Guiding Inner Artists Out Into the Light

My friend and student (and one of my biggest cheerleaders), Mindy Braun, in the studio.

The other night in the studio I looked around at the women congregated there. Five women, all bent over their journals, quietly painting, writing, stamping, contemplating. Each was passionate about art journaling, and each had only come to the practice, and my studio, in the past year.

More importantly, every single one had originally walked into my studio and announced to me, "I'm not artistic."

How can that be? Isn't just living your life a creative act?

When I started teaching art journaling this year I thought I was going to share my love of this healing practice, help women to express their emotions, and encourage them to have fun with art supplies. What I didn't realize was that I was going to help them own their naturally creative and artistic selves, possibly for the first time in their lives. This particular act has turned out to be more significant (and leads them to all the other amazing heart work that happens in the studio) than anything else I do.

Early on, I noticed that the teen and tween girls in my Monday morning classes didn't ask for permission or check with me to make sure that what they were doing was ok. If they didn't like something in their art journal, they'd paint over it, they wouldn't announce it or comment on it. Sometimes they'd just leave it and go on to something else. Every week, I'd return to the studio for my Monday night women's class, and find women who were tentative, anxious, and often lacking in confidence to such a degree that they would ask me "What should I do?" or "Is this right?" Frequently, they were terribly unhappy with the process and their work because it wasn't "beautiful" or "perfect."

And this is in an art journaling class, mind you, where I repeated every night: This is about the Process, not the Product. It doesn't matter if your page is beautiful. It's about expression and feelings. There are no rules. But more on this later.

I realized that somewhere in the journey of life my women had lost their confidence, a seemingly intuitive creative self-confidence, that my girls embodied without effort. Maybe it happened when their left brain (verbal, mathematical, logical reasoning) became more active than their right brain (nonverbal, visual/spatial perception, emotion, expression, intuition) when they were "civilized" in school. Or maybe it happened along the way when someone told them they had no artistic talent.

The scars from those wounds don't fade with time. They become belief systems.

Whatever the root, it hit me that I needed to fully address this issue in the studio, because without meeting it head on, my students would abandon this transformative practice, and lose contact with a very important and authentic part of themselves.

Art journaling speaks to the part of us that wants to express and heal from whatever is churning inside. Art journaling in community, as we do in the studio, speaks to the part of us that wants to share and be connected and understood.

As soon as I started teaching art journaling, I saw that women were strongly drawn to the experience, even when they pushed against it. As if their Inner Artists were clamoring to be unleashed. Once they got to the table, though, they were confronted with the voices of such strong Inner Critics that they didn't have defenses to protect those tender, just-revealed hearts. And those Inner Artists threatened to retreat.

Since then, I've focused much of my teaching on creating a space that is safe and supportive for those shy Inner Artists to flourish. Women are so accustomed to being in charge, being the go-to person, and being serious, that it's truly hard for them to let go, to trust the process, to have no rules. It's an act of faith to come to the studio and be a bit out of control. There's a lot of discomfort in that. So, in the studio I create a kind of invisible structure that will hold you and protect you even though there are no rules.

It's not exactly complete open-endedness. I offer a structure for expression. There are options, from which materials you might use (the plentitude of which could even be called overwhelming, there are so many options), to what you choose to journal about. Each week there's a journaling prompt complete with visual images and quotes to trigger ideas, and suggestions for how to use the prompt on your page. But it's your choice to engage with it or work on something else that's longing to be expressed. And at the end of every class there is community sharing time which is probably one of the best parts of the whole experience.

Starting out in the studio can be over-stimulating and a little nerve-wracking. Almost like stepping out onto the Grand Canyon Skywalk. Can you trust that the support will hold you? When you look down 4000 feet through the glass walkway, can you believe in it?

But it's also completely exhilarating. For a woman who has never felt artistic to make pages that cause others to gasp or sigh--this is a thrill better than stepping out onto that almost invisible walkway.

The women who show up in my studio show up with full hearts and a desire to be known, as my friend and student, Mindy Braun, said a few weeks back. I was remarking on how repeatedly awed and honored I was that my students share their very personal pages and their truth with each other week after week.

We hold each others' hands on the glass walkway that is our journey.

It's okay, you can look down. We'll hold you.

I breathed in a sigh of happiness the other night, as I watched my students bent over their work. I realized that I had created something much bigger than just an art studio. And when it came time to share that night, it was no different than every time we share: It was inspirational on many levels, each Inner Artist held softly in a community of beautiful, trusting women as we heal.

Note: Since writing this blog post, Susie has opened her studio up to all genders and continues to guide shy Inner Artists out into the light.