In one of my groups this week we explored the range of art materials from structured to unstructured; I offered pencils, paints and everything in between. One purpose of this was to simply be curious and practice beginners mind with art materials that you might otherwise veer away from. And another purpose was to consider how the use of these materials might correlate with aspects of your life – media as metaphor if you will.
As an example I offered images of the Wassily Kandinsky paintings from a scene in the movie Six Degrees of Separation (1993), where the character Ouisa Kittredge comments “chaos…control…chaos…control” as her husband, Flan, spins the two back to back. I find the themes of chaos and control entirely relevant for women today as we strive to achieve perfection in school and work and are also expected to manage a myriad of unpredictable emotional experiences thrown at us at any given moment.
I asked group members to bring some mindful awareness to the experience. What are the physical sensations that you notice while using different art materials? Any tightness in the muscles? Signs of relaxation? What are the thoughts that arise? Memories? Worry thoughts? Planning? Judgment thoughts? Are there different emotions that come up when working with color pencils and Sharpies as opposed to watercolors and acrylics?
While I can’t comment specifically on the experiences of group members here, I will say that a lot came up. Much emotion, much awareness of the way we do things in the world and the forces that drive those behaviors. What happens when we seek safety at the expense of connection? As we drive away emotion in search of protection? Balance of course is what we seek – the desire for equilibrium and homeostasis – and maybe we can explore this too, through the metaphor of media.
It is clear that the choice of object that is one of the elements in the harmony of form must be decided only by a corresponding vibration in the human soul. ~ Wassily Kandinsky
A while back I found myself walking the streets in my neighborhood after having a particularly difficult day – and just by chance I happened to look up and notice this sign hanging on the fence in front of an alleyway. This simple message, “Everything will be ok. yes, it will” left by some anonymous person, was enough turn everything around. It may sound silly to think that an anonymous message could help that much – but really I think that it did. I caught the image on my cellphone and referred back to it periodically, and in this very subtle way, it was a reminder that I was not alone. Someone else had felt the same way. The message sat with me and it began to crank open the door that I had slowly been nailing shut. It gave me hope and a sense of connection. It helped give me the energy to take action, to reach out to others, to face what I needed to face. And then eventually, things got better.
Since I’ve taken some time off this summer, I’ve been enjoying a further exploration of the city, roaming different neighborhoods and taking in the growth and change that they too, have to offer. I still try to make a point of capturing positive messages that I see here and there and lately I’ve been coming across a whole bunch of them in the form of conversation valentine heart drawings plastered on unsuspecting walls throughout Philadelphia. I like to think that the collective unconscious of the people in this great town will only benefit from messages like “You Got This” and “UR so Rad.” It turns out this body of work, called the Goth Hearts project, is the brainchild of Fishtown artist Amberella, who was recently diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a rare connective tissue disorder that can make everyday life extraordinarily painful. You can check out her story here.
The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Ever come across this phrase before? When I hear it these days, I associate it with yet another -ism, like racism or sexism… on the tip of my tongue, but not quite sure what it is yet…geneticism? …Holy cr*p!! I thought I just made that term up, but thanks to modern technology, one click on Google and here ya go…of course someone’s already thought of this. Ok Francis Galton, watch out!
I try not to generalize too much, but I’m pretty sure that the vast majority of parents out there really do want what’s best for their children. That being said, I think it’s also safe to assume that there’s an enormous amount of room to get things wrong or make mistakes. How many times have you heard a parent make the disclaimer that babies don’t come with instruction manuals? True, right? At the same time I have a bit of an issue with turning to genetics to find the root cause of problems. I’ve been thinking a lot about generational trauma lately. Knowing what we know about trauma for any individual and the physiological havoc it can wreak on one’s body and mind, how can we avoid the possibility that offspring of those suffering from unresolved trauma might also be affected? I don’t think it’s too much a stretch of the imagination to consider how someone consumed with hypervigilance and a heightened startle reflex might interact differently with their children. And while the personal issues that parents struggle with likely won’t interfere with their capacity to love, they can on the other hand set up some interesting dynamics.
I’m willing to acknowledge, as fairly recent studies have revealed, that trauma can play a role in genetic outcomes such as premature death and certain illnesses, for generations down the road. But to assign someone’s personal makeup to a fate determined by the experiences of one’s parents…that just seems a bit cruel in some ways, doesn’t it? (If you happen to be one of those people who is ok with this idea because you’ve got it good, then congratulations I’m very happy for you. Now please step aside while I speak to everyone else 🙂 ) I want you to consider slavery for example…yeah, I get that relatively speaking there were maybe a handful of slaves who were treated well and may have had a fairly smooth transition after Lincoln ordered the Emancipation Proclamation, but what about the millions who were subject to inhumane treatmentthroughout their lifetime? Although PTSD wasn’t an official diagnosis until 1980, it doesn’t change the fact that people have been suffering from this condition since the beginning of time. Consider war, sexual assault, physical abuse, neglect, car accidents…oh yeah, and that other big one that’s been so easy to dismiss: the near obliteration of native americans. The concept of generational trauma isn’t new, but I do think it’s something that we need to start paying more attention to, for society as a whole.
One of my favorite studies regarding the subject of genetics is this one that I heard on NPRa while back,where the children of depressed mothers were assessed for depression and yes, of course there was direct correlation. But the twist is that when the mothers were treated and their depression improved, the children got better too, without any treatment at all. So there you go. Genetics factor challenged and disproved. Well, sort of. From what research currently tells us, genetics can set us up for a small increased risk that a condition may manifest but it takes much more than this to tip fate in that direction; environmental factors also play a significant role.
So, instead of wrapping children neatly up and assigning them to the eternal life sentence of being “just like their parents,” maybe we can take a little more initiative to help break the cycle. Perhaps this starts with you and a commitment to get therapy to change the pattern within your own family. Or maybe this is about checking in with your stereotypes about others which might influence your opinion of who deserves what. Or maybe it’s about healthy role modeling for those around you. I know I’m probably a bit of an optimist when it comes to these things, but I do believe there’s always room for healing and positive change – there’s always another way.
Stuck. That’s my favorite word to use when describing depression. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of believing that there’s something wrong with you or that you’re inherently faulty in some way, but I really believe this just isn’t true. Sure, depression can result from a chemical imbalance sometimes, but it can also be situational and even learned. If you haven’t been given the tools for change, is it your fault you haven’t used them? Regardless of the source, there are always ways to work with depression, and art therapy is my favorite approach. Let me share some reasons why.
For one, art therapy is a doing therapy. You engage with the materials…paints, pastels, collage, etc and immediately the depression cloud starts to shift. I’m not saying it goes away that quickly, but there is a physiological change, however nuanced. Challenging yourself with different art materials creates a pathway to problem solving and doing things differently. It takes nails out of the door that’s been sealed shut for so long. It changes “I can’t” to “maybe I can.” Of course self-judgment thoughts can get in the way which is why working with an art therapist is different than creating art on your own. We only need to look to someone like Vincent Van Gogh to see that art making in and of itself may not be enough to get you to a place of wellness. Working with an art therapist is about connection. It’s about allowing yourself to be seen and understood. It’s about opening up to other possibilities that you haven’t thought of on your own. It’s about finding ways to connect with inner resources you didn’t know you had. Art therapy offers this experience in so many subtle and even playful ways that I find talk therapy may not be able to get to alone.
Art therapy is not only transformative, but it also allows you to create space for what is. Maybe it’s important to see and recognize the struggle that’s there and art making can allow you to do that too. Sometimes we need to experience our emotions and give ourselves a chance to just be with the sadness, pain, regret, guilt, loss, etc and fully sit with them until they’re ready to be put away, even temporarily. There’s nothing more powerful than being able to create an image that truly reflects the way you feel. Creating images about your experience in the world allows you to study them and gain a better understanding of the stories we’ve created; to find the truths in them as well as the myths and imagine a better outcome. Art therapy is vibrant and energetic; it’s insightful and cathartic. It allows you to see the joy and happiness that you might find hard to believe are there. Art therapy finds and builds upon your inherent strengths and provides you with new tools to create the life you wish to liveand love as you move forward. So yes, art therapy is a great way to improve your mood. But there’s also so much more. Maybe it can even give you a sense of accomplishment.
I’m noticing that it’s been somewhat difficult to refrain from political commentary in my posts as of late, but it’s also just really hard to ignore what’s going on in the world – especially when some of it relates so closely to my field of study. I’ve read some pretty interesting articles lately about alternative facts and this idea that each of us creates our own reality. And of course when you really think about it…that’s not so new. In therapy we regularly work on exploring core beliefs about oneself and actively search for evidence to determine what is accurate and what isn’t. The goal in doing this is to recognize how the stories we tell ourselves make us feel and shift them in the direction of health and productivity. Maybe we should be thanking 45 et al. for bringing light to this subject so that we can now work on this shift collectively and globally. Rather than volleying back and forth between who’s right and who’s wrong, perhaps the focus should be on why we experience such significant differences in the first place. In Tristan Bridges’ article posted on businessinsider.com, he explains the “backfire effect” where presenting “more information and actual facts challenging those [false] beliefs did not cause a change of opinion—in fact, it often had the effect of strengthening those ideologically grounded beliefs.” And in this really great article by Ronald W. Pies, the author points to the differences between deceptive lies, innocent falsehoods, confabulations and delusions and how each plays out in the context of reality. It’s true that feelings influence one’s reality and it’s also true that the facts of reality differentiate for each of us only by how much we are fixed to the falsehoods we choose to believe. In their book, A General Theory of Love, authors Thomas Lewis, M.D., Fari Amini, M.D. and Richard Lannon, M.D. offer this perplexing thought: “New scanning technologies show that perception activates the same brain areas as imagination. Perhaps for this reason, the brain cannot reliably distinguish between recorded experience and internal fantasy.” [2001, p102] Whoa. That explains a lot, right??
All this reminds of me of my favorite genre of writing: Magical Realism. Writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende figured out long ago that people have a tendency towards flexible beliefs when it comes to poetry and magic. Some readers may easily differentiate fact from fantasy, but the genre itself lends to the idea that some readers will walk away with the perception that what was read did in fact happen. Is it fair to say that religion may be loosely related to this as well? Sometimes people even advocate for unevidenced concepts inasmuch as they will help those struggling through difficult times. Still, as much as the creations in these stories seem to vividly come to life, there is still the option to check in with evidence grounded in reality; but ultimately, if you’re a healthy person, it’s your decision as to where you wish to land on the continuum.
I’ll end here with my favorite quote from Eva Luna:
Are you the one who tells stories? the stranger asked. At your pleasure, she replied. The man took five gold coins from his pocket and placed them in her hand. Then sell me a past, because mine is filled with blood and lamentation, and I cannot use it in my way through life. I have been in so many battles that somewhere out there I forgot even my mother’s name, he said. She could not refuse him, because she feared that there before her in the plaza the stranger would shrivel into a pile of dust – which is what happens to those who are not blessed with good memories. …She began to speak. All that afternoon and all that night she spun her tale… she wanted to offer him the novel of his life – from his birth to the present day… Finally it was dawn and with the first light of day she could tell that the odor of melancholy had faded from the air. ~ Isabel Allende
I am one of those people who as a child, had fingers pointed at me and was told I was “too sensitive” for crying when someone called me names…or if they just glanced at me sideways. It’s probably true that sometimes it would seem that it wouldn’t take much to get me derailed and it took years for me to build up any sort of immunity to this. And many more years than that to consider the word sensitive as anything other than a personal affront. In case you haven’t seen them, there are some great articles out there that point to the reasons why sensitivity may actually be a good thing. This one in the Huffington Post redefines sensitive people as being more creative with increased awareness of surroundings and an “ability to embrace new concepts very deeply.” And this one from psychcentral states “The trait of high sensitivity also includes a strong tendency to be aware of nuances in meaning, and to be more cautious about taking action, and to more carefully consider options and possible outcomes.” I think all of the articles I’ve read point to a greater capacity for empathy.
I find it interesting to learn that Buddhist monks actually hone in on this type of sensitivity through meditation and take it exponentially further. This article in Lion’s Roar magazinetells the story of a monk who was scientifically able to demonstrate, among other things, an ability to accurately identify the emotion of others through micro-expressions when shown pictures of faces for one-fifth or even as little as one-thirtieth of a second. The researcher in the article, Paul Ekman, who is “one of the world’s most eminent experts on the science of emotion,” knows that “people who do better at recognizing these subtle emotions are more open to new experience, more interested and more curious about things in general. They are also conscientious—reliable and efficient.” I’m not trying to say that all people who are sensitive are equivalent to Buddhist monks and I’m pretty sure that many would reassure you that’s not the case at all. What this article says to me is that while sensitive people may already make great partners, healers and therapists 😉 there is also always room for improvement when you intentionally practice compassion, and actually lean into and learn from the things that might make us uncomfortable.
In light of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week coming up, it also seems like a good time to address the stigma that keeps so many people at bay from seeking help. For most of the population, it’s hard enough to allow for vulnerability in the face of judgment, but when you’ve already been labeled as “too sensitive” – a characteristic that is associated with eating disorders, I think it’s fair to say that the experience of judgment – and stigma – is that much greater for someone who may already feel like they’re living under a microscope. In one of my recent groups a wise woman pointed out that her personal character has been attacked and she has been blamed by people in her life who believe that the eating disorder is a result of her own doing and as she shared this, others nodded in agreement that this was their experience too. It’s amazing how much energy goes into helping loved ones understand that two people can participate in the same scenario and have two completely different – and valid – experiences. So aside from the idea that being described as sensitive no longer need be equated with a negative connotation, maybe we can also take a moment to recognize the courage and bravery it takes for those who do seek treatment.
A month or so ago a friend posted a meme on facebook with the face of Winston Churchill against a backdrop of the British flag. The meme reads: “During WWII Churchill was asked to cut funding for the arts. He replied, ‘then what are we fighting for?’” You can decide for yourself whether or not the quote is accurate.But clearly the meme was in response to our new administration’s proposal to cut funding for the National Endowment of the Arts and they justify this by saying it’s “targeting waste.” Waste?? Really??? Having worked in public schools I can’t even begin to address the heartbreak and outrage that is experienced when funding for creative endeavors is taken away. I just want to take a moment here and draw some parallels between art and emotion because I think they are so often treated similarly and unfairly at times. If we encompass art to include all visual arts (painting, photography, print-making, sculpture, etc), performance arts (music, dance, theatre, etc) along with tv shows, movies, and creative and literary writing, then I think it’s pretty safe to say that the arts are in some way loved and revered by nearly everyone. Take any one of these away and someone is going to feel bereft. But that’s ok, right? Because at some point everyone has to take one for the team. But does the team really strengthen when you do this? No, because those who feel left out are disconnected and fall to the wayside.
So let’s take a minute to contemplate society’s approach towards emotion. How often are we given the message by others that happiness is the only acceptable expression of emotion? Maybe some sadness and grief is acceptable when someone dies or something but otherwise that’s about it. Anger is acceptable for men sometimes, but certainly never women. Magazine covers everywhere are plastered with images of strength and delight because those are the things we want to feel and if we don’t then clearly there’s something wrong with us and we should at least learn to fake it. While the Disney movie Inside Out did a great job with explaining the importance of tending to all emotions, we still have a really, really long way to go. To me Inside Out presents hope that future generations will not succumb to the same dangers of emotional suppression by which many of us were raised. It takes soooo long to undo the damage that is done (depression, anxiety, lack of self-identity, low self-esteem to name a few repercussions). The same way it takes long to rebuild a society when you’ve done all you can to decimate it.
My point is this: Emotion is the experience of being human. Art is the thing that connects and binds us and reflects the human experience; it’s what makes us stronger as a whole. Art is the voice of emotion. Taking away funding and support for the arts is like taking an essential vitamin out of your diet…sure you can exist, but maybe not for so long, and certainly you won’t thrive. We won’t thrive, not together.
When we refuse to nurture emotions, we create emotional imbalance and we suffer internally. When we refuse to nurture the arts, we create imbalance with miscommunication and lack of connection and society suffers as a whole.
Art inspires everything; fashion, sports, cooking, science. The arts extend to graphic design and marketing which means…gulp…our economy!! The lines are blurred because art is everywhere. Art is communication. Art is connection. We take it for granted because of this, the same way we take emotion for granted because of this. But growth comes from honoring care and nurturance for the things we care about and the things that connect us. Both art and emotion are everywhere and they’re not going away, it’s time to give them the care they deserve. Be sure to care for your emotions and honor this by supporting the arts; don’t make it yet another mess that future generations are left to clean up years after we’re gone.
While searching for a studio back in 2015, I was blessed with stumbling upon some of the hidden gems in Germantown. Finding an enclave of art and artists here in Northwest Philadelphia was like opening the gate to a secret garden, needing to savor it momentarily for myself before sharing about it with others. I consider myself very lucky that my practice now resides in the same building as some incredibly talented people in the area, one of whom is the mixed media artist, Andrew Christman. Being a huge fan of mixed media I was immediately drawn to his work. Andrew was gracious enough to complete the questionnaire I’d sent out late last year and share about his personal experience around the therapeutic qualities of art making.
Why do you create artwork?
I have loved making things longer than I can remember. I need to make art like I need to breathe or eat. Through the process of painting, I seek to balance impulses of action with impulses of reflection. In the best of circumstances, a “completed” painting represents an effort in seeking harmony between the experience of my inner world and my outer world.I like to match thought and memory and imaginings with play, movement and marks.
What medium do you prefer to work with and why?
I work with ink, acrylic paint, watercolor, spray paint and drawing materials such as pencils, markers and charcoal. I paint and draw on surfaces such as wood, paper and photographs. I like working with a lot of materials because it keeps the process exuberant and varied. I have a very short attention span! Changing up media keeps me engaged with the work of art as it hangs on the wall or lies on the floor. I enjoy layering transparent and opaque marks because they give a painting or drawing the quality of evolving feelings or the overlapping motions of memories.
Do you feel that your work has been therapeutic in some way? If so, how?
Painting in the studio is my time for play and meditation, looking and feeling. I am very grateful that I love the simple ACT of painting so much! Even if I am lacking “ideas” or “subjects” that inspire me, pushing paint gives me great joy and helps me to find peace much in the way prayer or exercise helps others.
What, if anything, is therapeutic about the finished product?
Arriving at the moment in which I can say a painting is complete is very therapeutic. I work on most of my pieces over the course of many days, months and sometimes years. It can be a struggle at times to keep the overall feeling of a painting fresh, playful and vital –in the way a spontaneous musical performance can. If I come to a point at which a piece appears OR feels complete (or miraculously – both), the painting as it stands resonates with me in a way that I can not describe in words. The impulse to continue to work on the painting has left me and I feel at peace with the decision to frame it and share it or put in the garbage can. Either way, the process was a valuable journey, a meaningful search that continues on with the next painting.
If I am fortunate enough to exhibit my work somewhere, the finished work goes on to communicate with people in a space outside of the studio. The process of showing your work can be cathartic and exhilarating or nerve-racking and miserable. I happen to enjoy sharing my paintings with others as long as they care to look. I certainly hope that they feel something as they take a painting in, but I must always accept that another person’s reaction to my work is not something I can predict or control.
Has there been a particular time in life when your artwork pulled you through?
Without a doubt, making art “pulled me through” my adolescence. Being recognized as someone with artistic talent or promise helped me to cultivate self confidence when I had very little. The actual act of hunkering down and making art-particularly drawing was therapeutic and meditative. I worked a lot with oil and chalk pastels at that time. The tactile layering of colors coupled with the desire to master techniques with these materials gave me purpose and meaning. Art gave me confidence to interact with others in meaningful ways and fired my intellectual curiosity at a time when I struggled academically. God bless not only my high school art teachers, but also English, History and Science teachers who recognized my love for Art and encouraged me to understand those subjects through the lens of Art.
Has there been a particular time in life when the artwork of others was especially inspirational?
All the time! Not only is the work of historical / contemporary artists inspiring to me, but as someone who teaches, the work of children and young adults really excites me and inspires me; particularly the ways in which they express themselves with materials that they are picking up and using for their first time. The spirit and feeling of discovery that they demonstrate helps me very much to appreciate how powerful art is and what a gift it is to be an artist.
What artists inspire you? How have you embraced their concepts into your own work?
There are so many painters that have inspired me. Most of all, I love artists who work spontaneously and improvisationally. Painters who play with the delicate balance between abstraction and realism such as such as Turner, Peter Doig, Richard Diebenkorn and WillemdeKooning encourage me to practice, practice and hone my skills with paint. Jean Michelle Basquiat and Franz Kline encourage me to seek expressive feeling in my work and to be bold and take risks. Artists such as Nathan Oliviera and the Indian painter Mansur are great models for artists who use nature and animals as subjects. My approach to a simple, iconic composition comes from work such as theirs.
However, the artist who has truly influenced me more than any other is not a visual artist but the great musician and composer John Coltrane. His dedication to both technical mastery and improvisation, his conviction that the creation of art is a deeply personal, spiritual endeavor and his continual pursuit of a freedom through a spontaneous discovery are all values that I have aspired to in my own life as an artist.
Are there particular metaphors in your artwork that have been especially meaningful to you in some way?
The central metaphor in my work is the one I described above in which the layering process I use signifies the moving memory or emerging experience of the subject I am painting whether it is a plant, animal or figure. I am also very interested in how science text books and scientific artists who work in the fields of zoology and botany use processes of abstraction to explain what they perceive to be objective truth about the details of the natural world when they create diagrams or renderings of trees, plants and animals. This is very interesting because as modern people, we are more likely to associate the process of abstraction with expressionistic art that separates the natural world from reality. I guess what I am trying to say is that Abstraction is a metaphor for Truth and Understanding.
Artist Bio: Andrew Christman is an artist and educator who lives and works in Philadelphia, Pa. Andrew has exhibited in Philadelphia, New York and Santiago, Chile. For more than twenty years, Andrew has shared his love for Art and Art History as a museum educator, artist in residence and public school middle and high school teacher. He has taught at the Brooklyn Museum, the Cloisters Museum, the Jewish Museum (of New York) and the New York City Museum School. Andrew was a founding teacher at el Centro de Estudiantes, an alternative , accelerated school in Kensington, Philadelphia. His approach to teaching emphasizes interdisciplinary thinking, collaboration and experimentation. Andrew rarely teaches “Art for Art’s sake”. He believes strongly that the process of art making is an agent for critical thinking, literacy, social justice and healing. Andrew currently works from his studio in Germantown, Northwest Philadelphia.
Ah, January. I find that this time of year brings with it so many promises. New Year’s resolutions comprised of diets, exercise regimes, forward fashion, all filled with the possibility of a new look, a new attitude, new relationships, new environment, new job, and of course, ultimate happiness. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like I’m also noticing more mention of things like astrology, numerology and lottery tickets these days too. And don’t get me wrong, I love the entertainment in those things – I think there is a certain brilliance in combining aspects of mysticism and spirituality mixed with general or even concrete advice (self disclosure: my favorite new astrologer to follow is the feminist and activist, Chani Nicholas – you should totally check her out!) And I very much believe that appropriate exercise and self care has a ton of merit. But it also makes me wonder…are we all still looking for our fairy godmother to transform us into beautiful princesses so that we are granted the life we all know we deserve? I believe in significant change, really I do – you can see the evidence in my gruelingly written thesis: The Use of Metaphor in Art Making for Acceptance and Change with People who Experience Chronic Pain. What I’ve learned is that maybe true possibility for happiness – happiness that’s grounded in reality and not wishful thinking happens on a far more subtle level, over time and with thoughtfully directed effort. So often in my art therapy groups I hear the women I work with dismiss their truly, very, very significant progress only because high expectation and ultimate happiness has not yet been delivered. What a tragedy. Think about it…you’ve done all this hard work to create something genuinely new and different in your life and then throw it all away because of something as simple as black and white thinking? It’s either good or it’s bad; perfect or not perfect. The etiology of black and white thinking probably deserves a post in itself, but really it comes down to what we choose to believe. So how do we manifest our own possibility rather than waiting around for things to happen? I believe that possibility lies in flexibility, in awareness of small shifts, of slight nuances and honoring small progress. Possibility lies in opening your heart and mind to synchronicity – the phenomenon of noticing one small thing and watching it multiply into abundance. Synchronicity feels magical – and if it feels like magic, is that enough to say that it is magic? It’s all about approach. That’s how it works with progress, we build on the good things we do have, the small improvements we are achieving and over time, this continues to build and turns into big progress. For some reason this reminds me of a story I heard about a woman with terminal cancer who was attending a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction workshop. When the man next to her heard about her condition, he wondered what the heck she was doing spending her last days sitting around learning this new skill. Her response was that she recognized her limited moments in time and was choosing to learn how to appreciate each one of them to the fullest; there is an infinite number of points in any line, whether the line be an inch long or a mile long. By the way, it’s the year of the Rooster and “Roosters in Chinese Astrology are thought to be honest, so truths will emerge.” Hmm, I wonder what the possibilities are in that?
You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope. ~ Thomas Merton
Recently I sent out a questionnaire to a bunch of people I know in the art world. Some are friends, some acquaintances. Some have made a living from their craft, while others do their artwork out of pure love or possibly even need. Many, if not all, have more than one job, or families to care for, and despite facing regular challenges they’re still at it in some way, shape or form. As an art therapist, I admire this. I admire their staying power, I admire their inspiration and best of all I get to admire each of their styles and unique aesthetic that has emerged over time. In the premise for my questionnaire, I shared that I was “operating from the belief that all artists find therapeutic value in their work, in some form or another.” I got a lot of positive feedback. This week I get to share with you the artwork and insight from a very talented photographer, Beth Dubber. Beth grew up in a working class family in Cleveland, Ohio and through sheer will power and tenacity, made her way onto the tv and movie sets of Los Angeles. You can check out her artwork here.
Rachel: Why do you create artwork?
Beth: To communicate something I am feeling but unsure how to express myself verbally.
Rachel: What medium do you prefer to work with and why?
Beth: Photography, I have studied and worked with this medium since 1988 or so. At this point, it seems ingrained in me and is simply second nature.
Rachel: Do you feel that your work has been therapeutic in some way? If so, how?
Beth: I remember the very first time that I felt like I communicated an uncomfortable feeling I was having. I was miserable in my marriage and did not have any tools or knowledge about how to talk about that. I married at a young age, just out of high school. In college, my second quarter of photography class, we had an assignment to create self-portraits. I had no idea what to do so I dabbled and played around. I created a story with 3 images and it was how I felt about my life at the time. I didn’t realize it until our class critique about our assignments. We all printed our final work and hung them on the wall; everyone had an opportunity to talk about each other’s work. Only then did I realize what a triumph it was for me. I communicated an idea and my classmates got me! I was elated, from then on; it took me to a new level of interest in photography.
[Side note here, when I asked Beth about these photos, she presented images of what looked like herself as a young teenager, scantily clad with curlers in her hair, sitting with a gun and open bottle of Smirnoff. In the last image, she is pointing the gun at the viewer. She offered this about them: “Regarding the triptych, it was a surprise with the 3rd image, everyone at the critique said they expected the gun to be pointed at myself but for me, it was taking my power back. This is also a creepy foreshadowing of my alcoholism. I thought that the relationship was the problem and cause for my drinking. I felt like I was drinking too much but had a good reason. This was done in 1994, I got sober 2007.” I think it’s ok – and significant – to add here that the gun belonged to Beth’s then-husband, it was something of which she did not approve – the gun I mean…but I guess that goes for the ex-husband too…all I know is that he’s still alive :)]
Rachel: Can you say something about the therapeutic nature of the process?
Beth: In 2006, I was desperate to get my career as a photographer going. I was only getting little jobs here and there, nothing substantial. A friend suggested that I go out and photograph events to practice my craft. This turned into a series I called, “The Photo of the Week”, which I shot from 2006-2016. I would then select one image and email it to people on my list every Sunday evening. This became my routine and I felt grounded in it, especially since I have always had an “ungrounded” lifestyle. This 10-year journey of practicing my craft has helped me in many ways. Here are a few examples, it has made me a better photographer, I enjoyed having a creative routine, it kept me accountable to creating and distributing work weekly, I learned to let go of my perfectionism and allow myself to send out an image that I felt was imperfect.
Rachel: What, if anything, is therapeutic about the finished product?
Rachel: Has there been a particular time in life when your artwork pulled you through?
Beth: Yes. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 39. From the point of diagnosis to surgery was about 12 weeks. I was in a high state of fear and anxiety. I kept working on my weekly series and I remember 2 images in particular that were reflective of what I was going through. Just keeping busy, doing my craft and not meaning to, I was creating a visual journal of that time. Keeping to my regular schedule and in contact with others, helped me to stay out of high fear, at least it was more of a lower level fear. It got me to the other side of the disease. I am healthy for 5 years in a row now!
Rachel: Has there been a particular time in life when the artwork of others was especially inspirational?
Beth: There are times when I need to put my camera down. Since I work as a professional photographer and also working on personal work, there are times of burnout. These times, I love to find time to look at other mediums. I feel inundated with media and images especially online so I love to see works in person at galleries, museums, etc.
Rachel: Has your artwork helped you to find your voice in some way? If so, how?
Beth: In a surprising way this year, I was working on a photography job where I was sexually harassed and had to file a complaint. I was very scared. I felt like it was my fault like maybe I did something to warrant his behavior. But since I am used to reaching out to people, I did just that. I asked many other women in my field and they all said it was wrong and I should file a complaint. I did not want to. I wanted to ignore it and hope it would go away. But I listened to the ladies’ words of wisdom. I felt like I was going to die. In the end, it turned out better than expected. I feel like I have gained 100% more courage. I am grateful for the support from other women.
Rachel: What artists inspire you? How have you embraced their concepts into your own work?
Beth: Aline SmithsonI have been taking classes from her for the past 2 years. She is the best teacher I have ever had, shares her wealth of knowledge and the way I present my work has gotten exponentially better. David StrickI have been following his work for years and it cracks me up. His work is smart, and full of humor. Jaimie TruebloodHe is the person to introduce me to photography on film & TV sets, where I work today. He has been a friend and mentor.
Rachel: Are there particular metaphors in your artwork that have been especially meaningful to you in some way?
Beth: I notice a common thread is “irony”. I think it is reflective of my Midwest upbringing. And I just try to keep laughing, life can be way too serious and I have gotten caught up in that too.
Rachel: Do you have any other influences you’d like to mention? Any last comments? Words of wisdom?
Beth: Whatever your medium, writing, painting, sewing, etc. Practice it every day; just keep going no matter what. Don’t pay attention to what others think about it, if you are enjoying it, keep going.