To do the thing you love, do the thing you love

A few years ago I was wanting to bring art making to a more central place in my life. I felt like it was important to me, but that it somehow lurked in the corners and recesses of my life rather than front and centre. I tried a number of things over this time to honour my interest and to begin to share this part of myself with others. This process was at times terrifying, and involved lots of tiny mountains, almost imperceptible to the naked eye, but each one requiring courage, optimism, grit and encouragement to climb.

  • There was the time I put in an application to have work in an exhibition at a humble, community scale gallery (terrifying!)
  • There was the time I decided I would turn my artworks into greeting cards and sell them to bookstores (terrifying!)
  • There was the time I first joined an online art group to share works (exhilarating!)
  • There was the time I first started making art to give away to strangers and did so, with the support of an online group (inspiring!)
  • There was the time I signed up for the face to face art retreat and spent two days elbow deep in paint and plaster and stencils and hair dryers (amazing!)
  • And many more!

Each small steps led in it’s own way to making me feel more able to do the next. I think this was for a few reasons.

Firstly, doing more of what I loved, and being bold (in tiny doses), helped reveal other possibilities. It created connections with people, who were role models, peers and encouragers. It kept me ‘in the loop’ about new events or networks. It opened doors, and revealed already open doors that I hadn’t previously seen or thought to step through.

Also, by doing more of what I loved I needed to talk with my friends and family about it. Many times I was bolstered and encouraged by the kind words of a friend or colleague, coach, gallery owner or online moderator. Every time someone treated me like this was a perfectly natural, understandable and normal thing for me to be doing a tiny part of me shifted to also believe this.

Lastly, it helped build a body of work that honed my skills and the tangible outputs at each stage helped demonstrate to myself that I am actually doing this thing that I love, and that I have developed some skills in it.

Taking an eagle-eye view, I see that many of these actions I took involved finding like minded people and connecting with them (tribe), finding people who already do what I would like to be able to do (role models), sharing and ‘owning’ my work (recognition), and learning and developing new skills in a safe and encouraging environment (learning and technical accomplishment). These are some of the areas I encourage coaching clients to try if they are wanting to pursue or nurture an area of interest in their life.

I see steps like these as using and growing our creative courage, resources and supportive environments. The journey is never over, and what we did for the first time last year may not have the same fearful charge for us, but chances are some next step does. By doing more of what we love we position ourselves to be ready for the next step.

On inspiration and coming back to art making

“Just starting is a great shift for me-I have felt paralysed, and having a focus, plus some inspiration, helps me begin now.”

A colleague recently contacted me to let me know she felt inspired by the artwork I had been making and posting to social media. She was inspired to take part in the 60 day art challenge ‘Index Card a Day’ which I am participating in this year for the second year (more on that soon). Marilyn is a counsellor and works with creative methods with her clients, so she knows the power and value of creative expression, but had been finding her own creative work had stalled.

She agreed to speak with me about it, this elusive thing called inspiration, and also being stuck, and why it matters.

J: You said you were feeling stuck lately, what does being stuck look like for you?
M: It is a familiar state, one I lived out of, for a time, I think, and one I still feel in at times.

Powerless, helpless, stuck, unable to move, paralysed, frustrated. Passive. It’s impossible, too hard.

When I studied Stan Groff’s work about how our birth experience might impact on us now, I felt that these sorts of feelings I get at times, seem similar or connected to my forceps birth-like I can’t move forward and need someone to ‘pull me out!’.

J: What are your fears about engaging in your creative work?
M: Ahhh, things like-I don’t have the time, energy, talent, space, the right.

All of these have a little cluster of ‘stuff’ around them!

Just recently I was frustrated because I had not unpacked my art materials and didn’t have the energy or time to do that.

No time for me.

J: What does it feel like when you are making art regularly?
M: Wonderful! Exciting! Freeing! Energising!

J: What was it about seeing my work that struck a chord with you?
M: Your work had these sorts of qualities about them for me-life giving qualities.

And apart from that, the very fact that you were doing it was inspiring. It felt like just witnessing you doing it, you making/taking the time to do it, gave me hope that I too would be able to do so one day!

When you posted about the index card a day, it seemed possible, manageable for me.Yes!

And coincided with where Barbara Sher’s course* was up to, where she speaks about ‘even if it seems only a small step towards an adventure, something new, your goal’ then do it! Take it! So I did!

It just fitted perfectly for me at that time in my circumstances.

I had set up easels, gotten paper out, etc etc, but now I realise they were too BIG. I had to do something more my size if you like.

J: What have you learnt from your work in counselling and art therapy, about the role of creativity in people’s lives?
M: A great deal. So many different things. For example, I think of one woman who was terrified at the very idea of even trying to draw and image.

She was an adult woman, but still traumatised by some comments as a child, made by her teacher, which cut off her creativity altogether. Very tragic. ( And I found this a common theme especially amongst women). I had to be very careful and patient. I could see she WANTED to try, but was terrified at the same time. And there was a parallel between this and other issues in her life, including her marriage. It was a very moving experience for me to witness the healing take place, the healing role art played in her wider healing.

I have worked with many children, and seen how fortunate they are to be living in a time and society which , mainly, does not impose such criticism and rules to creative expression (hopefully!). They were not self-conscious, were confident to use materials and just loved it. For many it was a more comfortable, less threatening language for them to tell their stories. So amazing to be part of. It gave them a voice.

I was surprised one day when a man, a working class man, jumped up and drew on the white board a bulldozer about to ram a brick wall!

He was talking about how he felt in his life and what he felt like doing about it! It was so powerful.

So what am I saying here? As a counsellor I can support them by having the materials on hand, using them myself to illustrate things if appropriate, and through this giving them the freedom and permission to do the same.

I spoke with Marilyn who I met while studying together and who is a counsellor and Professional Member of ACATA. She has a private practice, Wellspring Counselling, in Bellingen. You can contact her at

* the online Barbara Sher Book Club for the book ‘I could do anything…if only I knew what it was!’

Image credit: M.Wadick


Kid and planet friendly art supplies

Someone asked me recently how they could get some low toxic paints and forest-friendly wooden paintbrushes for their 1 year old son to start to encourage him in creativity. It’s a great question, and I have dabbled myself in exploring sustainable materials (although I still use some materials that in my heart of hearts I think are dubious). If you are thinking ‘huh? Crazy greenie do-gooders, what’s the problem with art supplies!?’ this brief article by the Safer Chemicals organisation outlines some of the things you may wish to avoid and lists a bunch of products they think are good alternatives. And if that gets you going and you want to read more try this one by Green America.

First up, I would say that you don’t need expensive art supplies to encourage creativity in children. There is lots of nature-play, constructing, music making and imaginative play you can do with little kids without any special materials. For example…

  • for really little kids the old drumming on the kitchen floor with saucepans and wooden spoons
  • making shapes on the ground with found objects – fallen flower mandalas, spell your name with leaves, arrange pebbles into a spiral
  • cardboard cities, houses, boats, spaceships (yes you might want paint to brighten them up, but even just cutting the cardboard and glueing bits on will embellish your creation)
  • origami using newspaper, old gift wrapping paper or pages from magazines
  • sea shells or fallen nuts or seeds in a jar to look at or placed in a closed tube or lidded tub to act as a percussion instrument
  • DIY snow dome(ish thing) using tightly lidded jars, small toys and glitter
  • painting with water on a nice dry bit of dry sidewalk/footpath/driveway/verandah
  • making egg carton caterpillars – sticky tape to join the ‘lumps’  in a row and some markers for eyes
  • making things with scraps of fabric, wool, buttons (if they are old enough to not eat them), string and other textiles – necklaces, mobiles, dollies, collages etc

And a million more. (You guys probably have other cool projects you do with your own children, grandkids or students – feel free to share below in comments!)

And of course there are materials you can make at home:

  • play doh
  • salt dough (see here for christmas decorations I made with some little kids with salt dough – we painted ours but you can also leave them pale and just jazz them up with coloured ribbon)
  • paint using just food colouring (there are plant based colours in many supermarkets so you don’t need to use artificial colours)
  • flour and water glue for paper mache -for bowls, masks, or even pinatas

As for store-bought products, I have found bees wax-based (as opposed to petroleum product based) crayons in up market baby stores, recycled drawing pads in my local art shop (you have to dig around, and it seems Italy has the market covered), and bamboo handled brushes in grocery stores in China Town.

As for online purchases, I have never used them (and have no relationship with this store) but from a bit of digging around with google this one looks quite interesting for Australian residents. It seems to stock lots of recycled paper products including sketch pads and coloured paper, mineral based body/face paints, pencils from sustainable timber suppliers, eco paints and more. If anyone uses them let me know what they are like. And just quietly I am very very excited at their make-your-own oil paint kit using minerals and walnut oil, I think I might have to get a pack and pretend I am an Old Master.


Searching for more raspberry moments

I was talking to a friend recently about how to get more ‘raspberry moments’ into our lives. I had just come back from a whirlwind week in Germany (I know, lucky me, right?) and part of the tales I had to share was one glorious sunny day spent in Nuremburg, in the old city, sketching, wandering through the marketplace, enjoying the bright blue European summer sky, and buying and then demolishing a punnet of raspberries (these very ones pictured above). I tried to convey how simple it was but how each raspberry tasted like it was bursting with essential raspberry-ness in my mouth, a complex, rich array of flavours that I had never fully appreciated. I wandered around the city with my friend, feeling happy, with raspberries on the tips of my fingers, eating one at a time with delight. (Have you eaten them like this – poking your finger into the hole, holding them up on your finger like a hat to admire it, and then piping your finger into your mouth? So childlike and so fun).

I am not an expert on how to create these. As far as I can tell, they come and go like butterflies, and trying to grab at them when they arrive makes them flutter away nervously to another garden.

I know that some things help create the basic conditions for these moments to show up in. For me that’s having had enough sleep, being well fed and watered, not being exhausted from prolonged stress, having a patch of time without competing agendas that send my brain into busy problem solving mode, and having a general sense of looking forward to something or of being excited by the moment. A sense of the new, and of curiosity and exploration helps, but also a sense of spaciousness in time and place, nothing to hurry for, nothing to ‘achieve’. It probably also helps when I’m feeling relatively psychologically ‘clean’ and not carrying a current burden of guilt or shame, or a story about my life or day that is burdening me.

This is a similar but slightly different feeling to the one I often get when I am lost in being engaged in something creative, like sitting at my desk making artworks using crayon and lost in the physicality of texture, colour, the feeling on my fingers etc (let’s call it a crayon moment*). In crayon moments/ flow I feel like I am pointed towards something, I am engrossed, I lose myself and lose track of time, I am captured in delight, but there is an end point, a little striving to begin with that helps push me into this zone. A raspberry moment on the other hand feels a bit more expansive and related to the senses for me: seeing the colours and new shapes around me, tasting the fruit, feeling the warmth of the air on my skin, hearing language that ripples over me because it isn’t one I speak. It is also about what is going on in my head: appreciating the light, and enjoying the easy company, revelling in the underlying feeling of wonder and accomplishment I had for being so far from home on an adventure, and feeling relief and the gentle free-fall of being safe and not knowing things and that being OK.

Someone once gave me a magnet for my fridge that said ‘plant a green tree and one day a singing bird will come’ or something like that. I think it’s a great perspective – inviting us to reflect on what is growing and lush and fresh in our lives, because this is what draws in what we would like to have visit us.

If I was working with a coaching client who wanted to get more of this type of feeling into their lives, I would probably suggest doing some detective work together to see what types of situations or experiences they have found engaging, expansive or fun in the past. Maybe we would do a guided visualisation and take them there to recall the feelings, the sounds, the people around, the ideas, their thoughts of themselves in that moment. Maybe this would help them remember in their body what that feels like. Maybe it would establish a gentle question mark, unanswered, for those memories and past experiences to drift to the surface over the days that follow. This kind of work could give some clues to the types of ‘artist dates’ they could take themselves on in future, to feed their creative well. And in all this, we would work to try too unhook the expectation from the experiment – so that these gentle acts of creating space, of pursuing delight would be free from self judgement if they did not yield butterflies or singing birds.

* though Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would probably call it flow

Why doing what we love is not always fun

It was 8am. I was excited.

Yesterday I had spent hours and hours – way too many hours – figuring out how to use the software my website was made with. The buttons, the secret menus squirreled away within other menus. The brain-spinning array of options, the language that made no sense. I cursed and grumbled. I felt sorry for myself, and I felt angry – ‘why is this so hard! Stupid software! Why are you making my life uniquely difficult and annoying??’. One hour leaked into 2, which turned into 6. I spent all day figuring this out through painful trial and error, being in the beginner state, the uncomfortable space of technical learning which is either a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’, and as an adult learner who much prefers success to failure, this felt like pain. But gradually as I figured things out, as I found new commands, and liked the effects I was seeing, as the logic of the darned thing began to make sense, I began to feel a sense of achievement: proud, curious, and excited about the next steps. By that stage I found it hard to stop, and at dinner time dragged my poor husband into the details as I cracked one last problem and showed off, just a little bit.

So this morning I got up early armed with yesterday’s hard won knowledge and my now optimistic list of future changes for the site. I was brimming with excitement and grand ideas, was super keen to play with images and layout some more. I had a taste for this website thing and I was hooked. I switched on the computer and sat down.

And the strangest thing happened. While the fear of the alien technology was lessened and had been replaced with the excitement of competence, as I opened the first window to start typing content I experienced a wrenching feeling in my stomach. Too hard! Too scary! This time not about how to manouvre the software but about what I would write in those well laid out and nicely illustrated boxes. Yes actually describing myself, defining myself for all to see.

This is one of the unexpected paradoxes of pursuing something you are excited about – it is not always fun! My coaching training has helped me to see this more clearly, as I began to better understand the push and pull and push-back of change. I now recognize this feeling with more attuned eyes, and see it for what it is – fear, resistance. It is an ancient mechanism trying to keep me safe: from humiliation, from rejection from the tribe, from being eaten by things with big teeth. So now I see it, and do what I can to lessen it’s grip on me. Not by fighting it, not by being angry with it, but by tricking it into calming down. For me that means bringing it into conscious attention and analyzing it, or sometimes, writing a blog post about it! By then I feel more calm and relaxed and ready to wade into the deep scary waters of doing something I love.

So now I will return to the page and write the words that scare me.



You don’t have to be perfect to be useful

As I was preparing for my first paid art therapy workshops I felt intense anxiety. Who was I to be doing these? What did I know about homelessness? How could I be anything other than a middle class no-idea snooty well-meaning do gooder? Teenagers?? I never liked them even when I was one. These kids will eat me alive, I fretted. And rather than prepare heaps to feel better, I dragged my heels and avoided preparing at all. The weeks drew on. The first week loomed closer and closer and rather than having all my gear neatly organized and workshops planned I still had a brewing sense of unease and a guilty item on my to do list saying ‘design workshops’. As I began to put pen to paper to do the task all my fears bubbled up:

  • ‘You’re not good enough’ – ok thanks for that
  • ‘You’re not experienced enough’ – everyone has to start somewhere
  • ‘You will FAIL and make a fool of yourself, you wont cope, you will cry in a little bundle and everyone will know they made a huge mistake hiring you because you are just a FRAUD’ – ok jeez, lets look on the bright side huh

And the most insidious completely untrusting of myself message that bubbled up like toxic waste was:

  • ‘ You are a mess yourself! How on earth can you be the therapist when you have issues, and don’t deal well with stress, and have your own myriad of emotional problems – who said you were well adjusted enough to be a role model? You are messy and disorganized. You don’t drink kale smoothies. You are more like them then you want to admit. You are probably setting a bad example.’

This was not a fun place to be. To get to a position where I could prepare for and deliver the workshops I had to cross the bridge of my own perfectionism and self doubt. But what I had to remind myself was that you don’t actually have to be perfect to be useful; and realistically there is no perfect. To be a therapist, or a coach, one doesn’t have to be living some flawless, radiant, white toothed magazine-ad life. Of course you need to be generally well, and grounded, and have self-care practices in place. Of course it is better if you have joy and calm and self love to share. But do we need to be without shadows, without niggles, without doubt? Of course not. Barbara Sher in her coaching training, often says ‘the best coaches are the ones that have had the same problem you are dealing with’. If you want to tackle an issue, you are more likely to learn form someone who has had that same issue, tried different solutions, and eventually overcome it. Someone who has never struggled with it is unlikely to have many strategies or perhaps even empathy for you in this situation they haven’t had. So as we bring the witness to our fear, and self doubt, as we name it, and we hold it gently and don’t succumb to panic, as we practice owning and tolerating our shadow, we step into the place where we can be of help to others. Not as perfect beings, but as good enough.

Reflections on coaching

I am new to coaching. Both new to being coached, and new to being a coach: in a formal sense that is. In some ways I am more familiar with coaching then anything else. The supportive conversation. The guiding hand of a friend or colleague, the suggestion of a helpful supervisor, guide or mentor. Sometimes a book has acted as a coach – the author’s words spoken long ago and their echoes still creating meaning for me, here, in another time and place.
So it is appropriate that I find myself studying how to be coach under the tutelage of an author whose books have coached me at various milestones and crossroads in the last 8 years. During career crisis. In the bath with a cup of tea. On trains on long journeys. When existential angst has curled its misty fingers around my neck and threatened to squeeze. Like very few books on my shelves these few called to me again and again in times of reflection or crisis. And now I am learning to be a coach under the coaching and guidance of the woman who wrote them – it seems fitting somehow.
Early in this journey of coaching three memories that stick out to me are these:
– in a crowded room in Frankfurt, huddles knees together, doing speed coaching with strangers. The sheer enthusiasm with which people generate ideas to help me. Ideas come thick and fast once I tell them my wishes – no matter how simple, or ‘silly’ they might seem. No one, read no one, tells me my wish is not a good one, or says ‘yes but are you sure that if you got that wish you’d really be happy?’. I feel cradled and supported with a circle of smiling, intense and enthusiastic Germans.
– by Skype with a fellow student in Slovenia. My coach is humble, tentative and earthy. She suggests that to grow my identity as an artist I might like to go to more exhibitions. She asks whether I can get business cards made. Whether I enjoy doing classes. I feel the uncomfortable but warm glow of attention, of curious, gentle and well-meaning problem solving.
– by Skype with a fellow student in Tasmania. I am coaching a woman at least a decade older than me, who has been a counsellor for just as long. I feel daunted and like I will fumble and fail. I do fumble. I don’t fail though, because she is open to hearing ideas, and even though the best ideas seem to come from her, I realise that our session has given her time to reflect and let these thoughts percolate to the surface, and she seems happy with that. I feel how much more I have to learn, and that is not a bad thing.