Heller, Vera

Existential migrants and the hero’s myth: imagining landmarks, re-creating the journeys

Migrants existentiels et le mythe du héros: imaginer des repères, re-créer les parcours

Vera Heller

This poster presentation is based on a phenomenological research with existential migrants. Ten people with no artistic experience reviewed their lives and existential motivations utilizing the three stages of the Hero’s myth - departure, initiation and return - (Campbell, 1975) as imaginal landmarks in re-creating their life journeys. Viewed by Jung as a template for individuation, the myth has been associated with the pursuit of a meaningful life (Kinsella, E. L. 2017, Igou, E.R,. & Ritchie, T.D, 2017), used as a ‘mudmap for change’ in psychotherapy (William, C., 2017) and paralleled with the research process (Regalado, M, Georgas, H & Burgess, M.J, 2017).

The presenter will use this universal framework in order to show the similarities between the migratory and the artistic processes. Leaving one’s familiar world initiates a creative process that forces one to make sense of a new reality. If the existential emptiness experienced after the departure cannot be totally filled, the artistic process can transfer the locus of belonging inside the individual (Ehrenzweig, 1982, Anzieu,1974; Milner, 2010).

The mythical perspective allowed the participants to thread images and words into more coherent narratives and to infuse them with a sense of agency and courage. Do the resulting imaginal journeys reflect the ‘truth’ about the participants’ lives or are they mere contextual ‘windmills’ that may vanish as soon as they stepped out of the sheltered group situation? Amongst other authors, McAdams, Josselson & Lieblich (2006), McAdams & McLean (2013), Hillman (2005), Schiff (2012) point out that human lives are significantly influenced by the 'stories' they tell about them, which bring life experiences and interpretations into the here and now and into action. Telling one’s story contributes to bringing together disparate aspects of the self into a cohesive sense of who one is.

Migrants existentiels et le mythe du héros: imaginer des repères, re-créer les parcours

Cette présentation est basée sur une recherche phénoménologique avec des migrants existentiels. Dix personnes sans expérience artistique ont revisité leur vie et leurs motivations existentielles selon les trois étapes du mythe du Héros (Campbell, 1975) - départ, initiation, retour -  comme repères pour recréer leurs parcours. Considéré par Jung comme un modèle d'individuation, ce mythe a été associé avec la poursuite d'une vie significative (Kinsella, EL 2017, Igou, E.R. & Ritchie, T. D, 2017), utilisé comme «carte» du changement. en psychothérapie (William, C., 2017) ou comparé à la recherche (Regalado, M, Georgas, H & Burgess, MJ, 2017).

L’auteure utilisera cette structure universelle dans une demonstration des similitudes entre les processus migratoires et artistique. Quitter son monde familier force l’individu à donner un sens créatif à son déracinement. Si le vide existentiel provoqué par le départ ne peut être totalement comblé, le processus artistique peut transfèrer le locus d'appartenance de l’exterieur vers l'intérieur (Ehrenzweig, 1982, Anzieu, 1974, Milner, 2010) et initier un changement psychologique.

La perspective mythique aura permis aux participants d’integrer images et reflexions dans des récits de vie cohérents, quxquels ils ont su  insuffler un sens d'engagement et de courage. Est-ce que les parcours imaginaires qui en résultent reflètent la «vérité» sur leur vie, ou bien, sont-ils de simples «moulins à vent» contextuels voués à disparaître avec la disparition de ce contexte? Selon McAdams, Josselson & Lieblich (2006), McAdams & McLean (2013), Hillman (2005), Schiff (2012) entre autres, les vies humaines sont influencées de manière significative par les «histoires» que les individus (se) racontent à leur sujet. Ces « histoires » rendent actuelles les experiences vécues et l’interprétation qui en est faite et incitent leurs auteurs à l’action. Raconter son histoire contribue à rassembler des aspects disparates de soi et rend plus cohérente notre identité narrative.



Vera Heller is an art therapist, social worker, psychotherapist and visual artist. She obtained her Ph.D. in Expressive Therapies from Lesley University in United States. She is a professor at the University of Quebec in Abitibi-Temiscamingue, Montreal.  Her research is articulated around cross-cultural issues and the topics of displacement, mourning, individuation and art. Vera used to facilitate a variety of workshops in Quebec, Cuba, Mexico and Brazil; they became the foundations of her further inquiries. The workshop entitled ‘My life, an artist’s book’ constituted the cornerstone of her work on narrative identity.  Vera obtained a bachelor’s in Fine Arts at Concordia University, Montreal, and maintains her studio practice since 1983. She participated in various invited individual and group shows in Quebec, United States and Switzerland. She uses geographic maps as metaphors of displacement and the medium of collage-painting in her artwork and she transposes her artistic experiments into research.


Recent Presentations

2018 : Parcours Imaginaires: Identités hybrides, création et réflexivité. CATA’s (Canadian Art Therapy Association) 39th Annual Conference, Montreal, Canada. October 12-14, 2018,

2018:  Existential Migrants: Transforming Identities through Reflectivity and Artistic Creation. AATA’s (American Art Therrapy Association) Annual Conference, October 31-November 4, 2018.

2017: Imaginary Journeys: A Phenomenological, Arts-Based Research on the Experience of Existential Migration. ECArTE (European Consortium for Art Therapy Education), Krakow, Poland, September 13-16, 2017.

2015: Between 'Here' and 'There': Creating Hybrid Identities. ECARTE (European Consortium for Art Therapy Education). Palermo, Italy, September 16-19, 2015.

2016: Heller, V & Riccardi, M. Creating Imaginal Narrativesinto a Transcultural Canvas: Reconstructing Identities and Instilling Meaning. AATA Annual conference: Art Therapy: integrating Creativity, Healing and professionalism. Baltimore, July 6-10, 2016