Making Bad Art Really IS Good for You!

I recently read an article that made me extremely happy. It discussed a study that found that making art can reduce stress levels, whether or not you have any experience.  (You can read the full article here.) A group of 39 people of varying ages, races, genders, and experience making art spent 45 minutes either doing collages, modelling with clay, or drawing with markers. Of the people in the study, 75% of them had lower cortisol levels after the session (cortisol is a biological indicator of stress).

And get this—the levels didn’t differ based on prior experience with art-making! Isn’t that great news? It’s just as I said in my old post, “Making Bad Art Is Good for You”—and now there’s scientific proof that’s true! It really takes the pressure off, doesn’t it?

So, here’s your prescription from Dr. Ashley, lol: Create something! Today, or this week, I invite you to set aside some time to play. Get creative in whatever way makes you happiest, whether that’s doodling, coloring, drawing, painting, collage, sewing, knitting, crocheting, cooking, gardening, decorating your home, photography, clay modeling, making music, arranging shells on the beach—whatever feels the most fun. Let yourself just enjoy the process without judging the result (easier said than done, I know, but try it!

Is there something you’ve always wanted to try but haven’t, because you “don’t know how”? There are tons of instructional videos out there. Or you could even—gasp—just play around without any instructions at all! (This makes my inner perfectionist freak out, so I know it’s a good idea!) Go for it! You have nothing to lose and a happier, healthier self to gain!

You can also take classes, which I enjoy because then you’re interacting with other creative souls as well as learning something new. If that appeals to you, you may want to check out the women’s art camp I’ve talked about before (here, here, and here). I’m actually teaching there this year (on creating a restorative daily ritual) and I’m already counting the days! I can’t wait to immerse myself in that magical experience again, connecting with fascinating women and creating our hearts out just for the fun of it! This year’s camp is Wednesday, November 6 through Sunday, November 10 in Hunt, Texas. You can learn more at www.luckystarartcamp.com.

Meanwhile, go play! It’s good for you!

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On Community, Creating, and Pushing Past the Fear

This past weekend I was reminded—again—of the essential nature of community, and the vital importance of sharing our true selves. We are wired to seek out others with whom we feel like we “belong.” As Brené Brown says in Braving the Wilderness, “Belonging is the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us.”

Even those of us who are introverts want to feel that connection with others who get us and support us. Brown also says, “Never underestimate the power of being seen.” And yet, in order to truly feel like we belong, we have to show up as our authentic selves.

In a creative setting, where we’re putting out something we made, it can feel like we’re offering up a piece of our soul. I find that to be so risky emotionally. Brown agrees: “True belonging is not passive. It's not the belonging that comes with just joining a group. It's not fitting in or pretending or selling out because it's safer. It's a practice that requires us to be vulnerable, get uncomfortable, and learn how to be present with people without sacrificing who we are. We want true belonging, but it takes tremendous courage to knowingly walk into hard moments.”

But the rewards for that risk are great—when you’re accepted for who you are, or your work touches others, it’s deeply satisfying. I work at home and really miss the camaraderie of coworkers. Online groups fill part of the gap, but I also crave personal connection.

Last weekend I had the chance to go to the opening of an exhibit featuring a painting that includes one of my poems. And although it meant driving eight hours to Houston over on Friday and back again on Sunday—and I was nervous because I’d also have to read my poem aloud at the event (risk!)—I grabbed that chance. What made it even better was that I’d get to stay with one of my dearest friends, whom I hadn’t seen in over a year. To be able to spend uninterrupted time catching up with her is a rare treat, and immensely nourishing. (More connection!)

The exhibit was called Color:Story 2019, by amazing artists Leslie Gaworecki and Marlo Saucedo. I met Leslie at Lucky Star Art Camp. Last year she put out a request for words to feature in a collaborative work with Marlo, so I submitted my poem “What If.” I was thrilled when they chose it, and even more so when I saw the finished piece (pic below, and more on my Facebook page).

It felt amazing to be part of a collaboration like that. Then they decided to create more pieces along those lines, and were approved to exhibit them in a show. I figured the opening would be fun, and I knew it would meet my desire for connection, but I didn’t anticipate how very much it would fill my soul.

Their space is a huge warehouse subdivided into studios, and before the opening we were able to wander around and see all the other artists. Being in a place dedicated solely to creativity, I felt a special kind of energy that was inspiring and rejuvenating. (It also made my hands itch with the desire to grab a brush and start painting!!)

It was incredible to see my piece in person, and all the other beautiful pieces in the show. The other writers’ work was amazing. And then hearing that work read aloud, and feeling the appreciation of the crowd, brought a whole new level of energy.

It wasn’t quite enough energy to keep me from being increasingly nervous about my turn. But since my poem actually talks about feeling the fear and doing it anyway, I couldn’t possibly back down! I managed to read it all without losing my place or misspeaking—or tripping on the way up—and afterward, several people told me how much they liked it. That meant the world to me. Writers so often send our word babies out into the universe and don’t hear anything back…to get affirmation that our words touched someone makes all the effort, uncertainty, and fear worthwhile.

Seeing such a large group gathered to support the writers and artists was fantastic. It was like getting an infusion of love and appreciation. And seeing all of the artists gathered in that studio space, inspiring and encouraging each other, really brought home to me how important it is for creatives to have a community. Whether it’s “in real life” or virtual, having others who understand the challenges you face and can cheer you on is invaluable.

Especially when we’re starting out, that inner critic can really be loud, and can stop us before we have a chance to get going. Sharing with others who have been there before, who struggle with their own inner critics, really helps us keep going.

And then having others appreciate your work when it’s out there in the world—wow. We create because we have to—because there’s something inside of us that wants to be born, and if we don’t let it out, part of us withers away. We also create to bring joy, or solace, or inspiration to others. Our own pain or happiness, while personal in detail, is universal in feeling. Sharing it heals both the creator and the viewer. Everyone is lifted up. It’s magic, and I’m grateful to have finally gotten to a place in my life where I can experience it for myself.

If you’re feeling that urge to put something out there, remember this. If even one person is touched, it’s worth the vulnerability and the risk. The world needs your voice. Each of us has something unique to share, and someone else needs to hear it because it will benefit them. Don’t let fear keep your voice bottled up inside. Something that can really help you push past fear and doubt is the book The Artist’s Way. Read that, and find your community, and as Rumi says, “Be a lamp, or a lifeboat, or a ladder. Help someone’s soul heal.” The risk is great, but the reward is enormous.

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The Restorative Power of Retreats

What a difference a year makes! I recently returned from Lucky Star Art Camp, and while I was there I reflected on how much I’ve changed since I first attended in November, 2016. I have stretched myself way beyond my comfort zone, beginning with going to Lucky Star last year completely alone and not knowing a soul in advance. I was scared, but proud of myself for doing it anyway. I also had been feeling a deep yearning to be creative, but had no idea how and zero confidence in my ability. And, I felt silly, selfish, and irresponsible to be spending time and money on something that was not “productive” or “purposeful.”

Then I took my first class, began to loosen up, and gradually learned to let go and enjoy the process for what it was giving me rather than focusing on what I created. I also discovered how friendly, open, and supportive everyone was, and how delightful it feels to be surrounded by kindred spirits united in a common goal of creating and connecting.

This year, I felt way more comfortable from the beginning, and I was much more relaxed in my approach to the classes. (At least I had gotten better at stemming the rising tide of performance anxiety and ignoring that critical voice in my head.) I’ve been channeling my creativity into my book project over the last six months, but had been missing the hands-on fun of making art. It felt so blissful to dive in to each of my classes and be fully present in the moment.

 I made beaded necklaces, learned watercolor and whimsical lettering techniques, and played around with acrylic paint while sitting by the river. I did acquire some skills, but I also practiced letting go of my expectations, which was way more valuable.  I was even able to display some of my creations during “show and tell” the last evening of camp. They weren’t perfect or professional, but I was still proud—and putting my imperfect art out for all to see was quite an accomplishment for me.

What makes Lucky Star so special? Certainly the people are a huge factor—from creator Lisa Hamlyn Field and the team of family and friends helping her, whose enthusiasm and energy are contagious, to the gracious and generous staff of Camp Waldemar, to the inspiring creative souls who teach the classes, to the fun and supportive women who attend—everyone contributes to making the experience unforgettable. Sitting around the campfire at night, telling jokes, sharing, and singing along as the resident singer/songwriter Mandy Rowden plays her guitar—you feel like part of a vibrant sisterhood. That sort of connection with other women can be lacking in our hectic lives, and it’s so vital.

Also, the setting is spectacular. Waldemar is a restorative, spiritual spot. You feel it the minute you turn into the drive: the peace, the beauty, the history, the magic. On the last afternoon I lay for hours next to the river, listening to the waterfall downstream and watching the breeze blow through the cypress trees. Horses came down to drink and splash around. Small groups of women were gathered at different spots, talking and making art. It was a powerful tonic. I am so envious of the girls who get to spend months there in the summer.

And then there’s the food! I’ve never had such nourishing, delicious meals in all my life. The staff prepares everything with tons of love, and it shows. They make every dish so tasty and appealing, I find myself eating way more than I usually do at home! But as another camper noted, mysteriously, we don’t gain weight while we’re there. Despite eating three large meals a day for nearly four days (and dessert! at lunch AND dinner!), I’m not any heavier when I come home. We theorized that it’s because the food is prepared both healthily and lovingly, and that our creative exertions burn a lot more calories than you’d imagine!

I had thought that perhaps I’d built up last year’s experience in my mind, making it seem much more wonderful than it really was—but no, it was just as incredible as I’d remembered. I’m so glad I went back and immersed myself in that magic once again. I feel creatively recharged and personally restored. I remember now that retreats like this do have a purpose—they renew our spirits so that we can return to our lives with fresh energy and enthusiasm. It’s not irresponsible or silly. It may be selfish, but in the best sort of way—taking care of oneself is necessary for a good life. I talked with one camper who said her husband was so struck by how happy she was after coming home from camp her first year that he insisted she go every year. It makes a real difference in the quality of our lives—and our loved ones’ lives—when we are happy, and activities like this fill us up. I can’t wait for next year!

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