Removing Barriers in the Studio

A glimpse of my growing studio inspiration wall

Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.’
~ Rumi

This Rumi quote hangs to the right of the painting easel in my new studio. It’s one of my favorite quotes because it resonates on so many levels. For me, art is love expressing itself in visual form. Like love, the art needs to find a way out, but I am no stranger to building barriers within myself in unconscious attempts to slow the flow of art energy. I’ve written about this in many posts and find that it’s important to acknowledge the ebb and flow of my own creative process. It’s part of why I am able to sit with an art therapy client and nod understandingly while they list ten reasons for not wanting to make art that day. I get it. I really do. I also understand how deeply freeing it can be to acknowledge those barriers and then gently (or brazenly) push through them sometimes.

I’ve lived in many places and carved out areas to make art in all of them. Sometimes I’d set up at a kitchen table, a (slightly mildewy) basement, or on the floor of my bedroom. I took over the second bedroom in our Queens apartment for my studio for a number of years, until the birth of our first son. My fantasies about painting in the same room while he napped are amusing in retrospect. Still, I dutifully set up shop on our small kitchen table for a little while or worked on a smaller scale in my mandala journal while he crawled around next to me.

returning to my mandala journal

In September my family made the big move from NYC to the ‘burbs’ in Massachusetts. It’s an area that we know and love, with the ocean close by, trees, space, and a slightly slower pace of life. The transition was emotional for me, even though it was a change that I was craving. Transitions are always challenging. Each day took on a dream-like quality as I found myself busy with unpacking and getting oriented to our new home and area. In addition, I was in my first trimester of pregnancy and a bit preoccupied with queasiness and fatigue!

One of the most amazing things about our new home is that I once again have a room that I can claim as my studio space. The attic was converted into a beautiful light filled room by the previous owners. It was the most amazing space I could imagine for a studio and yet I avoided it for a few months – even after the boxes of art supplies were unpacked and I could have started using it. I experienced a sense of guilt and also longing every time I contemplated heading upstairs to my studio. It was as if the space was too perfect for me to use. Perhaps a part of me was struggling to feel worthy enough to fully inhabit the studio. The litany of doubts and self-critical thoughts slowly marched throughout my head. This has been a pattern of mine for as long as I can remember. I put the barriers in place (as in the Rumi quote) and they are all of the reasons why art should not be a priority for me. Then, when the pain of being trapped behind those self-imposed barriers becomes too great, I get back to my art! A morning art-making session with an artist and art therapist that I recently met was exactly what I needed to start removing my art barriers again in our new home. We sat in the studio and just chatted while working on our own art projects. After she left, I spent the rest of the afternoon in my studio making art. It felt incredible. It was like coming home to myself.

a corner of my studio

In the first paragraph of Art Is A Way of Knowing, artist and art therapist Pat Allen writes:

‘Images take me apart; images put me back together again, new, enlarged, with breathing room. For twenty years I have kept a record of my inner life in images, paintings, drawings, and words – sometimes haphazardly, sometimes more diligently, but continuously throughout my days as an art student, art therapist, teacher, wife, mother, and artist. My existence was marginal, uncompelling, because my feelings, necessary for a sense of meaning, were missing. Art making is my way of bringing soul back into my life. Soul is the place where the messiness of life is tolerated, where feelings animate the narration of life, where story exists. Soul is the place where I am replenished and can experience both gardens and graveyards. Art is my way of knowing who I am.’

so much painting storage space!

Pat Allen’s description of the role of art in her life resonates with me. Art embraces the messiness and the beauty of our existence. It takes courage to sit in front of a blank canvas without the distractions of everyday life. I realized that part of me was afraid to sit down and provide space for all of the recent feelings and experiences to find their way out through the art. It seems easier to keep pushing them down sometimes. But the first brushstroke has a way of clearing the way for the next, and the next, and so on.

Today during my art therapy group at an assisted living facility we all sat before blank surfaces. The acrylic paint was already beginning to form a slight crust on top from sitting out in the air. I could feel some of the anxiety and hesitancy of the group members to begin, even though they had all come to my art therapy groups before. The familiar mantras at the beginning of group, ‘I’m not an artist,’ ‘I don’t have a clue what I’m doing,’ ‘What should I do?’ ‘Does this look ok?’ I sit there and breathe in all of the insecurity. I encourage them to do the same. Then I say, ‘Let’s begin. Somewhere…anywhere. I promise you that brushstroke following brushstroke will lead you somewhere interesting.’ They begin and after an hour it suddenly seems like there isn’t enough time. Art has a way of suspending time, slowly drawing us away from self-critical thoughts, and revealing pieces of the self. I am inspired by the courage of my group members to trust me and the process enough to dive in each time. In turn, their willingness to create something from nothing has me heading back into my studio at the end of the day – eager to see where the art takes me.

On that note, I’ll leave you with one more inspirational quote. It’s about reframing our relationship to fear and a seemingly subtle shift in perception can make all the difference:

‘Replace fear of the unknown with curiosity.’ (unknown)

So, what are you curious about today?

a new small painting in progress

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