Tuning Out (Artist’s Way Week 10)

Only two more weeks to left in The Artist’s Way. Wild! This week focused on recovering a sense of self-protection; defining the bad habits we have that get in the way of our creativity and admitting why we hold onto those habits when we’d be so much happier if we let them go. I didn’t have to dig very deep to identify my current destructive habit.

Hi, my name is Justine and I’m addicted to Netflix.

You might laugh, but I actually just wrote that sentence, got uncomfortable, and proceeded to open a new tab to continue binge-watching Nashville instead of writing this post. It’s ridiculous. And it’s actually a problem.

It kills me when I think of how much more mastery I could have playing my ukulele or how much of a story I could have written or how much more I could have played with my little girl by now if I didn’t spend hours of my time in front of my laptop, streaming the product of someone else’s creativity.

You’d think I would have learned from my media deprivation exercise in Week 4. But big problems don’t disappear overnight or even over the course of a week. Besides, doing the media deprivation was a task from The Artist’s Way book. I’ve always been an A student and doing homework is something I’ve always done well. I’m programmed to do things that are assigned to me. And I often enjoy that structure of being told what to do. But I struggle to motivate myself. If no outside force tells me I should do something, I’m geared up with all sorts of excuses to talk myself out of breaking unhealthy habits.

There’s a reason why The Artist’s Way is modeled on a 12-step program. Creative blocks are often addictions–things that we cling to so that we can stay stuck, because we know how to be stuck and the unfamiliarity of open creative channels is terrifying.

It feels stupid to be writing this because, to be honest, I still don’t have a whole lot of resolve to change my Netflix-binging ways too much. I am about to go on two weeks of TV-free vacation. Maybe something will click then. But for now, I’m putting it out there. I’m admitting that it’s a problem and one that I will probably be dealing with for some time. I like watching Netflix. It’s calming. It’s easy. It allows me to stay stuck in this strangely seductive pattern, this illusion of not having time to do things that I’d really rather be doing and that would be better for me. I do have time. It might not be ideal amounts or types of time, but I have it. I might tell myself that my daughter takes up all of my free time, but it’s not true. I waste plenty of it–just me and my screens.

But being a full-time mom, it’s so easy to convince myself that I’ve earned the respite that watching TV shows and movies provides. And there’s nothing wrong with television in moderation. It is a fantastic art form in its own right and watching TV can be a great break. But maybe someday, I’ll truly realize that the real respite–what I really deserve–is time to tune into my creativity, instead of tuning out.


Here Be Dragons (Artist’s Way Week 7)

Dragon 1

Don’t be scared. You are looking at my latest project: dragon masks that I made for my church’s birthday celebration. It is tradition to mark the occasion with a religious pageant depicting portions of the book of Revelation. When I decided to direct this year’s pageant, I knew that I wanted to portray the dragon from Chapter 12.

But how could I depict something that fantastical and frightening in a live performance? I didn’t want it to look silly, but also didn’t want to break the bank. And I needed seven dragon heads. Seven! Why couldn’t it be a one or even two headed dragon? I turned to Pinterest for help. I love searching through this online pin board and collecting compelling ideas. I almost always find treasure buried in the myriad images. This time, Wintercroft was my choice gem.

This company designs and sells beautiful, affordable mask templates that you can download, print, and then construct using simple, recycled materials. Eco-friendly and user-friendly? Count me in! As soon as I saw the dragon template, I completely lit up and thought, “Eureka! That’s exactly what I want.”

Now, here’s the thing. I’ve never made a mask before. Not to mention seven masks all consisting of twenty-three pieces. Each. And even with the very simple instructions, there was this nagging part of me that said I was crazy. The church has simpler versions of dragon heads in storage, it said. Why not use those? It would save a lot of time and effort. Why bother taking this on?

I hate that part of me.

It’s the part with the ever-present sneer. The part that’s always telling me that I shouldn’t try things if I might fail. And I hate how often I listen. But not this time.

Dragon 5This time, true to the focus of Week 7 of the Artist’s Way, I decided to take a risk. Not only did I make the choice to go for it, but I did it gently. I committed myself to the mask-making project and set myself the goal of making seven dragon head masks. But I also allowed myself to make lower tiered goals, in case it wound up being too much. If seven heads weren’t reasonable–and they might not have been, I had no idea what I was getting into–I could look into making three or four and coming up with simpler options for the remaining heads–such as using the pieces already available from previous pageants. If even that was too much, I could just make one “master” dragon head mask and do something else for the rest. Besides giving myself different levels of goals, I also asked for help.

And I got it.

I had cardboard donations by the bagful and cheerful teams of volunteers came to my house to cut, paste, re-paste, score, and fold cardboard for hours. They did most of the prep on the pieces, and then I put them together. Still more volunteers came and played with my daughter so I could try my hand at spray painting for the first time.

There were plenty of hiccups. Glue that didn’t stick well enough. Realizing that I had actually gotten people to fold the pieces backwards, so the first mask was technically inside out. A paint can that took five people and some online research to figure out how to get it to spray. More glue not sticking the way it was supposed to. Hot glue burns.

But there were far more successes than snags. In fact, some of the snags turned out to be Dragon 3successes. Making the masks inside-out–at least from the way the instructions said–was actually better because they were more durable that way. And I got to have some good laughs with friends  and strangers alike as we problem-solved.

We we wound up with seven exciting, fire-red dragon masks.

I’m glad I took the risk. I’m glad I took the time. I’m glad I asked for help. The dragon was a huge hit at the pageant, and my idea to have it played by three people wearing masks and holding the remaining four worked beautifully. (Photos of the masks in action later).

This risk was a gift and it will keep giving. The church now has seven cool masks to use in future years. I have new mask-building and spray-painting skills and a new level of confidence in myself. I’m already day dreaming of making more Wintercroft masks for future Halloween extravaganza’s and plays and church pageants. I love the idea of making some with my daughter one day. And I just might have the wherewithal to take another gentle, creative risk not too  far down the road, come hell, high water, or even dragons.

Dragon 2


What Artist Parents Make

When I was in high school, the poet Taylor Mali came to perform some of his work for a special school assembly. I had never heard of a slam poet before and I was blown away by the powerful, playful, and conversational way he wrote and delivered his poems. I never forgot it.

In college, I sought Taylor’s permission to perform “How Falling In Love Is Like Owning A Dog” for a class. I still smile when I recall the warm, personal message I received in response giving me the thumbs up and how much fun I had performing the poem. Sometimes simple similes can provide profound clarity. (And opportunities for me to use far too much alliteration.)

I’ve continued to follow Taylor’s work over the years and my longstanding favorite is “What Teachers Make.” This poem has some bite and a bit of language, but golly have I always loved the stand that Taylor makes for teachers everywhere and how vital they are in creating the upstanding and intelligent adults of tomorrow. Yes, teachers are invaluable in the creative process of educating and developing decent grown up human beings.

Parents are in a similar boat. We play a huge role in the creative process of raising these tiny people to become well-rounded, useful, loving not-so-tiny people. That’s huge. Massive really. And sometimes it doesn’t feel like enough.

Sometimes I feel trapped in an ever whirling cycle of confidence and self-doubt as both an artist and a parent. Lately, the nasty voices in my head have been asking me the same question that ignorant lawyer once asked Taylor Mali, “What do you make? You call yourself an artist, but what do you have to show for it?”

It’s as if choosing to become a parent and do less in the professional art world means that I am selling myself short. It’s as if I’ve already given up being an artist and now all I can hope to do is to live vicariously through the creative lives of my children. Those nasty voices snicker, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, have kids and hope that someday the kids can” or “Those other people have kids and still make a lot more art than you do, so what’s your problem? You can’t call yourself an artist.”

That’s when I have to stick my fingers in my ears and hum my favorite song loudly to drown out that destructive nonsense. I make room for the useful voices. The true voices. The ones that sometimes sound an awful lot like my husband:

“No one gets to tell you whether or not you are an artist or whether or not the art you make is ‘real’ art. You are an artist because you say you are. Because you feel and know that you are. You don’t need anyone’s permission or validation for that to be true. You don’t need to create a specific product in order to be an artist. You’re an artist because that’s who you are.”

Right. I take a deep breath. I shake free of the riffraff and remember that I am an artist. I remember that in so many ways, all parents are artists.

So what do artists make?

I recently Googled that question and was disturbed to find that most of the top ten search results were about how artists make money or how much money artists make. Really? That’s what comes up first? No wonder the nasty voices are so pervasive.

I might not be a slam poet, but I’ve got a whole lot of passion about defending the creative goldmine that is being an artist parent.

What do we make? 

We make children.

We make living, breathing works of art that are the future of civilization. We make homes. We make safe places for our children to play and grow in. We put up baby gates and cupboard latches even though they are a pain the butt.

We make imaginations grow and read the same books over and over and over again and yes, we do all the voices.

We make time to play with our kids and let them know that they are important.

We make spoons into airplanes and choo choo trains.

We make strong-willed, self-centered miniature humans share and say “please” and “thank you” and “I’m sorry.”

We make mistakes and let the tiny eyes that are always watching us know that they can make mistakes too and still be superheroes.

We make beds and school lunches and play dates and soccer practices.

We make love with our partners and make more children and make time to paint, sing, dance, bake, write–whatever we need to make, to make us feel like we are the artists we know we are. Because it’s not selfish to want to make the more conventional works of art too.

But we make ourselves remember that these children are our most precious creations. And even on days and weeks and years when we feel out of balance in our artist parent identities, we always, always make a difference.


I am an Artist Parent

My daughter was born last spring. Months of waiting, an induction, crazy contractions, some pushing and suddenly, I was a parent.

Not long after that we moved from Pennsylvania to Toronto for my husband’s job and I found myself in a new country with a new baby and without a work visa. I had always planned to be at least some version of a stay-at-home mom, but there was something about legally not being allowed to work that set me on edge. I felt stuck. Unemployed has a nasty ring to it. But you couldn’t say I was unoccupied. 24-7 duties as a diaper changer, tickle monster, sleep trainer, meal maker, safety net, and perpetual teacher and student of this wiggling, giggling, drool machine I had given birth to. I had plenty to do. And I’m still doing it–gladly.

People often ask me what I do. For a while, my response was something like,  “I’m a stay-at-home mom. And I used to be a theatre teaching artist.”

Used to be.

Why did I respond like that? As if becoming a parent suddenly meant that I didn’t get to be an artist anymore. As if making the choice (and it was my choice) to be a stay-at-home mom meant that I could no longer be a part of the artistic community–much less contribute to it.

Then again, how could I do both? Theatre artists work at all hours. They have rigorous rehearsal schedules. Performances take up evenings and weekends. Productions can be all-consuming creative endeavors, whether you’re performing or working behind the scenes. And as a teaching artist, my art-making involved guiding and enabling others to create theatre themselves, so add crafting lesson plans and educational activities to the mix.

The active theatre-making lifestyle isn’t exactly conducive to the stay-at-home mother lifestyle I also wanted. I felt like I had to choose.

So I made a choice: to be both.

If as a teaching artist, I was inseparably both a teacher and an artist, why couldn’t I do the same with parenting and theatre? People will continue to ask, “What do you do?” Why not answer, “I’m an artist parent.”

To be clear, I did not invent this “artist parent” concept. Once I determined to seek out ways to embrace both my artistry and my motherhood, I started to hunt around the internet for support. Check out my Playmates page (in progress) for a list of other blogs and organizations that celebrate artist parents and their work. But I want this blog to be a little different.

This is a playground for artist parents. Here, we can reflect on the ways that parenthood and our children feed our art. Together we can combat the binary “either or” thinking that threatens to cripple our creativity. Whether you consider yourself a professional artist or not, this is a place for creative parents to share resources and support. This is a place to redefine “normal” art-making processes and products. This is a place to share and make art that is inspired by our role as parents, not in spite of it.

Welcome to the playground where we can celebrate and expand on our best work: our children. And they’re professionals when it comes to creativity. So let’s play together. Last one to the swings is a rotten egg.