Healing Through the Canvas

Photo by dusan jovic on Unsplash

When my dad passed away I had no idea what to do with that level of grief and sadness. I had never experienced anything like that before. Although I had experienced the death of grandparents and a cousin, I had never lost anyone that close to me. My heart hurt. My dad wasn’t just a dad. He was my hero. He was my role model. He was why I had become a teacher. I adored him. I didn’t know how to move forward without him. There had been so few signs that his life was coming to an end. A weird condition by the name of hemochromatosis gave us no clue that the end would be swift and painful — the cause of death — liver cancer. We had no time to prepare for the loss.

I tried crying. I tried yoga. I tried ignoring the pain. I tried everything that I could think of. Then one day something popped up on Facebook advertising “30 Day Art Journaling.” I had never heard of this. I never thought of myself as artistic. As a teacher, I felt I was creative, but never artistic! Artists drew and painted things that hung up in galleries. On that day though, something so broken inside of me whispered, “Give it a try.” I now believe that the Universe was speaking to me through my pain. I signed up and received a journaling prompt a day. At the end of the 30 days, something felt different. I kept going for another 30 days. A lightness started to creep in and replace the dark. I didn’t realize it then, but art was doing for me what mediation has been doing for millions of people, for years. It was bringing calmness to my brain.

Together we felt normal again and once again I saw healing begin.The next year at school a young girl in my class lost her dad. My heart broke for her. It had been so difficult going through that in my 50’s, never mind 13. I couldn’t imagine what it was like for her. Her father would not be there to see her graduate high school or college, walk her down the aisle, or be a part of any of her wonderful milestones. The pain she felt was palpable. I did the only thing I could think of — I brought in paint and canvases and brushes and as a class we began to create. We watched Bob Ross videos and followed along. We painted along with the great masters. We painted our feelings. We decorated masks and did mixed media and got messy. Do you know what else we got? We got closer as a group. We formed connections. She started to smile and laugh more. In those quiet moments where we painted, she shared her story and how she felt. She shared beautiful memories and dark fears. She began to heal. In those moments I saw the true power of art — it gets us out of fight/flight and freeze. It gets us out of our overcritical, fear based brain. It puts us into our meditative right brain and brings us a sense of calm. We cannot heal from a place of fear. We need to heal in a place of calm, especially if connections with others exist within that space.

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When COVID-19 hit, I once again turned to art. I had a classroom full of children who were scared. They felt sad and lost and exhausted. We painted. We mixed colors and painted with brushes and with our fingers. We mixed paint with shaving cream and squished it onto paper and smeared it around. We layered paints and added stencils and stamps. My grade 8’s laughed and joked with each other during this time. They talked and shared. Together we felt normal again and once again I saw healing begin. They became kids again. Fear started to leave there bodies. They weren’t happy with all of the rules around COVID-19, but they weren’t living in fear.

It turns out that doing art activates the same area of the brain as meditation. Creating circles or mandalas calm the brain. Listening to a mediation and then doing art can bring powerful messages. So how do you get started with healing through art or using art as a meditative practice? Here are some ideas:

  1. Choose 3 colors that speak to you and start mixing them and applying them to the canvas with a brush, or fingers or an old plastic card.
  2. Pour some paint on a canvas and use your breath through a large straw to move it around the canvas. See how your breathe works with the paint to create shapes.
  3. Scribble on a paper for 20 seconds without looking. Now, see what shapes or patterns you can find in it. Color those shapes and look for the message in them.
  4. Find a program on YouTube and draw or paint along with the instructor.
  5. Go into nature and make a simple mandala on the beach or in a field. There are so many beautiful pictures online that offer inspiration.

Remember: Art is a process, not an end product. There is no right or wrong in art. One of my favorite moments teaching art to a grade 7 class was when a student said to her peer, ”Trust the process. It will be beautiful in the end.” Loose yourself and move from fear to calm.

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Shelley Holloway is the owner of Tides of Change and is a certified Therapeutic Art Practitioner and Creativity Coach. She lives in beautiful Prince Edward Island. Post COVID-19 she moved from Ottawa where she had owned a private school for children with learning disabilities and decided to shift her focus to healing through the arts. She owns a beautiful farm house and spends her time gardening, painting and helping adults and children paint away limiting beliefs so they can live their fullest life.

Last Updated on July 21, 2021

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