Category Archives: Creativity

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.

Flexibility and Curiosity: Life Lessons from Children’s Literature

What I learned about flexibility and curiosity from the stories of my childhood.

Three books taught me the value of flexibility and curiosity long before I understood why they were important. I read James and the Giant Peach* by Roald Dahl, The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster, and The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles byJulieEdwards** so often in elementary school and beyond, that I still quote passages from them. I did so often enough that my own children probably thought they were my words, until I introduced them to the originals. 

I now see flexibility and curiosity as the two most vital lessons in my life and work. –

Life lessons from children's literature
What books stayed with you into your adulthood?

By their very nature they are also lessons that I have not finished learning. I didn’t know it at the time, of course, but the young protagonists in these books all start out in various states of stuckness, of unhappiness with the way things are. They have reacted with despair, boredom, pride, or fright, and they are each convinced that how they see things is the only way. They are all on the cusp of becoming more true to themselves and more independent, but change is uncomfortable, and feels dangerous, even if it’s exactly what they want.

After the death of his parents and horrible treatment by his aunts, James embarks on a fantastic journey from rural England to New York City inside the pit of a giant peach. He rolls down a steep hill, bobs in a shark-infested ocean, and flies over the Atlantic in the company of equally giant insects who have a very hard time getting along. Milo begins what he thinks is an imaginary, and probably really stupid game in his city apartment, and ends up, hounded by the demons of Ignorance, rescuing the Princesses of Rhyme and Reason who have been imprisoned in a castle in the air. He is aided by Tock the Watchdog, who values time, and by an oddly appealing creature called the Humbug, who, despite some pretty bad character defects, manages to help anyway. Lindy and her brothers travel with a Nobel Prize winning scientist to another realm where all the creatures that human beings no longer believe in are hiding. Together they explore the country in search of the last Whangdoodle, hindered by hostile creatures who are determined to send them home.

Somehow, by the ends of their stories

Flexibility and Curiosity
There’s almost always another perspective…

James, Milo, and Lindy and her brothers have seen life from a broader perspective. They have been, for a while, embarrassed by their faulty assumptions or endangered by their own foolishness. They have been able to endure the discomfort of how things are, and have learned how to hope (and work for) something better. They’ve all walked the path between imagination and reality, and found that a healthy dose of one always enriches the other, and vice versa. They’ve learned to look closer, to be open to wonder, and to ask questions, lots of them, and not just the questions they are “supposed” to ask. They’ve all stood up to someone in authority, and seen that even someone who has good intentions can still be wrong. They’ve all learned to change their minds, to shift their position if it’s not working for them, and to accept that sometimes they are the well-intentioned person who needs to hear the difficult truth from someone with more wisdom.

My own story is not over yet, and I know I’m not done with these lessons.

I’m glad that I have such good, old friends to accompany me on the journey! I hope you have your own favourite stories that help you through the challenging times.

*The movie produced by Tim Burton just wasn’t the same, and was even more heavy-handed in my opinion.

**Yes, she’s the actress from Sound of Music that you know as Julie Andrews, married to Blake Edwards.

If you are feeling overwhelmed, misunderstood, or alone as you navigate a change or mourn a loss, I help people find their way through their unique grief. Please  contact me if you feel I might be of service.

 

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!

Poetry as a Meeting Place

heartswirlPoems have the capacity to be so many things.

From silly limericks to the grand historical sonnets, to the rawest spoken-word poetry-slam creations, they are used to communicate an incredibly wide array of feelings and intentions. I’ve been thinking a lot about poetry lately. I use it frequently in my small groups and in my own life as a starting point for thinking, talking, and making visual art. It’s a beautiful way to get a glimpse of what’s going on inside of us, without staring straight at ourselves, and maybe scaring ourselves off.

While the writer of a novel can take hundreds of pages to say what needs to be said, a poet is trying to distill the essence of a feeling, thought, or experience into something small and concentrated. Imagine a mad scientist hunched over a bunsen burner, watching liquid in a flask bubble up through coiled pipe until a mere dribble of something more precious comes out the other end.

So few words, to express something immense like love, or loss. The fascinating thing is how much space there is – infinite universes of space – between those few words. They allow me to see my world, and you to see yours, all the while also containing the poet’s world. I think poetry is a lot like visual art in that way. I can draw something – let’s say a flower. What I might mean by that flower, and what you might feel or understand on viewing that flower, can be miles apart, and yet we can be together in compassion while looking at it.

I’d like to share a poem with you here, one of my favourites. It’s called Love After Love, and was written by Derek Walcott. It was published in 1976. Here it is.

Love After Love

The time will come
When, with elation,
You will greet yourself arriving
At your own door, in your own mirror,
And each will smile at the other’s welcome,

And say, sit here, Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
To itself, to the stranger who has loved you

All your life, whom you ignored
For another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

The photographs, the desperate notes,
Peel your image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

I read joy in this poem, and a promise that I can find myself – that I am always, and still, there to be found. I’ve read it different ways on different days. For today, I’m mostly playing with the idea that I’m reading it at the same time you are (or pretty close!) I’m enjoying the picture of an imaginary space where all our possible meanings are meeting together for a moment. Hmm… I wonder what that might look like?

mixcolours

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!)