For my final tip of this holiday season, I’m dedicating it to those of you who struggle to differentiate your desires, thoughts and opinions from that of those around you. This might be someone you love, distant acquaintances, or even the voices calling out to you from advertisements in magazines. I think that this time of year is especially rife with shoulds and shouldn’ts – about what you’re supposed to be doing with your life, what you should be feeling, who you should or shouldn’t be hanging out with, how you should look, what movies, books and music you should or shouldn’t be paying attention to. But I say it’s all bunk if you’re not following through with what actually resonates within you. The problem sometimes is that we get so used to denying our own feelings and opinions that we can lose sight of them altogether.
So this year, give yourself the gift of pausing – a moment to check within yourself, maybe deep, deep down, to see what’s really there – before answering yes to everything. Do you really want to go to that New Year’s Eve party that will likely end in drunken brawls, or would it be more fun to simply invite a few friends over and drink hot cocoa while playing cards in front of the fireplace as you watch the ball drop on tv? Or maybe you’re at the party and you happen to like the movie that everyone is bashing. What would happen if you shared your reasons why?
Don’t get me wrong, connection is great and I’m not suggesting that you go against the grain just for the sake of going against the grain. There will always be plenty of opportunity to agree with what everyone is saying and/or doing if that’s what you want to do. But just for a night, try experimenting and honor what is true for you just to see what happens. Just once. Or twice. Maybe you’ll feel just a little bit less anxious. Or maybe you’ll wake up feeling slightly less depressed the next day. I can’t promise anything, but I suspect that there’s a part of you that will be really thankful.
If you’re still feeling a little hesitant about all this, rest assured that while you’re taking that introspective pause, you can also do a bit of pros and cons work using a few simple goals to guide you: Will my response effect my health in some way? Will it keep me safe? Will my response improve my relationships somehow, or let people get to know me in a more authentic way? Feel free to add your own concerns here, but I strongly urge you to base your decisions on a path of health and wellness. Safety should come first of course, so even if you have to make a contrary decision based on keeping yourself safe, it’s still helpful for you to know your truth and it may help to guide you in taking action at other times down the road. There are always opportunities to make wise decisions – we may not get it right every time, but I believe that when you honor your truth, over time you’ll be headed in the right direction.
Here’s to seeing more of all that is you in 2018 – Happy New Year everyone!
I’ve been informed by some wise women out there that one of the most daunting things about the holidays is all the down time. A little ironic when you think about it, but it also makes perfect sense when you realize that down time is fertile ground for racing thoughts and negative self talk – and we all know how quickly this can translate into shutting down and isolating behaviors. The first step to change of course is awareness, so once you know this about yourself you can begin to make plans to take action.
If spending “quality” time with family means sitting around and watching tv together – or watching them watch tv – consider what it might feel like to invite them to play a board game together instead. Or to *gulp* go outside and take in the elements even if it’s freezing cold out. Honestly, as long as you’re not choosing something destructive (self, or otherwise), what you’re choosing to do different is less important than making the decision to do something different, in and of itself.
Trying something new can also mean trying something old – something you used to enjoy as a kid, like going sledding or catching snowflakes on your tongue. Even the act of opening your arms up to the world might be enough of an energetic shift to invite new thoughts and experiences. What’s it like to tap into that energy from a time when you were filled with curiosity, wanting to discover the world and learn what it was all about? Maybe take a walk down a different street in your neighborhood or stop into a shop that you’ve only passed by for the millionth time. One wise woman pointed out that even if you feel like you are all alone in the world, there is always the option to feel some connection to others simply by being in public places; reading a book or listening to music in a coffee shop still gives you the energy of being around others – and you never know, being around others might even open the door to new possibilities.
I think that one of the mistakes we make is the assumption that we already know all there is to know about the world, but of course the universe is not that simple. I truly believe that bringing flexibility in your approach to life is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself. And maybe, just maybe, you can begin to create some space to challenge those mistaken beliefs and find there is another way to be in the world. Let me know how it goes – I would love to hear from you!
A wise woman recently pointed out to me that she has spent so much time practicing gratitude over the years that the act of asking for something felt completely selfish and vain. Can you believe it??? Of course it’s not all that surprising when so many of us have been raised with this sentiment: be kind and generous…care for other’s needs and dismiss our own. Maybe that’s not the overt message but it is all too often experienced implicitly by many. But in reality that’s not the way it works. Human beings by nature are in the business of needing, it’s an important aspect of being in a relationship. We give and we receive. It has to work both ways and it’s been that way since we were born – why stop now? I think we get into a lot of trouble when we deny our needs, so do yourself and your loved ones a favor and let them in on the secret about what makes you happy.
Back in 1995 Gary Chapman wrote a book called The Five Love Languages in which he identifies the different ways that we give to each other: words of affirmation; acts of service; receiving gifts; quality time; and physical touch. Chapman’s book also indicates how we often prefer some of these gifts when others would not care for them at all. It sort of makes you stop and think about the golden rule then, doesn’t it? “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” really only works well if both of you happen to want the same thing. If what you’re doing unto others isn’t really wanted then it seems like something’s really missing doesn’t it? And here’s a big secret: as much as we all wish it to be true, our loved ones are definitely not mind readers. Let me say that again: Our loved ones are not mind readers. They can’t be expected to know what we want unless we clue them in. And sometimes hints are not enough, sometimes we just gotta spell it out. So do everyone a favor this holiday season and leave your wish list on the counter for someone special to see.
I assume that most of us can relate to the joy it brings when you give a gift to someone who is truly appreciative – when you get it right and they feel known, valued and loved. Why not give them the same kind of joy – to witness you getting a gift that helps you feel known, valued and loved? Think of all the great modeling you’ll be offering to others when they see that your needs are being met. And think of how much more capable you will be to give of yourself when coming from a place of resource and abundance rather than depletion? There are tons of benefits in doing this – I strongly urge you to give it a try.
Of course people can only give in the capacity from which they are able…so if you ask for a real-life Little Einstein’s Red Rocket Ship for the umpteenth time and your child still hasn’t provided, you can’t really hold it against her or him. On the other hand, they probably can make you a hand-made gift, say “I love you” on occasion, give hugs from time to time, help out around the house and play games or go for a walk with you. And you can rest assured that it’s ok to ask.
If you happen to find yourself feeling a little ambivalent about the holidays, it might be helpful to know you’re not alone. It’s not so uncommon for sadness to arise, especially if memories of the past come up when there may have been grief and loss involved…loss of loved ones, loss of relationships…even loss of time where things maybe haven’t turned out the way you would have liked them to. Maybe it’s an inability to be with those you love during a time you love. Or maybe you’re not even sure why you’re feeling down, it’s just something that’s there.
Impulsively you might want to push these feelings away, but in my experience that will often just exacerbate the discomfort and only prolong it. It might be a better idea to set aside a few hours to sit with these feelings and take some action around them. Try writing a letter to someone that will never get sent as a way to create some space for your feelings about the situation. Or maybe look through old photo albums to simply be with the memories that are there.
You can also use this time for a little self-care. There are some great DIY videos out there where you can make something nice for yourself – like bath bombs, body scrubs, lip balms, and aromatherapy – which also might spark some ideas for home-made, personal gifts that you can create to give to someone else you care about.
When done with intention, activities such as these can have a lot of therapeutic value. But if you find that it’s hard to pull away, or that reminiscing turns into ruminating which gets stuck, it’s a good sign that it’s time to reach out to someone for help – either a friendly support person or even a professional.
Holidays aren’t an all or nothing thing; it’s ok to make room for all the feelings that come up, despite external messages that it’s supposed to be all about happiness. And ironically it’s often when you move into the sadness and find ways to nurture yourself around it, is when you can find room for more joy.
Ever get s sense of dread as you approach the door to that holiday party where everyone’s expecting you to show up? Or maybe you hardly know anyone at all and you’re deciding to be adventurous by accepting an invitation from a new acquaintance. Either way, it makes perfect sense that anxiety would rear it’s head at a time when faced with walking into a room full of unknowns: any combination of moods, personalities, and opinions, along with a smorgasbord of libations and food might create an unpredictable environment that can quickly feel overwhelming and out of control. BUT, there are some things you can do to make the experience feel more grounded and manageable.
For one, remember to ask questions. While some of us might be terrible at small talk, the good news is that people generally like to talk about themselves. So if you get good at asking questions, you can keep the focus on them, and maybe even learn something interesting and new. Safe topics usually include plans for the holidays, books, movies and kids. Might be best to stay away from politics and religion unless you’re sure you’re in like-minded company.
While alcohol is often associated with loosening up, it might not be a good idea to let go of all your inhibitions, especially at work parties where you want to maintain a good impression. If you choose to drink, or feel pressured to do so, you can always alternate (or replace) cocktails with a glass of sparkling water or tonic garnished with lemon or lime. No one needs to know the difference and it might save you some grace. Just remember that carbonated beverages actually increase the rate of alcohol into the bloodstream so plain water might be a safer bet. And always be sure that you’ve got a safe ride home.
Also, don’t forget to set yourself up in a good way by eating balanced meals beforehand. Sometimes people fear that they will eat too much and choose to restrict earlier in the day if they know they will be around tempting foods. This is a bad idea as it only informs your body that it’s starving and will make it harder to know when to stop. Remember that there are always opportunities to meet your exchanges, even when faced with random snacks. Admittedly, nutrition is not my area of expertise but if you’re in the market for a dietitian, let me know as I can point you in the direction of some really great referrals.
Back when I was a teenager my younger sister and I used to get in the usual fights about what belonged to whom and the need to stay out of each other’s space. The arguments weren’t all that frequent or particularly bad in any way and having had similar interactions with older siblings it all seemed pretty much par for the course. One day however, probably after refusing to let her borrow a favorite sweater (which I believe she secretly did without my permission from time to time anyway), I happened to come across a caricature that she had created of me. I remember it taking a minute to register if it was actually me but inside the word bubble was something I’d said only maybe an hour before – it was definitely me. Now, you might think that I would have been offended and probably for the slightest moment I was. But it quickly came to me how brilliant this was. Not only could I see how my actions affected her – which in all likelihood created more empathy from me towards her in the long run – I could also see how she was able to process our argument and get some relief from a potentially no-win situation. I simply had to admire her for it. Plus I gained a new appreciation for her drawing skills despite the fact that she made me look less than pretty.
It would be several more years before I was introduced to the actual field of art therapy and while my studies have taken me in various directions, the powerful use of humor in my sister’s drawing never left me. After all, isn’t it true that some of the greatest comedy comes from the greatest despair? Think Ellen DeGeneres, Dave Chappelle and David Sedaris. I think that sometimes, maybe not always, but sometimes my sister’s caricature approach can still be really useful to explore, especially when you want to know more about what it is you’re struggling with in a relationship – or maybe any situation for that matter. Just be aware that there’s a fine line between using humor to access healthy relief and using it to take on a mean-spirited flavor all its own. Whatever comes up is natural of course, but you may want to be careful about who you show your pictures to (hint: an art therapist can help you process whatever comes up). While the comedians who rise to fame seem able to connect with others on their points of pain and relief, I’m pretty sure the mean-spirited ones don’t last quite as long. But the most important part is the ability to connect with how you’re feeling and find opportunities to create growth and change – which is pretty much what art therapy is always about. And while creating artwork on your own is not art therapy per se, you might still find some therapeutic value in it, even if you’re just doodling in the margins of your journal. And if caricatures aren’t your thing – you can always turn them into monsters! Check out this great tutorial from Lynda Barry – an inspiring art professor from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. All it takes is a shape and a squiggle and a little uncensored imagination. OR…you can turn everyone into South Park avatars (see above for how my daughter depicted me as an angry mom – it’s ok, I asked her to – she calls it Momster!)And if you do happen to offend someone accidentally, give me a call, I can help you there too 😉
It’s a bit ironic that as a therapist it’s one of my jobs to address avoidance, especially when I realize that I’ve been engaging in a little avoidance of my own. For a while now I’ve been recognizing that as an art therapist, it’s a little surprising so many of my posts are not directly related to art. Pretty much all of them address therapy in some way, but art is my specialty and I can tend to stumble over writing about it sometimes. What I really want to get across is how passionate I am about it, and I feel like I’ve been lacking in this area…and I know that in part this is because art can be really powerful. I’ve seen the wisest of people come undone after putting feelings on paper and I don’t ever want to intentionally point someone in the direction of doing that while all alone. But at the same time, I see so much value in creating art at home. An introvert myself (actually I prefer to think of myself as an extroverted introvert 🙂 ), art is one of my all time favorite pastimes. I’ve even had moments of near enlightenment where time slips away and you’re so immersed in what you’re doing that it doesn’t really hit you until you step back to see the masterpiece (albeit, self-proclaimed masterpiece 😉 ). Yes, doing art on your own is awesome. But…this is not art therapy. And while there are any number of ways you can do art that may be therapeutic, still, you need to know it’s not the same. Just as any self-help book is not the same as meeting live-in-person with an actual therapist – there’s really no comparison. With no one there, who’s gonna help if you start to go down the rabbit hole? So be careful what you choose to venture into. So there’s my disclaimer; please heed my advice and be careful.
Ok, so that being said, I do think there are plenty of innocuous art tasks that you can – and maybe even should be doing at home. Today, let’s start with a little mindfulness. Try this: find a nice, quiet corner in a room preferably near a window for the natural light. Gather together some drawing paper and a selection of art materials such as ones that I like to call the basics: graphite pencil, color pencils, markers, crayons, oil pastels and chalk pastels. You might notice that these range from very structured to somewhat unstructured materials, the latter of which start to get a little messy when you work with them (chalk pastels can get very dusty, if you have breathing issues such as asthma, it may be in your best interest to wear a mask for protection). Start by drawing six circles on a piece of paper (one for each medium) maybe about 2” in diameter each. Next, take your time to fill in each circle, just by shading, with each of the materials. What’s it like to add pressure or go light? To draw with the tip or rub using the side? What’s it like to try erasing a portion of what you created? Can you? What’s it like to place two colors together – can they be blended with your finger, paper towel or piece of cloth? Pay attention to your body. Do you have an aversion to working with a certain medium? Or maybe one you like, or simply feel neutral about? What’s it like to get your hands dirty? And what are the thoughts running through your head? Judgment thoughts? Comparison thoughts? Worrying thoughts? How much are you able to let go of these in the moment, and simply allow yourself to be with what is? Once you’re done with this task, look at the page, and notice if there is anything you’re drawn to, or might like to try over again. Try drawing the circles again on another piece of paper and play with different techniques like hatching, scumbling and dusting. Even with these few art materials, the options can feel endless. Next, draw the circles again and try to mimic a favorite artist. Can you recreate pointillism like Seurat using color pencils, markers or pastels? Maybe try to achieve the thick markings like those of Van Gogh using oil pastels. Or what about chalk pastels for a Rothko or mixed media for De Kooning? I recognize that I’m leading you to a lot of painters here, and you’re not working with paints, I get it. I’m just trying to get you to play – it’s all about beginner’s mind. My point is this…practice dropping the negative self-talk for a minute and allow yourself to be curious, allow yourself to be like a child again. It can be pretty awesome. When you’re finished, check in with yourself one last time – maybe there’s something you want to take to your next therapy session – bring it!
Anyone who knows me long enough will eventually get my spiel about the need to practice assertive communication. It was something that was presented to me back in 2007 when I took a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course – which means that yes, mindful awareness is part of the deal. The instructors gave this awesome handout that delineated verbal and non-verbal aggressive, passive and assertive behaviors as well as the goals and likely outcomes for each. Even though I was already familiar with this to some degree (aren’t we all?), it was still an eye opener. It gave me language to better identify my own actions as well as actions of those around me. And the best part was the helpful tips that were given to help one become more assertive. One of which was this handy formula: When you do X in situation Y, I feel Z. Such simple advice seemed to be really effective. Until the one day years later when I was working with a very sweet and wise little boy who told me that there was no way that he would tell the kids who were bullying him that he was hurt by their actions. I can remember him saying this as he swung a big stick at a nearby tree – maybe practice for self-defense? I wasn’t sure. But I had to stop and think about it, because he was right, what good would it do? Wouldn’t a bully only be encouraged by the fact that his or her tactics were working? And the other truth of the situation is that my experience of working in some of the schools led me to witness the often fruitless act of telling a trusted adult about the bullying, me being one of them. It’s not to say that there weren’t plenty of adults around with good intentions, but the reality is that there are limitations to what we can do, especially if we don’t witness directly what’s going on. I kept my eyes open for solutions to the problem and despite well-meaning efforts and presentations, I just didn’t see anything that would actually work. Until the day I came across a story about the need for bystanders to play an important role. How brilliant I thought, of course it’s important for children to stick together; bullies are less likely to bully someone who’s part of a group, even if that group only shows up in the moment. Easier said than done of course when there are a number of reasons why one might not want to interveneincluding the real possibility that the perpetrator will then turn on you. But as trauma specialist Judith Herman points out, “The victim’s greatest contempt is often reserved, not for the perpetrator, but for the passive bystander.” (Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence–From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, 2015, p.92). On NPR last week I heard this great 5-minute news story in response to the Harvey Weinstein allegations that apparently everyone in Hollywood knew about for years. In it, reporters begin to talk about bystander intervention training such as the technique of creating a distraction without naming it, to get the person in danger out of harm, and the need for bystanders to be willing to see it as a shared responsibility.
Although I get loud and clear that that are limitations to being assertive in certain situations, I will likely always remain an advocate – especially when it’s in regards to a relationship that you care about. Assertiveness is incredibly difficult to practice in the moment. So many of us are not aware of the physical sensations – the messages we get that inform us that something is off. We might not pay attention to them until it’s much too late, or the situation becomes overwhelming and freeze mode kicks in. Ashley Judd who has become an advocate for standing up to sexual harassment suggests a regular practice in responding to even the smallest of slights (aka microaggressions) “If it feels wrong, it is wrong. It’s really ok to say ‘that’s wrong.’” In her video for Teen Vogue, Judd suggests calling out “Stop” with an extended halting hand, and merely responding “inappropriate and unwelcome” when faced with intrusive, unwelcome comments. I should add here that this approach doesn’t have to be limited to sexual harassment; bullying comes in many forms of manipulation. The great thing about this approach is that it can easily be practiced when with a group of friends or in a crowd of people. In this Ted Talk video, presenter Ken Brown demonstrates how to elicit help from a group of bystanders. “If you want help in a crowd” he says, “all you need is one person and then other people will follow…small groups getting things done will be the catalysts for other small groups to follow…movements are born by small groups of people taking action.”
I don’t think there’s any shortage of reasons to stand up and use your voice these days. It’s not a matter of allowing someone else to do the work anymore, it’s about each of us needing to make the assumption that no one else has – if it doesn’t feel safe to do it alone, invite a friend to join you, because this is of course all about power in numbers. And just as importantly know that there is never shame in doing what you need to do, to get out of a potentially dangerous situation (even if that means not doing this work yet because you might be triggered). As a wise woman recently suggested, women will be so much more powerful when we bond together to address important issues, so please let’s stop throwing passive judgments towards one another. Here’s my assertive formula in action for all bystanders: When you share responsibility and speak up to address an uncomfortable situation, I feel empowered to take action too.
This week in some of the art therapy groups that I run we explored the experience of confrontation. Group members worked with pencils, paints and pastels to visualize the frustration, anger, fear and resentment that is so often associated with conflict. One theme that repeatedly arose was the desire to be heard and understood. It’s both surprising and disheartening to hear how many women have been given the message that their emotions are wrong in some way; that they are over-reacting or for whatever reason, that they “shouldn’t” feel the way they do. This story of invalidation came up again and again. If there is one thing that I would like to impart to those who struggle, it’s that the emotion you experience is as real as the table in front of you or the chair you are sitting on. Would you say that the table “shouldn’t” exist? Or pretend that the chair doesn’t? Even thinking about that, I start to become ungrounded. Why would it be any different with emotion? I like to conceptualize emotion in the same way that I do electricity. It’s not something we see (which is why art therapy is so awesome for giving visual to our emotional experiences) and yet we know it’s always there. The “proof” of electricity is when we hit the switch and the light comes on. The proof of emotion is how we experience it in our bodies. What we do from there is a whole other story (consider the law of physics: energy cannot be destroyed, only transformed). But I just want to encourage you for a moment, to validate your own experience. While our feelings may come from a myriad of influences, it doesn’t matter; what you feel right now is truth, and really, no one can take that away from you – not even if you try to let them.
If there is one thing that I would like to impart most to the people who love and care for those who struggle with mental health issues (and it’s entirely possible that the line here may be blurred as to who is on which side), is that it is incredibly healing for a person to be able to tell his or her truth and feel understood.
Another theme that came up repeatedly in these groups was that a major requirement for conflict resolution is the need to be in conflict with someone who cares enough to work through the conflict with you. I think that one of the major challenges we face as human beings is how difficult it can be to honor and respect differences. Some of us may feel things more intensely, we’re just wired differently – chemically and biologically. It doesn’t make my experience any more or less right or wrong than yours. We’re each adapted for different things. I may have a greater capacity for empathy than you and you may have a greater ability to work through difficult tasks without being thrown off track. Society may suggest that we should value one trait over another, but it doesn’t mean that we have to. And regardless, they’re all values we can each continue to work on within ourselves. Speaking of empathy, it reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend once. She had suggested that she couldn’t understand something that her brother was experiencing, because she had never gone through the situation herself. Her sympathy was there for sure, in the sense that she felt sorry for him, but she was certain that she couldn’t understand him because she had never gone through what he had. I tried to explain that empathy isn’t about having to experience another person’s situation, it’s about the ability to identify with their felt experience. And that can take a little work – it might mean following the thread way, way back before you can both get to a place of understanding. Or it can simply be about accepting that their experience is different and equally as valid and important as yours. Only about 4-5% of the population truly have no capacity for empathy, but for the rest of us, there is an obvious continuum in how we use the empathy we’ve got. Which leads to another point…if you find yourself in conflict with someone who is not willing to do the work of resolution, then the confrontation quickly becomes a matter of safety and boundaries. And if you truly do want to make a difference, start modeling those healthy coping skills, because after all, we’re all in this together.
If you have any desire to become more attuned to your emotions – in order to help yourself and/or others – check out this new app: Insight Timer where you can find6,661 free guided meditations, music tracks, talks and courses. Offered by big names in the field like Thich Nhat Hanh, Ram Dass, Tara Brach, and even Moby (!) It’s an amalgamation of many different origins and practices– there are even links for discussion and local meet-up groups. Check it out!
It’s no secret that artists have turned to nature for inspiration since the beginning of time and it seems that the process is still as relevant today as it ever was. Recently I caught up with my old friend, Adam Schrader, who is also an immortalizer of the outdoors and has a knack for capturing a palpable intimacy in his compositions. I first met Adam a few years after he graduated from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 2000 and while I’d always known him to be an artist, I never truly had a sense of the work he did until the past few years when I began to see posts of his projects on social media. I decided to send him my questionnaire about the therapeutic aspects of art making for artists and when we finally got a chance to talk, he led me through a convalescent journey that included inspiration in everything from the solitude of Edward Hopper paintings and the process of immersing himself in the grunt work of prepping canvases, to social dances on the Hopi Indian reservation near Prescott, AZ where he now lives. In some ways I think Adam leads the quintessential artist lifestyle. He works on commissions and is also a dj and drummer in his spare time (or maybe he just is a dj and drummer too). It’s like the creative process radiates through him. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this is what sustained him through his battle with a chronic medical condition. I hope you’ll find his story to be inspiring as I have.
Why do you create artwork?
Good question. I would say…it’s a form of expression, a way to express myself. I started to draw when I was like 5, I used to copy birds from Audubon books. My grandparents had a big chalkboard and we would draw Cubs games together. Back then I didn’t realize I was expressing myself, I guess it was my pre-formal art education.
Now when I’m making art, I’m in a different mindset than when I’m not doing art. It’s like being a in trance…like running a race…a conscious state that you’re in at a time. It’s the same with music too.
When I’m not doing it, it’s like a loved one is gone, something is missing.
It sounds like when art is not there, it’s like a relationship is missing.
Yeah, it’s like dating someone and then you can’t talk to them anymore. When I go to bed…if I don’t have an art project to think about then I’m thinking about bills. I don’t want to say it’s a distraction…but it is a distraction from difficult thoughts.
What medium do you prefer to work with and why?
Pretty much 2 mediums; oil paint on poplar wood panel, masonite or canvas and charcoal on paper. Oils were the first thing that I really painted with aside from working with acrylics in high school. That’s really what I learned – how to mix paints with oil. For me, it’s the result, the brilliance of the color. You can manipulate it while it’s drying because it doesn’t dry right away. All the artists that drew my eye were oil painters. I did try as many mediums as possible in school, but oil always spoke to me. I use a minimal palette compared to most artists, I mix my own colors. I use like 5 colors, Prussian blue, cadmium red deep, yellow ochre, lemon yellow or windsor yellow (for landscapes) or maples yellow. I use black sparingly, only for certain pieces – just to get specific effect. I use white obviously. I don’t have a green… It’s an organic palette. It’s universal. I can make all the colors using different ratios. A lot of optical vision, knowing how colors change when you change the colors next to them. Charcoal is similar in that you can manipulate it. The darkness… you can keep it painterly or loose. You can tighten it up. The versatility between creating softness and tight lines.
Do you feel that your work has been therapeutic in some way? If so, how?
I feel lost, less grounded if I’m not doing art. I do a lot of landscape art, so you’re in a relationship with nature. Instead of just looking at the clouds, it’s like I’m sculpting with them and having a conversation with them.When you are a landscape painter, you are constantly looking at nature asking how would I paint that, look at that color, it’s a back and forth relationship. There’s something going on that’s bigger than you.
If I’m not doing art, I don’t see the world in the same way. Almost like I’m not seeing it. It’s like you lose part of your vision.
Can you say something about the therapeutic nature of the process?
For me, the process from start to finish…seeing it in your head, sketching it out, going to the store, stretching the canvas, prepping, priming and sanding each coat. The dirty work is what makes it mine. It feels great to do it all myself. It’s like you’re already in it before you even use the first brush stroke. I’m thinking about what’s going to be on there. When you’re having bad days in the studio the grunt work can be grounding. When I get all down on myself…insecure…I’m my own worst enemy as far as my art goes, I’m my own worst critic. Tomorrow I will come in and just do a bunch of grunt work then you feel positive, and can say I was productive. You know you’re not going to mess up…unless you put a staple through your hand. [Yow!]Then seeing your vision come alive and seeing what happens when you do finally finish. Whenever I’m done with a painting, I’m usually on a high, it takes an hour to come down from it. With music I’m the same way, but the kinetic energy of drumming, keeps it going. With oil, you have to wait 6-8 weeks to let it dry before the final varnish. That part is always interesting to me.
I had a professor back in the day, who used to throw paintings out the window. It can also feel great to say I can do it again, so what? and chuck it out the window.
What, if anything, is therapeutic about the finished product?
The sense of accomplishment, especially for my work since I’m tedious and there are many hours involved. The questions…am I ever going to finish this thing? or am I going to ruin it? When it’s done, it’s like seeing a child all grown up. It’s hard to let go of if I have to sell it. Every single painting, I remember where I made it and what the challenges were. So much personal stuff involved. It’s such a process. Kind of like how a song brings back a time and place, my paintings do that for me too.
Has there been a particular time in life when your artwork pulled you through?
Yeah…I would say from 2006 to 2009 art was a big help. Before I moved to Prescott, I had established myself with a community of artists so I got a lot of work right away (like a 24 foot long oil painting inside a restaurant, panels pieced together above the bar) – making art was extremely helpful in healing from chronic medical issues, taking antibiotics and steroids, healing big time, figuring shit out. A healthy and happy distraction. It got my head out of it. Making art for people to see and getting a positive reaction makes you feel good. You feel like you’re doing something for your fellow people – extremely helpful in that aspect.
Has there been a particular time in life when the artwork of others was especially inspirational?
Absolutely. Probably constant. I’m always inspired by other artists. I dive into books. I go online to see what people are doing. Instagram…I would never see some of this work had it not been for social media. After looking at your own stuff for so long, it helps to look at other people’s work. I will ask old friends to ship stuff for inspiration. I love seeing applications, transitions of their work – I can learn about technique this way.
A major healing aspect for me was going up to the Hopi Reservation, that art has touched me more than anything, especially out here for healing. Making baskets, pottery, kachina dolls (kachina means life-bringer, or friend) figures of the Hopi gods – 200 of them – have to be made by Hopi’s, carved from cottonwood root, originally for children but became their own art form. Bringing dolls home brings healing – I have about 60 of them. I go to the social dances they have; Basket dances, Snake dances, Water dance, Bean dance. The men dress up as kachinas – when they dress up, they are no longer themselves, they are embodied by the gods. It’s gorgeous, stuff they’ve been doing for 100’s and 100’s of years. I visit 5 villages, 2 of them are the oldest standing villages in America. When I came out here in ‘05, ‘06 to heal, I would go every weekend. You just watch – there are rules, you don’t point. The dancers, all the kachinas, are the chiefs maybe some aunts and uncles involved. And there’s a ton of food. You sit on the rooftops – branches are used to make homemade ladders to get up there – and they throw food up at you. The Basket dance is reverse where the dancers are on the rooftops throwing stuff down, you have to keep your awareness or you could get doused with gallons of water. There are Eagles and Hawks that are tethered to roof tops – they’re treated w/love and respect – are raised like children then sacrificed by snuffing them out humanely with herbs.
Everything is symbolic – every line in a weaving means something, colors have specific meanings, the swastika is used to represent direction, North, South, East, West. It’s 3rd world up there, there are government issued homes and drug problems. Whenever they invite me up, I always bring a bunch of food and necessities for the houses. I definitely believe it helped me mentally to get through all that shit, my healing.
Has your artwork helped you to find your voice in some way? If so, how?
It just defines who you are. I’ve been drawing my whole life, I identify myself with that. In relationships, it helps you communicate. I’m a little bit introverted, it helps people relate to who I am – if they don’t know me, they can see where I’m coming from.
What artists inspire you? How have you embraced their concepts into your own work?
Edward Hopper was always one of my favorite artists. There is a small town outside of Prescott called Jerome, I found a spot there which became Hopper inspired.
Are there particular metaphors in your artwork that have been especially meaningful to you in some way? Elaborate.
Solitude – landscapes have a solitude feel to them. Trees, rocks, dells – I see them as figures.
Any last comments? Words of wisdom?
When you’re critiquing your work – remember is that it’s just an opinion…at times I still get discouraged. Halfway through I get stuck. I know what I need to do and I’m afraid I might ruin it. The key is having a tool to get your way out of it – maybe someone else’s advice…Keep true to yourself. If it makes you happy that’s all that counts…No matter what you do, there will be someone who loves it and someone who hates it…I still get turned down in competitions. Know the difference between constructive criticism and opinionated banter…PMA – Positive Mental Attitude – write it on your wall.
And finally some unsolicited feedback about our interview 🙂
This was helpful – it made me think about things and process some issues – I’m kind of an introverted person – it’s nice to put these things out there to gain clarity.
Thanks Adam! Oh, and in case anyone is wondering, it sounds like Adam is physically feeling much healthier these days. He indicated that the medication regimen he’d been on for years was far less helpful than the eventual surgery…but who knew. Talk about process!