On Creativity & Leadership: New Year New Perspective

Though new year’s resolutions can be cliche and oft forgotten, using the turning of a year as an opportunity to refocus can’t hurt. My ongoing goal for this year is to not let the fear of others’ perceptions make me question my decisions either in art or as a leader. Not that I should never question why I am doing what I’m doing; questioning oneself is healthy and necessary, but only if done for the right reasons.

A quick background blurb for those new to the blog – My day job is running an inclusive creative classes program geared towards adults with disabilities and mental health, and I am also a freelance artist.

I was hit with this the other day when I came home from the first week of the program’s new semester on a high, because a new student had taken me aside and let me know that they had not been out in public to participate in group activities in a long time, and that I had been a stabilizing presence that kept them calm and made them feel safe. As I was browsing through facebook while waiting for dinner to cook, I came across an article (mainly aimed at women) that stated that being called reliable, stabilizing, nice, or accommodating were not compliments and were basically code for being a complete doormat. As an independent minded person, this horrified me. Immediately, every time I’d been called any of those adjectives by others rushed through my head and halfway through creating a plan to deconstruct and rebuild my entire personality, I suddenly stopped and asked myself why I was doing this. I don’t know the person who wrote this article personally, nor do they know me. Why does this opinion suddenly hold so much weight? Should I instead be unkind, stubborn, leave a path of division and stress in my wake? It makes no sense for either women or men to live their life that way.

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Though it may not be fierce or glamorous or fit neatly within an awe-inspiring superhero persona, I don’t really want to be the leader who is kicking ass and taking names ;). I don’t want to be the leader that refuses to see the progress and can only focus on past mistakes in the people I work with. I don’t want to be the leader that kicks an employee when they’re down; I don’t want people to come to me with vulnerability, saying “Hey, I may need some extra support this week because I’m having a tough time with____________, or this hard thing just happened in my life, or I’m having this mental health struggle right now,” etc. and my response is, “That’s not my problem, leave your issues at home.” I can still hold people accountable without tearing down their self worth, and I don’t need the approval of those that are on the outside looking in that don’t know my group like I do.

I realized that without knowing it, I’d slipped into these same bad habits with my art … I’ve mentioned before how it was hard knowing what direction to go in after completing my last big 12 part series I’d worked on for around 2 years. When trying to come up with new concepts, I found myself constantly questioning myself based on how a new project may be perceived, and getting nowhere. If I start using more bright colors than usual will people think I’ve lost my edge, if I use my more dark imagery will I come across as an aging Hot Topic shopper, Will men feel left out since I draw mostly women, If I draw men will they think I’m trying to speak for them … ??? I’d gotten a lot of commissions done in the time since and some just-for-fun personal projects, but nothing with a strong direction.

When beginning your next creative endeavor for 2019, whether on your own or leading/educating a group, keep yourself in check by asking the right questions:

What kind of creator do I want to be? This question sounds simple, but is an ongoing process. I remember taking a fascinating hybrid philosophy/law class in college to fulfill one of my freshman year gen eds, and we started by discussing the tombstone question, basically when you’re gone, what do you want written on your tombstone? How do you want to be remembered? Now let that answer be in the back of your mind and guide your decisions, because our daily choices determine who we will become. Once you decide what kind of creator you want to be, the steps you need to take as a creative, the events you need to participate in, the programs you need to donate your time to, will no longer seem so up in the air, and won’t be so susceptible to changing with the wind the minute you hear a bit of noise.

Who am I trying to reach with this project? Oftentimes creative projects won’t be all about you, so there are indeed times you need to consider others’ possible responses to your work. But, if you are trying to appease everyone you will end up running yourself in circles, leading to a sub-par result that in trying to say everything to everyone, says nothing. Think of who you want to speak to with your project – It’s ok for you to create something that isn’t intended to resonate with everyone. Chances are, there will be others outside of your target that will end up getting something out of it, too.

What experiences am I drawing my ideas from? Creation flows most easily when it comes from the fount of something that the creator is passionate or knowledgeable about. Think about what in the world gets you stirred up, either positively or negatively. Think about what experiences you’ve had that have impacted you, that you remember every detail of; again, positive or negative. There may be an artist out there whose aesthetic and ideas you really admire, an artist you wish you could create exactly like, but it likely isn’t possible since they have a different story than you. Find your own voice rather than trying to retell another person’s story. And, if in the end you do want to use your voice to tell the stories of others, make sure you do your research and ask questions!

How would I want to be guided? Methods of leadership or teaching aren’t one size fits all as different styles are more effective for certain personality types, but this question is a good starting point. It pretty much boils down to the golden rule, and asking in each situation, “How would I want to be treated?” I’ve heard horror stories of art instructors sending students away in tears after a critique of their work. Yes, the work of a student or a fellow artist you are collaborating with may not meet your expectations, but how is destroying their enthusiasm for creation or any hope in them that they can improve going to help them get to where you want them to be? In leadership, treat others how you would hope they’d treat you, it’s really that simple.

What is distracting me from my purpose right now? Be mindful of what is going on when you feel yourself getting derailed like I described happening to me earlier … Stop yourself and note what activity was going on when the switch occurred, and what stimuli you were taking in. Is it criticism from toxic people in your life, comparing yourself to others on social media, taking opposing views personally without the lens of evaluation, forcing yourself into a box that is antithetical to who you are … Write it down if you have to, and when you start to notice a pattern do your best to remove or lessen that thing in your life, whether it means taking a break from certain friends or family members or spending less time putzing about online.

I have to decide for myself what kind of leader, and what type of creator I want to be… and so do you!

 

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Year End Reflections And A New Project

As I mentioned earlier, after the completion of my “Unlimited”series I’d been experiencing a bit of artist’s block. I tried playing around with a couple new ideas, but nothing seemed to stick.

Design is pretty much my constant state of existence similar to, you know, breathing, so I stayed busy with commissions, crafting, my day job, and involvement in the Creative Team at my church. It was one of my projects for the team that would be the inspiration for my next piece. Upon the usual late December reflection, I discovered the themes explored in this piece really parallel what I’ve learned in this last year.

The series this image was designed for was titled Whole Heart, and though I hate being videotaped, I was somehow coerced into it so you can view this video explaining the concepts and thought behind the design. For a medium I chose a simplistic watercolor illustration with bold colors and sharp outlines. This would make the image clear and easy to read on a small app icon as well as in larger print form. The style would also appeal to any age from kids to older adults. I was surprised how even with a “story” that seemed so basic, people could strongly relate to it on multiple levels. Hearing how touched many were by image made me want to develop the concept into a more detailed piece in my usual surreal, mixed media style. Right now I just have the pencil outline, but keep checking back for in-progress shots!

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The girl in this piece is doing something absolutely terrifying, and in no way should she be smiling or feeling any positive emotions such as liberation or elation, and yet …

I’ve always read things or heard speakers in inspirational youtube videos talk about the difference between joy and happiness, but for the most part it just sounded like a bunch of nonsense to me until this year. Suddenly – I get it. Happiness is about things that make you feel excited and content in the moment – it’s situational. Joy is about a balance of fulfilling what you need to be content, doing what you can to fulfill the needs of others or even the world or society as a whole, and learning how to deal with and process those desires that are not yet fulfilled, or those instances in your surroundings that are unjust, upsetting, or draining. Joy is about being your best self not just personally but in how you affect others.

Self care has been a huge buzz word this year, from making being comfortable into an art with lists of specific tenants required to reach maximum coziness level such as in the Danish hygge trend, to the increased conversation around kids needing “personal days” or “mental health days” in school just as adults get personal days off from work to reach their optimum ability and stay healthy. Articles about self care tend to revolve around taking it easy and giving yourself permission to indulge guilt free for the most part, but I read a really great article recently that discussed a far less popular part of self care. I suggest you read the entire thing for yourself, but the main highlighted, bold font point from this article reads as follows …

“True self-care is not salt baths and chocolate cake, it is making the choice to build a life you don’t need to regularly escape from. And that often takes doing the thing you least want to do.”

Self care could mean finally making that counseling appointment you’ve been putting off. It could mean finally seeking help for your alcohol or drug addiction you’ve been struggling with. It could mean having an uncomfortable, challenging conversation with a friend or family member. It could mean either temporarily or permanently cutting a toxic person out of your life. Doing the hard things will give you not the temporary happiness that comes from giving yourself a free day relaxing in front of Netflix with a fuzzy blanket and a bottle of wine (Because you’re still going to have to go back to that job you hate after the sun sets on your mental health day … I speak from direct experience.), but the joy of a life you don’t need to regularly escape from.

I have felt the most content and fulfilled this year than any to date in my adult life, despite the fact that I still experience bouts of anxiety from time to time, I still experience periodic stressers in both work and personal life at pretty regular intervals, and the fact that the news cycle and goings on in my home country of America have really, really done a fantastic job in 2017 of pushing the exact buttons that make my blood boil.

And that is definitely an awesome thing, but it is not even all about my own or your own personal well being or fulfillment. More and more, I don’t think the point in life is necessarily to be happy all the time; I don’t think happiness is the endgame.

Most moral people tend to think that the reason we shouldn’t do bad things is because though we may think those things will make us happy, there will be some deep, dark void inside of us that will eventually eat us alive or something. Unfortunately, I don’t think that is always the case. I think there are plenty of people who are perfectly happy celebrating greed, lying, assaulting and bullying, and causing great harm to others … until they get caught. Just turn on the news. That is why the level of our happiness does not always correlate to a good life lived. We may feel happier and more internally at peace living with our heads under the sand, ignoring all the problems and injustices going on in our world, accepting the unacceptable because “I can’t do anything about it, so why should I worry?” But … if every single one of us did that, how would anything ever change? Not that every person is called to be a world changer that will end up in the history books, but plenty throughout history have put themselves in some pretty miserable conditions in order to speak up for what is right – certainly not the road to happiness and internal zen – because the purpose of life is not simply achieving momentary happiness over and over and over again.

My hope for this new year is that we all continue to grow into our best selves, and continue to flourish in awareness, in empathy, in bravery, and yes, in joy.

Come at us 2018, we’ve got this :).

Art Discussion: New Year’s Resolutions

I have to admit, I never make New Year’s resolutions; partly because if you are truly dissatisfied with something, it seems silly to arbitrarily wait until the turning of the calendar to fix it. In part also because we all tend to set the same goals, those goals that we know everyone else is setting so we can easier relate to those around us as we share that we want to find our soulmate, get a promotion, or lose weight, and we can all laugh together about how we probably won’t actually do anything to work towards most of those things. But, what would happen if we committed to doing one thing that we were truly passionate about in this new year, one thing that we didn’t over analyze to death, asking ourselves, Should I want this? Is it too silly? Too shallow? Too lofty? Too weird? No one would understand anyway … 

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During my senior year of college 7 years ago (Whoa! 7 is a big number.), I entered an art book into the Annual Student Exhibition at Central Michigan University. I asked a sampling of the people I encountered in a day, some I knew well and some I did not, to think of a couple of experiences they would like to have before their life was over, and pick the most obscure one to share with me. I chose 35 different submissions to illustrate, and Underneath was  born. This was my first experiment with creating art based on collected personal stories, something I would use to create many more projects in the future. I also ended up winning the Grand Award for this piece, which was the first time I’d ever won anything for my art aside from a coloring contest in 4th grade, and not a bad way to exit my college career ;).


As annoying as it may be that the first thing anyone asks when meeting someone for the first time after “What’s your name?” is, “So what do you do?”, we kind of are what we do. This doesn’t have to mean our day jobs, or even be workplace related at all. What we do with each day is a choice, and it is these choices that reflect what we value and shape who we will become. True goals can give immense insight into each individual’s unique personality, drive, and psyche. That is why I so enjoyed sifting through the responses I received for this project.

I was reminded of Underneath recently for an unfortunate reason. The young woman who 7 years ago submitted the far right response above took her own life in a murder-suicide earlier this month. She attended my high school, but our school was so large growing up there were tons of people who walked in graduation with me that I felt like I’d never laid eyes on my whole four years there. I never knew her well, but our paths did cross and I remembered her submission deeply affecting me back then, as the news of what occurred deeply saddened me now. A couple of my good friends had had classes and clubs with her, some even keeping up over the years at least through texting and facebook, and the news hit them even harder.

This may not be a typical resolution, but something to be mindful of in the new year is this: we do not know everyone else’s story. We have no clue about everything the people we run into in our day to day life may be going through. People learn to adapt, and to act, and to portray themselves in person, at work, and in social media as how they want others to see them. I know I do it; I think we all do to a point. I have always been fascinated with the dichotomy between individual’s alone personas versus their public personas. It is a concept that is interesting to explore. It can also be a concept that is dangerous, because it can prevent people from reaching out who need help. If you make one resolution (aside from foregoing all convention and chasing your oddest dream / within reason and lawfulness, of course), resolve to be transparent and authentic, and resolve to be someone who is willing to make that reach when someone needs support either in the form of just a listening ear or otherwise. Christmas falling on a Sunday, I attended the Christmas morning church service at MFMC with my family this year. We spoke about how there is the whole Christmas story which most of us, churchgoers or not, have known since childhood. But, we all have stories, and our story, how we live and interact, can change someone else’s story for the better if we allow it to happen. We have nothing to lose for trying.

To see the rest of my art book in order, visit the album on my website.