Artist Bio

The Gift Of Anxiety

On My Mind

I have struggled with anxiety since I was a kid, and would usually be the first person to scoff if anyone ever called this trait a “gift”. I have begun managing it as an adult through counseling and learning new coping/rerouting skills, some go the medication path, different things work for different people. What I do know, however, is that those of us with anxiety tend to agree that it is not a positive thing. When uncontrolled, it can be exhausting and cause heightened emotional responses and added stress to situations that aren’t at all threatening. It can cause us to consider all the dire “what ifs” but none of the possible happy surprises. It can introduce a lot of doubts in both ourselves and in our relationships with the people around us. Lately though, I’ve been challenging myself to think about the positives of certain attributes within myself that I don’t always like. I’m a big proponent of neurodiversity and try to always see the positive attributes of others’ brains that sometimes work differently, so it would go to follow that I owe myself the same courtesy. Fellow anxiety peeps, though you have probably been told that your affliction is this horrible burden, I’d ask you to come with me and think through the ways your tendency towards anxiety has actually helped you.

I was looking for a notebook with some blank pages left recently so I could jot something down, and started reading an old journal I’d abandoned. In it was a set of columns listing positives and negatives about my life at the time. I noted as a positive that I was in a long term relationship with “no doubts or issues” and had “no bouts of anxiety, panic attacks, or mood regulation issues like I used to get”. Now, while not having panic attacks is all well and good, I am no longer in this relationship and looking back there were plenty of issues, and plenty of reasons I should have been doubting the long term success of our partnership based on some pretty significant differences and toxic behaviors. At the time I was also not getting the support I needed or deserved at work and was quite frankly being taken advantage of, albeit probably not intentionally. I came to the conclusion that when I thought I was “overcoming” or “doing better”, what I really was doing was turning my brain off and giving over control of my life just to feel more “normal”. Maintaining Zen and not letting life rattle you is one thing, but no one needs to smile and talk about how great it feels to have a bird flying overtop shitting on your head all the while not moving from the spot you are rooted in below.

I definitely deal with a hell of a lot more anxiety today than I did when I wrote that entry, but I also love my life infinitely more. I let situational anxiety take its course, because though my emotional responses may be more amplified than the average person, it acts sort of like the check engine light in a vehicle, letting me know that something isn’t working and I need to evaluate and figure out what needs to change for my mind and body to start running at their best again.

What other positive attributes does my anxiety bring out?

A drive to regularly set personal and professional goals, show up and work hard until they are achieved.

Dependability – I can’t comprehend of making promises not intending to see them through, and if I agree to assist I am going to be on time and prepared.

On that note, I have a planning oriented nature, and don’t leave important matters to the last minute (um, or unimportant ones … 😉 )

I am able to empathize more with others who are struggling emotionally, and I know the experience has made me better at my job leading a program whose participants have various disabilities, mental health issues, and general quirks.

Something I’ve been learning is though we can all grow and change and should be committed to continuous growth every day, certain parts of us aren’t going anywhere. We can deal with these parts of ourselves more beneficially and make them work for us and not against us, but they likely aren’t going completely away. So, rather than engaging in self hate let’s work through the parts that are toxic or causing us unhappiness, but appreciate the parts that help us be better humans … including our anxiety.

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Art Discussion

Creating Is Vital Yet $$$ : Let’s Make It Accessible

For those who don’t know, I am here to tell you today that art supplies are ridiculously expensive. Creative expression has so many mental health benefits; it can be a productive way to release negative emotions like stress and anger, a relaxation tool, a way to divert oneself from anxious thoughts, a way to inspire oneself about life again and provide something in the day to look forward to, and a tool for communication when one is feeling unheard. Sadly, the high cost of accessing the tools to pursue the arts limits who can participate. Oftentimes the people who could benefit most from creative expression also have the most significant barriers in accessing supplies and classes, such as low income individuals of all ages, those with disabilities, and older adults. Aside from the mental and emotional benefits, with enough practice creative pursuits can provide important side income for those who are struggling, but first they need to be able to get in the door to begin with. 

I direct an inclusive arts program for adults of all abilities at Creative 360 Studio and Gallery. It is open to everyone, geared towards being an accessible and comfortable environment for adults with physical, intellectual, and psychological disabilities. I love where I work because their mission is to open that door to allow all people to experience the creative process. With the Express Yourself Artshop program, we have a host of professional working artists offering classes with collegiate level instruction, broken down so that all different levels of experience and learning styles can follow along. We offer affordable costs of instruction, provide materials, and offer scholarships. We have a Student Of The Month program where we award a special gift in the form of specific supplies in that student’s area of interest to someone who has stood out as going above and beyond to learn, grow, and succeed. It isn’t always easy, but it’s the right thing to do. Think of how much untapped potential is out there, simply because someone didn’t have access to even get started.

What can arts organizations do to help everyone tap into their undiscovered potential?

  • Always have a scholarship fund through grants, sponsors, and donations, not only for classes, but for juried shows as well. I understand the need to charge entry fees to cover salary for employees prepping for a show, reception costs, and advertising. I also know many artists who never exhibit or enter competitions not because they are “lazy” or don’t want to bother, but because they can’t afford the $35-50 entry fee. 
  • Seek donations so supplies can be provided, even if just for certain special classes or programs. You have no idea how many artists have brand new or like new supplies mounted up in their studio just collecting dust, and artists love to de-stash especially to causes that are getting more people into the arts. Another idea is to start a personal needs pantry, but with a twist … instead of food and toiletries as is traditional, creative supplies!

What can working artist do to help their fellow creatives get off the ground?

  • Donate when you can! Donate money to scholarship funds for local arts programs, or directly pay for a class or sponsor an entry fee for an artist in your life who you know wants to participate in something but can’t afford it right now. If you can’t donate cash, but have some extra supplies you don’t use as much, share with someone who doesn’t have access to supplies right now. If you get an amazing BOGO deal on paint, brushes, canvases, etc. share the extra or donate it to an organization that provides arts education. 
  • Share skills! Get together with other artists you know, and commit to showing the group how to do one thing that is within your area of expertise for free in exchange for them doing the same for you. Trading knowledge is always a win-win. Volunteer together to host a free art event in your community.  What is daunting to try to do alone won’t even feel like work when you have a group of talented and passionate people pulling together.
  • Don’t be a supply snob. Don’t scoff at other creators or be judgey when you see them using dollar store or economy grade supplies. Starting somewhere is better than not bothering to try in the first place, and at the end of the day a non-skillful artist can have all the fancy, expensive supplies in the world, but their work is still going to fall flat.

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This portrait was created during downtime at Artshop by fellow artist, Artshop drawing and painting instructor, and frequent collaborator Emiliano Vega using 50-cent-per-bottle craft paints. Mic drop.

Due to Covid, many schools are eliminating “extras” such as art, music, and gym. This is the only place many kids can get free art instruction. Now more than ever, making art accessible is vital.

I love sharing demos of affordable projects I’ve done with my Artshop crew, especially those inspired by art history. Check out these lovely Matisse inspired bowls!

If you’d like to snag some of Emiliano’s work, he has prints for sale on his featured page in my ebay shop.

 

 

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Artist Bio

The Power Of Saying No

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I must start off by saying this is not one of those articles that was written because the author is an expert on the subject; I am actually writing because I am very bad at this thing myself.

I have always struggled with saying no both personally and professionally. Yet, at the same time I’ve always been pretty sure of who I am and what I want … talk about some pretty serious dissonance! Let me tell you a bit more about myself… at this point in my life, I eat mainly plant based (aside from the occasional raw fish in sushi maybe twice a month), I seldom drink, I have no interest in smoking or drugs of any type (I don’t even take an Excedrin when I get a migraine!), and though I like being social I am one of those people who needs more quiet time than the average person to recharge so I have to strategically plan the amount of ‘going out’ I want to do each week and who I want to give my time and energy to … Oh, and I also am not interested in birthing children. You see where I’m going with this? Though there are a whole lot more things I say yes to, I find myself constantly apologizing, “Oh, I don’t ___________, I’m so sorry!” as if I should feel guilty for crafting a way of living my life that I’ve found makes me feel the most happy and healthy. I recently started going to counseling again, and I’m discovering that a lot of struggles in my personal life have been caused by my feeling like I always have to be the hero, and tying my performance and how I can please others to my worth and value.

Unfortunately, this is a trap that creatives can fall into professionally as well. Especially when we maybe aren’t the wealthiest, it is easy to feel incredibly guilty for saying no to a project or opportunity no matter how poor a fit it may be. The perception is often that we should be grabbing onto every piece of money or exposure we can get our hands on, and be eternally grateful for every opportunity that comes our way regardless of whether it really makes sense to take it or not. This whole “beggars can’t be choosers” mentality is not the way to build a life worth living, because the power is always in our hands regardless of our current status.

So, here is your daily reminder that you actually are allowed to say no! Trust me, I am reminding myself just as much as I am reminding all of you!

  • You are allowed to say no to projects that don’t align with your mission and values. 
    • Some projects are going to end up selling something you don’t support, whether that’s an idea or mindset or a person or product. You are not being judgmental or impolite by simply saying, “You know, this really just isn’t for me, I’d suggest you find another artist.” I found myself in a situation once where a longtime client asked me to create a small political piece. It wasn’t anything hateful, but it was celebrating a political figure that I really did not agree with. I was so concerned with offending a client that I’d developed a great rapport with that I accepted, even though inside my unease was through the roof. I told myself I do art to make people happy and if this was going to make someone happy, it was ok. Still, the discomfort just kept ramping up every time I sat down to get started. I ended up having to be honest and tell my client that because of my own personal opinions and beliefs I would not feel comfortable taking on this commission. It was a long, awkward conversation and they were a bit offended at first, but at the end of the day any tension blew over and we still were able to maintain a working relationship. Say a client wasn’t willing to work through something like this, do you really want to work with someone who treats you like a machine and is willing to force you to take on work that you don’t feel comfortable with? As a creative, you are your own brand and you do have to think about what your body of work, including commissions, says to the rest of the world.
  • You are allowed to say no if taking on a project would exceed your preferred workload.
    • No one else is allowed to tell you how to structure your life. You know how much you can handle at once in your business. Everyone functions at different capacities, and that’s ok. Just because you have the time, doesn’t mean you have to give it. I have had to reach the point of complete burnout to learn that I need to create margin in my life, which can be hard to do as someone who is partially or fully freelance. When you don’t have a “clock-in/clock-out” sort of job your life can easily become 24/7 work to the expense of your relationships, hobbies, and own mental health. Actively think about how many free hours you want to have each week, and make sure you get them. You are not lazy for wanting time to yourself to relax and enjoy life, and don’t need to play the comparison game. Some people need a bigger margin of downtime than others to function well, and you know your brain better than anyone else.
  • You are allowed to say no to projects that are outside of your preferred skill set or area of interest.
    • A lot of times people assume that when someone is an artist, they can do anything and everything related to art and creativity. While many creatives do dabble in a variety of artistic pursuits, no one is good at everything. It doesn’t do you or your potential client any good for you to force yourself to bumble through a project that is outside your area of interest and/or expertise. Trust me, I’ve tried. If you have a network of other creative friends or acquaintances with different skill sets than you, this is a great opportunity to throw them some work by recommending them to the client as an alternate option. Chances are, they’ll do the same for you in the future!
  • You are allowed to say no to projects or opportunities that put you in an environment you aren’t comfortable with. 
    • Toxic work environments are the worst, and unfortunately they can happen in any field including creative work. There is something to be said for pushing yourself out of your comfort zone every once in awhile, but if the people and environment a current project or opportunity requires you to be around is becoming soul crushing and making you hate doing something you once enjoyed, then it’s time to go. Any job that crushes your passion for your craft is not worth it; know when to say, “Well, I tried it!” and move on.
  • You are allowed to say no to projects that don’t have an equitable payout.
    • Art is very personal to me so I hate talking about money in relation to creating. However, if art is part of how you make a living then you have to view it through the lens of, every other field gets compensated for their time and expertise. Being compensated at all can’t be the only goal though, you also need to be compensated fairly. If you don’t really think about how you price out your work, you could end up working for less than minimum wage. I often will give friends and family a deal, and enjoy donating my time and skills to charitable efforts that enhance my community. However, I have had to sadly turn down potential clients whose amount they were willing to pay would not near cover the cost of my time and materials even with giving them a deal. I want art to be accessible to all, but I also have bills to pay like anyone else. I’ve gotten burned in the past accepting $50 for about 10-12 hours of work, and quite honestly that’s just not ok. Be generous, but also know your worth.

Closing doors can have such negative connotations, but by closing the doors that you weren’t meant to walk through you free up your time for the doors that are going to open up a vibrant new world. None of us can do it all, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Set boundaries, create how you want to create, and love yourself.

 

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Techniques and Tutorials

The Quirky Cats Of Louis Wain

For those new to the blog, my “day job” is running an inclusive arts and wellness program geared towards adults of all abilities, Express Yourself Artshop. Though we have a full staff of instructors, I love teaching so I always make sure I have the time to teach one or two classes each semester. One of my favorites is Creative Minds, an art history based class where students learn about a different artist each week and do a quick project based on their work. I especially like to focus on artists with disabilities or mental health struggles. Due to the whole Covid situation, I haven’t taught this class in awhile so I figured I’d share some of my fun ideas online! Cat lovers, today’s artist is for you :).

Louis Wain was a late 19th century artist who made playful illustrations of cats, oftentimes dressed and behaving as humans. Though his art was whimsical and light hearted, he had a very difficult life. He was born with a cleft lip, and doctors at that time advised his parents that he should not go to school with other children because of this. He received no education until age 10. His father passed away when he was 20 and he then became fully responsible for supporting his mother and sisters. He fell in love and got married, but shortly thereafter his wife became ill and passed. His illustrations, most of which he had done for his wife to lift her spirits while she was ill, became wildly popular and were being published in magazines all over the US. However, he did not have a strong business sense and was often taken advantage of. By the early 20th century he was destitute.

As his mental health began to decline, his cats became far more psychedelic, surreal, colorful, geometric, and fragmented. The fact that his art so viscerally reflected what was going on inside has made him an interesting artist to study. Though there is no way to know for sure, it is believed he probably had schizophrenia.

Were Wain “normal”, would his art have looked the same? The answer is undoubtedly no. Our differences give us insight and ideas that others don’t have. Sadly, back then mental health was very much a mystery. Today, help is available so that people can maintain their unique way of thinking, but for the most part not unduly suffer. Until the end of his life, art was an anchor for Wain when all else was instability, as it is for many.

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Art Education, Exhibitions and Other News

Closing Up 2019: A Year In Art

I have been pretty transparent in both my face-to-face public life and my online life about 2019 being one of the toughest years I’ve had in quite some time for a variety of reasons. Though I am more than ready to let go and look forward to 2020, and though “blessed” is definitely not the first word that would come to mind when I think of this past year (the word I’m thinking of starts with an f, guys …) … I am blessed that my ‘day job’ was many times my anchor through a tumultuous 2019. How many people can really say that???

For those new to the blog, I direct an inclusive arts and wellness program called Express Yourself Artshop that is open to students of all abilities, largely serving adults with physical, intellectual, and psychological disabilities. I have worked with Artshop in some capacity since it’s inception a little over 6 years ago, and have had the opportunity to see it grow and transform just as the program helps its participants grow and transform on a personal level. Looking back, 2019 was full of positive experiences and new adventures in creativity in our corner of the world.

The focus this year was definitely getting the students’ art out into the community. Creative expression is invaluable for the peace, joy, and confidence it can give an artist while creating. People really should do art primarily for themselves, but still, getting an artist’s work out of their own home and into the world allows that creation to further make an impact on the public that views it. Especially when it comes to artists with disabilities, society makes a lot of assumptions about what they can and can’t do. Educating through art is another part of what we aim to do.

Our Artshop crew was chosen to participate in the community’s Downtown Summer Sculpture Series. We made a proposal as to how we would transform the default mold, and once accepted proceeded to work as a group to create “Let Your Light Shine”. Not only does the positive message reflect our goal for anyone who participates in our program, but the idea of piecing together different shapes, sizes, and colors of glass to create something that would not be as beautiful were it covered in identical decorations is also symbolic of neurodiversity and the celebration of differences.

2019 was also a year of collaboration. In addition to the sculpture above, students worked on many 2D mixed media group works in a larger scale. Collaborating allows students to play off of each other’s strengths, support each other’s weaknesses, and push themselves to come up with new ideas and creative solutions as they work towards a unified vision.

Two of the collaborations were featured in Creative 360‘s annual fundraiser for auction, both highlighting a creative practice 360 offers. One themed around theater was a collaboration between two of my students, Melanie and Colleen, under my guidance. They collaged the background of a large canvas and a set of masks with old newspapers and magazines, and then chose colorful words that embodied what Creative 360 meant to them to include. We worked together on an overall design and pattern for the painting, and they came up with the idea to place butterfly cutouts flying across and did the layout on their own. I asked questions to prompt ideas, but the vision was theirs and it was truly amazing to see them get excited about what they were doing and bounce ideas back and forth, supporting and encouraging each other along the way.

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The second piece was worked on slowly over the year with a couple of different class groups, starting with a colorful abstract background over which they applied stamping, texture, and doodling with paint markers. Afterwards, smaller silhouettes of figures doing yoga poses were stenciled on (including a shout out to wheelchair yoga on the far right). Last, larger cutouts were layered overtop to provide a main focus. It was amazing how completely different groups were able to come up with ideas to continue the evolution of this piece for a unified final masterpiece.

Another successful collaboration was Creative 360’s performance of scenes from Alice In Wonderland over the summer. Students this year took part in every step of the process of putting on a small production, from deciding costumes to hand creating some whimsical and summery nature inspired backdrops. One of our Acting Class “regulars” even stepped up to fill the role of stage manager, and helped facilitate practices and organize the final show.

Videos of our different performances, events, and open mics throughout the year, including those at our most recent holiday gathering, can be found on Artshop’s Facebook Page. If you want to support our students and also snag some very cool original art, visit our Virtual Gallery, Ebay Shop, and Redbubble Shop. Happy holidays!

 

 

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Music and Film

Dir En Grey 2019 Tour: Music And The Power Of Vulnerability

I recently had the opportunity to get out of town and see one of my favorite bands, Dir En Grey, live in concert. I do not possess any musical talent or skill myself, but am a huge music appreciator. What I look for in bands is the ability to be diverse and work in a variety of styles while still staying true to their own unique creative expression, and Dir En Grey is one of the best examples of this I can think of. Each of their albums has its own distinct sound and story, and they can move between beautiful, melodic, and soothing and intense, hard, and aggressive seamlessly within the same song. I went into this experience with no expectations, just excited to hear a band I have enjoyed since late high school live. I never dreamed I would be so emotionally moved by an experimental metal band, or that I would leave with such a much-needed refill of artistic inspiration, a spark lit that caused me to reflect on my own life as both an artist and as simply a human being. The key to this connection was vulnerability.

The name of the tour was “This Way To Self Destruction“, and throughout the performance singer Kyo was playing a character that you could see slowly self destructing until their brand new, epic 10 minute song “World of Mercy” played at the end. The movements and miming, dance, and entrancing images played on the screen behind the band were so emotive that though the lyrics were in Japanese I could still understand exactly what each song was conveying.

Many of the band’s lyrics deal with depression, suicidal ideation, isolation, hopelessness, and anxiety, their art revolving around a lot of darker themes and imagery. However, the approach they use doesn’t glorify or romanticize negative emotions, but instead lays bare the things we all experience to some degree and asks us why there is so much greed, hatred, struggle, betrayal, and immorality in our society. Why is our world so hard to survive in? This raw honesty and straightforward, no-bullshit communication through their music is what makes them stand out, especially coming from a culture like that of their home country of Japan where transparency and public displays of emotion and opinion are more repressed and often considered inappropriate.

My friend Joannah, whom I attended with and who actually is a musician herself, posted this favorite quote of hers from 2007 before the show. For context, Kyo was asked in an interview ‘Is the purpose of Dir en Grey to disturb and unsettle your audience rather than simply to entertain?’

Maybe neither. I hate entertainment, but I’m not trying to disturb either: what I’m trying to do onstage is express the pain and frustration we all feel in life but also to look beyond it at a different world without that. If you’ve always lived in the light, then you won’t know what darkness is, and if you’ve only experienced happiness, then you can’t recognize real sorrow. You have to experience all of life to be truly alive.”

Just as their music moves back and forth from intense screams to melodic vocals and instrumentals, their ruminations on the burden of life are not without hope.

As a creator myself, I believe vulnerability is an inseparable entity from the creative process. Connecting with your viewers, watchers, or listeners requires honesty. One of my favorite TED Speakers, PHD Research Professor and Author Brene Brown, talks a lot about the power of vulnerability. I’d encourage you to take some time to watch her talk; it’s life changing.

I will leave you with another quote from Kyo,

“I think everyone has bad experiences and things they don’t want to say and I think there is meaning in letting it out.”

I’m definitely going to do a painting based on one of these photos. Any recommendations readers???

 

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Art Education, Project Ideas, Travel

Isaiah Zagar : Creative Minds Art History Project

I love to travel, and was lucky growing up to be part of a family who enjoys a change of scenery every so often as well. An experience that still stands in the forefront of my mind is accidentally happening upon one of the most breathtaking displays of public art I have ever seen while in Philadelphia on one of the last trips my immediate family and I would take together in our little quartet before my brother and I were “officially” grown-up with our own jobs, schedules, and lives.

Mosaic artist Isaiah Zagar has his work across buildings all over Philadelphia and throughout the rest of the country as well, but his Magic Garden is something special, a truly immersive art experience that really does feel like you are being transported into a different universe temporarily as if by magic.

Though he started as a painter, he ended up becoming most known for his public mosaic work. He became an integral part of the “South Street Renaissance” in the 1970s, bringing excitement, inspiration, and beauty to the ignored and abandoned areas of his hometown. The interesting thing is, he only discovered this medium because of others’ willingness to invest and believe in the talents and well-being of those who are struggling. It was while being hospitalized for a breakdown related to undiagnosed bipolar disorder that he was introduced to mosaic making, and he credits this art practice with bringing him out of his depression. Zagar has stated that he was determined to use his breakdown as a springboard into positive mental and spiritual growth, and though mental health is a chronic struggle, he has done just that. At 80 years old, he is still here, filled with an enthusiasm for lifelong learning.

Zagar’s mosaics aren’t just glass and tiles. He utilizes a wide range of materials, much of it upcycled “trash”, and integrates painting and poetry into his designs as well. I had my students make their own mini mosaic on 12×12 tiles using a variety of mixed media materials such as glass pieces, broken jewelry, beads, discarded board game pieces, and more. This is a great way for art programs to use up any odd donations or miscellaneous supplies. I work with students with a wide range of abilities in my Express Yourself Artshop program, and we also have time constraints since we typically spend 1-3 weeks on one project before moving on to the next. To make mosaic art work for our needs, we had students paint the background of their tile whatever color they wanted to show through in between their mosaic pieces, and after they had chosen their pieces and laid out their design we used Weldbond adhesive to attach the parts rather than using grout.

It was interesting to see the messages and themes students were drawn to include in their work, and I was happy to hear that many of them found the process inspiring and therapeutic, same as Zagar did.

If you are interested in learning more about this artist, one of Zagar’s sons created a fantastic documentary about his father’s journey. You do not have to be perfect or feel like you have everything figured out to use your gifts and skills to bring light and life to others. Even through his intense struggles, Zagar has had a profoundly positive impact on his community and continues to do so to this day.

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Artist Bio

My Experience With High Functioning Anxiety

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2019 has been rough. In an earlier post I commiserated that at least living in constant fight-or-flight mode birthed some awesome artwork, and I kind of kept doing that thing where I would joke about how terrible I was feeling, brush it off, tell myself it was just a “bout” that would pass. Then the months went on and I was still dealing with ramped up anxiety, waves of depression, moments of intense anger and irritability and an overall difficulty to control my emotions. I recognized what was happening because I’d been there before. As of this week, this time I am doing something about it.

I’ve dealt with anxiety since childhood, and always thought about counseling but then it would get better for a little bit, so I’d put it off. I had bouts of being pretty miserable and losing hope in nearly everything but at the same time, not to be funny, I wasn’t failing at life. I was maintaining a reasonable amount of friendships, I was handling a high stress job, I was churning out personal art projects that I was happy with at a pretty amazing speed … I’d had fleeting thoughts of suicidal ideation from high school going forward but they were isolated incidents, few and far between, and I always viewed them as some pesky creature that had invaded my brain like ‘hey, get out of here, you don’t belong!’ not something I seriously wanted to happen. After all, I’m the girl that goes to lengths to do everything possible now to guarantee I make it to 100 years old (constant worrying over mortality is probably another anxiety symptom, but hey)! I felt I didn’t really have a right to seek counseling because in the back of my mind I thought they might laugh in my face when I showed up for the first meeting and say, “Why are you even here?” So many people struggle so much worse.

One thing I’ve learned through my job working with adults with all forms of disability including psychological, is that all mental illness is wildly misunderstood by the population at large. I feel like with my struggles being mostly unseen, when shit finally hit the fan and started to get worse throughout the last 6 months or so I ended up feeling more isolated actually then when I’d been keeping silent and “passing”, and I don’t think I was prepared for that. My anxiety and depression didn’t fit the mold, and some days I wondered if I should just start laying around in bed just so people would take it seriously but the thing is, I was filled with energy and the last place I wanted to be was in bed. High functioning anxiety is real and it is tough, though it may not look as dire on the outside. I can never speak for everyone, but here is what this girl with high functioning anxiety wants you to know:

Don’t analyse us. (Unless you are our counselor and it’s your job 😉 ) We are already constantly questioning our every move, every word, every facial expression as we move through the world. People are allowed to not be at 100% 24/7. Saying “Why do you sound tense, why are you so turned up, calm down!” (I’ve literally had people say these things to me when I’m not even raising my voice, just have a serious expression on my face!) over and over again even if it is asked out of concern does not help, it just makes the anxiety worse. There are constructive ways to check in, but policing facial expressions and body language are not it.

When we talk about how we feel, don’t respond with, “You just need a drink”. I do drink socially, but usually try to not drink when I am feeling particularly low because it tends to make it worse. I am lucky to not struggle with this right now, but many people with anxiety and other either situational or permanent mental health issues self medicate with substances, so this could actually be really unhealthy and dangerous advice. I did struggle for a period of about a year in college with self medicating social anxiety in large gatherings with alcohol, and although we are very casual in the US about binge drinking being a “normal” part of transitioning through young adulthood, it really shouldn’t be as normal as it is.

Similarly, please don’t keep telling us we need to drink more tea, eat 10 almonds every day, or just eat a freaking banana. Full disclosure, I love all 3 of those things and do consume them quite regularly and guess what, I still have anxiety. Yes, a healthy diet certainly does impact one’s mental health and quality of life, but it isn’t always a magical panacea. I myself make a habit of eating healthy and tend to just think fresh, healthy food tastes better anyway. Yet again, I still deal with anxiety. Assuming someone’s mental health issues are occurring because they aren’t taking care of themselves is just that, assuming, and is just going to compound their feelings of guilt, shame, blame, and guess what – anxiety!

We aren’t “faking it” to get out of things we don’t want to do. I’m an adult. When I have to dial back on some things and allow for more margin in my life to recharge, I’m not “playing sick” to get to stay home from school and watch cartoons. I am a person that hates sitting around being inactive or being unreliable, and often joke that I’m allergic to relaxation. So, if I say I’m having a hard time and just can’t do a, b, or c, I mean it and usually no one is more frustrated about it than me. If I am experiencing a particularly rough time, there can also be a fear of potential embarrassment; What if I start having a panic attack and can’t get to a private place quick enough?

We don’t always need a solution from our support system. We don’t need a team of cheerleaders shouting at us, “You can do it! Pull it together!” We don’t need “tough love” and to be forced into going through the motions as if nothing is wrong in hopes by sheer force of willpower the cycle will be broken. We need to be heard. We need our support system to listen to understand, not listen to “fix” us or listen to reassure us “it’s not that bad”.

At the same time, no one else is responsible for our mental health but us. Anxiety is not a license to lash out at people with no consequences. No one is obligated to play therapist when we should be seeing a professional counselor. No one should feel the pressure of being the “one thing” keeping us going, and it is ok to respectfully call us out if you feel we are doing any of these things.

Know that there is no required severity level to getting help. You don’t have to wait until things reach a breaking point. Here are some other excellent articles with insight into a less often talked about dimension of anxiety:

What Are The Signs Of ‘High Functioning’ Anxiety?

What It’s Like To Have ‘High Functioning’ Anxiety

The Characteristics of High Functioning Anxiety

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Project Ideas

Creative Minds Art History Project – Vincent Van Gogh

Hello all! This is my first post I’ll be doing on my Creative Minds class projects I am leading with my program this semester. Each week we will be learning about a well known artist from the past or present, and completing a project based on their process and style. I work primarily with adults with disabilities or mental health issues, and though we will not only study artists with disabilities, mental health issues, addiction, or chronic illness, these individuals will be a special focus.

Today I’ll be walking you through an enjoyable and easy project inspired by the art of Vincent Van Gogh. Being the Coordinator as well as an instructor for an inclusive recreational arts program, there is always a wide range of abilities and experience levels in each class. I am excited to make art history accessible and fun for all ages and abilities. Vincent Van Gogh has always been one of my favorite historical artists, so of course he had to be the artist I chose for week 1. I know that he’s a lot of people’s favorite, but I have always felt a special kinship with him as we also happen to share the same birthday!

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His use of light, color, and movement through swirling, visible brushstrokes has become iconic and easily recognizable even to those with no knowledge of art. Also common knowledge are Van Gogh’s struggles with mental health throughout his life. He was blessed with a supportive and loving family member, his brother Theo, who financially supported him so that he could continue painting despite being unable to hold a job or make an income for himself. It seems his brother saw firsthand the transformative power of art, giving Van Gogh at least a few more days, months, years, or sometimes just moments of peace and joy than he would have experienced otherwise.

Oil paints are pricey, require copious amounts of time to complete a piece, need adequate ventilation that may not be available in all classrooms, and can be frustrating for beginning artists. So, we ditched the oil paints for oil pastels!

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The first step in our project was to make a simple outline in pencil first. Students were encouraged to be inspired by the provided images of Van Gogh’s most famous works, but not necessarily to copy. They could make a scene, a still life, a person or animal, or anything else that came to mind. They could then use the pastels to trace over their pencil outline, and add more lines in between to mimic Van Gogh’s iconic style. Students could fill their paper with as many swirls, stripes, or dashes as they wanted as long as they still left white space behind, because next the magic happens!

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After their pastel outline was completed, students could fill in their different areas with watercolor washes, and watch the oil pastel repel the water. Though not a requirement, this technique is especially amazing to watch when washing darker watercolors over bright or light pastel. One of the students even commented that it was “like magic”. This process is simple enough to be enjoyed by students of all abilities with minimal frustration, but also fun for more advanced students. Pro tip: make sure you have enough water in your paints! If your watercolors are brushed on too dry, they won’t repel as strongly. Also, be sure to use paint brushes with soft bristles. Stiff, scratchy brushes are harder on the oil pastel and will not give as neat of a result.

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There is a common narrative that Van Gogh suffered so much because while he was alive his art never became famous and people wouldn’t buy his paintings. I don’t know about that … I am a Doctor Who fan, and for those of you unfamiliar with the show it’s about time travel. Who would have thought, but this whimsical sci-fi TV show ended up moving me emotionally more than any work of cinema I’ve ever seen, and I watch a lot of movies! In my favorite episode, our adventurers go back in time to pay a visit to Vincent Van Gogh. They end up whisking him away to the future, where he can see all his paintings on display in a museum, and hear his fame being lauded. It is hoped that after seeing this, Van Gogh’s spirit will be renewed, and once he is returned to his own time he will not end his life as he did in history. They hope that when they visit that same museum again after their adventure, there will be walls of new Van Gogh paintings, having altered the past by showing Van Gogh his future. That does not end up being the case.

We put so much emphasis in our culture on fame, money, talent, and popularity that it is hard to accept that these things are not a magical panacea to fix all of our problems, and that sometimes these things are not enough to make us happy.

We need to keep reaching out to each other. As this episode concludes,

“The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice versa, the bad things don’t always spoil the good things and make them unimportant.”

Make it your goal to add to the pile of good things for the people you encounter each day.

A student that had been reluctant about this project at first because they don’t draw or paint ended up having a blast, saying they felt like they were getting to play and be a kid again. A lot of times, that is exactly what art is about! As Van Gogh himself said,  If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced. I hope some of you will decide to play and try this project yourself at home! Be sure to check back in the following weeks for more fun project inspiration.

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Art Discussion, Artist Bio

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 :).

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