From Pilgrimage to Creativity Workshops

Last year I received a Heartbeat scholarship for a pilgrimage to the Isle of Iona with John Philip Newell.  It was a unique experience in a magical place, and I am still incredibly grateful to have been gifted that experience.  To be on that island, which has such a long history, where the weather changes every half an hour and the land is so often shrouded in mist, it’s not hard to feel a strong connection to the spiritual.

One of the messages I took from my time with John Philip was that it’s up to me to create the world I want to live in, for myself and for others.

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Iona pilgrims Kathryn Shanks (left), Cami Twilling (center), and Ian Brownlee (right)

There’s a thread that runs through all Celtic Christian teaching that says the world is just fine as it is, and you are whole as you are.  This idea is counter to mainstream Christianity, which is based around the idea of original sin.  When we see the world as a place that has fallen from grace, nature is not sacred, trees are not alive, and nothing that comes innately from ourselves is good.  What a sad philosophy.  It’s no wonder that this attitude has given way to secular western materialism.  The philosophy that comes from the Celtic tradition is much healthier.  It says that what comes from nature is good, and therefore our own human nature is good.  We don’t need to be purified of the evil that is within us, we accept ourselves and embrace our own nature, which includes our sexuality and our creativity.

For as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to be an artist.  It has always come naturally to me (though whether it’s coming from me or through me I don’t know.)  I have always found that when I try to steer my creativity, or in any way to impose my conscious will on this unconscious process, it doesn’t work.  Creativity is a wild thing that must be given its independence.  If you try to cage it, its spirit will die.

 To be an artist is to be a complete person: to embrace all the parts of ourselves.

One of the messages I took from my time with John Philip was that it’s up to me to create the world I want to live in, for myself and for others.  He encouraged me to share my perspective and my experience, because my impact on the world is greater than I realize.  As an artist, my way of communicating with others is through paintings.  Art is an extremely valuable form of communication, but it’s not very direct.  I wanted to engage with people more fully, to make myself useful in the world. Through talking with friends, the idea for creativity workshops was born.

I’ve taught art to children and adults, and I’ve found that each requires a different style of teaching.  Kids have a lot of enthusiasm for art: it comes to them as naturally as walking or breathing.  Teaching them is about managing their energy-levels and introducing art-making methods and materials.  With adults it’s much more complicated; they come to me to learn technical skills, but what I find they need more is a renewed connection to their creativity.  They want to be creative, but they find themselves blocked.  Somewhere in adolescence, we’re introduced to the idea that there’s such a thing as “good” and “bad” art, and we want to make sure we’re not doing it badly.  We become self-conscious, and we stop doing things that we love for fear of judgment.  This is very sad to me, because I feel that art belongs to everyone.  Drawing, sculpting, writing, singing, dancing: these are integral parts of being human.  For someone to give up doing something that brings them joy is to bury a part of themselves.

The idea for the creativity workshops was to take what I’d learned from teaching art to adults, drop the emphasis on technical skills and focus on the creative process.  This way the lessons are applicable to any discipline.  The roadblocks that stop one from painting are the same ones that stop one from dancing, playing an instrument, or writing: it’s all self-judgment.

Over the years that I’ve been working as an artist, I’ve also been practicing Zen meditation and mindfulness practice.  I’ve applied that awareness to the creative process, and I’ve confronted a lot of the obstacles that can get in the way of creative expression.  And here’s the funny part: there really aren’t that many.  If we can learn to spot just a few unhealthy thought-patterns, we can avoid the pitfalls that shut-down our creativity.  Once we see how unhelpful many of our thoughts are, it becomes easier to recognize them and move beyond them.

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The baptism of one of our pilgrims, Kate Collins-Thompson, at Columba’s Bay

The other important part of any creativity workshop is play: we make things because it’s fun.  What are you doing if you’re not judging yourself?  You’re having a good time, experimenting, mixing things together, stacking them up, rolling around on the ground, climbing trees, making music with pots and pans: basically being a kid. It’s from that sense of expansiveness and experimentation that all art comes.  Even a novelist who writes about difficult and painful subjects takes joy in the way the words are put together.  So in each session, however deep the  subjects we’re discussing, we always leave time for fun.  We draw without looking at our paper, make sculptures out of unusual materials, and come up with new ways of composing poems.  We also do exercises that get us thinking outside the box, which can expand our capacity for creative thinking.

What I’ve found so far is that there’s a strong desire for this sort of workshop.  Everyone who I’ve spoken with would like a deeper connection to their creative side; everyone has a project or craft they’d like to start or work on more often.  Attendees have told me they found the exercises we did to be powerful and important.  The most exciting parts for me have been when I have stepped back and let the participants share their experiences.  There’s so much wisdom in every roomful of people; sometimes all we need is for someone to suggest a subject to speak on.  The group conversations foster a sense of community and of shared-experience that is vital to any creative life.

So far I’ve held workshops in Minnesota and California.  Those sessions were held to an hour and a half, but the more I look into this subject, the more I realize there is to do.  So next will come a four-part series in my home-town of Asheville, North Carolina, that will allow us to approach this subject in greater depth.

As I plan my workshops, I think about the time I spent on Iona and about the example that John Philip sets for all of us.  He embodies that spirit of play, of self-acceptance, and the willingness to look deeply into the darker sides of life when that is what’s called for.  To be an artist is to be a complete person: to embrace all the parts of ourselves.  When we live in cultures that are built around shame, conformity, and self-improvement, it takes a lot of bravery to accept oneself.  That journey to self-acceptance is at the heart of spirituality, and it’s also necessary to live a full, creative life.

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Ian Brownlee and his wife Kathryn Shanks live in Asheville, NC. Ian received a scholarship from Heartbeat to attend the Iona Pilgrimage with John Philip Newell in September of 2015. Please visit his website, Art By Ian Brownlee and learn more about his Creativity Workshops.