I intern at a place called Arts of Life. It is a community of artists with and without disabilities that work together to realize their full potential. At the studio, I get the pleasure of working alongside some of the most thoughtful and nonjudgmental individuals. I volunteered with the organization last semester and found my time at the studio enjoyable as well as challenging. Challenging, in the sense that the work I do there revolves around relationship building and artist mentorship, and for me, someone who is shy, reserved, and extremely socially anxious, these are hard tasks for me to undertake. When, I first began at the studio, I found myself doubting any ability I might have at getting to know the artists, but slowly as time went on I came to realize that it wasn’t solely on me to build relationships, that the task was a two way street. These artists whose workspace they had so graciously allowed me into genuinely wanted to get to know me. Asking my name, striking up conversations, asking for help when needed, my job as a mentor fell into place simply because I showed up. So the time I spent volunteering at Arts of Life last semester became an eye opening experience as it slowly revived my faith in my ability to connect with others.
In planning for this coming spring semester, I knew that I wanted to continue on that journey. Though every voice in my head screamed that I was unwanted at the studio, that I was lying to myself about ever being able to be a mentor to these artists, that I made them feel uncomfortable, still I found myself striking up the conversation with my supervisor about interning. Now, Arts of Life graciously accepted my request for an internship and I went home for winter break with the knowledge that I would be returning to the artists with an even more legitimate role in their studio in January.
Well, it is now January and I have worked two full days at the studio. In the weeks spent away from the studio over break my social anxiety just built and built and those first days back at Arts of Life were so stressful as internal criticism after internal criticism filled my head. But that was exactly why I had come back to the studio. So that I could enter into a work environment where those lies that fill my head, the lies that tell me I am unwanted, unneeded, unworthy of connection could be proved wrong. And I will say that even after just two days back at the studio, those voices are being challenged and connection is once again being built.
Yesterday, I painted with an artist named Linda. Linda is an amazing woman. She is kind and funny and caring. But for some reason Linda really intimidated me the first couple of months I spent at the studio. It could have been that I had a hard time understanding her because she had trouble speaking or it could have been because she had a tendency to yell or it could have been that Linda was in a wheel chair and it made me anxious to push her around because I was afraid of others noticing me. But I believe that above anything else, Linda made me nervous because I didn’t know her, because I had never spoken with her, and was unsure how to start a conversation. Well, yesterday Linda was yelling. Not about anything in particular. No actual words were forming on her lips, just loud noises that made me unsure what she needed. In the past, I would pretend not to notice and wait for another volunteer to address the artist, but no one was available yesterday. There was only one other volunteer and she was busy. It was up to me to go over and see what Linda needed.
So, I sat down at a chair next her desk and asked what was wrong. From, the mere act of me sitting down, Linda stopped yelling, she stopped calling out, and she just smiled. She smiled at me as I talked about the weather, she smiled at me as I talked about her purple jacket, and she smiled at me as I asked her about the painting her was working on. From there, Linda seemed calmer and I was able to get her to start painting. I helped her mix a few colors and then she would brush the paintbrush across the canvas and exclaimed, “it’s beautiful!”, “how pretty!”, and “so bright!” with every stroke. I felt honored to be a part of her artwork. To help her hold the brush, to help her mix the colors, but most of all to agree with her on how beautiful the piece was becoming, to be able to offer her compliments and kindness during her painting practice.
A little time passed and Linda and I continued to paint. Then, another artist started yelling and yelling and yelling. Linda started to get restless. She stopped wanting to paint and I asked her what was wrong.
She said, “Maryanne is yelling and it is making me upset.”
I told Linda that I was sorry that she was getting upset but that Maryanne was having a hard time right now. I told Linda that Maryanne would take a break in a minute and go into the quiet room to calm down and that once Maryanne was in the quiet room the yelling would stop. Linda listened to me and calmed down slightly, but Maryanne kept yelling.
“She is upsetting me more,” Linda then told me.
I started to sweat a little. This was the kind of situation that got me anxious. I didn’t want Linda to start yelling too and then one of the staff members to have to come over and think that I was poorly handling the situation. So I took a deep breath in attempt to calm my panicked thoughts. A few moments later I asked Linda a question.
“Linda, why do you paint?”
“It makes me happy,” Linda told me.
“If we painted some more would that make you happy?”
“Why don’t we do that? Let’s paint so you can feel happy and it will help with the upsetting yells from Maryanne.”
“Okay,” Linda said.
I then proceeded to take the paintbrush mix it in the yellow paint and hand it to Linda and Linda swiped it across the canvas and exclaimed, “so beautiful!” My face lit up with a huge smile as I realized Linda had reminded me of something so simple and yet so profound.
Art is a personal expression. It is the release of creative energy that is built up inside of us. Linda and I connected on a much deeper level yesterday as I realized how similar her and I were. We both make art because it makes us happy. It is that simple. My artwork’s content doesn’t have to be beautiful and bright like Linda’s, but my artwork has to be made, same as hers. Linda painted yesterday to feel happy during an upsetting situation; I paint to release upsetting emotions. Linda paints with bright colors; I paint with black. Linda paints with abstracted patterns; I paint symbols and outlined images. Other artists paint in blues or faded green or pale yellow. But we all make art because we are artists and every artist has a reason why they make art that is profoundly personal and can be profoundly simple.
We make art because it makes us happy.