Making a Difference One Piece of Art at a Time
By Jenn Ryan
“My ‘art’ was also in the way I cooked, the way I tried to cultivate a bohemian lifestyle and environ, wherever I found residence.”
As a young girl, I was a creative thinker and writer. My third grade teacher at Taft Primary Elementary assigned my friend Heidi and I as class storytellers. Every week we were challenged to create a new story (or add to an existing story) through words crafted with D’Nealian penmanship and our own hand-illustrations. We were given big pieces of Pepto-Bismol-Pink card stock and those fat-lead art pencils. Lucky for me, my desk was close to the pencil sharpener, as I liked my handwriting to be neat and tidy and because I didn’t really think of myself as an artist so much, there was a lot of erasing when it came to my illustrations.
At home, life itself was creative. My parents made our home – wherever it was in the country – comfy/cozy and filled with handmade things. We didn’t always have very much money, but it wasn’t obvious to my sisters and I. Our home was filled with color and light and tactile items, made with love and care. My mom has enjoyed the fiber art of crocheting for as long as I can remember. She continues to handcraft warm and colorful afghans for new babies, graduates, and neighbors. When we were younger, she enjoyed escaping to the ceramics studio, pouring her heart into the molds and making things both small and large for our home. Before it burned down when I was 12 years old, our living room was inhabited by two large ceramic lamps of fisherman on a ship. Captain Jack and First Mate Robert lit our lives and told stories of their own with their brown, leathery skin and sea-whipped hair. When we lived in Michigan, our garden was filled with a gorgeous array of colors. We spent time weeding and hoeing, hiding in cornstalks as the season simmered from hot August into languid September.
Throughout elementary, high school and college, my creative outlet was my writing. I never had a particularly awesome penchant for anything grammatically correct, and although an almost straight A student, was always haunted with interesting verbiage but terrible mechanics. My senior English teacher scribbled in angry red pen “Great writing, Jenni, but your grammar needs attention!” As an English major in college, I spent all of my time theorizing, analyzing, and describing critically and creatively in my writing. However, on a memorable occasion, what would have been A++ work (my dear friend and professor Roseanne was the granter of the “A++”), was granted a mere B, because of mechanics. I like to think my unique approach to language, communication, and writing is a part of my personality. I mean I was obviously doing something right, as I did complete my undergraduate work as a Magna cum laude, English Honor’s Society member. I thought I’d go onto graduate school, obtain a PhD and go onto live a life in academia, teaching students, just like me, who loved to learn and share and be inspired by thoughtful words, my lifelong.
If I had to do it all over again, I would have done exactly what I did with my liberal arts education at Alma College. But in addition to the depth of English, sociology, and women’s studies courses, I would have taken some art classes. When I reflect back on my interests back then, I think about the mixed media artwork I enjoy dabbling in now, and what it might have looked like back then. I imagine my idealistic activist heart being splashed all over pages and canvases in bright hues. Quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr., Alice Walker, the lyrics of Tracy Chapman – splashed onto pages painted with swirls and swerves of color. I did actually do a little art journaling – particularly as a sophomore – I was broken-hearted over a boy‘s rejection of me. I was stuck in a self-deprecating circle of [literal] sophomoric angst, so the colors were black, grey and blood red. My poems were dark and sad – so much so that both my sister and Roseanne checked in with me, to ensure that I was ok, reminding me of who I was. Pulling me away from the painful pity party.
“Art is a wound turned into light.” -Braque
The following year, I delved into Native American literature reading about the Lakota and their culture. I imagine canvas filled with burnt sienna, deep rusty orange, more red – and perhaps, the deep maize-yellow of a summer’s sun. The music and culture of my African American literature courses would have splashed in even more colorful hues – my mind races a bit, creatively imagining that mixed media and graphic design might have been useful mediums. I imagine use of archived newspaper stories alongside the coffee brown beauty of the colorful souls I was reading about – I see purple, magenta, indigo – perhaps gritty jade green. I hear jazz and blues and funk. I think of getting buzzed on ice cold hurricanes, swimming in passion fruit juice.
I didn’t quite find myself making ‘art’ until I was in my mid-twenties. Sure – there were plenty of handmade projects along the way – slips of paper painted in electric blue, reminding me of a mantra I wanted to keep close at hand, top of mind… “Risk” and “Carpe Diem” were the mantras of that time. I would make handmade greeting cards – more out of necessity than anything, but it was certainly a joy. I was a devout journal scribbler, filling pages with angst over one man or another and the constant want to sort out what it was I wanted to do with myself… How would I answer Mary Oliver’s question: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
What was my answer to Oliver’s question? My “art” was also in the way I cooked, the way I tried to cultivate a bohemian lifestyle and environ, wherever I found residence. It was evident in the way that I tried to dress mixing vintage with contemporary, trying to find my own way to suit my own shape, rebelling against convention, but in my first-born, polite sort of way.
If I were to do a cursory mental review of my life, I would find peaks and valleys pertaining to my level of contentment. I’m certain that in those peaks, I could glance left and right to the day being surveilled and find myself enrapt in some idiosyncratic enjoyment – tidying a rock collection with polish, weeding a tiny back deck container garden, painting one wall in a rental indigo-purple, collecting bright blue glass and arranging it in my basement apartment window sill, singing while baking a favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe – soon to be delivered to someone, getting lost in Joni Mitchell’s A Case of You on repeat while painting the first piece of art that really felt like something beyond a whimsical note card.
Those happy peaks would probably be found after sitting in circles with my book club gang “the whoopsadaisies literary aficionados and rose petal tea party circle”. They most certainly were after sitting in painting circles with my tribe over the past decade – were diving into our own sources of escape – laughing, sometimes crying, exploring new terrain gaining new ground. Probably eight or so years ago I learned about a career path – Art Therapy or Expressive Art Therapy or Intuitive Art Therapy. My naiveté about what the world had to offer me happened a lot the first couple of years after I graduated from college – I met new friends who were doing things I had no idea were actual careers – I remember wondering how the heck was any 18-year-old supposed to know what direction to take when they might not know what direction to take when they might not have a clue as to what’s even there for the taking!?!
The interesting thing about my art therapy, is that although I have not been going to college for an advanced degree to pursue this new found path, I believe that my life actions, my innermost hopes, and dreams, and my care of self, when I take the time to do so finds me independently studying this advanced degree. In fact, when I am most honest with myself, it is clear as day that it is my dharma. My life’s purpose. My one-true-thing. Yet …
One of myriad things I’ve learned to accept about myself is that I’m not a public speaker. I am quite introverted, and truth be told, I’m most comfortable in the background. So actually pursuing something like intuitive art therapy, which means that I would be some kind of guide to another; helping them find ways to sort out their life and feelings through art, is basically a personal impossibility.
The beautiful thing is that what I have come to very graciously realize is that through this contemplative research, hands-on-experimentation, and regular, devout independent study, that I am becoming my very own intuitive art therapist. For me, in life, in order to be happy, to maintain a sense of purpose and hope and steer as clear as possible from melancholy, I need art. It is my therapy.