A Square-Peg People Book Review
The Soul's Palette
by Cathy A. Malchiodi
She writes for those of us who call ourselves artists - and those of us who wouldn't dream of using that word about ourselves. She speaks to the practical-minded as well as airy-fairy-idea-lovers (like me!), sharing art-supporting information garnered from Leonardo da Vinci, Hildegard of Bingen, Andrew Weil M.D., Jung, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and others.
And Cathy provides factual back-up from medical/psychological/scientific sources - to explain what the experts have learned about how art making and art process work to help us.
For newbies, she offers good news: "..anyone can engage in art making, even with minimal technical skill..."
And notes: "Also, remember when first starting out that your immediate goal is not to produce a beautiful painting or sculpture but to express yourself, take pleasure in the artistic process, and see what emerges."
For those already comfortable with art making, she offers IDEAS - more ideas than you'd expect from a 6-person marathon brainstorming session!
The icing on the cake is that the whole book is woven through with stories. She says: "By nature, we are storytelling beings. To be a human is to have a story to tell. The images we create are the reflections of ourselves and our experiences, and contain the stories of our lives...Without stories, we cannot make sense of things."
And she gives us plenty of them.
Cathy tells us that the art process IS for all of us. In a chapter entitled "Embracing Your Creative Birthright", she talks about people's relationship to art and art making. She understands that some of us have lost that relationship.
She describes how people are discouraged about making art - usually when they are young. She also mentions a twist on this: "You may have been encouraged to make art, but in a way that discouraged your true voice and vision."
Cathy talks about working with people who ... "may have been out of touch with art making for a long time..." She says that she will "... often ask them to think about the places, events, and experiences that influenced their inner artist." She offers us interesting questions to ponder - prompts that will help us explore our relationship with art making.
She shares part of her story - about a big, positive influence when she was in grammar school. She had a teacher who encouraged her to make art when she was finished other assignments - prompting her when she was stuck and allowing Cathy to find her own art and style (not mimic his preferences). In her words: "...suddenly my whole world changed."
In an effort to help us move into that world changing experience, Cathy asks open-ended questions, inviting exploration and reflection. Throughout the book she continues offering these kind of questions - giving us opportunities to integrate what works for us from her teachings.
She also guides us with "exercises" and "practices" at the end of each chapter - that deepen our understanding of the concepts we've learned.
She describes these: "Creative activities are exercises that will help you to develop and enhance your creative powers, tap your imagination's healing potential, and access and use imagery for personal growth. Transformational practices are long-term creative experiences designed to deepen and enhance the potential of art in our life."
I'd like to give you a little idea about how inclusive this book is - how many creative possibilities Cathy offers us. In just ONE subchapter "Creative Activities: Drawing" she lists and describes ALL these choices: self-stick notepad sketches, Non-dominant-hand drawing, "Kill the hand", Drawing the heart of the image (my favorite), Dance your drawing, and Just experiment.
In one of my favorite chapters "Knowing Materials and Creating Space", Cathy mentioned a feeling that I've had - she says: "I like art materials almost as much as I like art making itself." Me too! I could have a room full of fabric just for inspiration (hmmm, I actually have had a room filled with fabric just for inspiration! - lucky me!)
In a subchapter (of the above-mentioned chapter), "Studios: The Gift of Sanctuary", she talks about the importance of having a place for art making - a sanctuary. Cathy tells about spaces she's created - one in a room when she was in college, where the bed took up most of her one room; rooms where she's had to share space with other teachers or workers; portable rooms when she was traveling or working with people in hospitals.
She says: "Part of the pleasure of having a sanctuary is the inventiveness that goes into finding and creating it."
I loved that Cathy embraces art for it's message, it's intention. She has a picture of a work of her own - it's called "Seven Dead Crows". They're papier-mâché, but they look just like 7 dead birds - in a row. This is not "nice" - not pretty art - but it's wonderful. And the story she tells about their significance and the visual reoccurrence of crows in her life is fantastic.
Cathy notes that she has worked "...helping people to use art to express and, in some cases, rewrite their stories...." She tells us: "I believe that intention is a powerful tool in using the soul's palette for health and well-being. In any form of transformation, the power of change comes from intention."
The stories she tells highlight lives changed by intention and people rewriting their stories.
At the beginning of the chapter "Images as a Path to Physical Well-Being", Cathy says: "In this chapter you will learn how art as medicine can help you to manage illness, to reduce stress, and to heal."
She tells us "Modern medical practice now recognizes the power of images in the treatment of people of all ages, and arts medicine is a growing part of daily life in hospitals and clinics."
But she is talking about healing, not cure - and she uses Michael Lerner's definitions to explain the difference: A cure is "...a treatment that removes all evidence of the disease and eliminates all evidence of the disease." But healing is "...an inner process through which a person becomes whole, the sense of being intact and undiminished, and can take place on physical, emotional, or spiritual levels."
I have witnessed art-making resulting in movement toward healing (wholeness). Years ago, using the same techniques that had helped me deal with depression, I co-facilitated an art and writing class in a local mental health drop-in center.
My co-facilitator and I were amazed at the discussions that followed the art-work process - people who seemed incapable (at that time) of much verbal communication - began to open up. In The Soul's Palette, Cathy notes what may be an explanation for this: "Expressing our experiences through drawing actually helps us to express our feelings verbally as well... Images are the midwives between experience and language."
Interestingly, it isn't necessary to learn art therapy or spend huge amounts of time analyzing our work to benefit from doing art. For those of us who want answers now - or even yesterday (grin) - she says: "Rather than looking for a set of meanings or answers, sometimes simply being present to your images is a way of knowing."
At both the beginning and end of the book Cathy mentions communities using art to heal - both spontaneously (after September 11, 2001 in NYC) and in organized ways (wellness centers, hospitals, collective websites). When I first read these sections of her book I was almost jumping up and down. Using art for healing - in the community - has been a BIG dream of mine for some time. Reading about places where this is already happening was exciting - and gave me hope to keep pursuing my dream.
One final quote from the book: "Art's true function is to inspire us, mirror our thoughts, and embody our emotions. When words are not enough, we turn to image and symbol to speak for us."
No question, The Soul's Palette helps us do that - with plenty of why's and loads of how-to's!
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