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Letting Go of My Imperfect Art

Take these steps to heal from a 'creative wound' and learn to embrace your inner artist

By Carol Ungar

If women of a certain age could be said to have BFFs (Best Friends Forever), then Alison is mine. She's the friend who serves as my sounding board, the friend who coached me through a long night of contractions, and eleven years later, stayed by my side as that same child underwent lifesaving surgery.

That's why her reaction to my watercolor sketchbook felt like a left hook. 

An older adult at home being creative with their art. Next Avenue, how to be creative again
Creativity is about being bold and trusting yourself  |  Credit: Getty

I don't usually show off my sketch book — my artwork is clumsy and amateurish, but lately I'd started to develop the first shoots of a very fragile confidence and so I shared my pages.

Was she signaling that it was time for me to hang up my paint brushes for good? I hoped not.

Alison leafed through, gazing at my carefully painted roses, peonies and leaves — her facial expression disturbingly blank. Then she fixed her eyes onto a yellow splotch.

"I like that one," she said. Her lips broke into a tiny smile.

What?

That page was a color mixing experiment — not a real painting.

Was my work that bad?

Then again Alison is a watercolor professional. Her work sells for hundreds, even thousands of dollars. This was her game.

Was she signaling that it was time for me to hang up my paint brushes for good? I hoped not.

The Genesis of My 'Creative Wound'

Like most people, I drew and painted as a child. I never saw myself as a budding Picasso but I felt confident in my work. That belief was destroyed in seconds when I was 17, by a fellow counselor at the camp where we both worked. 

I can still picture the scene; the two of us on the grassy lawn near the bunkhouses drawing landscapes under the warm summer sun. I was pleased with my drawing until I saw hers —composed of exquisitely placed elegant staccato charcoal marks that looked like it belonged in a gallery or a museum.

A month later, I started college at a liberal arts school famed for its art department. For the entire four years I never took a single art course. Other than doodling, I didn't make any art of any kind for the next thirty years, until a family crisis pushed me back into painting, this time as a stress reliever. And now Alison's remark had hurtled me back to that terrible day so many summers ago.

The old tape started playing in my brain. "My art was lousy. Why bother?" Over and over like a negative mantra.

But making art had become my way to unwind, to relax. I saw art as my happy place

Could I let go of something so vital just because I wasn't great at it?

As frivolous as it sounds, art making, and indeed all creative acts, really are vital. In a 2007 study, University of Tennessee researcher Kenneth D. Phillips listed some benefits — increased mental clarity, increased awareness, improved emotional states and physical healing — as better than vitamins and not dependent on quality. One can potentially gain all of those goodies even if one's artwork, or singing, or dance steps, suck.

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I needed to embrace my mediocre art practice, but that's easier said than done. Art wounds go deep. Brene Brown has famously called them "creativity scars," the painful, shame-soaked memories of times when our budding creativity was dismissed or stamped upon. These memories usually involve an authority figure, a parent, teacher, sibling or friend who intentionally or inadvertently delivered the blow that caused the wound. Healing isn't easy.

You Don't Have to Be Talented to Be Creative

"I see clients in their fifties, sixties and older who remember what happened, and for the rest of their lives have never drawn, sung or danced," says psychotherapist and artist Emma Cameron, who is based in the UK.

Cultural programming makes things worse.

"Our culture perpetuates the toxic notions is that you are only allowed to be creative if you're brilliant at it," she adds. "That's a terrible loss because creativity gives you a bigger life."

Because of these wounds, many of us come to believe that we aren't creative but that isn't true. When she studied the data, Brene Brown discovered that there is no such thing as a non-creative person. "There are just people who use their creativity and people who don't," she has said.

Unused creativity is not benign. According to Cameron, it can lead to emotional and even physical illnesses making the need to heal all the more urgent.

But how does one heal from a creative wound? By bringing it out into the sun. Cameron urges her clients to share their art wound story with someone safe.

"Choose the person carefully," she cautions. "The important thing is that they are caring, will listen to you without judgement, and not try to fix or dismiss your feelings."

Unused creativity is not benign. According to Cameron, it can lead to emotional and even physical illnesses, making the need to heal all the more urgent.

Another important piece of advice she offers is to be gentle. "The art wound itself is painful, and we don't want to be adding to the pain by shooting a 'second arrow' at ourselves (the 'second arrow' is where we judge and condemn ourselves for having the pain)," she explains.  

But if one wants to live a full life, one must attempt to heal. Cameron compares the process to the Japanese art of Kintsugi, in which broken pottery is repaired and strengthened with the addition of luminous gold seams.

Art wounds are everywhere. When art teacher and founder of Paintcrush, Kristy Rice, encouraged viewers to share their art wounds on social media, she was flooded with stories.

"Much of the fear came from childhood, and especially childhood art teachers," she recalls. "Your art wound is never going away, but you can learn to punch it in the face."

But how? With baby steps, says Rice: "A collection of small steps creates momentum."

She encourages healing wannabe artists to fill a coffee mug or pouch with their favorite art supplies. "Make a few of these and store them where you live your life, including in your car, " she says. "When you feel the smallest itch to create, you can capitalize on even the smallest moments of motivation before your brain can tell you that you're not good enough."

Rice cautions against setting the bar too high. "If you're too nervous, go abstract. Take a favorite brush and dab the page with paint."

She also encourages emerging artists to find a community. In this post-pandemic moment, there are communities both in-person and online for nearly every art form.

Be Bold and Trust Yourself

If dreams of writing the great American novel dance in your brain, then try NaNoWriMo. Held every year in November, the program, an acronym for National Novel Writing Month, is a free online marathon in which participants commit to writing 50,000 words in thirty days. 

"A lot of writers tweak the first chapter, or even the first sentence, till it's perfect and never get past that," says Grant Faulkner, executive director. With its imposed deadline, word count and hugely supportive online community, NaNoWriMo encourages erstwhile novelists to reach the finish line.

"Joyce Carol Oates said that you can't know the first sentence of your novel until you know the last," says Faulkner. NaNoWriMo is a path to that last sentence.   

"It's all about being bold and trusting yourself," he adds. More than a few NaNoWriMo initiatives have found their way onto the bestseller lists and the big screen including most notably Sara Gruen's novel, "Water for Elephants."

If singing is your jam, try an online choir. Among the most popular is the UK-based Sofa Singers, an inclusive and supportive worldwide online singing community.

Don't let the Alisons of the world stop you in your tracks — or stop me. Pick up that paint brush or pen or whatever your creative tool might be.

"Creativity is a path to joy," says Rice. "Happiness is a function of good circumstance, but joy is something you can go to regardless of what is going on in your life and find peace and calm."  

Finding a creative practice — even a less than perfect one — can be a chance to tap into unrelenting joy whenever we want it.

Contributor Carol Ungar
Carol Ungar is a prize-winning author whose work has been published in Tablet, Wisdom Daily  Patheos,  Fox News, and elsewhere. She's also the author of several children's books and the narrative cookbook "Jewish Soul Food--Traditional Fare and What it Means." Read More
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