The Art of “I Am”

I Am

On Thursday evenings, I attend a class called “Intuitive Writing.” A small group of us are led by amazingly gifted author and teacher (and just plain happy, kind, and soulful human being), Katherine Jenkins.  Her book “Lessons from the Monk I Married” has been translated into multiple languages and she writes a blog with the same title. Katherine’s class is helping us to develop a practice of writing from an honest and steady place.  In doing so, we are learning to hear a more authentic voice and decipher the inner judge, those deep-set fears and beliefs that tend to hold us back from a free flow of expression.  We are cultivating a practice of both writing and self-realization.

We had a guest at last Thursday’s session.  Katherine invited her good friend Helena, who is an art therapist at a hospital.  When we arrived, Helena was setting out her supplies:  glue, paint, brushes, fan-tipped markers, crayons, oil pastels, drawing paper, wood canvases, blank white puzzle pieces, feathers, clay, tissue paper, magazine pages, glittery decals.  It was a complete art supply store in a rolling case!   Everyone made jokes and small talk, settling into their chairs, all of us perhaps a little uncertain about what was expected.  And I was intrigued, and a little quiet.  When my mind is working, my mouth is not.  Anyone who knows me knows that silence means “Check in, because Michele is stuck in her head.”  My inner critic immediately began to calculate what materials and colors to use, how to craft something worthy to share with this group, how to let go and relax, how to not look like I’m trying too hard, how to….do it right.

We began the session with a short meditation, tuning into ourselves, our minds, thoughts, and physical feelings.  We then moved toward the art table to gather any supplies that would help us craft a piece that expressed the theme of “I Am.”

Each of us began tentatively fingering the piles of colorful, textured supplies.  A brush, a sheet of paper, pots of paint.  We moved quietly, deep in our visions of art and self.  Someone gently pulled gray spotted feathers from a bag and another settled herself on the floor, spreading photos across a white page.  For nearly an hour, we cut, painted, pasted, folded, dabbed.  We sighed, laughed, and murmured things like “Hmm.  No.” “What is this?”  “Ok, that works.”  Someone (maybe me) teased Katherine, saying: “I think she’s high on glue.”   It’s such a peaceful, funny, kind group of women and the energy of each of us, individually working on our crafts, moved through the room as gently as the evening light through the windows.

In the end, we gathered around the main table and spent ten minutes scribbling out what our piece of art meant.  What is this “I Am” we had created?  Glancing at my art, I felt a bit perplexed, detached.  I felt not quite sure if this was what I had envisioned or wanted.  As we took turns sharing our pieces and our words, I was stunned, as I often am, by the breadth of experience and insight expressed by these writers.  Each of us dwells in a life all of our own, yet we all, in myriad ways, connected to the others almost magically.

One artist at the table held up a sheet of black paper covered in carefully folded bits of textured and jewel-toned card stock, small images collaged in precise and imprecise places. She spoke of movement, darkness, and light.  Someone else had sketched a faint circle and shaded in a delicate, dancing pattern along its inner edge. The outer edge of the circle was a poem of contrasting feelings and images worded almost like a prayer.  Another writer layered magazine cutouts of a representation of each aspect of her life and self.  Another had layered a page with cutout paper hearts of every color, describing them as all of us layered in nature, like leaves.  There was much color, texture, and deep personal story in each piece.  All of this from simple feelings and thoughts drifting without form just fifty minutes ago.

I carefully transported my small piece home, tucking it carefully in the front seat so it wouldn’t slide about.  I felt strangely proud of making something, but I still wasn’t quite sure what it really meant—if it meant what I had felt.  Did I feel anything?  The next morning, I picked up the small creation and smiled as I saw me in that strange thing.   I smiled at its squareness, its angles.  That’s Michele:  Clipping paper carefully, keeping things tight and clean.  I smiled at the collage of black-and-white images I had decoupaged to the wooden canvas.  Neutral and nearly opaque, yet specific and so fitting:  A hillside and castle (me traveling to faraway lands); Women in early 1900s dresses perusing an exhibit of bird artwork (me living in a frozen world at times yet always embracing romanticism and hope.  And birds—why do I write about them so often?!); An art-deco train speeding along (me on my path, old ways forging to new, always going forward as well as I can.)

And the puzzle heart. My mind had held this image from the minute I stood up to gather my art supplies.  I traced and cut the pieces, watching the shape threaten to fall apart as I broke the perforations.  Painting an extra coat of bright red with the feeling of a lovely wood-handled brush in my palm.   And the missing puzzle piece (glued purposely to hide a dripped blob of red) is covered in so many layers of words.    Looking at it the next morning, I realized they appear to be bandages.  And this is exactly right, for words — the art of words, hearing words that I need to hear that rarely come — these are salves to the missing parts of me.  Words heal more than anything I’ve ever known.

My art is messy, coming up in places; it has uneven edges here and there.  It’s bubbling up in spots and worn away in others from pressing too hard.  But it feels real in my hands. My art is messy, sticky, bright, and careful. It’s confusing and perfectly clear.  It’s thoughtful and fragile, quirky and a little ugly in places.  It’s strange and wondrous and simple.  It sounds a bit like someone I know.

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