Nothing like a health scare to yank you out of your comfort zone. A series of tangled, messy health issues, and a couple of major surgeries, hijacked my life force and creative energy. Although, I’ve been teaching art and healing for over 20 years and making art for over 40, my “comfort zone” came to a screeching halt as I was consumed with all things medical.
Thankfully a year and a half later, I’m on the other side of the fear and physical aggravation, regaining my strength and finding my way into a new normal. What I did not expect was how difficult the emotional and spiritual dimensions of recovery would be. Stepping back into my creative process, I feel like a stranger in a strange land. The aftermath is hard to sort out but it is nudging me towards a greater understanding of the uncertainties of life, my inevitable mortality and what matters most.
– Creativity Leads the Way –
Our workshop setting
As I begin to heal and reclaim my physical self, my right brain strangely did not feel at home in my studio. In many ways, I am not who I was. What I needed was a kick-ass jump start so I stepped outside of my creative comfort zone and signed up for a three day workshop taught by the abstract painter, Brucie Holler. This evolving series of work, Incidental Findings, is what came out of that experience.
The creative is the place where no one else has ever been. You have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition. What you’ll discover will be wonderful. What you’ll discover will be yourself… Alan Alda
– Beginning Anew –
We began with thick chunky sticks of black charcoal – outside my comfort zone. We drew blind contours of a huge still life set up in the middle of the room – certainly outside my comfort zone.
Following lines of interest and motivating shapes
Using thick chunky sticks of black charcoal, I drew several awkward, clumsy blind contour drawings of a tabletop still-life. If you are not familiar with the term blind contour drawing, it simply means that you draw the outer edge of the shape or object you are observing. You never look at your paper. Your eyes and your hands become one. Awkwardly, I fell into the process, slowly becoming absorbed in the process. Time disappeared. It felt really good.
Folding these sketches in half and then half again and then tearing them into quadrants was liberating. I did not like my renderings – my mess of unwieldy lines and clunky shapes were cumbersome, and clumsy. Happily, I tossed them into the trashcan but no, it turns out these were to be the beginning, the starting point of our next drawings.
“Pick several and glue one on each sheet of paper.” she said. “This will be where you will start from. This is your beginning.”
It is a humbling experience to pick a single interesting line or a motivating shape and allow it to open the way. Large, smooth surfaced papers taped up on the wall anxiously waited to receive my mark-making, my brush strokes, my doodles, my creative play…
Trusting the movement of the charcoal in my hand with nothing to guide it but how it felt in the moment, how it looked in relationship to what was placed before it. With no outside visual reference but my response to what was already on the page – not within my comfort zone. The process – excitingly mesmerizing.
I wrestled and struggled through but once I added color to these drawings they transformed into rich iconic abstractions and on the third day, this process already felt like a new home.
These three days reinforced the importance of trusting there is great value in getting uncomfortably lost. I learned when I allow myself to move beyond what I already know, I am free to make incidental findings and unintentionally discover where I just might need to go next. My expanding comfort zone understands the importance of being open to newness, to risk, and to the things that occur merely by chance or without intention.
Post Whipple Surgery at the world renowned Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Maryland. I was there for 3 weeks.
Art and Healing. Powerful passionate works for me. I’ve been teaching art and healing for over 20 years. I’ve been making art for over 40. But not until this year, did I personally feel the terror associated with a serious health scare. 2017 was a tough year, but I was able to forge a deeper relationship with my art and healing practices.
During this time, I got a call from Matthew O’Leary of Jasper Magazine. Jasper Magazine is the love child of Cindi Boiter and provides unmatched coverage of the greater Columbia arts community, and has inspired collaboration and growth both between and within artistic communities including dance, film, literary arts, music, theater, and the visual arts. Honored to receive Matthew’s call, but unsure if my unreliable physicality and my “anesthesia brain” would allow me to articulate my thoughts clearly. I didn’t realize how a hungered for this conversation on art and life and healing and writing and death and living… We were kindred spirits who spoke the same language.
I hope you enjoy his article.
I want to thank three wonderful creatives that live in my community. You can read more about them at the end of the article.
Matthew O’Leary – You are a super talented writer and I can’t thank you enough for your sensitive, real portrayal of who I am and what I do. You nailed it in such an incredible way. I enjoyed our wandering conversation and I can’t thank you enough. Your first book, Symptoms of a Teratoma, will certainly not be your last.
Alexis Schwellier– Your photos caught the magic of the studio and the rich vibrant color of my work. Thank you for sharing your talents with me!
Cindi Boiter – Thank you for this opportunity and for all that you do to share the arts with Columbia! The Jasper Project is an incredible asset to our creative culture! You help make our art community strong and vibrant.
There probably aren’t a lot of people who can claim to have been saved by a ruptured appendix, but when artist Heidi Darr-Hope checked into the hospital last October for abdominal pain, the diagnosis was that she had been walking around for days with a ruptured appendix. The doctors performed their tests before treatment. During an endoscopy, they noticed something concerning. On her pancreas, there was a cyst. It was the beginning of a pancreatic cancer.
I know more than I would like to about pancreatic cancer. If caught in its earliest stages, it has a 15% five year survival rate. Once someone starts showing symptoms, like my mother did when she began experiencing sharp pains in her abdomen, the doctors don’t talk about stages. They talk about time, and not much of it. Three months after her first doctor’s appointment, my mother was dead. The discovery of Darr-Hope’s neoplasm was nothing short of luck.
My Vista Studio
She’s in Baltimore recovering from the cyst’s removal in June when I first get in contact with her. It takes a few weeks for her to get back home to Columbia (the recovery takes a little longer than expected). But when I meet her at her studio inside Gallery 80808, she’s nothing but energy. She’s excited to talk about her work, and keeps apologizing to me for her enthusiasm.
Her recent health troubles, as well as other stressors like the 2016 election, has led to her most recent work to start from a (literally) darker place than ususal. Before she begins bringing her work to life, she paints the canvases black. Then the positive energy starts to emerge. From the center of these dark voids bloom plants, hybrids of petals, leaves and peacock plumage in reds, yellows, blues, and greens. Hiding behind them are frames made of white cursive, words upon words. “We held a place for you a place of peace” reads the tiniest fraction of text.
Detail – From Darkness into Light.
These most recent pieces are from a collection she calls “From Darkness Into Light,” a collection that would undoubtedly be less sparse if not for her hospital stays. The dichotomy of darkness and light is a running theme in Darr-Hope’s work: twisting dreams out of the “incredible, repetitive nightmares” that sent her digging into the works of Carl Jung. She had long been an artist, having an MFA from the University of South Carolina, but it was her determination to interpret these visions that set her on her path.
Her level of expertise has required a process. The artist first visited apocryphal Columbia bookstore The Happy Bookseller, back when it was still in business, and got a copy of Peter London’s No More Secondhand Art, described as “using art as an instrument of personal transformation”. She became active in Very Special Arts (now just VSA), a program in SC Arts Commission dealing with children, youth, and adults with disabilities. She worked with the SC Cancer Center at Palmetto Health. All the while, she was building her own family. She’s been married for 40 years, has two children, and three grandchildren. They all live in Columbia, and are all supportive of her art.
Art and Healing – From Darkness into Light
Going after cancer was a natural venture long before her diagnosis. Her little brother had died at age six from the disease. She was only eleven. Grief counseling was not yet as widespread as it is today, so she and her family were left to just cope. But while grief groups are fairly ubiquitous, and can be found anywhere in the vicinity of a hospital, everyone grieves in a different way. Not everyone gets solace from sitting in a circle and talking. Some people want to express themselves wordlessly. And Darr-Hope’s preferred starting point is the mandala.
Literally translated from Sanskrit as “circle”, a mandala is a ritual symbol often used by Buddhists and Hindus. The definition is fairly broad, but imagine a circle surrounded by four sides, and fill in the rest with your imagination. Christians have their own version of the mandala in the Celtic Cross or the rose windows in cathedrals. The therapeutic value of this design is most immediately evident in its use in adult coloring books, which can be used to alleviate anxiety.
While cancer patients tend to be the main focus of Darr-Hope’s program, Healing Icons, her website makes it very clear that art therapy can be beneficial to sufferers of any disease, and she offers regular classes to explore her theory. The current course, Creating Brave, can benefit the afflicted, their caretakers, their family, or anyone who feels there is something inside of them that needs to be soothed. And the art that comes out of these sessions has the potential to be shown at art shows at 80808 Studios.
Mixed Media Shrine – “Protected”
Aside from mandalas, Heidi Darr-Hope is best known for masks, collages, and what is best described as shrines. She defines herself as a mixed media artist, and the shrines are busy affairs, composed of mosaic tiles, feathers, bells, or other material from one of the hundreds of plastic containers stacked to the ceiling of her studio. The hanging colors put me in the mind of Tibetan prayer flags, which is almost certainly intentional. On one occasion, Darr-Hope brought Tibetan monks to visit Columbia.
The next venture for Darr-Hope is a series called Incidental Findings. It started with a blind contour drawing that she developed while working with abstract painter Brucie Holler. She is also participating in this year’s Vista Lights, and will be among the artists whose work is featured during the 50th Anniversary of the South Carolina Arts Commission. Her work will be at Benedict College Henry Ponder Gallery in May of 2018. There is currently a plan to move 80808 to an unbuilt building behind One Eared Cow Glass on Huger. The proposed art colony, Stormwater Studios, hopes to be available in the new year. When she mentions moving, I take an exaggerated glance around her packed studio. “Good luck with that,” I say. She sighs loudly. “No kidding.”
Matthew O’Leary is a writer from Columbia, South Carolina. His writing has been described as a casserole of early 90’s grunge, late 90’s nihilism, and the chunks of burnt meat at the bottom of the oven. He lives with a cat, but it’s not serious or anything. He has had work featured in Gravel magazine, Birds Piled Loosely, and Fall Lines. He is the author of Symptoms of a Teratoma, (Muddy Ford Press, 2017)
Cindi Boiter is the Executive Director of The Jasper Project. She is a six-time winner of the SC Fiction Project, winner of the Piccolo Fiction Project, the Porter Fleming Award for fiction, and the 2014 recipient of the Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Governor’s Award for the Arts. She is the founder and editor of Jasper Magazine, The Limelight volumes I and II, A Sense of the Midlands, Art from the Ashes, and Marked by the Water, co-editor and founder of the literary magazine Fall Lines – a literary convergence, author of Buttered Biscuits, and literary author of Red Social. She also began an incredible publishing company – Muddy Ford Press – a family owned company dedicated to providing boutique publishing opportunities particularly to, but not limited, to South Carolina writers and poets.
Alexis Schwallier – “I live to capture the whole, real, authentic story of your life and your love, artistically and uniquely. Breathing fresh air into wedding photography, my favorite people are progressive, open minded, fight for equality, appreciate love, art, concert going, books, dogs (don’t forget cats and the occasional hedgehog), binging Netflix, have a taste for travel and adventure, dance like nobody’s watching, and laugh at corny jokes.”
In the depths of troubling, disturbing times, finding inspiration feels hopelessly overwhelming. Darkness is casting its troubling shadow around the world. There are so many things to be upset and concerned about – So much anger – So much violence – So much distrust – So much frustration – So much division – So much disappointment – So much despair – So much inequity. I am distraught and overcome with grief. A sense of helplessness clouds my vision and I am uncertain of how I can make a difference. Finding inspiration seems irrelevant and making art seems trivial. This is a completely different feeling than experiencing creative block.
Rescued by Reading
Finding Creative Inspiration in the words of poets is one of my mainstays.
Reading Mary Oliver’s newest book of selected essays, Upstream, I was struck by the following lines.
“Something is wrong, I know it, if I don’t keep my attention on eternity. May I be the tiniest nail in the house of the universe, tiny but useful. May I stay forever in the stream. May I look down upon the windflower and the bull thistle and the coreopsis with the greatest of respect.”
Ok, so my tiny nail in all of this overwhelming mess is to continue to make art, to continue to teach art making as a way to heal and grow and thrive, and to continue to build a community that embraces mindful art practices that ushers us all into living fully engaged lives. That is my job so I got to work. Thank you Mary Oliver for getting me out of my creative funk.
Finding Inspiration in Trusting the Process
It was cathartic to slather these white canvas with black gesso.
I do not remember when I first painted a handful of white canvases black. But there they were stacked up in a corner of my studio. Unsure of how to start, I thought of painting them white again as there was already so much darkness consuming our world. Instead I ended up painting more canvases black. There was something that felt really good about that.
All year long, I’ve been breathing, thinking, and making mandalas. This is partly due to an on-line eCourse I’m developing. Creating Brave: Mindful Mandalas is an eight week class on how to use mandala-making as a form of stress reduction and healing.
But making mandalas is nothing new to me as I have been creating these circle drawings for my own private use for many years.
My mandala practice is a way for me to play, unplug, de-stress, unwind and get lost in the creative process. These small drawings are daily sketchbook doodles. Sometimes I use the app, Bamboo Paper, on my IPad to drawn them when I don’t have my supplies on hand. As I draw and scribble, thoughts come to mind and I write these down within the mandala.
I wander around in my brain. I release things. I discover things and I always feel better after I create one.
Now seemed like the time to take my private mandala practice into my public art making.
Finding inspiration in my sketchbook mandala drawings
Mindful Mandalas: From Darkness into Light
Meditating, reflecting on a blank black canvas
I am used to staring at a blank white canvas or a white piece of thick paper, but this large black canvas, well I was at a loss of what materials to use and how to begin. So I sat for a day, just staring. Inspiration struck in the middle of the night – mark off the canvas with wide bands that can accept words. Begin by writing. Write whatever comes to mind and see where it leads. Use a white china marker.
I could not wait to get to the studio and begin.
The writing came easily as this is something I usually do within my art making practice but usually it is at the end of creating, not the beginning. I began with phrases such as ‘How do we go forward when….” or “So now is the time to…” Using the white waxy china marker to record my words made the letters seem more like marks and patterns than legible expressions.
The more I wrote, the more I had to say. There more I had to say, the more questions I had. Emotions emerged. Anger. Frustration. Betrayal. Fear. Hopelessness. Worry. Sadness. Embarrassment…
The late afternoon sun poured in through the tiny window of my studio, casting a beautiful pattern on the canvas. It was then that I decided to a draw a radiating mandala starting in the center of the canvas and work outward. As I began, I wove in and out of drawing and tracing the cast shadows.
Slowly I realized these patterns, these shadows were being cast by the prayer flags that grace my studio’s ceilings. I stopped, took a deep breath and looked around my studio. I saw Beauty. Courage. Protest. Confidence. Bravery. Perseverance. Hopefulness. Dedication. Education. Communication. Protection.
The times we are living in are ominously troubling. For now, I have found some creative inspiration in painting fierce light and color into the darkness. These paintings are a testament to the courage, and fortitude needed to face what is in front of us. Finding inspiration in troubling time is a matter of trust.
Where and how do you find creative inspiration in troubling times?
Silencing our inner critic takes years of practice.
My Creative Block, My Fierce Inner Critic usually shows up when I’m wearing too many hats and just squeezing in studio time between all the other demands of a wonderfully full and rich life. It happens when I am worn down and bone tired. When “The Funk” malaise settles in and my creativity becomes frozen. The voice of my Creative Block is tireless and repeats phrases like – “This stuff is crap and it is going to end up in the land fill anyway so why waste your time. Do something productive. This is all so self-indulgent.” Behind this voice is fear of failure.
Life is too short to let fear make decisions for you!
If you haven’t read Elizabeth Gilbert’s newest book, Big Magic, she has a terrific section on all the negative things we say to ourselves that keep us frozen. Needless to say, when I find myself in this icy land of unworthiness, I get discouraged, and set aside whatever I am working on. This usually makes matters worse because the creative process feeds me in a way that nothing else does.
I always return to my studio table in a terrible funk, wondering what on earth is wrong with me. When I settle down into the process, I usually find my way into whatever prompted “the funk.” When things are not quite speech ready, when the messiness of life rumbles just below the surface, my practice of art making usually rescues me.
Over the past year, I’ve created some artwork that I just couldn’t seem to finish. Creative block strikes again. I refer to them as my frozen pile, my works-in-progress. There are a handful of encaustics that I just couldn’t quite wrap up, a few paintings needing something, and some mono-types begging for more attention. Rilke’s words of wisdom became my creative mantra.
Waiting for some creative attention
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves.”
But the questions were going on way too long and I was becoming frustrated and blocked. I felt frozen. Maybe the best place for these frustrated artworks was the sacred BONFIRE, something I have always wanted to do but haven’t had the nerve. It seemed too murderous.
The Thaw Begins
Patient, focused, meditative process
My thaw began slowly in November when two Tibetan Buddhist Monks came to Columbia to create a Sand Mandala for Healing Icons 20th Anniversary. Witnessing this incredibly patient and intricate process made me realize I simply needed more uninterrupted studio time. My hummingbird approach to making art was just not working. I needed larger chunks of devoted time. I also fell in love with what they created. The sand mandala of healing was full of vibrant colored, patterned symbols that literally pulsated with energy. I wanted my art work to have that same life force.
Travel – Getting Outside My Normal
Free spirited under azure skies and oh the sienna Sahara sand
My journey to Morocco, a couple weeks later, further enlivened my lackluster creative self. As one who has always been filled with wanderlust, I love the challenge of stepping outside my comfort zone into a different kind of breathing space where my senses open into things I have never seen, smelled, heard or tasted before. Morocco did not disappoint.
It is a country brimming with wild contrasts – the modern and the ancient living side by side. The fortune tellers, magicians, gypsies, snake charmers, minstrels, and storytellers, live within “modern” Morocco. The overwhelmingly chaotic serpentine souks (markets) of Marrakesh and Fez are the perfect fusion of color, energy and vibrancy. It is palpable. My creative side was charmed, soul and spirit enchanted.
Alchemy of Gold, Copper & Silver
When I returned to my frozen pile of Works-in-Progress, I knew that the end of 2015 had paved the way for me to breathe life into the unanswerable questions. Gold, Copper and Silver leaf have become my saviors.
Vista Studio #2. Where I have been practicing art off and on for 25 years.
Vista Studios is my saving grace. There is no place like it. In one stop, you can find 12 extraordinarily dedicated and talented artists. We are multi-generational, men and women working in a variety of mediums. Having a studio there for almost 25 years, has afforded me two yearly exhibition opportunities – April’s Artista Vista and November’s Vista Lights. For these two group exhibitions, the Vista Studios artists always hung fresh new art. I said almost 25 years because when my two wonderful children where in their late teens, I wanted to witness every single minute of those wild and crazy jammed packed times!
Creating within an environment where, as fellow art-mate Stephen Chesley puts it, the art spirit liveshas been nurturing, inspiring and encouraging. Dedicating a life to the arts is not an easy path, so to be surrounded by other artists who get “it” is tremendous.
“Artists are sort of like priests. They’re supposed to bring something to the community … because they’re driven to,” added artist Yaghjian. “They offer insight and inspiration. And when a country or community doesn’t value that, it’s in danger of going all the way to commerce, all the way to business.”
2015 was an incredibly full year, most of which was spent getting my arms around how to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of Healing Icons. For the past 20 years, I have dedicated the majority of my time to developing and sustaining our mission to teach creativity as a form of stress reduction and healing to adult cancer patients. With the help of an incredible board of directors, we pulled off a celebratory extravaganza for our community. But you can read more about all this in our Healing Icons Blog.
I am thankful to Vista Studios – to the art spirit that lives within the space and to my fellow artists. You both keep me creating Art.
A detail of Out on a Limb, the art work I created for our Vista Studios Artista Vista Exhibition: Gossip.
Deciding on the themes for our exhibitions always prompts great lively conversation. This time we decided to play the game of Gossip, but instead of passing a phrase around in whispers, we passed around our own artworks. The circle started with Charles Courtney Curran’s painting “Sunset, The Envious Fox,” that was currently on exhibit at the Columbia Museum of Art. Chief Curator of the CMA, Will South, selected the piece that started our game, Eileen Blythe started. No one else saw the piece from the museum and all the subsequent creations were held in secret until the work was hung. She passed her’s to Michel who passed hers to David who passed his to Pat who passed her’s to Laura who passed her’s to me…and so forth. Suzan Lentz did a great explanation of all this on her blog so follow this link if you’d like to see all of the Gossip.
I sat with Laura Spong’s painting for quite sometimes, not knowing where or how to start. Her non-objective painting style, meaning she really does not want you to see any physically identifiable things in her work, was challenging. I wanted to absorb her creative process and respond to it through my creative process. I decided I would make a list of words that her painting elicited for me.
Vista Studios Gossip Game, Laura Spong’s painting that i responded to. Can you see the “musical Note” area I am referring to?
In the middle, right hand side were marks that did not remind me of Laura’s typical mark-making. They looked like musical notes blowing in the wind. I had an unfinished monoprint so I began making marks with black ink, colored pencils and some paint.
Out on a Limb. What I created, responding to Laura’s artwork. Can you see the influence?
As usual, when I feel the work is completed, I sit with the image for awhile. Then I take a couple of deep breaths and begin writing directly onto the piece. I am always amazed.
Out on a Limb
She had gone out on a limb before
But somehow she had lost her confidence,
Fearful of taking the risks
Her heart longed for
But today something shifted and she knew
It was time for a change,
Time to leap, to take the risk.
Announcing our Vista Lights Exhibition: Vista Studios@25. Love this crazy photo The State Newspaper took!
Wyatt and I were ready to jump in and create!
In keeping with the theme of my current series of work, I decided to go Out On A Limb and ask my 3 year old grandson to be my collaborator for this exhibit.
I have been creating art for over 40 years and he is just beginning. Of course, he has had the preschool kind of art but not a real studio experience and he wants nothing to do with Crayons. Instead, he prefers all things that his Nana uses.
We have been playing with wide markers and thick graphite pencils, drawing fast lines, slow lines, thick curvy lines, quiet lines and very loud lines. We laugh and giggle at the shapes that our lines create and many times are very serious about what shows up on the paper. I love to watch as he loads the wide bristled brushes with paint and with focused attention glides the brush across the paper hesitating a bit as the color bumps into his drawn lines and shapes. He has been playing with painting on his drawings, and drawing on his paintings.
Creating for the joy of it, the two of us just getting lost in the process and seeing where it leads.
My paintings and mixed media mono-types along side Wyatt’s paintings.
Other Creative Musings: Shoes for O’Keeffe
2015 marks the 100th year since Georgia O’Keeffe’s formative time and experiences as a professor of art at Columbia College. My father, Guthrie Darr, taught in the music department at Columbia College for 44 years, and during my undergraduate studies, I spent a couple of years there in the art department. So when Judy Hubbard asked me to brainstorm with her about her upcoming “O’Keeffe” exhibition at Columbia College, I was thrilled. Judy and I have been pals for around 30 years. We know each other well, can say anything to each other so when she a we had a blast. What Judy created, with a little help from her friends, was a true gift to our community!
Me and My O’Keeffe Shoes
Envisioning O’Keeffe, is the title Judy gave to her installation. The exhibition features more than 50 pairs of shoes transformed by South Carolina women of all ages. All of the artistic interpretations are inspired by O’Keeffe’s journey and legacy.
“I was inspired by the compassionate letter that 26 year old Frida Kahlo wrote to 46 year old Georgia O’Keeffe in 1933. Depressed and brutally exhausted from not being able to complete a commission, Georgia was put on bed rest and ordered not to paint for an entire year. Frida understood her angst and through the art of the written word expressed her support for the tenderness of creative spirit!
“Nobody sees a flower really; it is so small. We haven’t time, and to see takes time – like to have a friend takes time.”
End Note: Saving the Sad Note for Last
You might have noticed earlier that I used the words has been, well yes, this, our 26th year will be our last. Our building will become something else in 2017. Our landlords have been kind and generous and supportive for over a quarter of a century and that is something to be thankful for. Once a warehouse district that no one wanted to traverse, The Vista is now brimming with boutique hotels, restaurants, bars, and retail shops.