An artful journey – using art & collage as a spiritual practice

Monday was not a good day. I’d slept about 3 hours the night before, I was grumpy and frustrated about the bad news my daughter had received, and nothing had gone my way all day. I survived the day at work, but was not in the right frame of mind to go to my drawing class in the evening. Almost every cell of my body was screaming “just go home to bed – no need to go to EVERY class.” And yet I knew I would regret missing it and something told me it was just the right thing to do when I was feeling the way I was.

So I dragged myself to class. The first half hour was really bad. We had a visiting instructor, and she just wasn’t teaching the way we were used to being taught. For one thing, she wasn’t willing to give demonstrations, and said “no, I want to see what comes out of you without trying to imitate me.” That pissed me off and I almost got up and walked out.

I was trying to get the shading right on a nose, and it just wasn’t working. At all. I fought  tears. What’s the point? I can’t draw. I’m wasting my time.

I gave up on the first drawing and started another. And then another. And then slowly, in my third attempt, something shifted. My breath slowed and I felt the frustration slowly seep from my body.  Like osmosis. Gradually I entered that special meditative space where nothing else mattered but the paper, the charcoal in my hand, and my presence at the page.

Have you felt it? I’m sure you have. Call it zen, call it flow, call it prayer, call it meditation – call it whatever you like, but when you feel it you KNOW. It’s a mystical, spiritual thing that changes you, that heals you, and that shifts the icky stuff that’s stuck in you.

This past year it’s become more and more clear to me that this is the role art plays for me. I don’t ever intend to be a “serious” artist, but art has become a special touchstone for me, a spiritual practice. It’s how I meditate and pray, and more often than not, I walk away from the page with some deeper understanding of something I didn’t even know I needed an answer for.

For an upcoming retreat, I’ve been asked to put together a special station where people can spend time in quiet reflection and prayer while doing art & collage. It’s not a workshop, so there will be no instruction, but I’m putting together a page of instructions to leave at the table for those who want to engage. Here’s what I’ve prepared so far. Feel free to play along in your own home.

1. Before you begin, spend a few moments in stillness. Take deep breaths and try to free your mind of whatever baggage you brought to the table. Invite the Spirit to sit with you and to create with you. Inhale. Exhale. Open yourself to whatever  wisdom or blessings you may receive (even if that blessing is simply a chance to be still and quiet for awhile in your busy life.)

2. Do not approach this as “a work of art that needs to be mastered”. This is meant for your eyes only and does not need to be shared. Think of it as your personal prayer or meditation, between you and God. Set aside your perfectionism or ideas about “what art should look like”.

3. Begin with a clean sheet of paper or art journal. It’s up to you how you fill that page. You can doodle randomly, splash bold colours on it, or cover it with images from a magazine – anything that feels right for you.

4. If you choose to collage, flip through a few magazines. Don’t look for specific images or words. Instead, pick whatever moves you at that particular moment. It might be photos, random words, or a combination. Either tear or cut them out and collect them without giving too much deliberate thought to what they mean or how they connect with each other.

5. Play with the images for awhile, arranging and rearranging them on the page, folding them, tearing edges off, whatever you like.

6. Once you’re ready, begin gluing them on the page in an arrangement that feels right for you, using mod podge and foam brushes. You may also want to brush mod podge over the top of the images.

7. Add paint,  marker, glitter, or anything you like to the page. Sometimes the best way to connect with what’s on your page is to finger paint on it, meandering to different parts of the page with your finger, and feeling the various textures as you do so. Paint over some images if you like, or just paint between them.

8. Your mind will wander to many places while you do this, and that’s okay, let it wander. This is not about trying to corral your mind, but rather allowing it to freely connect with the images and with the Spirit that is with you in this space.

9. When you are done, sit back and reflect on what is on the page. Some of the images may surprise you. There may be themes you didn’t expect would emerge. There may be combinations of photos that communicate something to you. Be open to whatever you receive.

10. However, don’t put any pressure on yourself to see or interpret something on the page. Sometimes the value is just in the stillness and the meditative act, not in the final result. On the other hand, sometimes you’ll only notice something a few hours or even a few days later, once you come back to the page.

11. You may wish to whisper a silent prayer, but it’s really not important that any words be spoken. Remember that God is quite capable of hearing your thoughts even before they’re put into words, and quite capable of communicating to you in a deeper way than you could express in words.

Fumbling for balance

Probably at least once a week, I remind my staff that we take a “wholistic approach” in our work. Some of them are fundraisers and others are educators (and some of us bridge the gap), and yet when we approach the people who support our organization, we invite them to give, to advocate, to see justice, to volunteer, to pray, and to consider how their lifestyles contribute to global hunger. We invite them through any or all doorways they are prepared to enter because the needs are complex, the reasons for hunger are complex, and people around the world are complex. Just one of those actions alone will not end hunger without some balance of the other actions. True transformation comes from wholistic commitment.

It’s ironic then, that I so often forget to take a wholistic approach in my own life. I focus solely on one area of my life or another, and then I wonder why I feel out of balance or I don’t accomplish what I feel I should be able to.

Sometimes I read a lot of books and feed my intellectual side. Sometimes I focus on exercise and/or rest and look after the physical side. Sometimes I spend time in a spiritual practice (prayer, yoga, meditation, etc.) and my spiritual side gets fed. Sometimes I seek out community and look after the part of me that needs connection and relationships. And sometimes? Well, let’s face it – sometimes I ignore everything and just indulge in all of the things that I know are unhealthy because I just can’t seem to get myself out of a rut.

At rare times, I make sure I seek balance in all of the areas of my life that need to be fed. I’m a slow learner. Or – more accurately – I forget easily and have to re-learn so many things.

Today I was totally out of whack – cranky, tired, over-stimulated, and downright miserable to be around. And forget about accomplishing anything meaningful – it just wasn’t happening. I could blame it on my hormones, but I knew there was something deeper going on. I was out of balance. I haven’t looked after myself well lately – not my physical side and not my spiritual side. I’ve let both exercise and spiritual practice slip from my day-to-day routines, I’ve been eating poorly and not making any real effort to connect with the God of my understanding. I haven’t really even worked on the relationships that help me find balance in my life.

Something’s got to change. I’m setting my alarm for a little earlier tomorrow. A little yoga, some time in prayer & meditation, and a healthy breakfast – maybe if I start my day off right, things will begin to shift.

If only we could figure these things out once and for all and we wouldn’t have to go back over the same territory time and time again. But day after day, we keep on fumbling and hoping that perhaps one day we’ll be a little bit closer to transformation.


As a side note, tonight my spiritual practice consisted of an hour or two in the studio, making another attempt at a self portrait. The first experience was so meaningful that I decided to try again. This time, I went from a photo because I wanted to attempt a picture with a smile on my face. Like I said to my friend Stephanie when she interviewed me last week, “art has become one of the most meaningful ways that I connect with God.” It doesn’t even matter if it’s bad art, because it’s in the doing, not in the result.

Updated to add: I did it! I made it out of bed for yoga, prayer, and a healthy breakfast! Taking it one day at a time and celebrating small steps. 🙂

On drawing oneself

The first exercise at last night’s class was easy. Draw a face. I’d had a little practice with faces while playing with watercolours and clay, and I knew enough about the basic structure (eyes in the middle, bottom of the nose in the middle of the bottom half, etc.) that I was pretty confident I could produce a face that resembled a face.

But then she pulled out mirrors for the second exercise. “Time to draw your OWN face.” Ugh. Really?

That’s where I’d given up drawing in my long ago (feeble) attempt to work my way through the book “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain”. Attempts at drawing my face had resulted in dismal failure.

With a mirror clipped to my easel, I stared at the blank page, at the mirror, back at the blank page, at the mirror, again – not sure where to begin. That’s when it started – the wise-cracks to my neighbour. “Do we really have to be HONEST, or can we just draw what we WISHED we looked like?” “Maybe if I put in a few less shadows under the eyes, I won’t look as tired – or as old – as that face in the mirror.”

The truth is, though, I don’t really hate my face. There are other features of my body about which I could write long lists of flaws and weaknesses, but my face is… well, it’s not horrible. I rather like my eyes, and my smile is pleasant. Members of my family like to chide me about the fact that there are very few horrible pictures of me. They’re right – if I can say so without sounding arrogant – I’m fairly photogenic. (No, I didn’t say I was beautiful – just pleasant-looking in photos.)

But start looking closely in a mirror, start drawing every little line that appears, every shadow, every imperfection, and suddenly the truth seems a little different then you’d always thought. Suddenly you’re aware of the way your eye lids are beginning to droop, the way the frown line between your eyebrows has deepened,

In drawing, though, it’s best not to think of your subject as a face (or a box or a tree). It’s best just to see it as a series of shadows and highlights. Forget what you’re drawing and just pay attention to the way it picks up the light.

And so, once again, I got lost in the moment. I drew, and I was happy. The imperfections didn’t matter. The shadows were just that – shadows. The lines added character and personality.

In the end, it at least looked human and somewhat resembled my face. I like the top half best. The mouth and nose are a little pinched and cat-like and the neck should be a little thicker and shorter. But those aren’t flaws in the way I look, they’re just the mistakes one makes in the learning process.

But maybe there’s a deeper lesson in all this.  Maybe the reason so many people are having plastic surgery is because we’re staring in the mirror too much, focusing on the imperfections, and not turning our gaze to the easel. Maybe we’re forgetting the values of shadows and highlights – of character and personality – and trying too hard to make things look smooth and flawless.

Maybe we need to spend more time focusing on the way that we reflect light.

Self portrait, drawing class #4

Art of the body

How does one prepare for the day when a surgeon will cut off a piece of what makes one a woman?

I’ve been thinking a lot about bodies lately. Christine intrigued me with her choice of “embody” as her word for the year. And then Leah invited us to focus on the body as our creative muse this month. So since the beginning of the month I’ve been contemplating how I wanted to incorporate “body” into my creativity. I was full of ideas and just needed the time to play with them.

Then the envelope came in the mail. The envelope that held the letter that says in simple Times New Roman font, as though it were no more important than my daughter’s next soccer practice, that my breast reduction surgery has been booked for March. Gulp. Suddenly all creative ideas were blocked and all I could think of was “I’m going to lose a piece of what makes me a woman.”

Don’t get me wrong – I really want this surgery. I chose it. I’m so tired of the aching back, the carvings in my shoulders, the sore ribs from impossible under-wires, the impossibility of finding double H bras for less than my mortgage payment, the shirts that never fit, the near earthquake that’s caused when I try to jog – all of it. I want it to be over.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not complicated. It took me a long, long time to come to this decision, and I won’t back down now, but there are so many mixed emotions that play tricks with one’s mind. All of those memories of the babies I’ve nursed, the pleasure I’ve shared with my husband, the aching fullness of unused milk when the baby who was meant to nurse has left this earth – they’re all wrapped up in my identity, my shape as a woman.

And then there is the message I’m sending to my daughters. Is it okay for me to have plastic surgery, when I want to encourage them to value their bodies and not let media images dictate how they view what they see in the mirror? I would be lying if I didn’t admit to myself that at least part of the reason for this decision is about my own complicated body image.

Tonight I finally had time to disappear into my studio for awhile to play with paint, ideas, memories, heartache… and breasts.

I started with a few of those images that surround us – the perfect bodies with the perfect breasts. No, those aren’t the only reasons for this choice, but I have to at least acknowledge them and let them be a part of the picture. And the truth is, not even those women in the magazine ads are completely content when they look in the mirror.

As I prepare for this journey, I will try to acknowledge the hope and the hurt, the beauty and the ugly, the truth and the lies I tell myself. I know that I will be changed in more ways than one.

P.S. I had thought I’d be a little more private about this journey, but for some reason, I feel compelled to share it here. I know that you, my kind readers, will hold these words gently in your hearts as you have so often done when I’ve been vulnerable. If you’re interested, I first wrote about it here, when I went for my original consultation with the surgeon.

Getting through the week

First it was the weariness from five days away (some of which included a fairly intense staff retreat). Then it was the scrambling energy it took to start filling a small role in response to the Haiti disaster (communicating, responding to donors & media, issuing appeals, looking for appropriate images, writing web text and ad copy, etc., etc.). Add the ups and downs of the ongoing drama of motherhood and management. Throw in two very different (mostly good) pieces of news that are potentially life-changing and that carried me into an odd introspective space. (No, I’m not prepared to talk about them here yet – maybe later.) Add a few complicated relationships. Top it all off with a major screw-up in which I totally overlooked a presentation I was supposed to give (ugh). And there you have it – the week that was.

Now you know why I was mostly silent last week and will probably continue to be much of this week. There are only so many balls a woman can keep in the air without dropping a few of the rubber ones.

But then there was last night. Last night, for a few precious moments, I managed to put all the balls away on a shelf and walk away. The house was fairly quiet, and other than the laundry that needed to be shifted from washer to dryer to folding table, and a mostly-content seven-year-old who flitted in and out for a little mommy-love now and then, I didn’t have a lot of demands on my time. So I disappeared into my little studio and soon I was lost in a drawing that had begun to emerge at last week’s class.

It’s a row of small fishing sheds lined up on a dock with a couple of fishing boats in the foreground – meant to teach about perspective. Follow the lines to the vanishing point to determine the angle of rooflines, dock edges, etc. Lots of little details and extensive use of a ruler for all those doors, roofs, windows, and wooden siding. It’s not the kind of art work I would normally be drawn into (I get a little bored with symmetry), but oh my, was it zen-like! Soon those heavy thoughts were disappearing right along with those lines on the way to the vanishing point.

Though I recognize the value of meditation, and I’ve tried it several times in various iterations, it just hasn’t been something I’ve been able to fully adopt into my life. Too many monkeys playing around in my mind, I suppose.

That was before I discovered the meditative quality of art.  A paintbrush or pencil in my hand, and suddenly I’m a zen master!

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