A photograph of a small journal into which a colored pencil drawing of a sunflower-like image has been sketched.

Draw Anything (Today's Daily Work of Art)

I have been so blocked when it comes to drawing these past few months. When my perception of external threat reaches a certain level, as it has at my job, I shut off from my creative energies in a futile attempt to protect the hopeful and joyful parts of self from harm. My viewpoint of the world being bleak and lacking pleasure is no doubt related to this inner exile.

So, for today, I pulled out a small sketchbook in which I’d created several drawings last year. I was stunned to notice there were several images I had little memory of creating, which tracks with the internal separateness I experience. I decided to put as little pressure on myself as possible and to draw a sunflower. Upon making this decision, I immediately felt overwhelmed by the prospect of accuracy and the need to research how to create a sunflower. I almost gave up before deciding realism wasn’t my goal and that I could draw an image that had the essence of a sunflower even if it didn’t accurately reflect what it would look like.

The experience of drawing itself followed a familiar pattern. I spent several minutes in a blissful state, happy I had finally cracked open a sketchbook and was “being creative” at last. I felt relaxed and peaceful. Soon enough, however, once I’d made the decisions needed for how to finish my drawing and switched into filling in the petals, my mindset changed. I suspect that this was because the decision-making part of my brain, the prefrontal cortex, was no longer required as the central player, and I likely transitioned to relaying on the “muscle memory” part of the brain, my cerebellum, to complete the task at hand. Doing so meant that my thinker (prefrontal cortex) was back to having free reign to ruminated and stress out about upcoming events.

There is an obligation coming up this week where I may experience transphobia. I found myself worried that I was embedding anxiety into my drawing in that, when I look at it, all I will think about is (possible) harm. I have serious weirdness with both holding onto peaceful mental images and with creating them, and this small encounter may offer me a few insights as to why this could be happening. The moment of change today seemed to be when I lost my ability to be mindfully present with what I was doing.

Art is not always pleasant and it does not always make me feel better. I am so grateful that I am learning this lesson on my own rather than trying to go to art therapy and giving up after the first session because I think it didn’t “help.” It takes a disproportionate amount of energy and effort for me to engage in it as something in the process gives free reign for my inner torment to rise up. The threats I perceive from the outside do not fade from view when I’m being creative, if anything, they take shape and become manifest. This doesn’t mean I should avoid art, but rather, that it may be a way to confront my fears rather than to escape them.

Are you mindfully aware of yourself when you are creating visual (or other) art? What is the relationship between your emotions and your artwork? What helps you overcome blocks in your ability to create?

Inspiration for Intuitive Cards (Today's Daily Work of Art)

I have been working on my In an Open Hand intuitive card deck for at least a year and a half now. It contains 64 cards, each with a different word and prompts for different parts of self for reflection. It is also split into seasons. I’ve finished the prompts for fall and winter, but have much left to do for spring and summer. I’ve been waiting impatiently for spring to be on the horizon so that I can get back to creating in this way again. As I wait for signs winter is lifting, I decided to spend some time reflecting on the process so far.

If you are interested in creating your own intuitive deck, here are a few tips and ideas about how you might go about doing so, based on what I’ve learned from my own experience:

  1. Decide on a few themes that have a numerical basis to them. For example, I’ve incorporated moon phases, seasons of the year, body systems and the like into my deck. This allowed me to create “suits” as well as types of cards within each suit. Doing this allows for a more intimate focus on a particular area of your inner world and can help to give you some direction.
  2. Consider the purpose you would like your deck to serve in your life and what you would like to learn from it. Intuitive to me speaks to exploring my internal experiences, but it might mean something else to you. What I love about making my own set of cards is that I am not conforming myself into someone else’s way of conceptualizing things but can be as free as my imagination will allow me to be.
  3. Do words or images speak more to your inner world and your intuition? If images are how you process, you may want to begin by creating the artwork for each card and then letting your ideas flow from there. I am much more comfortable with my writing skills, so I’ve started with laying out my ideas in language and am still working on finding a way to represent them visually.
  4. For which type of person do you want your deck to be accessible? As a non-binary person, I’ve been extremely frustrated by the strict gender binary most tarot and oracle cards incorporate, so it was important for me to find a way to represent my spirituality that would not reinforce the gender binary. Even if you are the only one who is going to use the cards you create, spend some time making sure you are welcoming all parts of self and not solely the ones with which you are most comfortable.
  5. Take your time. I have gotten a lot of fulfillment from having an ongoing creative project with no set end-date and a maximum amount of flexibility. I feel inspired by having something in my life that isn’t focused on deadlines, productivity, making an impression or fitting in. It is possible that you might start creating an intuitive deck and find yourself led in another creative direction. Be open to possibility.

If you have dedication to inner work and/or creativity, what wisdom or inspiration do you have to share? What word or image would feel appropriate to your day today? What does it mean to you to attend to your intuition?

In the Age of Entrophy (Today's Daily Work of Art)

Today is a day in which I remind myself art is not the same thing as beauty. I tend to lean much more towards the products of creativity I find aesthetically pleasing and soothing, rather than considering the entire range of responses that could possibly be evoked. I do this, in large part, because I am much more easily disgusted than the average person.

Part of the research on disgust suggests it is an emotional response that evolved from processes we developed to keep us safe from contamination. For this post, I’m defining entrophy as disorder, chaos, destruction and death. Contamination and entrophy (in its physical sense) are connected in that death and chaos increase the risk of viruses, fungi and bacteria being spread.

For my reflection, I decided to take some time to analyze my somatosensory system (ability to feel pain, temperature, pressure, etc.) as well as my sense of smell as it relates to entrophy. I avoided my visual system because the images of things that are unpleasant can haunt me for months and are pretty much unbearable. My misophonia, as it relates to my sense of sound, is strongly tied into my disgust response as well. What, then, is the felt sense of entrophy, and what does it smell like? If you are as easily disgusted or bothered by disorder as I am, you may want to stop reading here!

Disharmonious Feelings

  • Feeling another’s warmth drift from you the moment after an embrace
  • Being bumped into in a crowded public area
  • Missing a step when walking down stairs
  • Dropping a heavy or valuable object
  • Running over a curb while driving
  • Spilling food you’ve just prepared in every direction
  • Trying to concentrate in a stuffy room
  • Opening an umbrella when it is very windy outside
  • Shaking someone’s cold, limp or clammy hand
  • Sitting in the passenger seat of a dirty car

Scents of chaos

  • Body odor combined with perfume/cologne
  • A rotting animal corpse among the flowers on the edge of the road
  • Excessive perfume/cologne in a sterile area (like a doctor’s office)
  • An unidentifiable unpleasant odor
  • The smell of an appliance motor burning out in a kitchen while cooking

This post, especially the part on smell, was extremely hard for me to write and made me feel nauseous. I had to stop after only a few ideas because I felt so grossed out. I recall (at one of my worst jobs ever) getting yelled at by a supervisor in front of coworkers because I’d told someone at the place I worked at that I found a situation to be disgusting. I am unable to do much to mask my “eww” face, even when I want to in order to not have other people feel judged or criticized. I joke with others a lot about how “weak my stomach is” and such to lessen how intensely they perceive my possible responses, but, even after all of these experiences, I am still a bit amazed to realize how visceral my reaction is to simply thinking about situations involving entrophy.

I question to what extent this way of being reflect neurodivergence on my part as I’ve had so many social interactions which indicate others are not all at the same place I am with it. My capacity for disgust clearly limits what I can handle in everyday life and has, at times, led to avoidance behaviors. Part of the reason I’ve socially withdrawn to the extent I have is that I am so sensitive to smells, physical sensations and sounds that it makes it hard for me to be around others, especially in unpredictable situations. Clean, organized, spacious, low-stimuli environments are where I function most effectively, which is why my house appeals to me.

What, for you, does entrophy represent? What situations, in terms of smells and/or your felt sense, remind you of entrophy and/or evoke a disgust response? To what extent are you affected by these types of situations?

Seneca Rocks in West Virginia--rocky cliffs rising from green trees into a sky with clouds

When I Wept at the Beauty (Today's Simple Pleasure)

Today’s card prompted me to recall a pleasant memory. What came to mind was a memory of one of the first times I experienced nature as something more than scenery but instead as a revelation. I was in graduate school and decided I needed a bit of a break. I drove, by myself, several hours to a small cabin rental in West Virginia. What I discovered in that state was breathtaking (and contrary to the aspects of West Virginia that are typically emphasized).

My travels took me through switchbacks, which are curved roads up and down mountainsides. I felt uncertain as to whether I could successfully navigate my way to my destination. Finally, I arrived in an area that opened skyward, and, looking to my right, saw a shear rocky cliff jutting out of a mountainside, surrounded by dense forest. I felt tears welling up in my eyes because I had never seen anything so awe-inspiring in nature. I *think* it was Seneca Rocks but I’m not certain.

Once I reached the vacation lodging, I found that the cabin was perfect. It was secluded enough to allow for privacy, but not so isolated that I felt alone. I was able to draw and cook and spend time in inner work in a way that I had never before accessed. It was my own spiritual retreat.

I spent time in nature as well, hiking into the forest until I arrived at a meadow with butterflies and tall grass. There was a stream running beside the campground bubbling with clear water and pale grey rocks. In the evenings, I sat out on the porch of the cabin enjoying the starlight.

I’ve wanted to return to this site again, but something tells me it was a bedrock moment in my life, one on which the whole of who I am becoming was built that cannot be recreated. It was within a few months of this trip that the full extent of my childhood trauma came clear to me, as though I needed to give myself the time and space to allow for its unfurling. As I contemplate the elements of self-care and self-expression that I most cherish, I engaged in nearly every one of them in the span of those few days, save true mindfulness as I had not yet encountered teachings on it. I started becoming myself there; it was the moment of glancing up and seeing the cliff and knowing at my core that there was more beauty than sorrow at the end of it all that inspired me. Even if I never return to West Virginia in this lifetime, it will always hold a special place in my heart.

What place(s) have left you awestruck in their natural beauty? What moments do you look back on as turning points towards a deeper understanding of yourself? Where has Nature met you when you most needed Her to?

Beginnings (Today's Daily Work of Art)

My attempts at creativity have been zilch in the last few weeks. I needed to start somewhere, so I decided to draw a card from my Daily Works of Art deck; I chose the beginning card. Words come more easily to me than images or sounds, so I determined the best course of action is to ponder the word and to brainstorm the visual and auditory representations of it that arise, in the hopes that a few will spark further creativity.

A beginning might be A/an…

  • Acorn buried by a squirrel
  • Eggs tucked into a nest
  • Pink and purple sky as the sun rises
  • Cloud appearing
  • First drops of rain
  • Flame flickering
  • Splash of a pebble in water
  • Footstep into the forest
  • First snowflake drifting downward
  • Perch of a water strider on the surface of a lake
  • Locked gaze of a hawk in a tree
  • Stretch of a cat’s limbs before standing
  • Soft rustle of leaves as a breeze passes by
  • Murkiness of night sky under a new moon
  • Shadow of a tree in dawnlight
  • Lap of waves on a seashore
  • Curve of woods into valley
  • Scamper of salamander onto land
  • Rise of birdsong in first light
  • Budding of flower before blossoming

I enjoyed this exercise quite a bit and didn’t feel that I’d even come close to exhausting possible images and sounds by the end of it. I found myself wanting to bring in other senses such as touch and smell, so I’ll need to work on that in the future. I kept questioning whether what I was imagining was actually the start of something, or whether I’d been influenced to view it as the start through media such as books and films I’ve seen. In the natural world, most experiences are both interrelated and cyclical, so is sunrise really the start or does sunset portend a new beginning?

I noticed a few themes in my list. I think I associate the morning and the beginning of the afternoon most strongly with beginnings. I also think of the first action in a series of movements at the beginning, although, at least in humans, a good amount of mental activity and sensory input may transpire before any physical shifts are observed. I also conceptualize the initiation of precipitation as a starting, although rain and snow are but one part of a larger weather cycle, and come after a number of other alterations in wind, temperature and moisture levels have happened. I find myself inspired as I sit with this, because it leads me to conclude everything is beginning just as much as it is middle and ending, even if the liner framing we humans tend to put on our experiences wouldn’t hold space for this.

What images and/or sounds signal beginning to you? What aspects of nature speak most directly in your mind to “something new?” How do you integrate the idea of cycles and new-from-old into your thoughts on beginning?

Eight Mindfulness and Spirituality Practices to Start the Year Well

As we start the new year, I am more determined than ever to fully engage in the present moment as much as I can and to have that moment be held as sacred. I’ve included ideas here for myself as well as for you about how to enable this process. These practices might also be thought of as including self-reflection, sensory processing and grounding techniques.

1. Writing a poem

I am writing a series of poetry dedicated to animal encounters. This process has felt sacred to me as I draw deeply from each moment of time in which an animal and I exchange meaning. Other series I think would be interesting to try include weather patterns, plants, seasons and the sky.

2. Drawing a nature scene

I prefer my time in nature to be a slow process. What I mean by this is I am not focused on moving quickly through it by mechanical means like a jet-ski or ATV and that I let go of trying to “conquer” any aspect of it, such as completing a trail in as little time as I can. I once joined a walking group and spent so much time outside for a season, but the focus on walking fast and talking completely detracted from any mindfulness. Activities such as sketching and drawing can require tremendous patience and repetition, which enables me to pause and to be rather than do.

3. Practicing Breathwork

I shared recently that breathwork can potentially affect the brain-body connection in PTSD. Knowing this inspires me to spend time simply in awareness of my breathing. For those who do not have much free time, even a few minutes between activities can serve to help us recenter.

4. Connecting with nature through each sense

I love forest therapy and the relationship it encourages between mindfulness and nature. My favorite practice is to notice how each sense is affected by being outside. With a bit of planning, this encounter can be tailored to an individual’s sensory needs and abilities.

5. Engaging in a Body scan and movement

I sometimes find myself reacting emotionally to a situation, and, only after I get some time for self-reflection, do I realize that my physical state either contributed to or has been impacted by the encounter. Spending time checking with each body system and sending it healing energy helps me feel grounded.

In the past six months, I’ve also educated myself about ways to stretch specific parts of my body such as my toes. Doing so not only frees me of physical tension, but it also helps me expand my sense of inhabiting every aspect of who I am. Becoming embodied can be a challenge for those of us who have endured trauma, but doing so has allowed me to more fully process other aspects of my identity such as being trans.

6. Drawing a card

I believe that qualitative as well as quantitative data and information are useful, and I find that using tarot and oracle cards helps me release some of my compulsions towards liner thinking so that I can also take in “big picture” viewpoints. Experiencing insight through not only written but also through illustration is also enabled through the inclusion of various decks I have.

7. Listening inwardly

I’ve shared my process for doing inner work. I sometimes find myself wishing I could pause social encounters, check in with myself, and then reengage. I may need to find a way to do this IRL as so much of my out-of-body, out-of-time response is due to not having enough brain power to process my internal and external experiences simultaneously. When I make time for this practice, I often realize that much of the anxiety and anger to which I’d been reacting for hours was due to an inability to fully hear myself.

8. Holding Sacred Ritual

There is a good deal of overlap between the practices I’ve listed above and scared ritual in which I might engage. I have at times kept to a Pagan calendar as well as honored the full and new moons, but I did not find myself relating to these holidays any more than I relate to the ones most Americans follow. Ritual, for me, works best when it is held in anticipation or response to lived events. In particular, I want to engage in it at times where I feel scattered from myself and in need of reconnection.

Conclusion

Which of the mindfulness and spirituality practices that I’ve shared have you found to work the best for your needs? What else would you add as beneficial? What barriers, if any, might you need to overcome to allow yourself to be in the scared moment?

Natural Inspiration

In learning about permaculture in a class I took, a principle that I found intriguing was that of designing systems based on patterns that exist in nature. I haven’t applied these concepts to any attempts to cultivate plants, but I am finding the concept coming back to mind as I create my In an Open Hand deck card illustrations. In essence, I am experimenting with a more abstract form of art that is still rooted in nature.

I succeeded in drawing a pine branch that I found aesthetically-pleasing, but, as soon as I attempted to draw an entire tree, I found myself completely out of my depth and managed to pencil only a very abnormally-shaped and odd Christmas tree. I have plans to take a colored-pencil class next summer which will hopefully help me improve my skills, but, after my trip to the art museum, I started contemplating the idea of capturing nature on a more abstract level. What I’m currently trying out is outlining a natural shape, such as a pine tree, and then filling it in with more abstract forms such as wavy lines. What I’m making looks a bit like a cartoon but at least approaches something that isn’t repulsive to me.

PHysical Patterns

What I love about turning to nature for ideas is that there are many from which to choose. Below are a list of websites that list possibilities for designs based on nature:

A few commonalities among the website suggestions include waves, spirals and web formations. As far as I understand it, permaculture focuses on physical design to benefit both humans and the ecosystem and is not concerned with aesthetics as a core value. However, I like the idea of tapping into the components of the natural system as a source of creativity, rather than limiting myself to a literal (and highly imperfect) representation of what I take in through my senses. To the extent that you spend time outdoors and/or in nature, how do you translate what you see into your creative passions? In terms of artistic creations, where on the spectrum of literal to abstract do you find yourself falling? Why?

Watercolor Pencils (Today's Simple Pleasure)

I decided to pull the “exploring a new art medium” card again for today’s simple pleasure, and to try out watercolor pencils by Faber-Castell. I’ve been enjoying their oil-based colored pencils so I thought I’d try working with both. The main lesson I learned was that paper matters.

I chose a mixed-media paper that was labeled as appropriate for watercolor, but the paper immediately wrinkles as soon as I added a small amount of water. I also tried to use the pencils on my colored-pencil paper but it also got wavy (although the colors diffused a lot less which I liked). I haven’t yet found a paper that responds well, or perhaps I’ll find that I am applying too much water.

I love how easy it is to sketch with the watercolor pencils as compared to watercolor paint. I think that, once I get a handle on the technique, it will pair well with the colored pencils so that I can achieve background coverage more easily and then layer onto it a more detailed drawing. This is what I did for the image I included in my post. If you’ve worked with this type of pencil and have any suggestions, I would love to read them!

A colored pencil drawing of a pine branch with green needles. The branch is drawn from the upper left to the bottom right of the paper.

Needle by Needle

I finally drew something I don’t hate! I created this pine branch using my Faber-Castell colored pencils on Strathmore 400 Series Colored Pencil paper. In addition to two types of green pencils, I used yellow to highlight and blue to shade. All the pencils I used are in the 12 pack starter version of the Faber-Castell (I cannot emphasize enough how helpful it was to limit how many pencils I’m trying to incorporate).

In terms of technique, I first started by looking at a pine tree and realized the needles covered the branch as well. I sketched in the brown wooden part of the branch lightly first. I used green at first to line each branch at an angle with both shades of green. Next, I drew with yellow on the ends I wanted to highlight, and blue closer to the branches on the underside and where they met. Finally, I covered the wooden part in a cross-hatch motion nearly parallel to it with both shades again.

In terms of improvements needed, my color balance is messed up because I added the smaller areas of needles after the first few branches and they got too much blue, and because I rotated the final drawing in my photograph. I have to work on where and how to photograph my drawings as the overall color is too dark as well but I was too lazy to go outside in 20 degree F weather to try there. Finally, I have to consider how to make the branch appear more 3-D–I think the needles are alright for this but the branch itself looks rather flat because of the angle I used on the parts that split off.

I started my colored pencil drawings attempting to draw an entire tree and it did not go well. I think I have to break stimuli into their components in order to be able to have any chance of creating a visual representation I find palatable. Observing what I am trying to draw in person proved very useful so that is something I will be continuing. If you like to draw, what do you find useful in drawing natural objects? To what extent do you focus on realism? What serves as your inspiration?

Creature Comforts (Daily Works of Art)

Today’s card draw invited me to make art that would represent home. In contemplating this task, I was drawn to the idea of creating an atmosphere more than a visual representation. For me, the concept of home (not my childhood home but my ideal one) captures feelings of safety, ease and connection.

In attending to my senses, my sense of smell, touch and hearing were the ones that rose to the foreground (along with images of candles burning). Bread or cookies baking are cozy smells, but my physical health won’t benefit from having them circulating on a regular basis. I decided to purchase an oil warmer to gently fill my living space with calming and soothing scents. In regards to touch, I am contemplating textures such as a soft robe that I can add to my environment. In terms of sound, I want to find a cheap way to play relaxing music at all times (rather than having to use the same speaker I use for any media as I don’t own a television).

In sum, the concepts of ideal home and spa are apparently the same thing to me! I like the idea of thinking of art not simply as a visual experience, but also as something that incorporates all of my senses. I’ve been to a few parties lately and cannot believe how much my mood and comfort level shifts when the music starts blasting versus when there is only the hum of conversation. The atmosphere sets the scene and I often attribute my reactions solely to interpersonal dynamics I’m experiencing, instead of attending to how much the place and surroundings affect me. Hopefully, in noticing to the setting and viewing it as a way to represent a concept I crave deeply–home–I can then set the stage for fuller presence. What sensory experiences represent home (in terms of what you’ve like it to be) to you? What does home look like, smell like, feel like, taste like and/or sound like? What is one action you could take today to create it?