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!
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.