POLYPHONYJournal of the Irish Association of Creative Arts Therapists

Poiesis: Encountering a Philosophy of Composition within COVID-19

Published on Apr 20, 2020 by Pamela Whitaker


Whitaker, P. 2020, Cliff Approach. Photograph. Rathcor Beach, County Louth: Private Collection.

Stephen K. Levine’s book Philosophy of Expressive Arts Therapy: Poiesis and the Therapeutic Imagination (2019) is a call to artistry and the re-shaping of the world both around us and within. At its core is an examination of the ancient Greek word poiesis, a word that evokes making, crafting and bringing into existence something new. It also evokes de-centring and the apprehension of peripheries as vantage points, beyond our own position or “tight spot” (Levine 2020, p. 39). In reading Levine’s book the making that is a becoming, or the significance of poiesis, seems relevant to a crisis of health. Levine declares the expressive arts as being “resource-oriented” (Levine 2019, p. 39) and an aesthetic responsibility towards both oneself and the re-shaping of the world around us.

I suggest poiesis to be a philosophy of composition, an artistry that reimagines social and physical landscapes, and a restoring of agency within conditions of restriction. 

Levine is an expressive arts therapy pioneer, scholar and visionary. He is Dean of the Doctoral Programme in Expressive Arts at the European Graduate School (Switzerland) (European Graduate School 2020) and the author of Poiesis: The Language of Psychology and the Speech of the Soul (1997) and Trauma, Tragedy, Therapy: The Arts and Human Suffering (2009). He has co-edited, with Ellen G. Levine, Foundations of Expressive Arts Therapy: Theoretical and Clinical Perspectives (1999), Art in Action: Expressive Arts Therapy and Social Change (2011) and New Developments in Expressive Arts Therapy: The Play of Poiesis (2017) (Whitaker, 2020).

In Philosophy of Expressive Arts Therapy, Levine documents his life and thinking as “an erratic path, wandering without a destination, one that nevertheless arrives” at resting-points for contemplation” (Levine 2019, p. 21). This book is such a resting-point. It includes interludes of Levine’s poetry and reflections upon his life’s work within expressive arts therapy, integrating visual and performing arts for therapeutic aims. As a form of “kinetic gesturing” (Whitehead 2013), the book instils an energy to enact relational compositions. Levine encourages us to shape what is at hand in order to understand art making “to be continuous with living” (Levine 2019, p. 38). The world at our fingertips is where we can also find meaning and comfort.

Poiesis is bringing sensing to our attention—the way aesthetics can be approached through being in touch with both home as a studio and near-by nature as an outdoor studio. These are additional understandings of art studios during COVID-19 and within a context of resonance, proximity and immediacy as a poiesis composition.

My intention here is to propose poiesis as an antidote to the constraints of social isolation, as a connection to materials that are local and accessible. I propose poiesis being present in the readymades of local discovery (Whitehead 2013). These can be found materials, landscapes and environments that evoke metaphors of both crisis and recovery. They offer solace, comfort and consistency within uncertainty and fear. Perhaps overlooked features of our surroundings, that we typically pass by, can now be reconsidered as the scenery of our composure: “It is an inner creative seeing that regathers the things of the world” (Whitehead 2013).

Whitaker, P. 2020, Cliff Exterior. Photograph. Rathcor Beach, County Louth: Private Collection.

Catherine Hyland Moon has written the Forward to Levine’s book, and also emphasises the capacity of poiesis to “engage creatively with what we are given in life and to shape it anew" remaking ourselves and our world in the process (Moon 2019, p. 13). This is my experience of discovering a cliff along a shoreline in my locality, and its shaping of a metaphor for charting COVID-19. This poiesis event is my pursuit of a line of artistic enquiry along a cliff’s dimensions and its materiality. Levine comments upon the natural environment’s “capacity for renewal” and relevancy for the practice of the expressive arts therapies (Levine 2019, p. 41).

The nature of a cliff has become my studio and landmark for artistic investigations outside restrictions related to essential travel. My responses to the cliff are witnessed by others in the vicinity, and perhaps it is an invitation for their own creative encounters within our shared natural surroundings.

Poiesis is a composition of subjectivity meeting the world; it is an exploration of raw materials bestowing an artistry and a capacity to reach out to others. This reach may be witnessed at a distance during COVID-19, but it is still a relevant component of emergence, “something which comes from the exploration of a situation, an experiment which seeks to come up with what is effective, what ‘works’” (Levine 2019, p, 32). As a culmination of experience, poiesis is a processing rather than a becoming. It is an investigation that includes kinaesthetic reasoning and improvisation, and a kind of publicity in the sense of being relevant to a social discernment and potential witnessing (at a distance). Poiesis embraces embodiment as essential for being in contact with the materials of our lives.

The artist...has a body, and what is produced has an embodied and performative character…the body is an 'intentional subject' - and occupies physical space…The creative act has its origins in the givenness of consciousness. It may be intended (tendere, 'to stretch out') but is intentional only in an optative, or incomplete, but never a teleological sense. The creative act spends or overreaches itself in allowing the disclosure of a work for its own sake and is thus outside any endpoint.

(Whitehead 2013)


Whitaker, P. 2020, Cliff Formation. Photograph. Rathcor Beach, County Louth: Private Collection.

The cliff can be considered a metaphor for the times we currently live within. I encountered its terrain and innate materiality. It is both a geographical feature and a physical cartography, a basis upon which to mark the climbing to a pinnacle and a descent. A cliff is also a recording of geographical time and forms an impression on both flesh and mind. The cliff can also be approached as not only an edge or surface, but also as an interior.

By traversing and entering a cliff I touch forces of nature—weather, erosion and waves—as makers of transfiguration. It is this remodelling by nature that can also relate to the potential of the body and mind to become a topography shaped by experience.

A cliff delivers a vantage point and a horizon. This vista is the perspective beyond our fixed position and guides our focus to what is both before us and within our peripheral vision. The horizon is a line of sight that is both personal and collective, it offers a wide view and a breadth of vision that is both particular and beyond our experience. Poiesis is the potential “to bring something new into existence, something which results in a new self-formulation and a new relationship to the world” (Levine, 2019, p. 67).


Whitaker, P. 2020, Cliff Interior. Photograph. Rathcor Beach, County Louth: Private Collection.

The vocabulary of graphs has a relationship to the shape of cliffs. A cliff path rises and then levels—a flattened line after a steep ascent. It is this consistent horizontal line we seek after a rising pace of acceleration.

The horizontal line designates a flattening out, or plateau of respite, that relates to the predictability of outcomes. A line on a graph can climb, peak and decline. It may signify a steep curve and a dramatic change. A graph can also be understood as a physiography, the physical scale of societal events (or the landscape of society) in unprecedented times. A graph depicts these landmark events in terms of risk and stability. It represents elevations and crevices—charting the development of a crisis and anticipating the next point of reference.


World Health Organisation (2020) Epidemic curve of COVID-19, Graph. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organisation.

The World Health Organisation’s depiction of COVID-19 cases also charts the making of a cliff face and edge. The shape of the epidemic curve is reminiscent of this land form and its relevance to a transitioning space (its geographical position at a shoreline). The term cliff-hanger denotes uncertainty, fear and suspense, there is heightened expectancy towards a conclusion, but the ending is nowhere in sight. Remaining steady and constant is part of traversing the level pinnacle of a cliff. This point is reached after a significant rise and is then followed by a descent back down to ground level.

The significance of poiesis, as a philosophy of composition, is its aesthetic response to challenging conditions (Levine 2019). Levine calls upon arts therapists to become “change agents” with an aesthetic responsibility to help people and communities develop “their capacity to shape their world” (Levine 2019, p. 37). Physical distancing does not apply to materials that have always been there for us in our home or nearby natural environments. Levine enacts poiesis “out into the world where individual distress can be understood” (Moon 2019, p. 13). Perhaps our role as arts therapists is to lead others to remember that seclusion is not necessarily isolation. This is an opportunity to invigorate our creativity within containment and consider our capacity to rebuild communities after a period of retreat.



European Graduate School (2020) Stephen K. Levine, available: http://expressivearts.egs.edu/stephen-k-levine [accessed 18 April 2020]

Levine, S.K. (2019) Philosophy of Expressive Arts Therapy: Poiesis and the Therapeutic Imagination. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Moon, C.H. (2019) ‘Forward’ in Stephen K. Levine, Philosophy of Expressive Arts Therapy: Poiesis and the Therapeutic Imagination. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 10-14.

Whitaker, P. (2020) 'Book Review, Philsophy of Expressive Arts Therapy: Poiesis and the Therapeutic Imagination by Stephen K. Levine', Canadian Art Therapy Association Journal, available: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/08322473.2020.1723156 [accessed 7 May 2020].

Whitaker, P. (2020a) Cliff Approach. Photograph. Rathcor Beach, County Louth: Private Collection.

Whitaker, P. (2020b) Cliff Formation. Photograph. Rathcor Beach, County Louth: Private Collection.

Whitaker, P. (2020c) Cliff Interior. Photograph. Rathcor Beach, County Louth: Private Collection.

Whitehead, D.H. (2003) 'Poiesis and Art-Making: A Way of Letting-Be'. Contemporary Aesthetics Volume 1, 2003, available: http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.7523862.0001.005 [accessed 18 April 2020].

World Health Organisation (2020) Epidemic curve of COVID-19 cases outside of China, Graph. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organisation.

Pamela Whitaker

Cliff Ascent

Pamela Whitaker is a lecturer and course director for the MSc Art Therapy degree at Ulster University, Belfast School of Art. She also works under the name of Groundswell (www.groundswell.ie) facilitating art in public spaces to promote hospitality, artistry and agency. Artworks are also created within studios found within nature and cultural venues and as part of festivals and community celebrations. She is the co-editor of Polyphony: Journal of the Irish Association of Creative Arts Therapists and former editor of the Canadian Art Therapy Association Journal.