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Douglas Eby : The Alchemy of Art

The Alchemy of Art

By Douglas Eby

Creative expression can transform painful reactions and situations, providing strength and understanding to change how we feel and interact with the world. Works of art made by others can remodel our inner realities.

Some think art needs to have that kind of impact to be worthwhile. Franz Kafka wrote, "I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us... that affect us like a disaster... A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us."

Clinical and forensic psychologist Dr. Stephen Diamond says creativity "is one of humankind's healthiest inclinations, one of our greatest attributes," and explains in his book, "Anger, Madness, and the Daimonic: The Psychological Genesis of Violence, Evil, and Creativity," that our impulse to be creative "can be understood to some degree as the subjective struggle to give form, structure and constructive expression to inner and outer chaos and conflict... for meeting and redeeming one's devils and demons."

A number of actors have talked about this kind of "constructive expression." Sally Field was 17 when she won an audition for Gidget and later said, "Before, I had always felt so trapped. Acting saved my life."

Meryl Streep has said acting "has to do with working out private passions that are almost inscrutable to me. I just get to work out all my murderous thoughts and my weaknesses and my failures and things I don't want to do as a parent or work out on the family. I need [acting] as an outlet. I love it. It feeds my imagination. It connects me to understanding."

Charlize Theron as a teen saw her mother shoot her father in self defense, and says work has helped her deal with it: "I think acting has healed me. I get to let it out. I get to say it and feel it in my work and I think that's why I don't go through my life walking with this thing, and suffering."

Like a number of other powerful actors, Charles Dutton has prison experience, in jail at 17 for murder. He developed an interest in theater, and after his release was accepted at the Yale School of Drama.

Speaking of prison, in her book Gifted Grownups: The Mixed Blessings of Extraordinary Potential, Marylou Kelly Streznewski says that gifted people "form a disproportionately larger portion of the prison population, perhaps as much as 20%... in contrast to the 3 to 5% of the general public. Is the conflict created by being 'different' connected to antisocial attitudes and behaviors? Do they get into trouble because it is fun? Or interesting? Or a clever game? Does crime have its roots in deep hurts?"

Those "deep hurts" can also fuel creative projects. Director Allison Anders made her film "Things Behind the Sun" as a way to deal with her rape. Native American painter Roxanne Chinook says her art helps healing from the traumas of her past: "The process of creating strengthens and restores my spirit."

Rosanne Cash deals with the recent deaths of both her mother and father, Johnny, in her new album "Black Cadillac," and noted in a Los Angeles Times interview: "I'm not the first person to make an album about death; I'm not even the first person in my family. My dad made music about his own death coming. He was an artist, and he could use his own life in an unsentimental way to make art. He was unafraid. For the rest of us that could be hard. But I understand it. And I learned from it."

The book Emotional Alchemy by Tara Bennet-Goleman is about dealing with negative thoughts and emotions that "disturbing our inner equilibrium," as the Dalai Lama writes in the foreword. Psychologist Bennet-Goleman says the antidote for such disturbance "is mindfulness, which involves being aware of our emotions without being ruled by them."

Creative expression, like psychotherapy and spiritual development, can be a way to become more aware, and also deal with high sensitivity.

Among other experts, Linda Kreger Silverman, PhD, director of the Gifted Development Center in Denver, says gifted and creative people tend to be emotionally sensitive throughout life.

That kind of intensity and sensitivity can lead to strong passions like anger. Dr. Diamond says there is "a very strong correlation between anger, rage and creativity. Most of us tend to view anger or rage negatively, associating it almost exclusively with destructiveness and violence. Certainly this correlation exists. But anger can also motivate constructive and creative behavior."

He continues, "The more conflict, the more rage, the more anxiety there is, the more the inner necessity to create. We must also bear in mind that gifted individuals... feel this inner necessity even more intensely, and in some respects experience and give voice not only to their own demons but the collective daimonic as well."

In his book, Diamond writes about painter and sculptor Niki de St. Phalle, who was able to find "a fertile outlet for her ferocious rage toward men — and the dominant masculine art establishment" — in the creative expression of violence in her work: "Her famous 'shooting paintings' resulted from firing live ammunition at paint-filled, white-washed balloons mounted on a blank, virginal canvas.

"Thus, rather than becoming a crazed killer or vengeful victimizer of men," Dr. Diamond explains, "de St. Phalle's fury — some of which stemmed from having been sexually abused by her father — fostered a fecund creativity, that served her well throughout her prolific career."

Judith Orloff M.D. in her book Positive Energy, says creativity is "the mother of all energies, nurturer of your most alive self. It charges up every part of you. This energy rises from your own life force and from a larger spiritual flow."

Even if you aren't an "artist" — or don't even want to be identified that way — you can help improve your emotional health through creative expression: perform in a community theater play, write a memoir, take a watercolor class, or do something else to express your demons in positive ways. •

© 2006 Douglas Eby

Douglas Eby is a writer and researcher about psychological aspects of creative expression and achievement. More »