"I hate it!" I announce, on the verge of tears. The abstract art instructor standing by my side looks at my incomplete painting. I'd been having so much fun creating big white swooping marks with gloppy gesso just moments earlier. Now, I feel overwhelmed, embarrassed, ashamed, with no idea what to do next.
Quietly, the instructor responds, a gentle ease in her voice. “Just tell me what you see. Not what you like or don’t like.” Tears come as I begin looking at the marks in front of me with curiosity instead of hatred. There are large, white, swaths around the outside, a dark black line cutting to center, and movement, so much movement. No longer caught in my mind’s giant fear reaction my whole life flashes before me on the page: Intense energy, bold marks, extremes colliding. There's barely enough space to contain it all. Those playful marks I’d unselfconsciously made represent struggles I’ve known for as long as I can remember. And all it had taken for them to show up? Following my impulses and making the marks I wanted to make instead of trying to paint a real object or do the “right” thing.
Seeing what's there in front of me, it’s like some inner child has been released after a lifetime of being throttled by fear. What else might I do if I could step out of my brain’s judgment? If I could follow what I’m drawn to do into the unknown? If I could give myself permission to express what’s really there inside.
It's surprising how hard this can be after a lifetime of letting the rational mind dominate how we do things. A quote many attribute to Einstein has captured my attention recently. It goes like this: "The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift."
As someone who's spent the bulk of my career in higher education, this quote and its implications in my life couldn't be more true. It makes me think back to the early stages of writing my memoir when I had a list of intellectual ideas that I planned to use as my guide to write the book. But as I learned to stop limiting my writing to what my rational mind understood and saw value in up front, I began allowing myself to use my senses to write scenes (tiny moments from the past that I recreated on the page using my five senses). Most of these scenes were nothing my rational mind wanted anything to do with. But that's where the memoir project began to come to life and take me places I never would have expected. But this required learning how to trust my intuition and quiet my rational mind everytime it tried to put the kabash on anything unfamiliar and unknown. And after a lifetime of driving my life with the rational mind, this was extraordinarily challenging. Why? Because my rational brain, meant to be the servant, had become the master.
Several years ago I was teaching a class for first year university students. In it one of my students asked me a question that still lingers with me today. "Do you have any regrets when you think back on your college experience?"
"I regret that I dropped out of the one art class I tried to take on the third day of class when we had to start drawing in pen and putting our work up for critique," I say in response, surprised. This isn't what I was expecting to say. Still, I remember the feeling of crushing vulnerability that came anytime I tried to draw, paint, and do artistic work in the way teachers expected of me. And I remember how completely unwilling I was to make my work visible to others who planned to critique it. So, I quit.
And while we have loads of lingo in our culture around challenging ourselves and stepping out of comfort zone to learn, when I'm honest with myself part of me still feels glad that I opted out of this class at the time. Why? Because the way most of us learn art (or most anything) is, in my experience, one of the quickest ways to silence our creativity. Silence it!
This isn't meant as a critique of art teachers or art classes where teachers try and share a skill that students then practice to become better. But as I've gently dipped my toes back into the visual arts pool over the last few years, it's been eye opening watching what happens with most art students and teachers. The teacher starts by having you practice X skill. Students focus hard on doing it right. Almost immediately, the joy and curiosity people bring with them to the class slips out through the cracks of the classroom right along with their willingness to try anything intersting or brave. If the teacher isn't teaching it, they aren't doing it.
But here and there you find art teachers who know the power of the creative arts to help us free ourselves, not leave with one giant slew of shoulds, disappointing comparisons, and "maybe one day I'll be an artist like the teacher." And that's who I've been working with and seeking out in the art world over the last few years. The first experience where the instructor encouraged us to play instead of focusing first on making "good art" was last spring. It was a marvelous experience! Of course, my rational mind was convinced I would hate it, especially grumbling about the fact that we were probably going to paint abstract art. But the moment we began, closing our eyes, sword fighting with the page using drippy ink, and learning to take pass after pass with a painting, I was in love!
Since then I've continued painting, found and worked with other like-minded instructors, and had more fun than you can imagine playing with color, value, form, and big pieces of paper. (Did I mention that we used 18X24" papers in the Jam Session?! A relief after a lifetime of tiny little papers that made it impossible to follow my body's impulses very freely.)
This winter I decided to take a few of my favorite paintings, scan them, write up short stories and epiphanies that came up in the process of painting, and turn them into a card set! You can check them out on my website and purchase a set if you'd like. :) I see them as a small way of encouraging and giving us all permission to free our wild inside, letting the intuitive mind take it's rightful place as leader, rather than follower in our lives. If you want to encourage yourself (or friends) in this way, I think you'll enjoy the cards and what's written on the back (top secret!). :)
Surprisingly, it feels much less vulnerable to share this than to imagine taking that art class years ago. Even though I've never done anything like share my art or make a card set before it felt amazing to package up the first set the other day. I told a friend this was probably the thing I feel most proud of doing in my entire life. It seems a small thing but feels anything but small. Especially after a lifetime of unknowingly hiding from myself. Thank you to every one of you who has encouraged me along the way and inspired me with your own courage and creativity. I can't wait to see what creative projects and works we all bring into the world in the coming year. And what joy, meaning and connection that adds to our life.
One Final Note Before I Go: I also just learned I'll be one of the Lopez Island Artists' in Residence for 2024 (details to follow; I learn more on February 5). I anticipate hosting a free class as part of my residency to create a space where can all learn to play, free up our creativity using experimental painting and visual arts, and learn to work with our rational minds without letting them drive the process by focusing in all the wrong places. If you'd like to join, shoot me an email and I'll be sure to notify you when that happens sometime in the coming year. :)
Audre Lorde - Sister Outsider