Depth Psychology, Art, and the Archetype of the Walled Woman

Posted by Nikole Hollenitsch on Jan 24, 2018 1:26:14 PM

Depth Psychology, Art, and the Archetype of the Walled Woman: An Interview with Conceptual Artist Tracy Ferron, M.A. A Guest Blog Post by Bonnie Bright, Ph.D.

tracy_ferron_walled_woman_reaching_out.jpgImmurement, the concept of confining people inside walls, is a historical reality. Women, especially, have been victims and sacrifices of this macabre practice.

For Tracy Ferron, a conceptual artist and student of depth psychology, the archetypal theme of “walled women” first surfaced in a powerful dream. At the time, she was deeply engrossed in research on Big Pharma and societal complexes of power in a class at Pacifica Graduate Institute, where she completed her master’s degree in Engaged Humanities and the Creative Life in June 2017. During this process, powerful feelings of hopelessness and frustration arose, dovetailing with her personal life where she felt quite “stuck” in shifting her life’s direction after nearly 20 years spent raising five children.

In our recent interview, Tracy shared the details of her dream. A naïve young woman arrives at what she believes is an audition, but instead ends up as a sacrifice. The walled woman archetype is exemplified when she is murdered and immured in a wall, where the only thing exposed is her left eye. The richness of this “big” dream was so striking that Tracy “basically ran at it with every Jungian methodology and amplification” she could.

As Tracy began digging into the image of women being built into walls, she discovered it had actually been an ancient practice with a long and troubling history. One instance is that of the “foundation sacrifice,” which historian and religious scholar Mircea Eliade describes as a “primordial myth.” During the construction of an edifice, sacrificing a woman by building her into the foundation created a sacred communion to propitiate the spirits of nature. The practice, it was believed, served as a holy act that animated the building and established a guardian spirit for the structure.

vestal_virgin_walled_woman_blog_post_ferron.jpegMore dreams ensued synchronistically, amplifying Tracy’s interest in this archetypal theme. One involved Romulus and Remus, the twin brothers who founded Rome. Tracy’s research revealed that their mother, Rhea Sylvia, was a Vestal Virgin who was said to have avoided immurement, which was the punishment for violating their vow of chastity.

Exploring the symbols of Tracy’s dreams led her to investigate images and practices of the walled woman archetype throughout history.

The Dichotomy of the Walled Woman

Tracy’s analysis revealed the paradoxical nature of the wall symbology, which represents both protection and persecution. From the 12th to the 15th centuries in Europe, she found historical accounts of religious “anchoresses”—lay women who chose to wall themselves up next to a church, living out their lives in a small stone cell with no exit. These anchoresses lived in their stone cocoons, dedicating their lives to prayer and counseling the townspeople. This example highlights the “positive” aspect of walled women as embodiments of the divine feminine, in contrast to the long history of iconoclasts and rebels who were punished with immurement. Thus, the lineage of these walled women is simultaneously rooted in oppression and sacred empowerment, Tracy observes.

By applying the practice of active imagination to gain more insight into the archetypal and symbolic nature of the walled women, she began relating to them and the meaningful symbols in a way that offered sage wisdom about her life, the nature of sacrifice, and deeper understandings of her initial dream’s meaning.

tracy_ferron_walled_woman_heart_copyright_lori_cheung.jpegIn one active imagining, the walled woman presented herself in a large art gallery as a three-dimensional artwork. The power and luminosity of this image moved Tracy deeply and inspired her to create conceptual art based on this vision.

In early historical tales, female immurement was a true honoring of the feminine. The female body itself was seen as a liminal space between God and man, nature and culture. However, when the fundamental role of the female in balancing the structures of society became skewed, this archetypal image evolved more into scapegoating and imprisonment than reverence. Perverted by power, the act of speaking out became a punishable offense demanding sacrifice. Tracy ultimately realized that the heart of her Walled Woman Project is to look at sacrifice as necessary for change and growth, but, she emphasizes, such sacrifice must be conscious and considered.

Others have contributed to the idea that sacrifice is at the heart of the depth psychological tradition. In particular, the ego must be sacrificed in order for the individuation of the Self to occur. Marie-Louise von Franz insisted that the sacrifice of power is what is most frequently required of us in the process of individuation—and seemingly for our culture to transform as well, Tracy adds [1].

She maintains that society’s cultural addiction to rampant capitalism sacrifices nature and populations around the globe in a very unconscious way. Individually and as a culture, we need to explore what we are being asked to sacrifice, in order to build a new society and much-needed new structures that will help to re-establish balance and forge a new paradigm.

The ability and willingness to submit to sacrifice oneself can be a powerful initiatory process. When one considers the walled woman from Tracy’s dream, the eye that looks out from the wall is no longer representative of the naïve and uninitiated. Rather, it holds a new kind of power. In some ways, we must give up or sacrifice our perceived power in order to become more powerful in new and different ways. We all need to be willing to do our own personal work in order to undergo that initiation process.

The Walled Woman in Pop Culture and Contemporary Art

Tracy points out the ubiquitous fear throughout today’s culture. The political climate has triggered anxiety in people around the globe, and literal walls, in the context of the Trump administration, have suddenly become a more intensive matter of public consciousness. Rather than building walls, what is really called for is to face our inner demons, our deepest selves, and do our inner work so we can bond together in community from a place of power and strength.

During her process of examining the walled woman archetype, Tracy revisited the work of Donald Kalsched, a Jungian analyst who focuses on trauma. Kalsched posits that when a child experiences events too difficult to process, the psyche establishes a “self-care” system, where certain aspects of the psyche spring into action to protect, cocoon, or wall off a vital part of self [2].

As the traumatized child ages, the angelic forces of protection can sometimes become tormentors or inner persecutors, Tracy explains. When considered in the context of the dichotomy of the wall, this process may be seen as a necessary cocooning, offering the positive outcome of establishing a mytho-poetic space where one is able to ruminate, witness, and garner strength. In this way, the wall becomes an agent of individuation.

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When Tracy began investigating the walled woman through conceptual art, she began with the eye, inspired by her precipitating dream. Surrendering to the process, she wandered through salvage yards and swap meets to listen and to gather the appropriate materials that were communicated through clear messages. The eyes in her art ended up being portrayed by vintage clothes irons, which have the shape of an eye. Each element of Tracy’s art is quite purposeful. The eyelashes, created from vintage typewriter strike keys, spell out a message. Each iris was cut from an antique liquor bottle in homage to various walls, such as addiction, that have held women back. The pupil is an antique keyhole through which light is projected.

Tracy’s art-making process was organic and mysterious, she says. She built walls from vintage shaved bricks. Something inspired her to make casts of her arm—first with an outstretched hand, later—in reference to Trump—with a closed fist, which evolved into hand-over-fist, a martial arts pose that refers to the contained, wise use of power.

cta_hmc_now_enrolling.pngTracy also references the pop cultural phenomenon of The Handmaid's Tale, a recent television series based on the chilling dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood [3]. The story takes place in a futuristic setting where fertile women are enslaved in order to bear children for upper-society couples who are infertile in a world where fertility is rare.

It’s a modern-day portrayal of the kind of archetypal imprisonment Tracy has been investigating from a depth psychological perspective. She encountered an image in The New York Times about The Handmaid’s Tale in which a dozen or more women in red robes and wimples were clustered behind a vast wall, with just a single lone arm reaching out from behind it. At that moment, Tracy had a sudden, dramatic epiphany into how deeply the archetypal walled woman is embedded in our collective consciousness at this current time.

Additional, synchronistic images and dreams all seemed to feed her project, leading to an inquiry about issues surrounding complicity and how our personal, invisible walls of trauma feed the collective consciousness. This has taken her on a fascinating path through history, including an investigation of modern feminism and a quest to understand what caused 53% of white women to vote for Donald Trump as president of the United States. At its core, Tracy’s Walled Woman Project takes a profound look at how we can help heal society and move it forward to personal healing through deep attention.

As our conversation turned to the power of witnessing, we touched on themes of the Inquisition and subsequent witch hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries. During her process of creating art, Tracy dug deeply into questions around what it means to be in a wall by one’s own choice; what it means to not know when you're in a wall, and how we can get out of walls in which we find ourselves. She asserts that we must ask questions like, “Who is really the captor? Are we going to paint ourselves as victims, or are we going to empower ourselves through self-knowledge and gain strength to create a new society?”

Becoming the Walled Woman

tracy_ferron_walled_woman_copyright_lori_cheung.jpegAt one point in her very deep process of working with and through the walled woman, Tracy realized she must become the woman in the wall—to physically embody herself in that position. She began to create walls where she was part of the iconography, such as walling herself into an antique bathtub, which was an “incredibly psychoactive, deep, deep process,” she reveals. For nearly two hours, she immured herself beneath a sheet of bricks, a profound psychological experience that culminated in a symbolic liberation when she released a “winged heart,” a piece of Mexican folk art, that was rigged on a fishing line by her husband of nearly 20 years who was by her side.

tracy_ferron_walled_woman_heart_cage_copyright_lori_cheung.jpegWhile she finds it challenging to adequately explain how those two days of wall-making and photographing in her Victorian home transformed some things deep inside, as well as in her relationship, the process exemplifies the power of Jungian techniques and archetypal art. The invisible walls we each encounter, the complexes we have, often seem intractable. You can't see or touch them. But when you engage with the unconscious, when you invite dream characters into dialogue, when you create art that is truly driven by mystery and then surrender to the process, you move beyond words. Then, and only then, are you able to dismantle the bricks of those walls, Tracy insists.

Our cultural dialog, historically and today, is often about the “other”—the archetypal concept of those who are different from us. Its underlying message is about fear, safety, and where we're going. As Tracy moves forward, she wants to shift the metaphor of the wall. It's not about breaking or destroying the wall, she insists. The wall is necessary; it’s part of being human. Instead, the work to be done is about consciously taking down the bricks and building something new—a bridge to peace and a more just society.

Ultimately, her intent for the Walled Woman Project is to bring women from different centuries into conversation together through historical fiction, and to investigate how we can invent new structures, things that are not yet known. That's the edge of chaos, Tracy maintains, where creativity lies and where we can look for the answers we need. The combination of depth psychology and inner work, utilized to create art and expand the imagination, will lead us to a new model for healing, emergence, and rebirth.

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[1] To learn more about Marie-Louise von Franz, read her 1998 obituary in the New York Times

[2] See Kalsched’s book, The Inner World of Trauma: Archetypal Defenses of the Personal Spirit, Routledge, 1996.

[3] Find out more about The Handmaid’s Tale at wikipedia.org

All images © 2017 Lori A. Cheung.

Listen to the full audio interview with Tracy Ferron here (approx. 42 mins):

Learn more about the Engaged Humanities and the Creative Life Program at pacifica.edu



tracy-ferron-working.pngTracy Ferron is a writer and conceptual artist. She received her Master’s Degree in Engaged Humanities and the Creative Life Program from Pacifica Graduate Institute in June 2017 and is currently completing Pacifica’s Dream Tending certificate program. Her recent artwork has been exhibited in juried exhibitions in Marin County in Northern California. Ferron lives in Mill Valley, CA, with her husband and three children.

Through her use of Jungian imaginal techniques in her archetypal art and writing, Ferron is convinced there is an intimate relationship between Jungian inner work, collective energies and social transformation. Her current project on The Walled Woman explores the archetypal image of the immured woman, a woman sealed in or built into a wall, and chases this provocative image throughout history. She presented a version of this project at the Jungian Society for Scholarly Studies conference in June of this year.

In exploring the nature of the sacrifice of these women, Tracy seeks to uncover the mechanisms of power and fear in culture and the individual, and to explore how Jungian practices through the creation of archetypal art can offer both an antidote to fear and a model for healing, emergence, and rebirth. Ferron hopes to bring The Walled Woman to interested communities and expand the conversation. To further explore her work, please visit her website at www.tracyferron.com.

bonnie_bright.jpgBonnie Bright, Ph.D., is a graduate of Pacifica’s Depth Psychology program, and the founder of Depth Psychology Alliance, a free online community for everyone interested in depth psychologies. She also founded DepthList.com, a free-to-search database of Jungian and depth psychology-oriented practitioners, and she is the creator and executive editor of Depth Insights, a semi-annual scholarly journal. Bonnie regularly produces audio and video interviews on depth psychological topics. She has completed 2-year certifications in Archetypal Pattern Analysis via the Assisi Institute and in Technologies of the Sacred with West African elder Malidoma Somé, and she has trained extensively in Holotropic Breathwork™ and the Enneagram.

Topics: depth psychology, art, Psychology, archetypes