My messy and happy paint hand.
“Embrace the glorious mess that you are.”
– Elizabeth Gilbert
I was recently listening to the Mama Truth Show podcast while cleaning up in the kitchen. I love a good podcast, whether the topic is parenthood, creativity, art, or psychology, or all of the above! The host Amy Ahler interviews different guests, and asks each one a final question at the end of the interview. She asks, ‘what is messy and what is magical in your life right now?’
I love that question for so many reasons. I smiled as I stared at the pile of dishes and the crumbs left behind by my children as they headed off to school this morning. I was smiling because something had clicked. Life is both messy and magical. I have visual and emotional proof for that, and I bet you do too.
The magic and the mess (and the magic in the mess) tends to play out beautifully and constantly in the creative process. I glance around the studio and see evidence for this. Little piles of barely contained chaos in the form of collage pieces, half used paint tubes, and scattered brushes are the satisfyingly messy reminders and tools that help produce the magic in my art. When I’m in my studio or working with an art therapy client, my tolerance for mess, whether physical or emotional, is incredibly high. Furthermore, the mess is welcomed with open arms. The mess provides juicy material to get curious about, shape, take apart, rebuild, and transform.
This morning I had the thought – what would life be like if I approached my daily life as a wife, mother, friend, (fill in the blank) from that same open space of curiosity and trust in the messy yet magical process of daily living? What if I took my studio habits and way of framing things out into the other areas in my life?
This is precisely what I hope for my art therapy clients when we have breakthroughs during the session. I hope that the creative lessons and experiences from the session seep into daily life. When a client accidentally smears a painting and gets frustrated, that’s a ‘mess.’ Great! The transformation is what he or she does to transform the mess into a magic moment. As the therapist, part of my job is to make space for that mess and help the client become curious about the mess rather than immediately judging it as ‘bad’ or a ‘failure.’
Sometimes mess just needs to be mess for a while. Not every messy moment in and outside of the studio can be immediately transformed into something magical. Sometimes it requires a cumulative dance of many messy moments, before we can step back and acknowledge the alchemical magic of these experiences combined.
acrylic & mixed media on canvas
There’s a Buddhist saying that is simple yet profound. It is, ‘no mud, no lotus.’ A lotus is a beautiful flower that has been the muse of many artists over the centuries. However, a lotus grows from the muck and mud at the bottom of the water. Without the mud, there would be no beautiful lotus floating serenely on the surface.
These are all rather abstract musings, so I’ll take a moment to get a little more personal. While thinking about the messy and the magical in my own life, here’s what I am coming up with at the moment.
The past 2 years have strikingly embodied the mess and the magic for me. Here’s some of what has been messy: leaving my thriving art therapy career behind in NYC and moving to another state to start over, the addition of our second child to our family, a last minute canceled solo art show, panic attacks, pneumonia, children in challenging stages, and adjusting to a new community.
Here’s what’s been magical (in responsive order to the above messes): becoming more resilient and trusting as I begin building my art therapy career in a new state, sharing our lives with a new child and increasing my capacity for love and joy, becoming creative in finding new places to show and sell my art, learning how to inhabit my body more fully and befriend my experiences, our children challenging me to become increasingly mindful during hard stages, branching out and beginning to thrive in a new community.
In each instance, mess did not instantly give rise to magic. It is the process of getting really messy, embracing the mess, and not running away from it that has gradually given rise to the magic. And it’s an ongoing daily practice and often a struggle. I remind myself that I’m not set on arriving at some specific destination, whether it is with my art, career, my children, or any other area in my life. Really, it’s about learning to dance between the mess and the magic and enjoying the interchange, and sometimes the transformation.
Exploring the messiness and the magic in art
As I wrote earlier, the mess and magic are a natural alchemical force during any form of creation. However if you want to be more deliberate about exploring these two elements, here are some ideas to get you started.
Some of my torn up ‘ugly’ paintings on paper…ready to create something new (and maybe magical) with them!
‘Ugly’ Painting Collage
Can you challenge yourself and make an ‘ugly’ painting? I write ugly in quotes because it is a highly subjective word. What I’m really suggesting is giving yourself permission to grab the least attractive paint color in your bin (say that neon yellow you’ve been hiding)? Start moving paint around on some paper or an un-stretched canvas. Think about the ‘no mud, no lotus’ quote and make some real mud on the surface. Do you hate painting hearts? Throw a few hearts onto the surface. After you’ve reveled in the ugliness of your piece, set it aside and let it dry. I encourage you to live with it for a few days. If you’re feeling particularly bold, put it up on the wall for a while!
When you are feeling inspired, take the piece down and begin to cut it up or tear it up. Pay attention to how this action feels. Do you feel uncomfortable, excited, nervous? Honor whatever feelings come up. After you have a pile of new collage pieces, slowly start to create a new piece from the old ‘mess.’ It may be arranged like a grid where you use each piece, or you might only be drawn to certain key collage pieces. There is no right or wrong. But see if you can create some magic out of your previous mess.
Altered Words & Images
Words can have immense power. Think about the constant chatter running through your mind. It might be a bit muddy because so many thoughts can run across the stage of our minds at once. Time to get some of those ‘ugly’ thoughts on paper. You can write it out by hand or even type it on the computer. Take 5-10 minutes and sit down with a pen or marker and let those thoughts run wild and free across the page. The goal is to let your writing be stream of consciousness and not to edit what you are saying. If you’d like a little inspiration for writing in this way, check out Julia Cameron’s video and description of the Morning Pages exercise. As she says, let them be as grumpy, whiny, and ugly as you like.
After you are done writing, set it aside for a while. You might want to set it aside for the entire day or even a number of days. Perhaps you enjoyed this exercise and want to create a series of written pages over the course of a week. Whatever your time frame is, here’s the next step.
Once you have some pages of ‘messy’ writing, begin to cut out certain phrases that call to you. It could even be one word or a phrase. Create a collage from the pieces of writing. Feel free to add other art materials such as paint, more collage, printmaking, or sculptural elements. The words do not even need to be visible or readable when you are finished. Let the words combine in new and unexpected patterns. Play with abstraction and try not to get caught up in the finished product. Look at the words as images rather than conveying a specific meaning, the way you might enjoy looking at an unknown language simply because the curve of the letters is visually intriguing.
Do you have a favorite medium to use in the arts? How about doing a messy dance, a messy musical composition, or a messy dramatic monologue? Can you find magic in letting the mess be as it is and getting curious about it for a while?
So my friends…
Today as you are moving about your day and being presented with all kinds of different experiences, thoughts, and feelings I’d love to ask you, ‘what is both messy and magical in your life right now?’