February 10, 2011

PAIN, Part 3: Creativity in the Midst of Pain

Part 1, "An Introduction to the Subject of Pain"
Part 2, "My Personal Pain Story: The Pink Porcupine"
Part 3, "Creativity in the Midst of Pain"
Part 4, "What Others Have Written on Pain and Suffering"
Part 5, "Resources Related to Pain Management"

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Disclaimer: I am not a psychologist. physician, physiologist, or therapist. I have no medical or mental health training whatsoever. Therefore, no advice, medical or psychological, is intended or implied by any of the posts in this series on PAIN.

PAIN, Part 3: Creativity in the Midst of Pain

So many of my feelings and beliefs about creativity and how it relates to pain stem from the experience I had as a teenager over an eighteen-month period when I was ill with mono and then a benign tumor in my neck and three surgeries related to it. I would gather my sewing box, sketchbook, miniature poodle Suzi, and small b/w TV and, with Vernor's ginger ale close by to counteract the peroxide mixture I had to gargle with, I would retreate to my bed for the day, making tiny felt creatures and sketching farm scenes in pencil.

Perhaps it should be pointed out that I was a bit of an introvert, already enjoying creative pursuits, and I had the encouragement of my parents and the time to give to experimenting with arts and crafts. I also had a wonderful high school art teacher, Mrs. Catherine Lotze, who inspired me and even invited me into her home to show me the beautiful things she and her mother before her had made. So, though my love of making things did not begin with illness, the illness gave me time to nourish the tiny seed of creativity genetics or environment or parental guidance (or a mix of all three) gave to me.

    In 2006 and 2007 when I was working on Open Your Heart with Pets: Mastering Life through Love of Animals, I solicited stories about people and their pets. Many of the stories I received concerned the manner in which the writer's pet had comforted and cared for them during illness. And, as I delved into the subject of pain this month, I found another commonality: many folks use creativity as an outlet to express or escape from pain.

    When I am in discomfort or pain (in my layperson's terminology, I am using "discomfort" to indicate pain that only marginally interferes with undertaking one's usual activities and "pain" to indicate a level of feeling that does significantly impact one's normal activities), I can pick up the tools I'm using for the book illustration project of that month, work on my novel-in-progress, or grab some needlework and, perhaps like a person who has learned to meditate well, I mentally dive into the task at hand and my focus is on it and not on how I feel. Not on what hurts. Art takes me away the way nothing else can, or ever has.

    When I put down the creative task and try to watch what for me is mindless TV—or talk on the phone, do laundry, or fuss in the kitchen—everything my body feels floods back. For me, creativity is truly an escape, and I wonder, sometimes, if those closest to me know how much of an escape it has been. For, looking back, that escape was not always a good thing. There were things—issues, problems—that at times needed addressed, but for me I went to the comforting thing I knew: making something. Controlling tangible materials to create something I judged as good. But, we'll save the psychoanalysis for another time and for the purpose of this post let's assume delving into creative work is a good way to cope with pain.

    Surprisingly, some of my best work has been done when I've been ill and/or in pain. The collage below was done while recoving from a hysterectomy in 1994. I piled magazines on my bed and, scissors in hand, cut out images that related to me and appealed to me as a woman. This was a few years before I started my own business, and the company I worked for had given me a health leave of six weeks. My mother came to stay with me for a few weeks to help with the household and children and this allowed me the time to recover and to delve into something purely for fun, cutting and pasting magazine images; something I've liked to do since I was a little girl.

    In 2002, I spent a winter month ill with something I don't even remember now, and decided to paint some watercolors of birds. My "Birds of the World" painting was born, which has sold many prints at Cafe Press and also led to a commission for two watercolors, one of scarlet macaws and one of an eagle.

    The work featuring abstract shapes that follows is one of a series of drawings I created using Sharpie markers. This was in the winter of 2006 and every evening after work I settled into a small faux-leather chair, alone in my centuries old house after my sons flew the nest. A wooden tray on my lap to hold a pad of Bristol Board and a table nearby for every color of permanent marker Sharpie makes, I would listen to the TV as I recovered from a painful illness that drained me of energy, sapped my strength with fever and medication, and introduced me to a new level of pain and discomfort. (Fortunately, after an operation later in the year, I made a complete recovery.)

    Once I did the first drawing in what I note in my computer files as "bold abstracts" (shown above), I was hooked and did many versions using Sharpies and then later branching out into Prismacolor and also in acrylic (see two images below). This was a big breakthrough for me in terms of my "fine art" work (as opposed to illustration or work-for-hire) and it all started when I was ill. It was a purely right-brained process putting these shapes and colors down. I did a very simple sketch of shapes first, but the placement of colors was purely intuitive. I never thought about whether or not these drawings would sell or show... I delighted in the process and these drawings are some of my favorites that I've ever done. (You can see more of these at http://www.gallery.janicephelps.com/.)

    There is a sterotype and misconception of artists as being unhappy, addictive, dysfunctional creatures toiling away in a poorly lit studio alone, with holes in their sweaters and not enough to eat because they've sacrified everything for their art. This may be true of some creative folk, but I do not think it is a prerequisite to creating masterpieces, or even simply art that is worthwhile to the artist and to those who enjoy it in homes, businesses, and museums. I don't smoke or drink alcohol, and other than a brief time working at a table set up behind a furnace in the basement of the rental house I shared with 8 other women in the late '70s, I've not toiled away in darkness, and now live in a nice home with heat and a/c and skylights. I'm responsible and dependable. So, what gives? Does my subconscious think I have to pay for my good fortune by getting sick? No, I don't think so.

    I think it far more likely that the physiology of my body is such that certain malfunctions are likely to happen, given the right circumstances of time and place and whomever I am in contact with (in the case of germs) and perhaps the stress in my life at that time. I can minimize risk through behavior and personal management, but there is only so much that I can control.

    I've come to think that what is more likely is that I learned at a young age to cope with pain by escaping into a world of creative endeavors. When focusing on the process of making something unique, my brain successfully blocks out pain. When faced with severe pain, it is a different matter, of course. In the rare times in my life when I've been too ill to draw, craft, or read, I know it's serious. Yet, even at those times I have closed my eyes and thought about future projects, even when I was unable to act on my thoughts right then.

    One of my very favorite books is The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby, the 43-year-old editor of Elle magazine in France. Struck by a sudden, paralyzing illness; unable to speak or move anything but his left eye, Bauby communicated his thoughts to an assistant and the results are this slim, heart-breakingly beautiful book. (I cannot believe that the hardcover edition is no longer available; but luckily you can obtain the paperback, Kindle, or audio version.) The publisher states: "Rather than accept his 'locked in' situation as a kind of death, Bauby ignited a fire of the imagination under himself and lived his last days--he died two days after the French publication of this slim volume--spiritually unfettered." I read Bauby's book for the first time over a decade ago and know that it was one of the most influential books I've ever read, and it remains so.

    It is important that when we are busy with the responsibilities of life, the sacrifices we make for others or the things that we must do simply to live in the world, or coping with pain or illness, that we take time, at least a bit of time, to enjoy the beauty around us, in the way that is right for us (in other words, not what someone tells us we should appreciate or do or create, but what really is right for us). The photo above shows petals from coral-colored roses. I loved their color and the way the petals look against the white plate. Here, also, is an image that is reminiscent of a painting; but it is simply the sunlight coming through the windowshade of the 100-year-old house I used to live in. Just seeing this, gave me hope. So, you see, even if you are not able to create something, your mind can be thinking creatively. It can "go there" and comfort you.

    I've enjoyed making Artist Trading Cards (ATCs) and here is a fun one I made using the gold foil lining from a package of French cigarettes my husband had. The cigs got tossed, but I kept the pretty foil and added to it dried daubs of acrylic paint and a saying I liked. I later found, when reading Elizabeth Edwards' autobiography, that she had this saying painted on a wall in her home, I believe in the kitchen. That made the ATC even more special to me. (You can find many ATC trading groups online and trade with others all over the world. A good way to interact with others if illness keeps you homebound.)

    In Pain, Part 4, I'll list things that others have said about pain. But I'd like to include here a few words by fellow blogger/writer/artist February Grace. I asked her to weigh in on the pain-creativity connection:

    "I’ve been using creative thought to distract myself from pain since childhood, though I didn’t realize that was what I was doing until a few years ago. While there are definitely kinds of pain that no amount of creativity can divert your attention from completely, personally I find that no matter how bad it gets, if I can even for a few minutes direct my thoughts purposely toward something, someone, or somewhere else of my choosing, then the pain seems more tolerable. Creative thought is something I still have control over, even when I have no control over what my body is doing to me.

    "You never know, either, where those thoughts can lead. The novel I’m currently working on came to me as an idea in the middle of a night last summer when I was too sick to even lift my head or open my eyes. The pain was immeasurable, and aside from it, all I was aware of in the room was the sound of the three-clocks-in-one I have on the far wall, all ticking. I focused on that sound, one thought led to another, last fall I started writing the book and now, it’s a story dear to my heart."

    In Summary:
    It's my hope that in times of health you will find a creative outlet. Let go of needing to be really good at the thing you are interested in, whether it be music or painting, needlework, poetry, writing, or baking... Whatever it is, enjoy the process, treasure the journey and appreciate the results as an indication of the willingness within you to try new things.

    Begin this practice when you are well and strong and then, if the time comes when you find your well-being challenged, you'll have a creative outlet to escape into. It will feel familiar—like a comfortable sweater or a pillow that seems perfect in every way—an ideal place to rest, recharge, and locate the peace you need to heal.


    February Grace said...

    Oh wow, Janice, this series just gets better and better and this post is a masterpiece.

    Each piece of art has so much depth (I find myself clicking and looking at the bigger versions in awe) and speaks so clearly of the mind that created them. So beautiful, because they come from a heart that has found beauty in life and the world through so many trials and tribulations and that is such a rare thing. You are such a rare person.

    I am truly humbled and honored to be mentioned in this post- thank you. This is a gift, to so many myself included.

    I am really working on that you speak of- enjoying the process- it really is the best part, isn't it? The part where we're absolutely absorbed by and falling in love with the drawing, painting, or story we're creating. It would be such a shame to lose a moment of that thinking too much about the end result. Thank you for reminding me.

    Thank you for sharing your wisdom, I know I already have and can still learn so much from you.


    Melissa Kline said...

    Janice, what a unique and interesting series. There are so many things I like about this post. When you said, "Art takes me away the way nothing else can, or ever has." - that is what writing novels does for me. And when you touched on the piece about people using creativity as an outlet, I've done that my whole life. It was a coping mechanism for me as a child - sounds like you experienced something similar. I love how in tune you are with yourself and your creative process. It is very inspiring.

    I LOVE creating cards and the ATC sounds very interesting. I'm going to check it out!

    Janice, your summary spoke to my soul. You said, "Let go of needing to be really good at the thing you are interested in...Whatever it is, enjoy the process, treasure the journey and appreciate the results as an indication of the willingness within you to try new things." I cannot tell you how much I needed to hear those words. Thank you! And thanks for sharing all of your beautiful images and artwork!

    February, I LOVE your words and the story of how your latest novel came to you. That is incredible. I also love the photo of the clocks! Thanks for sharing your insights with us!

    Cynthia Neale said...

    Janice, I'm sitting on my bed exhausted with hip/back pain and your words are a balm to urge me on. A beautiful story of illness as a youth that established a pattern of finding comfort through the creative arts. Rather than watch television day and night, you lost yourself in playing with color and imagination. Indeed, your parents were wise to support you in this. I especially like your collage because there are forthright, confidence women, but there is also the gentle and soft femininity portrayed (that often gets lost in having to be purposed as a woman in a patriarchal society). What is unique about you is that you were sure of yourself in making art. There are some children who wouldn't have the confidence at a certain age. I saw the movie,'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly' and it is a story of triumph. Last week, I saw the movie about Temple Grandin, the autistic child who overcame fear, prejudice, and seemingly insurmountable obstacles to have a career in human treatment of cattle. She designed her own hug machine at college. Doing your art and creative work is a hug machine for you when you are in pain or discomfort. The interesting factor is the volition and determination to be creative during pain. It is necessary, as no one can do it for you.

    Janice Phelps Williams said...

    Melissa, Bru, and Cynthia, thank you for your comments!

    Melissa: if you type "artists trading cards" into this blog's search engine, you will pull up a post I did and there are a lot of links to info and groups.

    Bru, thank YOU for your input. Yes, it is always wonderful to delve into a project and not be stiffled by worrying about if others will like it, if it is good enough, if it will sell. Years ago I read a book with a title I have always remembered; the contents, not so much. It was "Art Needs No Justification."

    Cynthia, I knew from our first conversations and emails that you were truly an artistic soul who finds beauty and strength and then bring these to the eyes and minds of others. I don't know how one obtains determination, but the determination I do have surely was nourished by the love and support of those around me, and for that I am forever thankful.

    Glynis said...

    Janice, I have read, 1-2 & 3 of your pain posts. As a nurse (now retired and writing), I found it fascinating.

    I reflected back to my patients in certain specialised areas. The patients who read, or stimulated their brain in some way, recovered far quicker than those who 'gave into' pain. Their requests for pain relief were less than those who just lay on the bed. Sometimes pulling the covers over one's head and embracing pain, is not a good thing for mind or spirit. If pain is so intense and cannot be ignored, then redirecting the mind to more pleasant things, can truly benefit the body.

    Pain exists in horrendous forms for some, and they battle against it with their creativity. Our Occupational Therapy team encouraged art and craft sessions on the stroke unit. Blood pressure and headaches subsided for many patients.
    I cannot bear seeing someone suffer and attempt to hide it. Friends will tell you sometimes I can see they are suffering, and I encourage them to admit to pain. Once they have shared, the tension and guilty feelings that come with being in pain, helps ease some physical symptoms.

    For me, I have had mental health issues, and my poetry is my outlet. Now, I am recovered but when the slightest hint of inner pain creeps in, I write, make a card or cross stitch. Creative therapy is good for physical and mental health.
    During my recovery from two surgeries I learned to use the computer. I would not allow the pain run my day.

    You have covered the issue extremely well, and I applaud your achievements.

    Jessica Bell said...

    I'm still feeling pretty rotten with the flu, so I'm going to keep this brief and put my head back down on my pillow! If I didn't have a creative outlet such as writing, I seriously think I would still be continuously depressed. Being creative is the ONLY thing which gets me out of my slumps. Perhaps you could write a part 6 on emotional pain? That would certainly be interesting too!

    Janice Phelps Williams said...

    Jessica, I hope you feel better soon. I am so glad you have writing as an outlet (and I'm not saying that because Lucky Press is your publisher!). Writing, painting, photography, music--have the power to save us, comfort us, and take us away from the hard things in life.

    Emotional pain... well, I'm going to roll a lot of these blog articles into the second edition of "What Saved Me: A Dozen Ways to Embrace Life" -- due out from our favorite publisher later this year!

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