Crocodile Tears

Leonora Carrington, How Doth the Little Crocodile, 1998.

‘I thought I could work on my anger’, I said.

I sat on the red couch and looked at my therapist earnestly. He is a kind, thin, graceful man who does tai chi. His pale-blue eyes twinkled like Santa Claus’s.

‘I also have a lot of creative blocks’, I said.

He listened, his hands parked lightly on the wooden arms of his chair. His treatment room was spacious, sunlit, and calm. A well-organised wooden desk sat beneath the windowsill. On it, a solitary white orchid. 

Above my head, I admired a searing blue watercolour. From the centre, yellow emanated outwards, like the stigma of a flower.

‘It reminds me of Georgia O’Keefe’, I said.

‘Thank you’, he replied. It was one of his.

Perhaps seeing an art therapist is like a trip to Santa for an adult? You sit—not on their lap, but opposite—and list your problems. The therapist is present with you. Therapy is always about being present. There is an exchange of energy. I hoped to mainline his inner tranquility.

A is for agenda. Mine.

I needed some content for my next radio segment on Kim Hill. The idea that art is therapeutic is a cliché—but is it true? I talked about drawing a tree in therapy in my mid-twenties. The tree was bare of leaves but had deep gnarly roots. He talked about an exercise in which children are asked to draw a nest. This can produce surprising results (chicks in or out, no chicks, no nest, etcetera), which may or may not reflect their own family situation. ‘You have to be careful not to over interpret the work’, he said.

Then, blue eyes sparkling, ‘Today we’re going to work with clay.’

I perked up. ‘Clay?’

‘Yes, because it is resistant. Anger is about will. You have to shape it.’

I moved to the seat at the desk. He handed me a board with a fat clump of clay on it. I began to knead it as aggressively as I could. He was right, it was resistant. ‘This is much harder than Play-Doh.’ I noticed a tiny clay dolphin on the windowsill, watched over by the tender white orchid, an ambassador of goodwill.

‘Give a form to your anger’, he said. ‘It doesn’t have to be representational.’

I paused. I had been sculpting a volcano. I squashed the clay down and began to roll a log instead.

‘Keep going’, he said. ‘You can have more clay.’

I took another clammy chunk and warmed it with my hands, pressing and kneading, pushing my body weight into it. I scrunched and pressed the sides of the log. A shape began to emerge. A long triangular snout. SNAP.

‘Does it have to be abstract?’, I asked. My subconscious rising.

‘No’, he replied. ‘Clients sometimes feel that they have to create something representational.’

A childhood encyclopaedia opened in my mind: Crocodile jaws are V-shaped. There are twenty-four species of crocodilians. The Nile and the Saltwater crocodile are man eaters. I own a fruit bowl from Papa New Guinea shaped like a saltwater crocodile; the bowl is the wide, empty belly.

My crocodile’s jaws were closed. I pressed up the ridges for its eyes. The therapist gave me a small wooden fork. I stippled the leathery skin. I dug my fingernails into the clay, puncturing its teeth in a staccato fashion. More stippling.

‘Great work’, my therapist enthused.

The head was finished. We both looked at it.

‘This is very strong and expressive. I wouldn’t give clay to some clients’, he said. ‘For someone fragile, or low energy, it would be too much for them. It would overwhelm them.’

I felt proud of my crocodile—and of myself. I sat above it, like Cleopatra.

‘I have a thing about crocodiles’. I showed him my Octavia Cook ring. The Hornback Manacle is chunky, round, and ugly—the silver embossed with the texture of caiman skin. At Moore Wilson’s, a checkout assistant once said, ‘You could take someone’s eye out with that!’

‘It’s my engagement ring’, I smiled.

Then I asked, ‘Who made the dolphin?’ 

A chef came in with his partner for couple’s therapy and made an entire scene of which the dolphin was one tiny part.

‘He loved her’, I said, then I burst into tears because M is for menopause.

He passed me some tissues. 

‘Next session, we’ll ask what your crocodile wants to become.’

I took an iPhone snap for Kim Hill, then went home and googled  ‘Leonora Carrington’. 

In her painting How Doth the Little Crocodile (1998), a mummy croc rows her five little crocodile passengers in a crocodile canoe through a cosmic starry night. A shooting star loops the oil-painted sky. Fiery orbs burn in the radiance of night as they ferry across the River Styx, from which no one has ever returned.  

On her ninety-eighth birthday, in 2015, it made a wicked Google Doodle. 

Originally published in Art News New Zealand for my column The Listening Room, issue Autumn 2022.