drew a connection for me with analog photography. It was always this amazing process where you don’t really know what the pictures will look like – the anticipation for developing the film – so I loved that I found that again. Even though it’s immediate and digital, you had these surprising things happening. But, at that time, I didn’t like taking other people’s portraits. I didn’t like making other people the objects of my photographs.

SH: How did that lead to your REAL DREAM method?

DSM: So, then I studied art therapy. The first year was more like conventional art therapy that works with psychological theories. I really enjoyed the fact that in art therapy you can play with all the materials. You can play with glitter, and they have this kind of ‘art buffet’ where you can choose all the materials you want to work with it and it’s really playful, and I loved that, but I always hated the results. I would enjoy the process and I would hate the result. And even though I would connect with the result because I liked the process, I couldn’t show it. I didn’t like people hanging it all over the walls. It was a private thing. The process was mine, but the results were generally…my critical mind was still working. So, I loved the process and I hated the result, but I also didn’t like the way we talked about the work after the fact, over-analyzing and interpreting, but that’s what happens a lot of the time.

Then when I moved to the European Graduate School in Switzerland, where I finished my Masters, what freed me was the challenge to take this long exposure photographic space, this darkness performance, and create a process using the tools I was given in expressive arts,  which instead of connecting art therapy to psychological theory, it’s connected to phenomenology. In expressive arts, art is something you invite into the room. So, my thesis guidelines were make something new and do it in your own language – which was the most freeing thing I could have thought of. It was exactly what I needed.

SH: Could you say a little bit more about this difference between being based in psychology versus phenomenology – between art therapy and expressive arts?

The real dream method (with Sarrita Hunn), 2018.

DSM: What I found freeing in expressive arts was learning to speak in the phenomenological language. Working with the senses towards an experience that has different mediums involved in one more difference. They consider the person who is facilitating the experience as a person with the expertise in a certain field, so you should always create the therapy methods from your own best artistic practices, because you are also an artist. You are always an artist in an art interaction. You’re facilitating an artistic action between two artists. So, I love this idea of it being a mutual process, one that is formed through the senses and is directed not only inwards but with tuning yourself in a way as a channel, bringing something into form.

SH: How is that different than more traditional art therapy?

DSM: I think it’s something that also exists in many levels on the art therapy, but it’s still more clear that expressive arts can be used with many different practices. They say, for example, the background of the expressive arts is phenomenology and Heidegger, but it’s also from the anthropological view of how healing in the arts started – which is also something they refer to in art therapy. It’s something that was always actually a part of human interaction. That is something that I loved because it filled the gap with learning art history. Art history starts with cave painting, then you go into Egypt, then Greece and Rome, and then you carry on the timeline. With art therapy and expressive arts, there are also more ancient traditions and  indigenous people’s traditions. One of the influences the expressive arts has from that is that in our imagination, there is no separation between sound and painting and acting. There is an artistic action that can have many elements at the same time – and what they like people to create is an experience that transitions between the mediums. That was one of the challenges I was trying to work which that I loved the most; how can I bring this all together in an organic way. Some people work so that you make a painting, and then you make a poetic phrase based on it, and then you dance around it, and I can enjoy experiencing that, but what I was really thinking is: how can I create an experience that transitions slowly and in an organic way through the mediums and opens our mind to this unity? Because I think once you work with the senses and with the different art mediums, you connect your senses, and when you really connect your senses, you are in this oneness space – you go beyond them somehow. To look at what is there, rather than looking at the work as only coming out of one’s own inner self, you allow something to be expressed. This is the biggest difference in working with phenomenology.

The real dream method – My grandmother’s eyes, 2018.

SH: You also mentioned earlier about working in between mediums or different kinds of experiences in relationship to art as expanding awareness. Can you explain a little bit more about that, or at least how that has manifested in your own work?

DMS: I’m very interested in the history of portraiture and the way it manifests through paintings, but then there is the participatory art part. How do you create a space for this? Right now, I’m not working as a therapist. I generally give only one session. There are few types of processes I have developed, but the main process I work with is one session of two or three hours. So, it’s not expressive art therapy or art therapy, but it’s also in between that. I also work with photography but it’s not phototherapy. Phototherapy is generally about creating your own gaze and holding the camera. So, I’m using photography and phototherapy, but in a different way – but also participatory art. How do you really create a collaborative experience for people who are creating, writing, drawing – both artists – in the same space?

It’s still interesting how the people in all of these creative areas don’t really connect with my work. I mean, people in art therapy or expressive arts will think I’m an artist, and artists will think I’m a therapist, and phototherapists will think I’m an art therapist, and participatory artists will think…you know? It’s really something that doesn’t fit into anything, and I like that. I was trying to fit it in many times, but it’s nice to be kind of in-between.

Because it took me so long to understand what it is that I’m doing and how it works, the main challenge for me right now is communicating it to other people – explaining what it is, why it’s interesting, and why you should experience it. I’m learning so much through this space. It’s part of the work that it is always changing it a little bit and stays flexible. For some people, it can be quite a strong experience. I don’t work with people that are in trauma. I try to be mindful about who I work with, as the process can be deep.

SH: How would you describe your sessions?

DSM: That’s the challenge. [laughs] I’ve come to understand that the main thing is the experience. The fact that we are both in a process of shaping the artwork and it’s guided step-by-step, and it’s quite meditative, it leads people into deep insights. I think through art people really have a chance to connect to different levels of their awareness – and that’s what this space is ultimately about. I think art has the possibility to connect us to ourselves and to deep knowledge that we already have. That’s why I don’t consider myself a therapist. I’m working on holding this space, so people can come and find and connect with their own knowledge.





Images courtesy of Daphna Saker Massey.

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