Shame, Taboo, and the Creative Process
"You shouldn't be making art like that!"
This was said to me once. It stunned me. At the time, I had just started making art again after a long dry spell. The person who said it to me was an artist who did watercolor still lifes. She let me and my young son come to her studio. My son would bop around while she and I chatted and painted.
Still lifes aren't my preferred subject, so at home, I did a painting that used the Point Zero method by Michelle Cassou. This is a form of "source" painting, very spiritual, unedited, spontaneous. Strange and taboo images often come forth, and are welcome. It is a healing approach to painting. I wanted to show her how I like to paint.
It is best not to share the art that is made in this process with those who don't understand it. But I made that mistake. It didn't occur to me that my friend would judge what I made. But she did.
The Shame Stain
I blush at the memory of some of the paintings I did in college, nude self portraits and other pieces with revealing and intimate content. But I don't feel shame about them, because my professor made it safe to create like that, and I felt like she had my back even if someone gave it a look or a comment. I felt her trust in me, and that was incredibly empowering.
I still have the painting that my friend had judged, and I still feel shame about it. It is stuck in a closet, and even just seeing the corner of the canvas makes me cringe. "You shouldn't be painting like that." Even if I were to paint over it, I think I would still feel the stain of her comment.
A few years ago I participated in the local art walk, displaying my art in public for the first time in almost a decade. The art was based on ink blots, and was very symbolic. People thought by looking at it that they knew something about me. But their comments, which they thought were objective, had nothing to do with me. They were telling me what the symbols meant for them. I would nod and smile. My skin is thicker now.
My friend's comment also had nothing to do with me. I absolutely can, should, and will "paint like that". She is the one who is limited. She is scared of her own shadow side.
Truth and Meaning
In my workshops, I am careful to model for others how to comment on each others' work. Often when someone paints something, we think the meaning is so obvious, like when someone tells us a dream. We think, as outsiders, we know the true meaning. We don't. If invited, we can tell the artist what their painting brings up for us, its meaning for us. But we cannot know its meaning for them unless we listen to what they say. We can learn about ourselves from the creativity of others in this way.
Have you had a shaming experience related to your creativity? Does it linger and keep you from moving forward?