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?
Creating a 5 minute video portrait that sums up an artist’s work is not an easy task! The creator of the SCETV series Original SC, Tabitha Safdi, does an extraordinary job of it. I received an email from Tabitha the very first day of December. She had gotten wind of Healing Icons 20th Anniversary and wanted to meet me. Well, I can’t even begin to tell you how over-the-top busy every single day of November was.
Crazy Wonderful November
For Vista Studios 25th Anniversary Exhibit, I collaborated with my 3 year old grandson, Wyatt.
My final arts as healing workshop of the year was held on the 7th, the Tibetan monks who were here to create a Sand Mandala for our anniversary left on the 8th, Our Circles of Life Exhibition was dismantled on the 9th, the studios where I practice making art, Vista Studios, opened its 25th anniversary exhibition on the 12th, and I left for Morocco on the 13th. I returned from Morocco (more on that later) on the 22nd and left for Daufuski Island to celebrate Thanksgiving with my family on the 25th. Ah, home sweet home on the last day of November.
When I spoke with Tabitha, I was assuming she would want to meet in January 2016. Actually, she was hoping to air this series in January. Yikes! Deep breath! Anxiety! Deep Breath!
Let the Filming Begin
A small group of survivors gathered for an Intuitive Mandala Practice.
Tabitha and I met at my studio to chat. She loved my creative space so we decided to do the filming there. A few days later she emailed me some interview questions to ponder. Terror started to creep in – self-doubt and stage fright all rolled in together. I called a handful of my students to see if they would participate. Tuesday, December 8th, we spent the whole day filming. You’d think that after the filming was done, my anxious mind could rest. Oh no. Now I worried that what I said was not good enough. I’d wake up at night thinking – Why did I say that? I should have said this and I forgot to say…
Original SC features stories of everyday South Carolinians living, working and experiencing all that the Palmetto State has to offer.
“We could do a million stories on the beauty of this state, from the rolling mountains of the Upstate to the beautiful seas of the Low Country. Our state is truly unique, but what really makes South Carolina sweet is its amazing people.”