Finding Creative Inspiration

Finding Inspiration in Troubling Times

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

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

finding creative inspiration

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.


finding inspirationMy 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

Finding inspiration in my sketchbook mandala drawings

Mindful Mandalas: From Darkness into Light

finding inspiration

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…

finding inspiration
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.

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Where and how do you find creative inspiration in troubling times?


Ready for Exhibition

Creative Block: My Frozen Pile

Silencing our inner critic takes years of practice.

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 makes decisions for you!

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.

Advice from Artists on How to Overcome Creative Block, Handle Criticism, and Nurture Your Sense of Self-Worth

Works-in-Progress: Frozen

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.

Creative Block

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

Tibetan monks create sand mandala

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

Moroccan Desert

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.

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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.

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From our State Paper, an article featuring Vista Studios 25 anniversary.

Making Room for Art: Thank You Vista Studios

Vista Studio #2. Where I have been practicing art off and on for 25 years.

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 lives has 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.

April’s Artista Vista: Gossip

A detail of Out on a Limb, the art work I created for our Vista Studios Artista Vista Exhibition: Gossip.

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, #5, Laura Spong.

Vista Studios Gossip Game, Laura Spong’s painting that i responded to. Can you see the “musical Note” area I am referring to?

Primitive.  Aboriginal.  Intuitive.  Bold.  Earth. Questioning.  Conversational. Lyrical.  Dance. Arc.  Freedom.  Flight.  Blocks.  Steps.  Movement.  Wind.

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?

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.

November’s Vista Lights:
Vista [email protected]: New and Collaborative Work

Announcing Vista Studios@25. Love this crazy photo The State Newspaper took!

Announcing our Vista Lights Exhibition: Vista [email protected] Love this crazy photo The State Newspaper took!


Wyatt and I were ready to jump in and create!

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.

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My paintings and mixed media mono-types along side Wyatt's paintings.

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

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.”

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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.