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Chris Zydel : Women, Painting and Power

Women, Painting and Power

By Chris Zydel, MA

I'm standing in my studio, watching ten women painting in silence with exquisite focus and concentration, and the energy is just humming. All of a sudden I hear a groan from one of the women and the words "Oh no, I hate it. It's so ugly." I smile, feeling a sense of great relief and dread.

Relief because another woman has just blindly stumbled into her gateway to creative freedom. Dread because I know the resistance and arguments I am going to be coming up against as I try to talk her out of destroying what she deems ugly and to even to begin to take the radical step of accepting what she has created with curiosity and compassion. I have to be quick here because women are nothing if not stealthy and crafty and will waste little time in eradicating the evidence of what they consider unattractive art.

This is a class in what's known as intuitive painting or process painting. The purpose of this kind of painting is to learn to listen deeply to yourself and to then courageously express what you find, without censoring anything, in a spirit of spontaneity, surrendering to the creative process. It's very different from typical art classes where the primary focus is on developing technique and ending up with a pleasing product. This type of class uses art and painting as a way to get more in touch with the inner world of soul and psyche. The focus is exclusively on exploring and expressing that internal process.

This road is difficult for most women, because even though many of us have done some kind of self investigation and recognize the value inherent in that search, we are still fighting an uphill battle against a very strong cultural bias that teaches us to place the greatest value on what is outside of us. We are taught that feelings and an inner life are fine as far as they go, but what is truly worthwhile is how we look, what we own, who we know, and where we find ourselves on the economic and status hierarchy.

The mysterious stirrings of our soul, the needs of our hearts, the messages from our bodies, and the genius of our intuition, are STILL, even after all of the battles for liberation that we have fought, denigrated and considered trivial and unimportant, unrealistic and immature. But in the world of the process arts the realm of psyche and dreams, imagination and feelings are staunchly defended as sacrosanct and even given center stage.

The women in my painting class know the rules of intuitive painting, one of which is that they are not to destroy anything or cover up what they have done just because they don't like it or have a negative reaction to it. They know what they are attempting here is an exercise in radical self acceptance which means embracing everything that comes out of them especially if it makes them uncomfortable because there's "gold in them thar hills" of the psyche that they can mine to great advantage if they are just willing to stay with the discomfort. But the urge to disavow the abomination of a perceived ugly painting by making it disappear can be overwhelming.

There are four words in the English language that you should never use in reference to a western 21st century woman if you don't want to get your teeth knocked out. Those four little words are ugly, fat, bitch and selfish.

Each of these four words addresses an issue of great importance for a woman, and what they all have in common is that they are keys to unlocking the door to our forbidden feminine power. And one thing you can count on is that each of these four issues will show up eventually if a woman seriously gives herself over to making her own art. Which is one reason that women often shy away from the creative process.

These words have extremely negative connotations for a woman and have been used to denigrate and control us for a very long time. The charge around them is so intense that as soon as we hear them we throw up our hands, recoil into a place of shame, close our eyes and back away from them as if they were Kryptonite and we were Super Girl. Since it is so difficult to be curious and explore them, we never get to see that in actuality these four words describe very positive qualities and archetypal energies that we desperately need if we are going to be complete, whole, actualized and effective feminine creators of our own lives.

One of the biggest internal obstacles to reclaiming our power is a potent archetype at work in most women's psyches that can be called the Inner Good Girl. The Good Girl lives for approval and she garners that approval by keeping women small and safe and non-threatening. She is not interested in growing up and is content to remain eternally young. Ultimately, she is the one that keeps a woman from being able to develop and flourish as someone who is strong and potent, gutsy and capable of taking authority over her own life. And the Good Girl never wants to risk being fat, selfish, ugly or bitchy.

If a woman takes her creative life seriously, if she makes a commitment to herself and devotes herself to her creative work, she will eventually reach a crossroads where she has to confront the Inner Good Girl and the list of Good Girl rules if she wants to continue creating with passion and authenticity.

We all know what those rules are. Smile, smile, smile, be sweet and nice, never get mad (or even annoyed), look pretty (which of course includes being thin), smell good, be clean and neat and always be pleasing and accommodating. Don't be loud and stay in the background. What you think or feel is not really all that important. Don't upset anyone. And never, ever make another person uncomfortable. In the Good Girl world perfection is an attainable goal and you need to work relentlessly, tirelessly, exhaustively, to be the absolute best mother, daughter, wife and friend you can be, all the while berating yourself because you inexplicably and continuously fall short of the mark.

When a woman starts her creative life she brings these same attitudes and expectations to her art. She only allows herself to paint pretty paintings that are perfect in every way. Paintings that are nice and make people smile. She is unwilling to risk disturbing or intense color or imagery; nothing that is too strong or stands out too much. But painting in this way eventually leaves her feeling bored and stifled. Pretty can be wonderful as part of a larger repertoire, but if it's all you are allowed to do it eventually becomes both a noose and a cage.

At a certain point in her creative process a woman needs to be willing to ditch the Good Girl by breaking the Good Girl rules. But breaking those rules leads a woman into the territory of the shadow side of the Good Girl, the dreaded yet fascinating BAD GIRL!

The Bad Girl is alive and well in most women's psyches and is the part of us who is sick and tired of the long list of restrictions that hem in her wild and juicy self. She is feisty and bold, full of audacity and unafraid to go for what she wants. She is adventurous and courageous, and enjoys the excitement that comes with taking positive life-affirming risks.

But our relationship to her has a strong shame and shadow element so she often gets expressed in ways that end up hurting us. She is the one who eats the whole container of the mint chocolate chip ice cream in one sitting, who doesn't return necessary phone calls to annoying family members, who spends money that she doesn't have on clothes or shoes, and who has inappropriate relationships with men or women that aren't good for her. What I am presenting here is a way to reclaim the Bad Girl energy, through painting, that is affirming and positive. To recognize that what we have been calling bad are disowned parts of ourselves that need to be brought back home.

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