Category Archives: Art

The Geology of My Spirit

Have you ever felt like certain landscapes nourished your spirit?

Sixteen years ago I took a road trip all by myself for about six weeks. Sometimes it still feels like yesterday. During that trip I spent about two weeks exploring a string of National Parks in Southern Utah from Arches near Moab through Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, and Zion, and some of the surrounding country. I was immersed in a landscape of otherworldly rock formations and a warm red colour palette completely foreign to the “50 shades of green” of the Pacific Northwest that I was accustomed to.

Somewhere in my spirit there was a desert rat just waiting to run free.                                                                                         

I listened with awe to Park Ranger lectures on desert plants, animals, and the history of the original human inhabitants of those lands. I went on that trip during a time of personal distress, when I felt worn out, lost and not at home in my own life. My spirit felt as dry as sandstone. I hoped to find myself again by getting a little lost out in the world. Coyotes, lizards, eagles, ravens, and a surprisingly beautiful tarantula let me see what belonging looks like to them. The tang of juniper and the burnt caramel scent of Ponderosa pines, and the prickling dry heat of the sun drying my skin after swimming in a cold river brought my spirit back home to my own body and senses.

Who knew my biggest learning would be from a Ranger talking about rocks?

I don’t honestly remember which park I was at for that lecture – but the impact has remained. The words themselves, “sedimentation, lithification, uplift, erosion,” still echo in my spirit like a drum, a poem, a call. The cyclical process of growing and forming, then being undone in some way, to reform in a new shape, is so universal that even rocks go through it. You could think of this as just psychology, but for me it touches on something essential enough that I choose to call it spirituality.

These incredible canyons, cliffs, and stone arches were formed when mud, sand, stone, and gravel was eroded from other mountains, swept downstream, and deposited in new layers (sedimentation.) Over time, with the pressure of its own weight, and with the help of minerals in the water, those materials became stone again (lithification.) More time passed, and forces from deep within the earth forced the layers upward (uplift.) And the cycle begins again as wind and water cut through the rock, eroding it and exposing the layers to view (erosion.)

All at once I could see myself at every place in that picture.

At that time I felt scraped thin, with all my layers, good and bad, exposed. I think that’s how it is for most of us at one time or another. Wherever we land in life, we build up layers of what works: thoughts, beliefs, habits – all the stuff that we end up thinking is “us.” We can turn into a kind of stone: brittle, unbending.

 Sooner or later though, a bigger force comes along, like a change or a loss, or even just the passing of time. But it acts on us like an earthquake, to shake us up. Maybe it lifts us up, maybe cracks us open. Then all those layers of habits and old beliefs, all the things good and bad that make us tick, are out there for everyone to see. We’ve been trying to bring the skills and the story of who we were before, along with us as we grow up or change circumstances, and it just doesn’t work. Hopefully seeing leads to learning, maybe a little loosening, but for sure it leads to change.

 And so we’re swept down another river again, until we can settle again into stillness and a new shape, until that no longer serves us, and we get to ride the whole process again.

Want to see the actual geology? Check out this site: https://www.nps.gov/zion/learn/nature/geology.htm

 

 

 

A Threshold Time

What is a threshold?

The first definition that comes to mind is a doorway or entrance – a line or step you cross over to move into another space. Fall is a threshold season. It lies between summer and winter. Halloween, or the Celtic Samhain, is a threshold day, roughly halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice, marking the end of harvest activities and the beginning of a fallow time of rest. Some believe it is a thin place in time too, when the threshold between the visible and invisible worlds is easily crossed. Another definition of threshold is the amount or magnitude of something that is required for something new to happen, such as the temperature water must reach to turn to steam, or the amount of money you must earn to move into a different tax bracket, or the  knowledge you must attain to move to another grade in school. You  might want to think of both senses of the word when you think about what threshold you are crossing (or what state you are moving into) this coming winter.

 Honouring the past, crossing the threshold

One of the issues that I frequently work with clients on is how to honour and cope with transition. In traditional societies, human beings were supported through changes by many different rituals marking various threshold times, such as puberty, marriage, and death. In most rituals you will find a dynamic of “Yes – No – Yes.” We say the first “yes” by celebrating what was true or of value in the past phase, and then we say “no,” where we turn away from the past and say, “I’m ready to be done with that time of my life.” We then turn towards something new – that’s our second “yes.”  Here is a “yes – no – yes” art exercise I’ve given myself this fall to help me embrace this particular threshold season. It’s as much (or more) about the process than about putting it together into a finished piece, so feel free to omit the last step if you like!

Autumn into Winter: A Threshold Project

Materials:

Magazines, scraps of coloured paper, beads, feathers, or other natural and found items, glue, scissors, poster board or a shoe box or other box with lid.

 The first “Yes” The harvest

Sort through your materials. Choose a whole bunch of images and pieces to reflect your life over the last three months or so. Include everything, good and bad, that you can think of.

The “No” The garden clean up                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                

Sort through your collection from the first step. What images, or parts of the images you chose, could be trimmed down or cut out? Metaphorically speaking, is there anything that needs to be put in the burn pile? Can some of it be composted, or used as mulch to cover the tender earth through the winter? Put these images and pieces aside for now. We’ll call this the compost pile.

The second “Yes” – Embracing the fallow season

Take another look through the pile again. This time you’ll be looking for images or parts of images that feel new, tender, or in need of protection from the winter ahead. Is there any growth in your life that is still quite young and fragile? New thoughts, plans, or ideas on the horizon that you are ready to to turn towards? You can set these elements aside in their own pile too. These are the things in your life that can use the winter season as a time to rest and gather strength. They will benefit from being quietly nurtured until the next growing season. This is the tender new growth pile.

Putting it all together

You will now have three different groups of images now: a compost pile, a tender new growth pile, and what’s left is a pile of elements that are full grown and can be celebrated. You could stop here and journal about the process, or you might already have an inspiration for how you want to work them all into a collage on the poster board. If not, here’s an idea to try using a box:

Using a shoe box or other lidded box, glue the “compost pile” elements to the outside of the box (not including the lid). You might want to creatively cut or tear these images up, since you don’t necessarily want to see them anymore. These elements will act as mulch to protect the inside of the box.

Glue the items in your “tender new growth” pile to the inside of the box. These elements need to be protected through the cold months, nurtured beneath the soil.

Finally, those images that portray the elements from the past season that you want to celebrate can be glued onto the lid of the box. These parts of your life can weather the winter out in the open, and can give you a lift or boost your confidence whenever you need it.

As always, writing about your experience and any insights you get while working (playing!) this way can deepen the benefits of the project. I’d love to hear what you think of it! Enjoy the harvest!

 

How Art Making Nurtures Resilience

 Resilience is a bit of a buzzword right now

 And there are good reasons for that. Focusing on strengths rather than weaknesses has a great track record of bringing people to healthier, happier lives after trauma. This focus isn’t meant to deny the pain or woundedness of our lives, however. Resilience is the characteristic of being able to bounce back after stress or injury. Like a rubber band, we don’t know if it’s working until we’re tested – stretched – by adversity. How can we work on increasing our natural resilience?

Art making is a natural resilience booster.

Art is a place where we can make mistakes that don’t have earth-shattering consequences. We can practice problem solving and decision making in a piece of art. We can try new things and experiment. We can see our situations or our histories and possibly even ourselves in new ways. Art lets us put the intangible and tangled thoughts and feelings of our inner lives into a visible form where we can attend to them compassionately. We can view our habitual reactions to frustration or  success, and learn new ways to reflect and respond thoughtfully. Art can do all these things, and more …

 … as long as it’s supported by a safe container.

Resilience
Resilience

To make art in the pursuit of healing – in the pursuit of higher resilience – the artist needs to feel emotionally safe. A number of factors play into emotional safety.

Freedom from judgment or punishment. Art making to deal with pain, loss, or trauma should be done in a place that is sheltered from the curiosity of those who do not know how to react in a healing way. Art made in this spirit is not to be shared lightly, nor observed out of mere curiosity, or subjected to critique.

Freedom from inner sabotage. Sometimes the danger of judgment comes from the artist’s inner critical self as well. It’s helpful in such cases if the artist is able to rely on someone else’s voice of acceptance and compassion. A supportive therapist can be that voice. So can the knowledge that there are others who have been down the same road and battled the same inner discouragement, and that those inner self-shaming voices are only the voices of fear, not truth.

Respect for the limits of emotional tolerance. One of the more subtle boundaries that need to be maintained around the creation of art as a healing modality is the level of emotional intensity that an individual can tolerate before either shutting down or becoming overanxious. Neurobiology has taught us that only in a state of relaxed alertness does new learning take place. This is different for each one of us depending on character and personal history, and can vary from day to day or minute to minute. For those who have suffered trauma it is an especially delicate balance to maintain. It takes care and skill to create a comfort zone that allows for challenge without boomeranging into deeper trauma. There always needs to be permission to back off, clear grounding techniques to help you do so, and confident encouragement to try again another day.

Next time I’ll write more about some useful grounding techniques to help you find moments of peace during challenging times.

It’s All About The Process

People tend to ask me the same question when they find out how I help people.

“Do I have to be creative, or an artist?” they ask, with a look of fear in their eyes. I get the feeling that if they were less polite they might have already left Art Processmy office, leaving a person-shaped hole in the wall like in the cartoons. I always answer them the same way, “No, this isn’t about making pretty Art, with a capital A, it’s all about the process.” I love this question, and I’ve never gotten tired of it, because it leads so nicely into why I use art materials with my clients to help them find their way through their struggles with grief, loss, and life transitions.

So what does art that’s all about the process look like? Honestly, it can look like anything at all, from a page left blank for an hour, to a piece of clay that has gone through a thousand shape changes, to a piece of art that could earn a place on a gallery wall. Art made for the purposes of personal growth, change, or healing is united in its intention, not in its form. Some professional artists do begin with an intention to focus on process, and then shift their intention to form and outcome after some experimentation. The line can blur. But what I’m asking you to do when you come into my office-studio is truly ALL about the process.

Let me give you an example. I’ve been talking with a dear friend a lot about mid-life, and about how our purpose and perspectives change so radically. She left me with the beautiful and challenging question, “Who are you?”  When I was a teenager, that question had the power to throw me into instant turmoil. It often came in the negative form of “Who do you think you are?” when I would do or say something that wasn’t what those in authority wanted to see. It’s also the question that comes up in the middle of the night for many of us when we’re feeling unworthy or incapable.

“Who are you, now?” is the question I work with on a daily basis with my clients who are readjusting their entire life to fit around the loss of a vital person, relationship, or role in their life. But it’s been a long while since I’ve intentionally sat with it, in a curious way, about myself. Not trying to come up with a definition of myself in the old ways, like “I’m a mother, a therapist, a wife, a friend….” or “I’m a person who likes…” or believes or does certain things. Just to sit with the huge question of “who am I?” and to wait for an answer. Clearly the only way for me to hang out with this question was with art!

I start with the paper.

Art ProcessIt’s a terrific (= terrible, terrifying) question, so: big paper – 4 x 4 feet. How about some movement to start, to pull me down out of my head? I cover the paper with plain white gesso – big, loose strokes with a huge brush. The paper’s too thin, it’s stretching and just about to tear… why didn’t I use something stronger? Just breathe. Wave the hair dryer around; my head is as noisy as it is. What’s my next step? Keep moving. I pull out some big charcoal and make as big a circle as I can. It feels good to do it, so I keep going. The black on white and the crackle of the paper as it reacts to my movement reminds me of newspaper, of text. I write the question, “Who Am I?” as big as I can, in charcoal and then in white paint. I hate how it looks – aggressive. It’s never asked just once though, I think, so I settle in to the effort of writing the question over and over across the whole paper. I look up how to write a proper cursive “I” on the internet. Nice avoidance, but the effect feels better, friendlier. Keep breathing, keep trying not to just jump in there with an answer.

Black and white get boring… and my arm is really tired and sore! Yellow, then oranges and reds. More circles. What’s important in my life? I’m thinking as I paint. How much space and time do I give myself to be with those things, to even know what those things are? Lines happen, dividing up the space, filling in, covering up. Feeling a tightness around all the things I don’t give time or space to, and a desire to just run away from the question. “Who am I?” I’ve given it a few hours of work so far. It’s not done yet – in the same way that I’m not done yet. I’m thinking of pulling it out to work on it progressively (once a week maybe?) over a long period of time, just to see what will happen.

Art ProcessIt’s not supposed to be pretty (but I do like parts of it.)

It’s not immune to my self-judging voice that fears rejection and embarrassment above all else (but I think it’s important not to make my clients do anything I’m unwilling to do!)

So, yes, even though it’s not about the end product, I do recognize that asking you to do art that’s “all about the process” is still a mighty scary thing. I promise that I know what it’s like to put paint on paper, or form to clay, in front of someone else. I know what it’s like to wait for the other shoe to drop – of judgment or disappointment or failure – to watch the paper tear and the clay crack and fall apart just when it might have been becoming beautiful. But what I also know, and know deeply and for certain, is that it IS the process that’s beautiful. It’s the learning and the yearning in YOU that are beautiful.

What Clay Taught Me About Shame

I’ve been rehydrating some clay

ClayIt has been sitting in my supply cabinet for over a year. It was once a gorgeous cube of perfectly wedged high-fire clay with the potential to become anything. Due to some serious laziness, inattention, procrastination and denial on my part, it eventually became a solid, bone-dry lump of something fit only to hide in the back of the garden until it washed away with the rain (along with my shame.)

FrancesBryant-Scott Clay SculptureThe resuscitation process is not a pretty one.

There are appallingly biological sounds as the lump slurps and farts while it absorbs the water it’s soaking in. The part of me that resembles a 9 year old boy finds it hilarious. The rest of me is a middle aged woman who is mostly embarrassed at having left the task so long, and feeling the burn of old shame because, once again, I let an artistic pursuit drop that used to give me a lot of joy, before ever getting really good at it.  Old messages like “Frances never finishes what she starts,” and “I’ll never be more than an amateur at ANYTHING,” burble up to the surface, squishing and popping like the bubbles in this clay.

Of course, that’s what shame is like, isn’t it?

If we don’t deal with it, it sits there like a lead weight in our hearts. We tuck it away in a cupboard, hoping that if we don’t look at it, we won’t feel it. Unfortunately, that just never works. We walk around with it on our shoulders, like a heavy, tantrum-prone toddler, and if anyone notices or asks a question, “Gee, is that clay? Do you make pottery?” we’re liable to bite their head off. “Leave me alone! Stop pressuring me!” We’re afraid to deal with it head-on, because we’re afraid it will make a whole lot of noise (and sometimes a smell!) when we bring it out into the light – or in the case of my clay, into the sink.

Healing Shame

Well, you know me and my love of metaphor. Working with this lump of hard clay over a long, messy week, I started to get into it. It’s great stuff! I got to remember what I liked about it in the first place, and the voices of shame began to back off a bit. My wonderful realization was that there was nothing essentially wrong with the clay. Once rehydrated, it is what it always was – good, clean, simple earth. And just maybe I’m what I always was – a simple human being. I start things and finish some of them. I’m always going to be a learner – and “amateur” means “lover,” and there’s not a darn thing wrong with that!

I’m so happy I pulled it out of the cupboard and didn’t hide it in the garden.

The Fourth Piece of Art – Sharing Our Art Therapy

Not everyone who makes art in Art Therapy stops there,

with what they made in their session. Sometimes, even if we began a piece in the spirit of pure emotional expression, we feel an urge to bring it to some form of completion that we DO want to share with others. We might simply share what we’ve created during Art Therapy, as-is, or we may move from the immediate therapeutic expression to creating a fourth piece of art, where we begin again, with a plan and a direction in mind. This piece of art requires patience and the exercise of skillfulness. The intention in this piece of art is what we usually think of when we say “Art.” It’s a piece that is meant to be seen by others, and we allow it to be judged on qualities beyond its ability to mirror our feelings back to us. We expect it to communicate something to an audience beyond us, and perhaps to fit into certain parameters of skillfulness or quality of medium.

How we share our art says something about us

Whether we share it in its “first draft” form, which we may have created during an Art Therapy session or from a moment of inspiration, or whether we start over again with a plan, how we go about the process can tell us a lot about ourselves in other situations. If you’ve ever worked with me, you’ll know I always urge my clients to use caution when thinking about sharing anything they’ve made in Art Therapy with people who might not understand. The example I give (only somewhat jokingly) is of the risk of showing someone your deeply emotional piece, and having them say “what a pretty picture of a cat!” when to you it’s a gut-wrenching image of your relationship with your mother… Not a comfortable situation, I assure you! So, with due caution, let’s talk for a minute about what might be useful about sharing your art. 

Intention is important

What do I want, need, or expect from showing someone what I’ve made? Am I feeling solid in how I feel about this piece? Will someone else’s approval or disapproval create really big waves in my life, or just a ripple? I doubt anyone is capable of having no reaction whatsoever to other people’s opinion, but to become aware of how much impact it has on you is a great exercise in boundaries. The bottom line is that we don’t have any control over how someone else feels, and to fight this reality is to lose every time. It can be helpful when sharing your art to hold an intention to be compassionately aware of what happens within you. Am I tempted to change or explain away any aspect of my creation? Can I hear what the other person says about it in a spirit of curiosity?

Certainly, if one of your aims in showing your art is to work on aspects of skilfulness, then learning to hear helpful technical critique while maintaining your own unique style will be a major task. In fact, it’s probably an artistic skill just as much as how to hold a brush. If your aim is not technical but is to share from your heart with someone who is important to you, then it can be helpful to let them know that from the start. So often we expect our friends and families to know what we are feeling or wanting, but that is often unfair and unrealistic. How much kinder it can be, instead, to let them know. It is o.k. to only want them to see it and to hear you explain what it means to you. You’re allowed to be interested in hearing how it makes them feel (if you are) or that you’d just like them to ask you questions about it. It is even allowed to ask them specifically not to tell you whether they “like” it or not! What might it be like to do that? What might it be like for you not to know what their opinion was, but just to know that they were willing to be with you in your vulnerability of sharing? What would it be like to ask for their honest opinion, and to hold on to your own even if they differ?  I don’t ask these questions with any sense of knowing what the “right” answer is, by the way! I think it’s probably different for everyone. But I do believe that being willing to ask ourselves these questions is a courageous way to get to know ourselves (and other human beings!) on a deeper level.

And of course, the more we sit with the questions, the more we are working on that wondrous “third” piece of art, always in the making – ourselves!

Three Pieces of Art

 

There are always three pieces of art being created when you are making art as a way to heal.

The first is the one that came to life in your imagination. This is the image, symbol, or even just the feeling that arose in your mind that was full-blown all at once. It often becomes the piece of art that you end up trying to recreate, in “real life,” with your brushes and paints or clay. This first artwork is done the moment that it has been imagined. We might call it the inspiration, or just an idea or feeling, but I believe it has an energy of its own. Anyone who has agonized over their work, trying to make it look or sound like the painting or symphony that happened in their heads, or to make it match the emotion inside them, will know what I’m talking about.

            The second piece of art is the one that I ask you to allow to take physical shape during an art therapy session. This kind of art happens when I invite you to look and feel within yourself (to allow the first type of art to arise), and then to capture something of what you find there and put it into form with art materials. You go from a moment of inspiration to your paper or canvas and you try to get down the original idea, the original feeling, in its raw form. This is the pure expression, straight from your heart or your gut through your hands. You might not be satisfied with it as “a work of art” just yet, but it is one nonetheless.

            While these two pieces are being created, there is always another work of art emerging. This is you. And not just “you in your role as artist” – but YOU, your Self. You are growing and developing in the way that you approach the task of creation. You appear with more and more clarity each time you allow the first and second forms of art to emerge, uncensored. You become more yourself each time that you find it in you to accept, and even eventually to love what comes forth, whatever it looks like. With compassion for your fledgling images, you find compassion for your authentic self. When you can meet your authentic self with compassion instead of the defensiveness of ego or self-hatred, you are well on the way towards true healing.

For thoughts on what can happen with your art beyond the session, my next blog post is about the fourth piece of art: what happens when we share our art!

Goodbye: Endings in art and life

"Grieve", Acrylic, 2012

Goodbye – What word creates more intense emotions?

It can be said in so many ways. Goodbye can come with an emphatic exclamation point; a slammed door. Sometimes it comes as a question. Is that all there is then? Are we done? Really? Other times, it’s simply the end of a sentence that has gone on too long, and we reach the period with a sigh, perhaps relief.

My preference is for the type of goodbye that is followed by an ellipsis (. . .) 

Pardon me for geeking out on punctuation for a moment! And please, don’t go looking up a grammar guide online – I’m sure my writing wouldn’t pass the test. Let’s just go with the metaphor for a moment here. If we end a sentence with a dot, dot, dot; we are left with the knowledge that something is being left out – with a sense that there might be something more.

Goodbye . . .

Welcome to the Open StudioI made a hard decision this spring. After more than three years, I chose to end the Open Studio program at St. George’s Church here in Victoria, BC at the end of this month. We’ve made art together, laughed, cried, ranted, made messes, and cleaned up. Over eighty people, in all, at some point experienced our little community. At any individual session, our attendance usually didn’t get much above six people, but WOW, those six (whichever six came that day) were invariably brave and sweet and committed to their process and to each other. I got to witness kindness, comfort, and respect. I watched courageous souls take a look at themselves and make decisions to change, to try something new, to stretch and to grow. I watched hurting souls find comfort in quietness and colour, a brief touch or a cup of tea offered by a stranger. I watched the shy and the gregarious, the young and the old, men and women, self-identified artists and those who say they aren’t a bit creative, figure each other out and figure out how to BE with each other. Just to be. What an honour and adventure it has been.

Of course, we’ve had to end things all along in this process. Every piece of art made at the Open Studio has needed to be dismissed at some point. Sometimes the dismissal has been unconscious. I think of the occasional artwork left behind and never reclaimed, its creator having done what they needed to do at the Studio, and choosing not to return. Sometimes an artist needs to put their work on hold, set it aside for a session or a  month or a year, until the time is right to say “hello again!” and continue to work. On those lucky occasions when an artist feels satisfied with their work and can say “I’m done now! It’s finished,” the goodbye can be clean and optimistic, looking towards the next idea, the next canvas. More often though, the ending is fraught with doubt. Is this finished? Did I miss the mark somehow? Where did my original idea go? This looks nothing like what I planned. What can I make of it now? Or even with work that feels good to its creator, there can be the doubt of what to do with the piece. Should I give this away? Am I ready to let it go? And of course, always, the wondering – Will I ever have a good idea again? I loved this creation, and now it’s over, and now I feel so very empty!

Sometimes my job as an Art Therapist is to hold the lamp of hope that there will, of course, be more good ideas. And the lamp of acceptance that sometimes there will be a big, blank canvas. And that that is okay too. There will be different canvases, different opportunities, different relationships. There will be new knowledge. Practice will never make perfect but it will do a much better job than never trying again. I might say. “Art is a way to practice all the hard stuff in life – like letting go and learning something new and tolerating just not knowing!” And sometimes I know I’m lucky no one has dumped a paint bottle on my head (yet.) We want so badly to move on to hello.

I know you all know this.

Life includes endings. Without Goodbye, we do not get to say Hello. We’ve heard them all. I’ve said most of them. And sometimes I’ve said those things at the right time, but not always.  And despite the truth in all of them, and despite my desire to go zooming past the ellipsis . . .  right away into the next truth . . .

That would be unfair. And grammatically incorrect. Those dots are there to tell us something is missing, or left out. And to rush past that space is to deny the time we need to feel the absence. For me there is a breath that happens at . . . .               I think it’s an inhalation – an anticipatory gathering of my energy. Something in me probably knows I’m going to need it.  So let’s take a minute to breathe here. We know there will be a helloBut right now it’s vital to recognize the loss. Whatever loss might be up for you right now. If you’re one of those who is directly affected by the ending of the Open Studio, or if you’re someone who missed it, or someone who is just here checking this space out – take that breath. What’s missing that needs to be acknowledged? What has life required you to say goodbye to – with all the pain that entails – right now? And what needs to be felt and known in this time of ending? Not what your friends think, not what our culture tells us we should feel, or know, or do, but what do YOU feel and know about goodbye right now, in your own soul and bones?

Let’s just be here for a while. Take the time we need. We can wait together until it’s time for the  Hello  after the  . . .

 

If you are feeling overwhelmed, misunderstood, or alone as you mourn a loss, ending, or other goodbye, I help people find their way to the other side of their unique grief. Please contact me if you feel I might be of service.

Collage: The Path of Least Resistance?

Are You Feeling Resistance?

Collage: Familiar Materials
What might it take for me to grow through this resistance?

When I’m feeling it, what I notice first is all the excuses I make. For instance, in the case of getting down to my self-prescribed practice of making daily art I might procrastinate by saying, “I don’t have time right now.” “I’ve only got a pencil and I want paint.” “I’m hungry.” “This paper is the wrong size.” “I’m not in the right place.” “I’m alone and I’d rather do this with someone.” “I’m around other people and I’d rather do this alone.” I’m sure most, if not all, of those phrases sound familiar. Even if we don’t say them about art-making, we say them about something in our lives: exercise, making a doctor’s appointment, contacting an old friend…  We avoid. We resist. It’s in our nature. And yes, I’ll get to talking about collage in a minute.

Human beings favour stasis over change

We prefer the known to the unknown, and the same to different, in general. Sure, we all know an adrenaline junkie who thinks it’s great fun to leap off cliffs to feel the rush, but that rush is created exactly because adrenaline is produced when we are confronted with something we don’t expect or that our system interprets as dangerous! It triggers our biological fight/flight/freeze response!

And that’s a good thing. We are this way for a reason. It’s best to avoid the lions and tigers and bears. They bite. But not everything our bodies or our minds interpret as a tiger is a tiger. And that’s why we’re lucky to have the ability to think things through and to go beyond our first glance or our innate assumptions. That scary shadow in the corner looks like a monster, but I can turn the light on and see that it’s my pile of dirty clothes. If I worry about making art in a group, I can come to realize that everyone is not looking at me.

Resistance to our own creative urge

Open Door Collage
What treasures might I find if I walk through that door to the unknown?

In my experience as an Art Therapist, I’ve found that for those unused to making art, it’s important that I find a way to introduce the idea in as non-threatening way as possible. “I have to warn you: I can’t draw!!” is a panicky statement that I hear from many clients, even those who have bravely chosen to see me for counselling specifically because I do work with art. I hear that kind of exclamation as an expression of past hurts – someone, at some time, has judged you. Maybe it was just you doing it to yourself, but as often as not the judgement came from outside, and from someone whose high opinion was really important to you. It probably wasn’t even intentionally hurtful. “Neat! A pretty flower! Shouldn’t the leaves be green though?” Little corrections to our creativity when we are young or vulnerable can create a sense that we are somehow “wrong” in our selves.  Interestingly, even positive feedback (especially of the praising sort) such as, “Oh, that’s beautiful! Let me put it on the refrigerator!” can create resistance too. Even though it might feel great in the moment, somehow, underneath the praise, we can still hear the comparison to a hypothetical piece of art that isn’t good enough to be displayed! The result is sometimes the opposite of what was intended. Now I’m afraid I can’t live up to the expectations that have been raised by this success!

Overcoming Resistance

Fear drives resistance.
What I fear may be merely an illusion.

We don’t want to be governed solely by our biology or by the habitual thought processes that we’ve developed to deal with that biology! So what do we do when we know we would be better off just doing the thing we’re feeling resistance to? Sometimes we need to find a feeling of safety – an anchor if you like – that we can hang on to while we jump into the unknown or the frightening. The adrenaline junkie ties himself to a bungee cord, and he probably  has a trusting relationship with the person who set up the adventure in the first place! When I ask a client to jump into their creativity, it’s important for me to find out where they feel safe, and where they feel vulnerable. We move outward from a point of comfort and familiarity, with the assurance that we can always backtrack to safe footing if it gets too rough out there. 

Collage as the Path of Least Resistance

Collage has a few characteristics that make it a good choice for working through resistance. Magazine images, pictures from old calendars, catalogues, and greeting cards, and scraps of coloured paper of different types (origami paper, tissue paper, wrapping paper…) are all familiar materials that we do not necessarily associate with art, and especially not with that really scary thing, Fine Art. This is not to say that collage can’t be Fine Art, capitalized and everything: it definitely can. But when we are looking for materials and techniques that are going to ring fewer warning bells about lions and tigers and bears in our primitive brain, using the familiar and “everyday” is the way to go! You aren’t required to have particular skills in drawing. You don’t have to manipulate special tools; you might want to use scissors and a glue stick, but you can tear the paper instead, and you might even just want to arrange your images without anchoring them down permanently. Taking a picture of the arrangement and keeping that can work just as well!

So, to get back to my promise to myself to make art every day as a way of taking care of myself, keeping my “baggage” to a minimum, and generally staying happy: what about those days when I’m feeling particularly burdened by anxiety about it? What about my days of heavy resistance? What about those days when the good paint and the high quality paper scare you and your self-talk is all “you’re going to waste it!” “what’s the point?” “it’s not going to be good anyway?”

No specialized materials necessary!
The familiar can be a safe gateway to the adventure of traveling beyond our resistance.

Pull out the recycling bin. Take a deep breath. Spend at least five minutes roughly tearing out images and words that just feel right – whatever appeals or feels important in whatever way. Try not to get caught up reading the latest article! Then look through the pile you’ve collected and refine it- cut or tear the images more precisely if you want, and start to arrange them on a larger piece of plain paper. Glue them down – or not. Stand back and look at what has arisen out of the exercise. What feeling tone does the new image have? How do you feel while you look at it? You can write about it in a journal, or just ponder it for a while. Give collage a try and see if it might be a way to move through your resistance! (…and while you’re at it, make that appointment for a mammogram, and get in touch with an old friend!)

What is an Open Studio?

An open studio is where you are accepted and encouraged, wherever you are on your creative journey.

The Open Studio
Ready for you to come and make art!

Open Studios are places that are built on the principle that engaging in the creative process is a healing activity.

The Open Studio is a concept that has been in place in Art Therapy for many years, and many examples of them exist. Some are found in institutional or residential settings, and others are embedded in communities, offering a place for artistic engagement to people of all ages, abilities, and backgrounds.

Open Studios are OPEN! They invite the participation of everyone who comes, at whatever their skill level. The Open Studio at St. George’s in Victoria, BC is an almost-two-year-old program held in the Parish Hall of an Anglican Church in Cadboro Bay Village. Begun in 2013 as a brief, 12 session pilot project, it has bloomed into a vibrant community of artists – teenagers and twenty-somethings right through to retirees – who hang out with each other once or twice a week to create everything from hand-made clothing to acrylic paintings. Certainly sometimes you will find a senior helping a teen learn to sew, sometimes it’s the younger ones helping their elders with taking a digital photograph with their phone, but it’s rarely a stereotypical interaction. I’ve seen tears shared, subtle and tender expressions of caring, and raucous laughter. There is mutual respect, a sense of fun, and true joy in this varied and expanding community.

Lately I’ve noticed that at least once a week, someone we’ve never met before walks in to the Open Studio and tells us “I saw your sign outside and I was curious!” As often as not, that contact is the beginning of another person’s journey at the Open Studio. Of course, it can be intimidating to join something new, especially if your personal history does not include a lot of positive messages about your creativity. Our invitation to you is to check out that feeling of discomfort when you think about creating art in the company of others. What’s it like? When have you felt it before? What  might be different in a place where the focus is on how you feel while you make art instead of on what you make? We try our best to make everyone as comfortable as possible. You can work in solitude; you can work at a table with several others; you can ask for help; you can ask to be left to your own devices. We’ll offer you some coffee or tea!

The unique thing about an Open Studio that practices Art as Therapy is that you will have the opportunity to reflect on your creation with an art therapist. An art therapist is trained to help you look at the images with compassion for yourself, encouraging you to listen deeply to your own inner wisdom. You may find parallels between the way you make art and the way you live your life, or between the image you have created and your life circumstances, or between the way you feel about the image and the way you feel in a particular situation. It is your interpretation that counts – we are there to support you in your search for meaning.

You are invited to join the adventure! Come to the Open Studio at St. George’s on Monday mornings from 9-12 or on Wednesday evenings from 6-9!