Serious Tuesday with Birdie
Serious Tuesdays are back!
I must admit this time we have chosen a delicate subject – the role of art in healing processes and improvement of mental state in general. To my mind it’s hard enough to explain what art is, so venturing into an even vaguer sphere – how art, as a very expressive medium, can help to reconcile emotional conflicts, overcome stress or encourage personal growth and increase self-awareness, is an attempt to cover something that’s very hard to grasp… Yet I do hope that our guest artist Birdie will shed a bit of light on what happens in her studio and how it affects her feelings and emotions, while we discuss her journey into the realm of visual art.
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DA – I guess anyone who reads your “about” section would be intrigued by two statements: a. “I’m a self-taught painter” and b. “after a twenty year break I started drawing again when a combination of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) and mental health issues were very severe”. I’m sure nosy readers would wonder about the origins of your PTSD, but I’d like to know how and when you became interested in drawing, if you have an idea why your muses were silent for twenty years and was the rediscovery of drawing an intuitively taken step towards healing.
B – Firstly I just want to say how pleased I am to be taking part in one of your Serious Tuesday interviews. Thank you very much for asking me.
As a child art was both my favourite, and my best, subject all through school. When I was around 12 I used to go along to the local art club – I think I was the youngest ever member – and I received quite a lot of support there. I exhibited with them at the annual exhibition and I remember selling a pastel drawing of some very blousy purple pansies to an elderly gentleman one year. Though I think he was probably as charmed by my youth as by my drawing!
Unfortunately though this success didn’t go down so well with my Mother, as she regarded it as competition: she also had paintings in the same exhibition and neither of them sold. I don’t remember the outcome of this particular episode but I know my rather difficult relationship with her was further strained by this. It feels sort of unexciting to say I don’t remember any more about why I may have given up, but unfortunately that’s the truth – I just don’t know. I do know during my teens I was very intent on trying to be the sort of daughter my Mother, and later my stepfather, might love, and I’m sure this must have been a factor. It took me many years to understand that the problem was actually with her/them, and not with me.
During the years that followed I had three breakdowns. Each time this happened I felt compelled to turn back to art, but it wasn’t until the third breakdown that I kept going after I felt better. And this was simply because by the third time around I stopped patching myself up and trying to be someone else (someone I thought would be lovable) all the time, and instead began the long journey of learning how to be myself. A journey, it has to be said, I am still on.
Since then I have really had to re-learn how to draw from scratch. 20 years or so is a long time to neglect skills, plus I also had to cope with other mental health issues which made the learning part immensely challenging at times. But once I got so far I found I couldn’t stop even if I tried!
So was it an intuitive step toward healing? I think more it was a part of healing at first, a rediscovery – but one that also showed me how I could use art to aid my healing.
DA – As you “mainly write about creativity, art, mental health and the relationships between them”, would you say you could already name the underlying processes or, in other words, explain the magic “steps” on the way to our mental state improvement, that happen once we lift a brush or a pencil?
B – No, but I really wish I could! I write about these things in order to make more discoveries about this myself, as well as to connect with others and learn from them. There is research in this field, but I’m actually more interested in anecdotal reports, than research.
What I do think is that visual communication is fundamental to us – we all drew, we all scribbled, we all painted as children. Most of us stop of course, but that child self lives on in us, tucked away quite often, even outside of our own awareness – something in itself which can lead to a breakdown. When we as adults, pick up a brush or crayons or pencils, if we are willing to be open, then we create a space for that child self to come forward again, and to re-aquaint ourselves with him or her. This can take time – it rarely happens straight away, particularly if we have spent our lives rejecting this child self, but if we are patient and open we can begin to re-connect with our authenticity and it is here that the healing takes place.
For some of us, this will lead to becoming some kind of artist, for others it may lead to something completely different, such as playing the piano, or even learning to fly! What matters, what is healing, is not art making as such, but the space created through art making which allows us to reconnect with the essence of who we really are – our inner child.
And maintaining some kind of creative play in our lives means we are maintaining contact with that child self – maintaining contact with our authenticity, our feelings and our playfulness.
DA – Yoko Ono once said that “healing yourself is connected with healing others”– do you agree with this statement? Let me explain myself. I guess I view your blog as virtual space dedicated to sharing anything that happens during the creative process – how it affects your mood and what the results are, but I’m not sure if Birdie is more an artist who blogs or a blogger who offers psychological support?
B – Yes absolutely! I think it is really important to at least try to heal ourselves precisely because we heal others as well as ourselves through doing so. There are few of us who are aren’t wounded children in some way, and sadly wounded children tend to wound others, even despite their best intentions. The woman taught anger is unfeminine may suppress her justified anger and become passive aggressive, for example. The man excessively criticised by his own father may be shocked to find himself criticising his own children, or simply unable to express his love for them. Damage is passed on. Conversely someone who actively tries to heal, makes an effort to become aware (and this is not easy, I won’t pretend it is) of his or her destructive or potentially hurtful behaviour and make new choices, influences everyone they come into contact with in a positive way.
Regarding the second part of your question, I’m definitely a painter who blogs! I write about these things because they interest me, but I do so as a peer. I’m happy if my experiences or anything I write about helps someone else, that makes sharing my personal experiences very worthwhile indeed, but I’m not aiming to offer psychological support as such.
DA – Talking about your artwork how do you choose your subjects? Where do you seek inspiration and how do your emotions reflect in your illustrations and paintings?
B – I sort of gave up on inspiration a while ago and I’m really pleased I did. My paintings are process driven – I begin by making lots of marks on the surface with paint. I may lay the canvas flat and use fluid paint and lots of water, for example. I keep going, keep layering marks until I begin to see shapes and forms and I build from there.
Of course what I see reflects my interests and also the kinds of art I like. I am very interested in Surrealism, and like a number of Surrealist painters such as Remedios Varo, Leonora Carrington, Chagall, and Miro. I also love everything Medieval – the art and the architecture, reading about this period, clothing – if it’s medieval or Renaissance I’m usually interested. And I love myths and fairy-tales – these play a big role I think. As does my love of Science Fiction and Fantasy.
I don’t actually think there is any direct relationship between my paintings and my emotions. The emotional content of each painting is dictated by the narrative of the painting. So I never seek to express myself or my emotions in any direct way – instead I do this in my journals, where I make a very different kind of art.
I see it like this – when I paint or collage in my journals it is art therapy. It is direct expression and intended to help me in some way. When I make a painting or drawing it is art as therapy. The practise of doing it make me feel better, but that isn’t my primary aim.
DA – In your opinion if an emotionally disturbed person decides to try and find the healing power of art, what should they start with? Could you recommend any particular medium or exercises? Have you come across any good books that would offer such advice?
B – I began my art therapy journey with large sheets of cheap paper, crayons and bottles of cheap ready mixed paint – the kind you can buy in discount bookshops. I put an old tarp down and just let rip dripping and smearing paint and drawing into it. If you like getting messy, try this. I still have one painting I made from all those years go and it felt amazing to simply let rip and not care about the results.
Alternate ideas are:
Wax crayons and paper – just allow yourself to pick the colours you are drawn to, and then let yourself make whatever marks feel good. You may find you just fill page after page with scribbles at first, and this is fine, stay with it. It’s amazing what emerges when we give ourselves permission, but there can be layers to work through.
Collage is great if you feel inhibited about trying paints or crayons. Many people feel they ‘can’t draw’ so are put off by a blank sheet of paper, but collage is really accessible. All you need is a journal – spiral bound is good – a stack of magazines, scissors and glue stick. The simplest way to approach collage for self exploration/healing is to set yourself a time limit – say 10 minutes then go through the magazines pulling any image which appeals. Try not to second guess yourself and certainly don’t analyse it. When your time is up, spread the images out – there will probably be a few which pull you more strongly than others, select these and use them to make a collage which has meaning for you.
When you are done with whichever exercise appeals, sit with your image and see what comes up. Try not to judge, and try not to dismiss anything as silly or irrelevant. You may like to write down any thoughts or feelings which arise. I often find things will keep surfacing throughout the day, it’s good to make a note when they do, because we do forget!
DA – To finish our chat off – what is your recipe for a healthy and happy self?
B – I have never had happiness as a goal – I’m not sure that I really could ever relate to the idea of having happiness itself as a goal as I think it is by nature a fleeting state. I hope that’s not disappointing! Instead I think I’d suggest focusing on finding what lights you up, what makes you feel alive and playful – then doing it. This will carry you through the more challenging times – and make you good to be around. It is also vital to feel. I don’t mean vent, I mean to be with our feelings, to allow them to move through us, naturally. Feelings are what motivate us to action, and repressed, denied feelings compel us to behave in ways we may rather we did not. Finally I’d add walking to the mix. Walking is good for both mind and body- and it is free!
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Thank you very much, Birdie, for sharing your ideas and artwork!
P.S. If you’d like to say “hello” or see more of Birdie’s artwork, please click here.