Posted by: mew | September 3, 2009

permission to make a holy mess

Wow.  We’re already in Week Three, and I have yet to post an exercise from Week One that I really wanted to share, and I haven’t told y’all about my Artist Date.  Which did not go as planned.

See, I procrastinated.  I did plan what I was going to do, and almost all of the date was supposed to be outside.  And then I finally earmarked a block of time on Monday to meet my artist child… and on Monday it rained.  It had been raining at that point pretty much for three days straight, so you’d think I’d have a plan B.  I don’t know whether it was some subterranean resistance or what — but I had only a plan A and a surly attitude as I stared out at the water dripping from the eaves.

I should probably mention that we had some distressing news on Friday, and I’d been fretting and worrying and generally engaging my excellent imagination in the task of imagining direst worst-case scenarios come Tuesday morning, when we would next hear an update.  As I looked at the shimmering sheet of rain, I could not appreciate its beauty, nor hear the loveliness of its soft music filling the forest.  I was angry, and I almost said to hell with the Artist Date.

Instead, I grudgingly said, okay, I will get my art supplies out, and you can play for exactly one and a half hours.  But don’t make too much of a mess.

Unfortunately, there are no pictures yet available because none of these pieces got finished.  Below are pictures of some of my previous ATCs so you get the idea.  Altered art and mixed media collage is my game, and I’m so determined to get the look I want, each tiny piece can take a dozen or more layers, sometimes patiently sanding between them.  (And since I like them 3-D, the scanner cannot get the whole card in focus simultaneously.)


Every ATC has to tell a story in my mind.  This one is called “The Missionary’s Daughter:  11th letter home.”  As I was applying seemingly endless quantities of gel medium to it to get the perfect lacquered look, I created a saga in my mind of the missionary’s daughter, stuck in 19th century China and opening her mind day by day in an exotic new world.  Don’t you just love the detail of the pen nib?  (If you can even see it.  Sorry that scan is so blurry.)

Here’s another one I made for that same swap, called “Not all roads lead to Rome.”


I’m thinking that any artists among you already know this, but to complete these two pieces, I made a holy mess, as my friend’s mother used to say, coming into the kitchen after our high school cooking attempts.  I always thought a holy mess meant a glorious, exuberant, all-out mess, a mess beyond the ordinary, a mess that involved crazy moments, like leaving the lid of the blender off and then pressing PULSE.

But you cannot make a mess, I told my artist child on Monday.  I do not have time to clean up after you.  We are going to protect every surface and use small amounts of paint and carefully wash every brush immediately after use.  I am not going to end up with stains on my hands.  And I need to have my desk back in working condition in exactly one hour and a half, because that is how I am going to control my anxiety:  by working.

Need I tell you that this hour and a half was nearly pointless?  I might as well have handcuffed and gagged my artist child.  She pouted and stared mutinously out the window.  It might as well have been a dead fish I was holding, for all the good I got from my paintbrush.  She knew I was keeping this date in name only, respecting the letter of the contract, but not the spirit.  Like any child, she knew the difference between quality time and marking time.  And she wasn’t having any of it.  Of course, I blamed the rain.  Who could have a good artist date in this melancholy weather?  (Never mind that I usually like rain.)

It continued to pour down as I stood at my kitchen sink for the last 10 minutes of our allotted time, scrubbing my precious paintbrushes.  Perhaps this was an artist brain activity, the kind Julia mentions in our current chapter, because I suddenly heard my younger self’s voice loud and clear. I don’t like this,” she said.  “It’s okay to stay inside and play.  The rain is not the problem.  I need you to give me permission to make a holy mess.  I need to be free to make mistakes, to experiment, to make ugly things, to leave the lid off the blender. Don’t forget that Beauty requires Ugly.”

The water flowed over my hand as I massaged the brush bristles back into shape.  I found myself nodding in agreement.

“You’re way too uptight.  And it’s choking me.  Does this look like a fun relationship to you?”

I felt like I’d just had a face-to-face meeting with a guru and stared deep into her eyes only to find she was all of seven years old and about as bossy as I was at that age.  Everything she said resonated inside my body, just behind my belly button, and I felt like I wanted to cry. She’s right.  I’ve been living way too seriously, holding on too tightly, trying to keep everything under control.  When did I get like this?  I didn’t even recognize my reflection in the opaque kitchen windowpane.

“Now while we’re talking,” she added,” I want to try that new technique we read about in bernie berlin’s Artist Trading Card Workshop.  That means I need you to buy me some permanent markers.  And if we’re stuck inside, you could take ten minutes to do that project with the old, scratched LP we bought at the thrift store last week.  Show some follow-through.”

Like I said:  Bossy.

So I took a leaf out of Judi Parker‘s book and did a second Artist Date this week.  The next day I purchased some Sharpies and we tried the new technique.  The first try wasn’t half bad.  And I got stains on my fingers.

Then we did this to an old Tom Jones record.


I’d been wanting to try this ever since I saw an article years ago about how to recycle an LP into a coffee table bowl.  Mine turned out more like a fluted triangle, but I liked it.  (I could have changed it if I wanted to.  You can reheat it if you’re not perfectly satisfied and reshape at least a couple of times.)

It was quite fun to watch it “melt” in the oven, and then to play with it and shape it while it was still floppy as a broad-brimmed straw hat.  I’m definitely going to have to get some more scratched vinyl for cheap at the thrift store and try other shapes with it.  Wonder if I could use it in a larger mixed media piece?  The rain was still coming down, down, but I was able to enjoy it this time, the fresh breeze coming in the open window, the scent of fall, the sweet sound of the earth accepting her tribute of water.  It was a quieter, contemplative playtime.

We concluded our date by ceremonially filling the new bowl with the new markers and placing it on a corner of my work desk — to remind me to make room for play in my life.

(All photographs mine.)



  1. I am on my way out the door and quickly read this.. but it is ‘funny’ that those insights came while washing the brushes.. I think that is where some of the most amazing self insights come..while near water.
    will be back later to re-read this fantastic post xo

  2. What a meaning-full AD! I really like how you took account of all those things happening in you. Cheers to the Artist Child!
    Water is magical for creativity! One of the methods that I recommend to my clients is to take a shower. Not the “everyday 2-minute, let’s get down quick so we can run out into the world to pursue goals, intentions, images and activities that might not even be our own” type of shower. No-No-No. The “let me give myself permission and time to enjoy water clearing my body, thoughts and energy” type of shower that I strongly believe in.
    I can just stand there for 20 minutes (or more!)under the shower, time goes in a blink, thoughts come and go and I always get some new ideas to pursue usually about my business or a creative project.
    I can recommend this practice wholeheartedly, just get some paper and pen into your bathroom to be able to take notes on those creative ideas that flow into your mind.
    P.S. I really like your “Not all roades lead to Rome” creation. What is an ATC anyway?

  3. Robyn, I was definitely surrounded by water — outside the window as well as running over my hands. I never even thought of that. What a deep insight you have! I always feel very moved by water, especially the ocean, and we live next door to a lovely lake. Maybe this is a hint I should spend more time by it.

    Judit, I’ll have to try that kind of shower. It sounds fascinating — although I generally try and be careful with my water use because of the ecological waste issues. I’m also sometimes feeling guilty that as an American I’ve been taking more than my share of this precious resource for my whole life. F. never had a hot shower until he was an adult and was awed by the experience – which I had long since taken for granted.

    I wish I could do as the Native Americans once did in the region where I live, and go naked into the lake or river every morning at dawn, floating a bit of lit tobacco on the water as an offering to the Great Spirit. But I don’t think the local authorities would approve! LOL.

  4. Oh, and to answer your question, an ATC is an Artist Trading Card. They are small pieces of art, the size of a playing card, 3.5″ by 2.5″ (6.4 X 8.9 centimeters) that cannot be sold. They can only be traded with other artists or given away. So they are quite precious to me. I love that they stay outside the commercial sphere. It makes them more meaningful somehow that you cannot buy them.

    I just made seven as a special birthday gift for a friend, and I felt so joyful and connected to her, giving her a bit of my art. (Especially since it took literally all year to complete them, stealing bits of time out of my regular life.)

    Beware of getting into ATCs. They can be quite addictive 🙂

    And thank you for the compliment. I quite liked that card, myself. Who knows where it ended up? (It was traded in an artist swap that included artists from four countries.)

  5. That is an amazing story … the first date was not a waste at all because you got so much insight and information from it.

    I have noticed I stop myself because I feel I don’t have “time to make a mess”. I love calling it “a holy mess” putting the spin of the sacred on it.

    Thank goodness the artist inside you is so bossy!

    And I too love your card. Talent like that needs a bossy little person to insure it doesn’t get ignored.

  6. that is so cool! cheers for the Artist Child!

    I’m so glad you commented and I found your blog. 🙂 I am excited to read more about your journey with the Artist’s Way. I started it at the beginning of the summer but after doing week 1 3 times without ever doing the exercises, I decided I’d try again in the wintery time. 🙂

  7. I find that many of my creative & intuitive insights come while standing under the shower.. I gasp with that aha moment and tell myself that I will write it down when I get out.. but by that time, it has gone, vanished.. all I need to find is a waterproof paper pad & pen and I will be right!
    I absolutely love your ATC’s, they are brilliant.
    this post has inspired me to contact my inner child who is very suppressed.. actually sadly, I don’t even know her 😦

  8. […] Also included in this reorganization was a downsizing of my projects and supplies.  I gave away most of my art supplies, because the reality is that I rarely make time for collage or painting.  Perhaps twice a year, I get everything out, make a royal mess, and spend a few weeks perfecting the tiny details of a collage that may end up with 20 to 30 layers on it, all sealed and sanded between to give such richness and depth to a scene that would fit in the palm of your hand (examples here and here). […]

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