My parents’ duplex is like a shrine dedicated to our family’s artistic talents. One sister’s paintings, sketches and collages decorate the walls. Another’s drawing holds a prominent spot in the dining room. A cabinet displays my father’s sculptures and my mother’s handmade dolls, which are outfitted in 19th-century costumes that she designed and sewed herself.
My home, by contrast, is littered with what looks to be an array of kindergarten art projects. Which sounds kind of cute, except that they weren’t made by 5-year-olds. They're all mine.
A tour of my house reveals a host of unfinished, mangled, amateurish attempts at “art,” all testaments to my stunning lack of talent, which to me always suggested I might be adopted.
A Rundown of My Failed Artistry
In a moosehide-drum-making workshop four years ago, I needed so much help that when I show people the final product, I feel compelled to give the credit to someone else. The fused-glass workshop was a fun bonding experience with my best friend and her daughter. But the mismatched colors inside my chimes would lead you to conclude the pieces were chosen at random from a bag of hardware-store color swatches. And though the catalog assured me that it was impossible to flunk Basket Weaving 101, my efforts in that workshop were an unmitigated disaster. (I have yet to finish the base.)
My kind husband never said much when I showed him the “fruits” of my labor, and he even hung a sad little mosaic I’d made in our front entranceway. I’m not sure if that’s because he genuinely liked the image of our farm or because we’re childless and never had the opportunity to display actual kiddie art projects.
In spite of all that, I continued to attend arts and crafts workshops at midlife, searching for my inner artist — and any shred of artistic talent that might link me to my creative family.
(MORE: Why a Love of the Arts Will Help Your Brain Age Better)
A Creative Turning Point
One day two years ago, while casually reading a Canadian lifestyle magazine, I came across an article about the award-winning edVentures program in Fredericton, New Brunswick. The monthlong summer event features more than 100 crafts and culture workshops, which last from half a day to five days. Determined to find something I might be good at, I signed up for a two-day introductory silk-painting session.
En route, I visited my parents and the “shrine” in Montreal, then boarded a one-hour flight to Fredericton. I was excited and hopeful that the workshop would finally help me to unearth some hidden talent. But I also feared this would wind up being yet another artistic dead end.
The workshop at the New Brunswick College of Craft and Design began with instructor Melanie Mitchell demonstrating some classic Japanese Shibori silk painting techniques. Then she explained that we’d be creating designs on white silk scarves, which would be our “canvases.”
The methods seemed exotic, yet simpler than what I had imagined. One involved wrapping a scarf around a piece of a pipe, crisscrossing it with string and then painting it. This technique produces white lines wherever the string touches the cloth. Another involved placing small round items, like coins, on a scarf and painting around them to create a pattern of small white circles.
Flipping through Mitchell’s collection of painted scarves, I spotted one that looked like an abstract watercolor painting. I asked how she did it, and she said, “I just scrunched it up like this.” She picked up a corner of the scarf, twisted it and let it fall back onto the table. Then she grabbed another part of the scarf and did the same thing. I was fascinated — scrunching up pieces of silk seemed like something I could handle.
(MORE: Returning to a Childhood Dream of Being an Artist)
The Artist at Work
I headed back to my table and grabbed a corner of the white scarf stretched out before me, bunched it up and let it slip between my fingers. I grabbed another corner and did the same. I didn’t like the shapes the cloth created when it landed, so I flattened the scarf and started over.
After several attempts at scrunching and swirling, I was able to create delicate folds. Carefully, I painted the edges of the cloth purple and applied pink to the tops of the folds. I watched with satisfaction as some of the boysenberry-colored paint dripped unevenly down the sides of the folds and formed wavy lines on the cloth.
A small group of participants had gathered around me, raptly watching. “What an artist,” one exclaimed, her eyes glued to me hunched over my emerging masterpiece. A few others wandered over to take pictures. And for the first time in my life, for one fleeting moment, I actually felt like an artiste.
After I got home, I kept unfolding my scarf to admire it. It looked even better than when I’d first painted it. I couldn’t wait to wear it in public. I bought a black summer sheath dress to go with the scarf (its simplicity would make the design pop) and wore them to an evening reception.
People admired the accessory and paid me compliments. I was proud to tell them that I had made it myself. I guess I am my parents’ daughter after all.
Where to Find Your Inner Artist
The sky’s the limit when it comes to arts or crafts classes and workshops. Local colleges and artisans, art schools and YMCAs offer one-day sessions, ongoing courses and sometimes private instruction. And art doesn’t mean just painting. You can work with wood, clay, glass, jewelry or textiles. Here’s a sample of what art schools and studios across the United States can offer:
- Mosaics and stained glass Classes at the Chicago Mosaic School are for beginners as well as professionals and range from three-hour introductory workshops to eight-week courses. (773) 975-8966.
- Glass-blowing Take a two-hour introductory workshop or a more intensive weeklong summer course at the Pittsburgh Glass Center. The Center offers more than two-dozen introductory sessions where beginners can learn to make a variety of objects including beads, ornaments, pendants and tiles. Advanced courses that focus on different techniques run from one to eight weeks. (412) 365-2145.
- Pottery Make a vase by hand, master the wheel or develop ceramic decorating techniques in afternoon workshops or weekly courses at Philadelphia’s Clay Studio. Located in the Old City neighborhood, the studio also has a gallery. (215) 925-3453.
- Traditional Native American art Gain a new appreciation for these venerable art forms at the Taos Art School in New Mexico. Summer workshops include traditional Navajo weaving, traditional Cherokee basketry and Hopi pottery. In October there’s an eight-day painting/photography workshop in the heart of the Navajo Nation, in northeastern Arizona’s Canyon de Chelly. (575) 758-0350.
- Jewelry Make rings, beads and pendants in these multiday workshops at the Mendocino Art Center in Mendocino, Calif., near San Francisco. The center also offers classes in painting, printing and collage making. (800) 653-3328.
- Woodworking Want to make a set of wooden bowls — or how about an Adirondack chair? The Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Rockport, Maine, teaches beginners and advanced students the fine art of woodworking in intensive one- and two-week summer courses. (207) 594-5611.
- Quilting If you'd like to learn classic Hawaiian quilting and are on Oahu or Maui (or want an excuse to go there), check out the two-hour class at Honolulu’s Royal Hawaiian Center, (808) 922-2299, or the Maui Quilt Shop, (808) 874-8050, in Kihei. Native Hawaiians and early missionaries developed the Kapa kuiki technique in the 1820s, which combines appliqué and quilt stitching.
- Photography Shutterbugs from around the world flock to the School at the International Center of Photography in New York City (212-857-0001). Choose from more than 400 courses ranging from traditional film to darkroom practice to multimedia in a state-of-the-art facility that features black-and-white, color and digital labs as well as a professional shooting studio.
Journalist Hélèna Katz lives on an alpaca farm in northern Canada and manages Travel and Try, a Facebook page about experiential hands-on travel around the world.