Art for Understanding How Your Mind Works

Atmosphere Quartet, mixed media and resin on wood, 2019

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As it happens, I am an artist; but also one who’s recovering from more than a decade of struggling to create; bouts of creative block, mental and physical health struggles, and periods of burnout. Yet, for about a year now, I am making art more joyfully than I have since I was a little girl. At the same time, the past year my personal creative practice has surprised me: the way I create has evolved to something decidely unlike anything I ever thought it would be. When I started making art, I had zero chance of knowing my “owner’s manual”. While very few people I’ve ever met do get a truly holistic chance to learn how they work, and be supported in their natural being-as-they-are from an early age, in my case it was so dramatic, that most guidance I ever received steered me very much astray.

The way my mind works is complex and intense, multidimensional, multi-sensory and highly abstract. I also experience some physical and neurological differences that make living in my body, as a whole, an experience that doesn’t get much mirroring from the experience of most other people I know. Living inside this kind of experience comes with its unique joys and challenges.

An Open-hearted Darkness, mixed media and resin on wood, 2019

I didn’t know that my experience was so different from most people’s for most of my life, though, nor did I know how it differed, even though I sensed that there was a seemingly insurmountable gap between me and other human beings from early on.

So, even though I studied and made art from a young age, and trained as a professional visual artist, art-making– or even yet, exploring the full extent of my creativity, beyond the confines of a particular discipline– was both limited and limiting; agonizing in some ways. On one hand, I wanted to express my inner experience and engage in dialogue with the world based on that experience. On the other hand, though, I could only grasp at articulating that experience in more than what (to me) felt like the equivalent of stilted grunting– rather than coherent speech. So where was my chance at dialogue?

My metaphorical “grunts” through art making were more often than not met with positive feedback, but feedback that–if I followed through on it– led me in all directions, and more and more, away from my internal motivation to create. I felt confused and disoriented, as I tried to impossibly reconcile my inner experience with feedback from the outside, contorting myself into “logical pretzels” to justify what I was creating and why, in ways that I thought my peers and teachers would validate.

In concrete terms, my teachers and creative peers often told me I had to “develop my own style”. Here I was, as a girl and later, a young woman, with passionate curiosity and desire to explore all mediums, all forms of expression. It wasn’t just a question of format either: I wanted to explore many, many themes– all of life itself, it seemed. Were my creations so non-descript? Didn’t they obviously carry a clear “signature” that was my own? If they did, it was only apparent to me.

Multipotentialites struggle when we’re told to specialize, to narrow our focus. I’d never heard that word until my late 20’s, however, so I didn’t know that a demand to specialize would put me in an impossible bind– and I tried. It made creating an agonizing experience: my whole body clenched and my heart twisted as I painted, or brainstormed ideas, or talked about my work (which was essential to showing it and sharing it with the world outside of my own mind, part of what I’d always dreamed of doing).

There was a certain kind of moral pressure in the demand to specialize as well: for me I’d say the pressure was to be “mature”; as though I was obstinately refusing to “grow up” and “commit” by failing to narrow my focus. And yes, some of that was present– but it wasn’t the main problem. Learning that I was a multipotentialite was the first step on the journey to accepting that I might be different –and therefore, create differently – from the accepted norm.

For years after graduating from art school, the inner pressure that had built up for me made it so that I could only create in fits and starts. Unsurprisingly, the pressure became so insurmountable that I stopped expressing my own ideas and feelings through art. I used my creativity in service of other people’s visions instead– I took painting commissions, worked as a free-lance designer, organized and co-led spiritual development courses in the spiritual community I was actively engaged in. That all felt, in a way, easy; I knew what the “target” was; as opposed to the floundering, agonizing fog I found myself in, trying to create something just for myself.

Fast-forwarding to the last three years of my life, I’ve been engaged in a rich and surprising self-discovery process: full-on learning how my mind works; from exploring my areas of intelligence and intensity, to discovering certain unique challenges brought on by being “differently wired” in more than one way (all of this is a long story, so perhaps one for another post). I’ve had the pleasure to do this also in tandem with other unusual minds, in my coaching work.

As a result of this mapping and learning, and mirroring from peers who are uncommon in the most varied and diverse ways, something started to dawn on me: “art” and “creativity” are not what I imagined them to be AT ALL. I’d based my idea of art on signposts and maps others have created– without knowing that they might not apply to me, at least not one-to-one. But learning that I perceive and organize my life experience in ways that don’t match those parameters, gave me the reference points to understand that I could allow myself to create in a way that suits me, that doesn’t need me to agonize in a destructive way (I still grapple with the creative process, and struggle at times, but in a way that doesn’t force my body and emotions into implosive contraction). Now that I can put myself on a map, I can even take advantage of creative guidance “out there” without it confusing me– I know now how to adapt things to fit how I work.

Coherence, mixed media and resin on paper, 2019

Slowly, but decisively, I began to give myself permission to imagine “art” as something much bigger than I’d ever imagined: a way of connecting to life directly, something that doesn’t require an “identity” or singular, premeditated signature, any more than every conversation we have with one another. Sure, we have formal conversations with certain constraints to them, but do we label every (or most) exchanges we have with other people? Permission, in this case, also meant including other means to create that are not usually associated with art– like literal conversations, which became a form of art for me; a sort of improvisational co-creation. Meditating with others and weaving together our meditating experiences afterward, as a bigger mirror for all meditators involved, became art too. Following inner promptings to adventure in particular places out-there-in-the-world became art. Connecting to other living beings became art. Putting together ideas from unrelated disciplines as a way to articulate big-picture concepts became art. And now, writing about my multi-layered process and sharing about it with you is a new exploration in my art.

Salty Static, mixed media on Yupo, 2019

Simultaneously, I realized in all those years of trying to specialize and find out what “my thing” was in creating art, I’d cheated myself of the chance to be spontaneous, and enjoy sampling and trying out every medium, format or idea that piqued my interest. This has become my “discipline”: allowing myself to walk every creative path I possibly can, through small, self-contained experiments. After the fact, I find myself enjoying the body-level knowledge that comes from having walked the path, rather than imagining the path to decide whether it’s worthy of walking.

These two questions: expanding the definition of art to ask “how do I intentionally connect the life within me with the life outside of me?” and “how do I use my practice as a playground to get to know how this life wants to become manifest, at any given time”? are what is guiding my creative practice right now. They are bigger than I expected, and yet I can engage with them with the smallest doodle, the grandest, most elaborate project, and anything in between.

Going forward, I’ll be sharing more of my wide-ranging creative explorations here, along with the process that led to their making– with a super warm invitation for you to join me in exploring, asking questions, and making art in tandem with me and others who join us here. To that effect, post your images/words/videos on Instagram (you’ll find me under @mermaid_forest ) with the hashtag #mermaidforest or share in the comments on Facebook on my Mermaid Forest page.

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Over to you

Create with me: make a piece of art (any medium you choose) about how your mind works: how you uniquely perceive and organize experience.

If you don’t have a sense of how your mind works yet, give yourself a little time to research beforehand; you might want to check out resources on personality types and traits. Journal about it, ask your friends about how their mind works, make small sketches to represent the different facets of how you experience the world– as part of your research.

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The images in this post are small paintings I’ve created as an expression of the complex, yet harmonious way my mind organizes experience. I aimed to explore multi-dimensionality though pieces that are painted over multiple layers of resin. Feelings, sensations, ideas, thoughts and other embodied experience accrue over time. They form emergent matrices layered over underlying interconnections weaving together all that exists, shown by the gridlike lattice underneath. I was somewhat inspired by Emergence Theory as explained here.

Mermaid Forest @mermaid_forest