Emotional Vulnerability and Art
Updated: Aug 25, 2020
This is a personal story and reflection on my experience with emotions, art, life, and understanding oneself through emotionally vulnerable art making.
"Art is a form of self expression to communicate the artist's intent"-- this I will never forget for the rest of my life (thank you Bethell, my high school art teacher haha). This was the meaning of art entrenched into my mind continuously throughout 4 years of high school art classes. But I did not really understand the true power behind this statement as an emotional artist and being until this year.
I want to tell you a story. It's about me and how I experience my art and art making process as an emotional and sensitive person, and how the ideas we form about ourselves can either lead to artistic and personal freedom or to confinement. Back in high school, I remember discussing emotional artists vs. intellectual artists when studying art history. And just to clarify, being an emotional artist doesn't mean you don't use intellect in your art, or vice versa, it simply is a distinction between types of art or the artist's approach to creating. I was very fortunate to have attended a school with an Integrated Arts program, which brought together artistically talented high school students from all across the region. I had art classes with the same group of students for 4 consecutive years, so we became very familiar of each others' individual ways of understanding and approaching art making. So when we did an activity to categorize ourselves and our classmates into an "emotional artist" group or an "intellectual" artist group, everyone knew (and voiced) which group I clearly belonged to--the emotional artists, of course! My art then, much like now, was bursting with colour and often reflected positive feelings or emotions/emotional experiences. It was obvious that I belonged in the emotion group, and if I am remembering correctly, I think I was even dubbed the leader of the emotional artist, LOL! It is an artist identity that I felt proud of, and I think in the moment I felt the recognition and validation I craved from my peers. I really wanted to be seen and appreciated by others for the ways I stood out as an artist. And the students weren't wrong to attach that emotional artist identity to me and my work, but, how could I have truly been a leader of emotional art when my understanding of myself and my own emotions were so limited?
I certainly had depth to my emotion, but it took a long time to understand that the beautiful emotions I created through colour went so much deeper than the overall cheery disposition of the painting. Back then, I projected myself to be a very positive person, or maybe that's what people convinced me that that's all I was; regardless, it's who I believed I was. And I am a generally happy and positive person, but I am more than just happy feel-good emotions--I am a whole complex being!-- and my emotions do not define me. Making colourful and warm artwork was my medicine for the wretched internal experience of my darker emotions. But when people saw me (as a person and as an artist) as someone who is always cheerful, happy, and lighthearted, it felt as if that was the only valid way to be and to create. A person cannot be one thing or one emotion. I was stunted, and confined because I believed that others' perception of me and my art was more valuable or valid way to be than whatever or whoever I was on my own.
This surface-level perception of myself and my art followed me through my first few years at Trent University. On a personal level, this unconscious and instilled belief made me vulnerable to manipulation and abuse in friendships and relationships because all I knew about myself was that I was a "happy person". Because of this belief, I allowed myself to be easily contorted into other people's vision or need from me, and it sucked all the energy I had within me. So when the unhappiness I felt became my everyday life, I was too distant from myself to comprehend why I was feeling what I was. And rather than exploring the feelings to find out what needs weren't being met (or seeing what people in my life were doing more harm than good), I was consumed by my existential anxious mind, and the untrue thought that my unhappiness meant something in me was broken or lost or wrong with me. On an artistic level, the warm and colourful art medicine was no longer working as well as it had in the past. I was constantly feeling low energy, lethargic, confused, uninspired, and unmotivated. And I negatively judged the artwork I did make, I felt like I was no longer developing as an artist. I felt no happy emotions so it felt fake to paint happy pictures, but I was too afraid to create anything other than something uplifting-- it was all I knew how to do! I did not have the tools within myself to understand my emotions, while also not realizing I had all the artistic tools I did need to start understanding.
It sounds silly to not know how to paint sad or darker emotions, but even to this day I struggle to create art when I am not feeling happy. I believe part of the struggle is that I unconsciously strive to make "pretty" art, and some of my emotions are not pretty. I do not believe that "ugly" art exists, because art is a form of self expression that has inherent value (even when it doesn't look the way I wanted in the end), but I still sometimes allow the judgement to seep in and affect me and my sense of safety when expressing difficult emotions into art. I am also still on a journey with dismantling limiting core beliefs about myself. Everything is connected, and art is my life, so art is also my key to seeing myself as I truly am. It is also a tool I can use now to help me understand the emotions I'm experiencing, which helps me discover the shadow parts of myself that I had learned to reject and hate. These are the part of me that need love and compassion the most, and deserve to be expressed, examined, and appreciated through art.
Today I stand before you knowing much more about myself and the emotions I experience. It took a long time and some good therapy sessions to get here, but now I can confidently say that I am not afraid to paint my emotions-- even though I still experience lots of fear and anxiety before I create artwork expressing anything other than happy emotions. I don't remember the exact quote, but in the movie The Princess Diaries, the main character Mia Thermopolis finds a letter written by her late father, and in it he said that courage is not the absence of fear but rather taking action despite the fear. I know that's hella random to throw in a blog post about emotional vulnerability and art, but I love The Princess Diaries, and I love that perspective on being courageous. I am trying to keep that message in mind whenever I approach the emotions and art making that scares me. My current private work is almost like a catalogue of the emotions I experience. I am keeping it private until I am ready to share, because it will ultimately take on new meaning once others see and perceive the artworks for themselves. However, this private work has been the most meaningful to me. It isn't detailed or elaborate, and the process is much more simple than how I usually go about art making. It feels like I almost had to go back to how I painted as a child in order for me to express these complex and difficult emotions. But creating and experiencing my emotions through the creative process has given me a safe and empowering way to finally express my voice, understand and state my boundaries, and make bold true statements about how I am affected by the world around and within me. Art has been a gift to my self awareness and confidence in me and my emotional experience.
Now I can see that the intention to my artistic self expression is, and has always been, to grasp the feelings and experiences I struggle to comprehend, articulate and stand up for. Making emotionally charged art is always a vulnerable act, because the process is putting my whole self into the art I make. Vulnerability is powerful! The art and the process of creating is a reminder that I do know myself, and that confronting myself on the blank canvas is a gateway to giving myself the validation and assurance that I am worthy, my art is worthy, and that art is my form of self expression to communicate this worth outwardly to me and to the universe.