“Do not underestimate the thrill of trying.” –Julia Cameron
Mixed media art has always captivated me. I marvel at the imagination and creativity of those who bring together a variety of elements to interact and cohere to stimulate the viewer with the outcome. A bird rests on a torn edge of newsprint, and its song breaks into my thoughts. A disembodied hand offers a gift. Colors are layered, inviting me to pause and look more deeply into myself.
Would I like working with these materials? I’ve gotten hooked on it, but it took me some time to gather the courage to try it.
My first attempts at visual art were assignments in a college class. My initial drawings were so light that they could hardly be detected a few feet away. What was the point if nobody could see it? I had to be bolder. Charcoal drawings were assigned, so there was no choice to display my work for others to see. Gradually I gained a bit of confidence.
My best work was in calligraphy. It was the one skill I took with me and used in the years to come, crafting signs and small gifts. It makes sense that this appealed to me, because if I love anything in this world besides people and pie, it is the written word. It is almost as if words are old friends, so I am comfortable with the creative process in their company.
It’s no wonder, then, that my first attempts at visual art in recent years have involved words. In my desire to influence my grandchildren’s faith, I select a special Bible verse for each Baptism Day anniversary and render it playfully in calligraphy. They are not works of art, but they convey the value of Scripture’s wisdom for them. I hope they also indicate my love for them.
Calligraphy always caught my eye in gift shops and galleries, beckoning me to keep going back to this medium. It was daunting to attempt something that takes time to develop, but I had to try.
My next attempts used not only the Scripture verses, but paraphrase and color. Putting the verses into my own words drew me into their meaning. Imagining how to present them artistically was a new and exciting process.
My mind and imagination were opening up in other ways, and it seems that a new kind of creativity was beginning to flower within. I have always enjoyed the creative process in ministry and parenting, finding ways to teach and nurture within the bounds of traditional norms. As my perceptions about God, the world, and myself evolved, my desire to create expanded. I began to write poetry. This was fearsome at first too, probably because of my admiration for good writing. How did I dare offer my own words to the world when fine writing already exists, in abundance?
The inner voice refused to be deterred. Although countless other writers are blessing us with their wisdom and humor, they do not use my voice. I have something to say too.
It takes a long time to trust one’s inner voice. Mine is easily silenced by the fear that is perfectionism’s most effective tool. But these days I recognize the problem, so I can keep it at bay. “The perfectionist is a bully,” says Julia Cameron in It’s Never Too Late to Begin Again. “It wants us to doubt ourselves. But saying no to bullies does often make them go away…Creativity is an awkward process, two steps forward, one step back…We must be gentle with ourselves and have reasonable expectations, lest the perfectionist try to take us out of the game. With humble forward motion we are strong—stronger than the perfectionist.”[i]
My skill at poetry has grown only slightly since I began, because I do not practice it often. I ponder whether it is important enough to me to give it more time. That will show itself as time goes on. As a mentor from years past put it, “Either you will, or you won’t, and that’s OK.” I don’t have to live up to expectations for writing that are not grounded in curiosity and joy.
It was in following Cameron’s process, using her tool of Morning Pages that compelled me to try mixed media. Writing every day helped me consider what I really want to do with my time. As it happens, an art class appeared in my social media feed. “Tiny Tattered Houses” was advertised by Jennifer Chamberlin, who teaches the craft on her website “The Maker Beehive.”
I toyed with it for only a few moments before I signed up. The fee was a mere $15. What did I have to lose?
I loved it.
Finally I found a medium that promises me satisfaction and joy without being squelched by perfectionism. There were no exact lines or colors, only what emerged from my fingers and imagination.
Playing with paper, paint and glue released a whimsical spirit in me that I hadn’t realized was buried under responsibility and worry, mostly stemming from pastoring three churches during the pandemic. I was also dealing with intense pain from a total knee replacement. The creative process distracted me from the grinding experience of recovery, and I was lifted into a place of adventure and beauty.
The same website offered a yearly membership, which I immediately dismissed as too time-consuming and expensive. But my newly-awakened creative spirit would not let it rest. The cost was not more than I spend in books in a year, I reasoned. Writing my Morning Pages gave me the moxy to register and put down the money. I wrote, “I’m going to do it. I’m going to accept the invitation to explore a fun medium with a little guidance and accountability. It will free me from trying to develop my creativity too carefully and open me up to my carefree, fun self. (I know she’s in there!)”
Julia Cameron claims “it is enthusiasm even more than discipline that brings creativity forward. With just the slightest encouragement, our creativity responds to our taps, as if it has been lying in wait. I would argue that it has—everyone has a wellspring of creativity flowing beneath the surface, just waiting to be released.”[ii]
Cameron has helped me stoke the fire of my creativity. Over the years other family and friends have encouraged me to find my voice—in whatever form it takes on a given day—and use it. (Thanks, Karen C, Barbara H, Wendy V, Ginger A-L, Vicky M, Steve J, Carol A-J, Pam V, Mindy M, Jennifer C and all the Maker Bees!) It feels like a wondrous gift after a season of difficulty and fear.
I am grateful to have found new energy that fuels other pursuits, including ministry and my work as a spiritual director. I have long experienced the flow of creativity directed by the Holy Spirit when I write sermons and funeral/wedding meditations. I suppose I have regarded those as safe vehicles for my voice. But now I find that any activity can be flipped from drudgery to joy when viewed as a creative endeavor. In my current role as a chaplain, I approach each nursing home resident and staff member with curiosity, ready to listen and respond creatively as the situation warrants.
I wrote about the new energy for ministry in my morning pages: “These understandings are reflected in my new interest in mixed media collage and the pleasure of writing free verse poetry. The outcome is not so much planned as discovered. The Spirit is party to creating, and sometimes surprises me. I can lose myself in the process and be open to what flows.”
That’s it. Losing myself in the process, being open to what flows. Not a bad way to approach life in general. I wonder how I can be creative today as I clean windows and iron the clothes? I might even get back to my little corner studio and do more mixed media first! Time to play some more.
[i] Cameron, Julia. It’s Never Too Late to Begin Again, 2016. (New York: TarcherPerigree/Random House), p. 120.
[ii] Ibid., p. 97.