My hand grabs the brush, dips the wet bristles into the fresh white paint and delights as the color is smudged across a sea of deep pthalo blue bleeding into aquamarine. This practice is what fuels my love for Abstract Expressionism. It’s the raw sensory satisfaction, so expressive that it doesn’t need shape or clear form to communicate. Color and texture capture the essence.
As an art therapist I see the world, my clients, and their healing through an artist’s lens and use art with the creative process to help clients reconnect with parts of themselves previously disowned, forgotten, or undiscovered.
Just the basic element of color can help me connect to my clients and their creative choices. When they pass me a sheet of watercolor paper, so weighted by materials, I can physically feel the load they have been carrying. I can see how trapped they might feel when they bind found objects. Even when words are too tangled to share, the materials speak.
I know this, not just from my training on the therapeutic use of art media and the neuroscience to support it, but because I discovered the value of artmaking when life was overwhelming for me. Before learning anything about Art Therapy, I sought safety through paint and large installations that could contain my vast emotion.
Looking back, I see how much more comfortable it was to paint maniacally than it was to experience the feelings in my body. I was adept at distracting myself from the discomfort of grief and pain.
It took a physical diagnosis to fully tune me into the wisdom of my body. Because I was struggling with mounting fatigue, I had to quit making art at the rapid pace I once celebrated. Eventually, I took a complete sabbatical from artmaking while learning to manage my health. I granted myself permission to rest and be an art therapist who was NOT always making art.
‘Whoa...fraud alert...who the eff does that?! What decent art therapist stops making art?!’
I was terrified someone would figure out I was a complete impostor or a fake wannabe artist turned art therapist. Even scarier: would I start to feel the pain that my art helped me manage?
Truth is, I did feel the pain when I stopped creating with such blind fervor. I still do sometimes. Fortunately, getting still allows me to heal more deeply than frantic painting ever did.
Now, I let myself admit fear and feel loss, disappointment, rejection, or abandonment that used to terrify me. I am focused on inviting healing through gentle self compassion to comfort the child within and respect the limitations of my body.
The rewards have been huge as I’ve learned to pay attention to my body - including my heart. This is true self care.
A shift in my art practice: no more obligatory anything
Improving self care means doing what feels good, but it’s more than getting a massage or taking a vacation to manage stress. It’s also about looking at the source of the stress and evaluating ways to eradicate unnecessary stressors while increasing activities that make your heart dance. Self care is an act of compassion that permits you to let go of obligatory tasks and commitments in order to follow your desire.
When you have satisfied your own needs and desires you can give out of love rather than obligation. In my case, I have quit making art for anyone other than myself. Even if I am making hand painted cards for loved ones, I’m doing it is because I want and love to paint.
After years of practice I am able to let go of the need to impress others. When I am creating art or moving through other aspects of life I grant myself permission to enjoy the process without concern for outcome. This is the very invitation I offer my clients before every group, on every consultation call, and in each intake session. Now that I offer myself the same compassion as I extend my clients, I find myself less and less interested in collecting traditional art materials, creating a final product, or archiving its existence through photography and social media to prove I made something or to show others that I am still creative.
A shift in my daily practice: slow down
There are some days that are slow and quiet. Those days feel like a slice of heaven to my highly sensitive nervous system. Others are loud and busy with incoming calls, messages, and requests for my attention. It can feel like too much if I try to keep up, so I move slowly… slower than I have ever moved before. Literally, the more hectic things get, the slower I move.
One. Breath. At. A. Time. And not short or shallow breaths but deep, wide, expansive breaths that create an almost trance-like state that enable you to observe automatic thoughts and feelings. Such mindfulness is instrumental in tuning into the present, tuning out unhelpful messages (both my inner judge and any external critics), and tuning up my ability to discover joy.
I grant myself and my clients permission to do less. This means taking time to explore without pressure to achieve anything. Ironically, we often have the most creative ideas during this time because play is the antithesis of fear which cuts off the flow of imagination and problem-solving.
A shift in my private practice: connect with nature
For months after the autoimmune diagnosis that would change the way I approached all aspects of my life, all I wanted to do was stare at trees. The tears would flow as I allowed myself to just sit. Over time I discovered the tears wouldn’t last forever and I found joy on the other side of my sadness.