Creativity Vs. the Judgmental Mind

Creativity vs. The Judgmental Mind

I

We are defined by our experience. And our experiences, our perceptions, are determined by what we pay attention to. Sometimes we have the choice of where we look and what we think about, and sometimes we have a locus of attention forced upon us. When we make judgments of ourselves or of others, we cast attention to a thought or belief that is limiting and sometimes negative and when taken to an extreme can put ourselves, or our flexible mind, into a box.
So, thinking about how we look at and feel about the world and ourselves can affect whether we are open, accepting, and flexible enough to work at the top of our creativity.

II
According to certain theories of psychology and mind, we are the stories we tell about ourselves. Our sense of self develops from a combination of genetics, familial experience, brain structure, personality traits and tendencies, and social experiences, both internal and external.
If we define an artist or creative person (an area which is an evolving discussion) as someone who has particular strengths on certain scales of personality, such as openness to experience, conscientiousness, and/or extraversion, is hyper-attentive to surroundings, and engages in divergent thinking, then developing and strengthening that kind of thinking and attitude will heighten creative talents and personal expression.

This personal story will also include attitudes and experiences related to their socio-ethnic status and cultural group. If race is a construct (another evolving discussion) and racial groups and cultures are ethnicities, then the personal stories of people in those ethnic groups include perceptions of their relative place in society, other groups’ attitudes towards them, and their attitudes towards themselves.
The judgmental mind can occur when the part of us that is formed of core or limiting beliefs, such as societal norms, traditional ways of living, and wanting to please our families or communities, comes into conflict with a type of creative thinking and lifestyle that is more accepting, open and willing to think differently. There are indications of a tension between the telling of the two stories, societal judgments can conflict with self-narratives of creativity experienced and talent expressed. Societal judgments occur, such as when a black child is told that blacks don’t play, like, or listen to classical music or art, Asians are unoriginal or only interested in STEM careers, or that getting educated in the arts is a waste of time and money, since arts organizations don’t pay anything anyway. The internalization of these judgments can cause havoc in a developing artist. Being torn between two conflicting ways of thinking and being, how we were taught to think and live by the people we love, and how we deal with the discovery that our own way of being in the world comes in direct conflict and creates discord with those same people, and in a way, important parts of ourselves.
Crises of self and awareness can resolve with the ability to perceive that both narratives are true, and so if a black person really resonates to understanding and listening to Mozart and Ravel, her equally strong experience of being African American in America can be integrated and validate the self realization and awareness of her creative self.

Most people have an unexamined tendency to internalize societal norms and self-judge based on them. Creatives in particular will often have negative images of themselves when compared to engineers or businessmen. It is important to get past the self-dimishing and judgmental notion of being “just an artist”. One of the goals of my practice is to make an effort to change that social paradigm, and help activists and artists clarify their worth to themselves and their community. This can hopefully create a ripple effect and help society come closer to realizing the important contribution artists and activists make to the world and everyone’s experience of it. Attitudes society has about artists, (art is just fun, it’s not serious, you can’t get paid for making art, etc.), go along with long-held societal views of artists as being more prone to instability, addiction and mental illness. I also have a goal with regards to the image of artists in society, to explode the notion that artists are not dependable, are unstable, “crazy”, or more prone to addiction. All of these judgments are subjective and come from negative attitudes about artists within our society. There are lots of talented artists who live stable lives and are extremely creative and productive. You don’t hear about them because they don’t have meltdowns or self-destruct in public. What is perhaps more difficult and insidious is to convince artists themselves that it is possible to be highly creative and mentally healthy.

III
There are different types of judgment, some which are neutral or benign, and these often fall into the category of discernment. As artists we are in a particularly fraught situation, as we are asked all the time to judge our own and other’s artwork. Ideally we’re trying to discern quality, but isolating that alone is nearly impossible given the subjectivity of artistic and creative efforts. We also usually have to make some sort of judgment based on our interpretation of the meaning of a given work. Self-awareness about our own biases and tendencies can help us not to fall into negative patterns of judgment. It’s important as well to not commit what is known as fundamental attribution error, making judgments based on information or assumptions that turn our to be not true, or to be products of our own biases or prejudices. We don’t always have to be right. Acknowledging our relationship to the artist and what we think they’re trying to say or who we judge them to be can often bring to light our own inaccurate or negative assessments, or catch ourselves engaging in us/them types of thinking. Accepting that we fall prey to societal or community norms when we are faced with art from a person of another race, gender, ethnicity or class is an important way to begin to shift and open our view of the world. Opening our attitudes and thinking can help us develop a flexibility of mind and acceptance of difference that benefits our own creativity. There has been so much talk about how damaging confirmation bias is in the political sphere, but it can be just as mentally constricting and damaging in the creative sphere. Assuming you know what someone’s work means without seriously making the effort to learn or understand it, then dismissing it without making that effort limits your own ability to learn, understand, and creatively engage.

On the other hand, when our own work is being looked at and judged, we have to remember that we can’t control the viewer’s responses, and for the same reasons, we want to learn to resist internalizing them. Even when there is pretty clear evidence that the viewer is responding according to bias or negativity, internalizing those views, even to try to refute them, only perpetuates that kind of negative energy and thinking. Us vs. them types of thinking not only hardens conflict, but it causes creative thought patterns, the kind that thrive in a more ambiguous climate of thought, to harden and become conservative.

IV
Ok, what exactly do I mean when I talk about judgmental thought? It can be explained in a variety of ways, as state or a trait, a pleasure or a defense. A state of what I call judgmentalism can come when a body is tired, overworked, burned-out, and in this case it can be considered a stress response, negative thinking of self or others, a sort of defeatist attitude. It can be a personality trait, a psychological disposition of getting pleasure from making moral pronouncements on other people, finding others to be of lesser status than yourself. This becomes defensive as well, when the need to judge others fulfills a desire to feel superior to others, being overly critical in an unhelpful way, or when fear of being judged by others causes you to be the one who judges. Casting others in a bad light makes us feel we are not so bad. This also happens when we skip from judging an action to making a qualitative judgment of the person. The idea can become circular, declaring someone else to be “so judgmental” can itself be a judgment, particularly if the things or actions being judged are a sore point.

It is possible to disagree without making a judgment of the person. It takes work and self-awareness to be able to do this, a strong enough sense of self and an ability to distance ourselves from taking another’s opinion personally. Being able to look at our judgmental thoughts, whether internal or external is a skill that takes effort and self-awareness, things that the judgmental mind doesn’t like to allow. It’s easier to make the judgment and let it stand than to look at it and figure out where it’s coming from, why it’s on repeat. We get attached to these notions that are comfortable, even though they are negative and self defeating, because taking the time to look at them in a light of awareness may show us part of our selves and personalities that we may not want to like or accept.

In certain instances or situations, some types of negative thought can be helpful, when the flow of ideas need to be edited, or when those ideas need to translated into an action or product. Internal or external criticism can help us move from one mode of thinking and being to another. Conflict engagements can also be helpful in organizing our thoughts and ideas around a subject, helping us create our own frame of reference. Sometimes guilt is the spur to get us into the studio or focusing on the next stage of a process. Those sorts of constructive negatives can be conducive to the creative process, but other types are more corrosive. Contempt and disgust have no redeeming qualities in the creative process, and shame shuts people down efficiently from a lot of creative thought or behavior. In order to create a state of creativity to do our best work, working towards developing openness to experience, flexibility of opinion, an ability to learn and absorb information, self-awareness, acceptance, and relaxation are key.

V

Stress Reduction- Relaxation, Inspiration & Flow

The judgmental mind is often the result of emotional stress, and is an ever-present fact of life for most people at some time in their lives. For our purposes, when I refer to stress, I’m speaking of the physiological response to some event or situation, either immediate or long term, that causes what is known as the “fight, flight, or freeze response” (FFF). This is a thousands of years old evolutionary development that caused us to be able to react quickly when we saw a tiger coming for our group on the savannah. It developed for good reason, and it’s still really necessary, when all sorts of daily situations call for that type of quick response, both physically and mentally. The problem in our modern society is that we have difficulty distinguishing from real stress situations and responses and those that may not be life threatening. When that happens, the difficulty develops in not being able to return to baseline, or reset our bodies to a state where we’re not in heightened response. Patterns of negative judgment can create the sort of ongoing stress that can induce physical and mental responses.
When this happens over a period of time, our bodies and minds become “tuned for stress” and we go through life at a low level of the fight, flight or freeze status. The physiological effects of this can cause damage both in the short term and over time. Some long-term physical effects of constant stress are increased cholesterol that leads to heart disease, an impaired immune system, and increased inflammation, effects that are linked to a variety of health problems. There are also mental effects, which can be even more important for us to consider, since we are depending on the flexibility and quickness of our thoughts and ability to continue to be effective in creative endeavors. Ongoing stress can shorten the attention span, cause automatic or chronic habitual behavior, and cause people to be less likely to notice detail or perceive subtlety.
It can be hard to tease apart automatic stress responses and those that we bring on ourselves. Subjecting ourselves to deadlines, engaging in negative behaviors, allowing ourselves to be in a state of constant worry, anxiety, or what we’re calling judgmentalism are all ways that thoughts cause mental and physiological stress responses.
Being aware of when and how we react to stress and how to manage it is a way of being empowered in society. Knowing what can be most effective to create a sense of wellbeing, whatever the technique or action, is not frivolous, it is critical. Positive emotions, a relaxed state, fluid or creative thinking can help to shift the physiological state created by FFF responses or negative thinking. It is also important to remember that we cannot be helpful, loving or effective for other people if we are not healthy and strong in our awareness and sense of self. Being focused, balanced and mentally strong is a way to be more effective in efforts to do better work, create change in ourselves, and change society. Self-care can be a radical act.

Researchers have discovered 6 basic types of stress, 3 physiological and 3 psychological, which are manifested with sympathetic nervous responses such as heightened heart rate and blood pressure, negative thoughts and attention. The 6 basic types of relaxation techniques, which can counteract the response to stress events, can include slowed breathing, lowered rates of hormone and adrenal activities. Relaxation is a state of reduced tension, anxiety and stress. It can be considered the “baseline” or how we feel in the absence of some sort of stressful event or situation. Relaxation (R) states can be brought on with combinations of these 6 physical and mental techniques.

Sympathetic Nervous response                                         Parasympathetic response:

holding a posture, crouching, sitting /                                          Stretching (yoga, pilates, dance)

holding muscles in chronic tension /                                            Progressive Muscle Relaxation

short, shallow, rapid, breaths /                                                     Deep Breathing (diaphragmatic)

 

autonomic stressed/anxious sensations /                                   Autogenic Training (biofeedback)

negative imagery, self talk or thoughts /                                      Imagery (positive thoughts/imaginings)

attention focused on negative aspect /                                        Meditation- centered, concentrated focus

attention divided (multitasking) /                                              Mindfulness- free, open focus and perception

 

R states can be used to either eliminate or bring on a type of feeling. It’s good to remember that with discipline we can control how we feel, and are not at the mercy of emotions, anxieties and fears that can bedevil us. Different types of attention open and receptive, focused and concentrated, can help us in the various stages of the creative process. Increased ability to attain these states can have a direct impact on mental and physical health, immune system functioning and longevity. They can also have effects and achieve goals beyond stress relief, such as changing mood or heightening sensation.

Negative
disengaged

physical relaxation

sleepy

rested/refreshed

at ease/ calm

release of tension

mindful acceptance

 

Positive  

energized

joyfulness

optimistic

thankful/loving

aware, focused, clear

 quiet, stillness

 

Transcendent

reverent/prayerful

awe/wonder

timeless/boundless/infinite

deep mystery

 
References

Amabile, T. M. (1983). The social psychology of creativity: A componential conceptualization. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 45(2), 357-376.
template bindings={}http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.45.2.357

Capurso, V., Fabbro, F., & Crescentini, C. (2013). Mindful creativity: the influence of mindfulness meditation on creative thinking. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 1020. http://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2013.01020

Fredrickson, B.L., (2004). The Broaden-and-build theory of Positive emotions Department of Psychology, University of Michigan, 525 East University Avenue, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1109, USA (blf@umich.edu)

Fredrickson, B. L., & Branigan, C., Positive emotions broaden the scope of attention and thought‐action repertoires
Pages 313-332 | Received 19 Jul 2002, Published online: 11 Jun 2012 http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02699930441000238

Fredrickson, B.L., Losada, M. F. (2005). Positive Affect and the Complex Dynamics of Human Flourishing
http://www.unc.edu/peplab/publications/Fredrickson_Losada 2005.pdf

Fredrickson, B. L., Cohn, M. A., Coffey, K. A., Pek, J., & Finkel, S. M. (2008). Open Hearts Build Lives: Positive Emotions, Induced Through Loving-Kindness Meditation, Build Consequential Personal Resources. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(5), 1045–1062. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0013262

Henriques, G. (May 17, 2003). On Making Judgments and Being Judgmental. Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/theory-knowledge/201305/making-judgments-and-being-judgmental

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2011). Some reflections on the origins of MBSR, skillful means, and the trouble with maps.

Khasky, A. D., & Smith, J. C. (1999). Stress, relaxation states, and creativity. Perceptual and motor skills, 88(2), 409-416.Contemporary Buddhism, 12(01), 281-306.

Rathunde, K. (Mar 2000). Broadening and narrowing in the creative process: A commentary on Fredrickson’s “Broaden-and-build” model.
Prevention & Treatment, Vol 3(1), No Pagination Specified Article 6c

Rothberg, D. (2009) Transforming the Judgmental Mind. (A version of an article from the Spirit Rock News)  https://www.spiritrock.org/document.doc?id=1252

Smith, J. C. (2005). Relaxation, meditation, & mindfulness: A mental health practitioner’s guide to new and traditional approaches. Springer Publishing Company.

Zabelina, D.L, Robinson, M. D., (2010) Don’t Be So Hard on Yourself: Self-Compassion Facilitates Creative Originality Among Self-Judgmental Individuals Creativity Research Journal Vol. 22 , Iss. 3. http://www.tandfonline.com/action/showCitFormats?doi=10.1080%2F10400419.2010.503538

 

Artists who Happen to be Black

 

 

 

 

 

Artists Who Happen to be Black:
Identity and Race within the African-American And Artistic Communities
(Selected case studies of a work in progress)

 

 

 

 

 

Artists Are Different
In the third year of my counseling training, I was working for a private practice and was randomly assigned clients on an ongoing basis. By chance, in the beginning of my time in the practice I was assigned 3 working artists: a writer, an improv performer, and a visual artist. Over the course of the year, I realized that the things we talked about were specific to the experience of being an artist and how that identity affected all their relationships and sense of self. One day I was in a session with the visual artist who was talking about being blocked, how deeply he felt the loss of his inspiration, and how crucial his ability to make work was to his sense of social and personal identity as an artist. I was very affected, identifying strongly with his experience and how he described it, and, as we are trained to do, went to see my supervisor (who happened to be gay) after the session to process it. I was surprised when he didn’t understand why the session had such a profound effect on me, and that he didn’t understand what he thought was my extreme response. After a few days reflection, I realized a radical thing I had done when I was younger was coming into play. At the beginning my working life as a designer, I consciously chose being an artist as my primary identity, not gender, or race, or any other social construct. This choice has influenced all aspects of my life, and given me a particular perspective on how I view the world and how the world views me. My supervisor’s response showed me that the rest of the world (and the field of psychology) didn’t feel the same way, and to a certain extent was dismissive of the particular issues that come from being a working artist. Seeing him again after a few days, I tried to explain my responses to the session, and asked him to imagine how he would have felt if he’d had a client who told him a coming out story that related to his own. It was as if I saw a light bulb go off over his head. He got it.
After creating an art piece that had to do with therapy as an artistic experience (at Art Expo in Chicago last September), I also came to understand that artists are particularly drawn to therapy. Of all the people I saw the weekend of the fair, (over 80 during the course of three days) most were artists or involved in the arts. Most were trying to work out how to reconcile their drive to create or live as an artist (or within the arts) with the demands of relationships, work and family.
Spending time counseling other working artists made me realize that there is a particular need, and that my special understanding of artists’ problems and situations came from being one. I’m interested in how I can disseminate the idea that artists are important to society, need to be appreciated and supported in their endeavors, and deserve parity in access to wellness and mental health counseling.

Narrative Sense of Self.
According to certain theories of psychology and mind, we are the stories we tell about ourselves. Our sense of self develops from a combination of genetics, familial experience, brain structure, personality traits and tendencies, and social experiences, both internal and external. (White, M. Epston, D., 1990)
If the definition of an artist or creative person (an area which is an evolving discussion) is someone who has particular strengths on certain scales of personality, such as openness to experience, conscientiousness, and/or extraversion, is hyper-attentive to surroundings, and engages in divergent thinking, (Feist, 1999), then this person will create a story of themselves that includes their creative talents and their expression.
This personal story will also include attitudes and experiences related to their socio-ethnic status and cultural group. If race is a construct (another evolving discussion) and racial groups and cultures are ethnicities, then the personal stories of people in those ethnic groups include perceptions of their relative place in society, other groups’ attitudes towards them, and their attitudes towards themselves. (Tajfel, et al 2004)
The story that African American artists tell to themselves and about themselves is a combination of art and race. They embody their history, possibility, and familial connections along with their talent, discipline and desire. Their artistic experience is formed by their personal expression, the arrangement of their lives, and the embellishment of their situations.
There are indications of a tension between the telling of the two stories, self-narratives of creativity experienced and talent expressed, and the internal and external experience of being black in America. Often these two narratives come into direct conflict with each other, such as when a black child is told that blacks don’t play, like, or listen to classical music, museums are only for white folks, or that getting educated in the arts is a waste of time and money, since arts organizations don’t hire blacks anyway.
Crises of self and awareness come into being at the perception that both narratives are true, and so if a black person really resonates to understanding and listening to Mozart and Ravel, her equally strong experience of being African American in America can invalidate this self realization and awareness of her creative self.

Invisible Norms
Tribes enforce norms. Cultural expectations are the currency of inclusion and create expectations of behavior of the people identifying as part of the group (Wilson, et al, 2008). African American artists are often forced to choose between their identity as an artist or creative person and their understanding of self both internally and externally as a person identified as black in America. When they decide to think or behave in a way that is in contradiction with the cultural norms of their family, community or friends, (consciously or not) they are often accused of not being or acting black, or of thinking they have gotten “too good” for their former relationships. There are myriad solutions to this conundrum, and often these situations and experiences correspond to the in-group out-group sense of tribal and ethnic behaviors of groups based on class, race or nationality (Haidt, 2007).
The previous choice is an internal contradiction, but Black American artists also experience an external contradiction as well. There is an ongoing effort to get arts institutions to acknowledge the validity of black American art, and art made by Black Americans (two different ideas that are addressed below). Efforts to achieve parity of remuneration and acknowledgement of influence, borrowing and copying, particularly in the music industry, but in other areas of the arts as well, is still difficult to realize and see in practice. Getting the culture at large to appreciate, and encourage participation by black artists on their own merits and not make assumptions that they are not able, willing, or interested in any given field of artistic expression is an ongoing effort.

Primary Identities
The multicultural psychology movement has given the psychology field a way to think of one’s self-narrative as a description of an identity, and aspects of the story are often experienced as a person’s multiple identities. A primary identity is the way one thinks of one’s self first and most deeply. (Sue, D., Sue, D. 1990) Most people tend to have gender as primary identity, with men in majority groups often thinking of themselves in terms of their profession primarily as an attribute of status. Minorities in society often identify according to racial identity constructs, externally and internally imposed. (Cote, Levine, 2014). Artists and creatives, once they understand the concept and become aware of a sense of a creative self, often identify being an artist as the most deeply felt and important aspect of their being. Evidence of this is everywhere within the artistic community, from the oft heard refrain that artists think differently and “we’re not like them”, or that people who are not creative are “civilians”. Creatives have often experienced the sense of leaving a family, educational environment or community that is not welcoming or understanding of divergent thinking and finding a place, group or profession where people “get” them. Experiencing the appreciation of their talent, attitudes, and way of thinking for the first time can be a strong way for artists to bind themselves to what is considered an artistic identity and loosen the hold of their previous primary identity of ethnicity.
Integrating multiple identities can be a challenge, and every person of multicultural background can attest to its difficulty. There has been some work written and thought about the intersection of identities of women artists (McLaughlin, 2006), but very little about the intersection of ethnicity or race and art. Understanding how to be an artist and black is a problem solved (or not) uniquely by each person who identifies as African American in this society and also feels the need (and has the talent and desire) to become a working artist within American and global culture. Among the artists I have spoken with or surveyed, the solutions to this problem depend on the medium in which they practice and the level of acceptance of the type of black artist society perceives them to be. (Hip-hop musicians have an easier time existing as artists and black than abstract textile visual artists within or outside the context of their work,) I will argue that efforts to exist with both identities run the range from actively choosing one or another in a professional and/or personal sense, denying one or another in the context of their work, blaming an oppressive society for their deprivation of expression or their inability to express one or both of their identities, or working to find a way to integrate both their social and internal feelings of blackness with their drive and personal expression as an artist.

My Left Eye or My Right Eye?
So what happens when a person is forced to choose between acceptance by his family and community, and being true to a sense of self that the community cannot or does not want to accept or understand. For a subset of African American artists this is a major dilemma, and their artistic experience will often reflect that. For some, the internal conflict is difficult to overcome, but for many more, the external conflict is debilitating. The experience of being a black artist and not being supported by society, the infrastructure of the particular field or medium of expression of the artist, or the denigration of their art simply because of their racial identity has caused a great deal of anger, sadness, depression and disorientation among a number of the artists I have interviewed.
Several artist respondents say that they don’t wish to engage in racial or political discussions within their work. They want to be accepted as artists, first and foremost, and have structured their lives and careers so as to avoid or disregard, if possible, the question. They see no merit in engaging in the discussion, since their work is an expression of themselves, and not their racial identity. This does not preclude their activism on other fronts, and doesn’t mean they don’t acknowledge the issue. They just see their art as beyond issues of race or ethnicity
Other artists insist that the two cannot be separated. Their attitude is that an artist’s experience and identity as black in America must be a part of any artistic self-expression, and to disregard it is to deny a part of one’s self, and to deny or disregard the experience of the entire ethnic group.
How an individual who identifies as an artistic professional and a Black American responds to these challenges is determined by a variety of factors, just as the responses of all people are formed by their psychological, social and biological situations and determinants. Among the participants who have completed my survey and/or have been interviewed, certain commonalities of experience begin to show. Some of these are universal, such as the need for familial unconditional love and support of the choices an artist makes in their education and development, in order to succeed and grow as an artist and a person. Other familial experiences, such as parental attachment, family and peer background, family history and success (or not) in the arts, will show how this affected family dynamics and the development of the artistic person, and are equally universal and important.

The Danger of A Creative Personality
Artists are, by just about any definition, open to experience (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996), and their heightened attention is enhanced by interest in the subject at hand. They can also be driven, ambitious, more confident in themselves and less willing to engage in conventional thought patterns and ideas. (Rothenberg 2006). This combination of personality traits and behaviors is seen as a lightning rod in the black community, going against many of the ways black society has developed to keep safe, stay “beneath the radar” of police and other authorities, and to protect itself from the harm of dashed hope.
There is something in black family lore known as “the talk” (Amber, 2013). It is given to adolescents in order to make them understand the dangers that come with existing in a minority body in the USA as well as how to handle themselves in interactions with external authority figures and institutions. It usually consists of strong suggestions to defer, keep eyes down, don’t engage, don’t threaten, don’t draw attention to yourself, don’t antagonize, behaviors which are directly contradictory to the innate attitudes one usually finds in the creative person. Existing as an artist in the black community often entails hiding, or denying an artistic sensibility and sense of self. The difference, and sometimes conflict, in attitude between artists and non-creative thinkers, is another universal situation, present in many communities. The difference in the black community is that the desire of parents and family for the artist and creative person to keep their head down is based on a desire for their safety. It is rooted in the awareness of black society’s history of interaction with law enforcement, and with political and governmental institutions that continues and has lead to events of the current day.
Arguably, this attitude extends to the interaction and dynamic between creative artists, with differing opinions as to how to resolve the tension and conflict among themselves, their communities, and society.

The Survey Questions
I have spoken to artists working in a variety of mediums and read the accounts of many more, since in interviews and their own writing and performance they often touch on the subject of what it’s like to be a black creative in their given field. When I originally thought of the content of this paper, I drew on my personal experience as a practicing artist as well as my current practice in counseling and therapy for artists and working creatives in formulating the questions, hoping to get qualitative answers about the lived experience of Black American artists.
The first four questions are directed at the early experience of creating an identity and sense of self. They refer to familial support, self-understanding, and educational opportunities and situations.
The second four questions address the professional experience of the artist, including how they perceive themselves within their profession, and whether and how their race has affected them professionally.
The third set of three questions asks about mental health, counseling and relationships, and how being a creative influences or affects their ability to have relationships and seek counseling if needed or desired.
The last question tries to get at the heart of the conundrum of identity of being a black artist in America, insofar as it asks the respondent to think about what their image of a creative person is, and whether they conform to it, or are outside of the societal, cultural, internal or external expectations of who (or what) an artistic person is or can be.

What kind of Artist, what kind of work?
For a large number of the artistic careers whose cases I have considered, anger seems to be a common thread of feeling. This can occur and manifest at various levels, from a low-grade acknowledgement of just living with the “way things are” to a rage that boils over either in their lives or their work, or both. How an artist handles their particular level and form of rage can spell their success or failure, their ability to practice their art or not, and their ability to function in personal and professional realms.
Below are examples of how two artists experienced anger over perceived but explicit racial bias in their professions. These are but two of the variety of anger responses to bias and racism and the range of success, failure or disengagement each response engenders.
The fantasy writer N.K. Jemisin, in a podcast on Tor.com (2015), spoke of initially writing a novel according to the conventions of the fantasy genre, which was well received by the industry but ultimately not published because the publishing house thought they could not sell the piece unless it had all white, European characters. After that experience, she says she sat down and, in an extended expression of anger about that experience in the mainstream fantasy publishing industry, wrote what would become an award-winning and bestselling novel of the same genre, “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms”. In it she creates characters and a world where the focus is on people of color in a non-European setting, and the novel becomes about cultural conflict and oppression. Her story and her response to the bias of the publishing industry caused her to be even more successful, in that she touched a chord among the fantasy reading public, which was very receptive to an alternative to the rote forms of the fantasy epic genre.
An artist who has had a less positive response to his views about the bias against black art, and more struggles for success in his chosen media is painter and writer John Sibley. He states (J. Sibley survey interview, 2015) his belief that all African American artists have mental issues from having to deal with day-to-day racism, and the duality of being black and American makes all black American artists paranoid or schizoid to some degree. Sibley’s work, a series of self-published memoirs and fiction, describes the world as he sees it for Black Americans in general and black artists in particular as being difficult, constrained by institutional racism toward African American people in general and creative people of color in particular struggling mightily to remain undefeated in the face of societal oppression.
Other artists choose to live primarily through their artistic identity, either personally or professionally, and don’t overtly include or acknowledge racial or cultural content in their work. Among several artists with whom I spoke, the creation of the art and the interaction with the observer/audience is the key element to their lives as an artist, and is at least as important, if not superceding their racial identity.
An example of this attitude about how to create work and a successful career in spite of racial (and gender) bias comes from Washington D.C. artist Lilian Burwell. She describes various problems her race and gender presented to her early in her career, from the antagonism of college administrators to the emotional and physical abuse of an early marriage that denied any creative practice and expression on her part (L. Burwell, survey and interview, 2015). She overcame these obstacles to combine a career of art making and teaching, which she describes as letting her identity and practice as a creative person allow the spirit of art to come through her. She describes her creative life as looking for the sun in her work, and turned racial setbacks and problems into opportunities to develop creativity and strength. Her art, she feels, in its abstraction of color, shape, and light has transcended her racial identity, although all her life she has tried to effect social change through her position as teacher and activist.
Bob Stroger is a musician with a long career in the blues, playing with the greats in the field. As a young person in 1930’s and 40’s rural Missouri, he saw how musicians were respected and stood apart from the rest, and decided he wanted to be like them, eventually dedicating his life to music. He has stated (B. Stroger interview and survey, 2015) that music has no prejudice, it is a universal language that he speaks, connecting with audiences all around the world. He actively avoids any discussion of politics and activism, mentioning a particular time in Russia when he was pointedly asked to comment on American racial issues; he was simply unwilling to engage in the discussion. He is aware, though, of the problems that can arise from being black in America, and says that one of the reasons he never became involved with illegal drugs was because he knew that as a black man in rural Missouri, touring the south, any interaction with the authorities could be dangerous and possibly fatal. He says that he is a musician first and foremost, feeling that artists are a special family who have the opportunity to perform for and connect with their audience. Their job is to love what they do, give 100%, and realize that they are there for the audience, not the other way around.

Black Art, and Artists who happen to be Black.
There is an ongoing disagreement in the community of black American artists as to whether it is possible, desirable or beneficial to artists and the world at large to create work that is not directly related to or referencing the black cultural experience in America. While there is a vast difference in how each discipline approaches this question, the discussion hasn’t really changed. In the late 60’s a symposium of 6 Black sculptors at the Metropolitan Museum of NYC (Bearden, et al, 1969) were pretty evenly split over the issue, and the New York Times recently posted an article asking how to allow and accept social consciousness and other species of sensitivity to reside within the same person (Cunningham, 2015) with equally ambivalent results. In the music world, Elvis Presley and British rockers were accused of appropriating the music of blues and jazz musicians without remuneration or credit (Garofalo, 2002) . Nikki Minaj, Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus are having exactly the same conversation 60 years later (Rogers, 2015). Is there such a thing as black art? Who owns it? Who has the right, or the duty, to create it? Is it possible to separate the making of art from the cultural and racial identity of the maker? What are the consequences, personally, professionally, and culturally when that happens? Do these questions still apply given current social change?
Helping to understand and accept the validity of each person’s unique answer to these questions will help artists to create a more stable sense of self. For the purposes of this research, and to better collaborate and consult with the artists and creatives with whom I work, I’m open to opportunities to share what I can do in a variety of settings, individuals, groups, and organizations, and hopeful that this paper and presentation will help me to do this, aiding artists and creatives of all cultures, races, and ethnicities. This will allow artists to create the best work possible, ultimately forming the conscience and creative expression of our society.

 

References

Amber, J., (2013) The Talk: How parents raising black boys try to keep their sons safe. Time Magazine.
(http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2147710,00.html)

Bearden, R., Gilliam, S., Hunt, R., Lawrence, J., Lloyd, T., Williams, W., Woodruff, H., (1969). The Black Artist in America, the Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 245-261 DOI: 10.2307/3258415 http://www.jstor.org/stable/i3258415.

Cote, J. E., & Levine, C. G. (2014). Identity, formation, agency, and culture: A social psychological synthesis. Psychology Press.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). The Creative Personality. Psychology Today, 29 (4), 36-40.

Cunningham, V., (2015) Can Black Art Ever Escape Race? The New York Times Magazine.http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/20/magazine/can-black-art-ever-escape-the-politics-of-race.html?action=click&contentCollection=magazine&region=rank&module=package&version=highlights&contentPlacement=4&pgtype=sectionfront&_r=0
Feist, G. J. (1998). A meta-analysis of personality in scientific and artistic creativity. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 2, 290–309.
Garofalo, R. (2002). Crossing over: From black rhythm & blues to white rock ‘n’roll. Rhythm and business: The political economy of black music, 112-137.
Haidt, J. (2007). The new synthesis in moral psychology. Science, 316, 998–1002.
Hines, C. G. (2004). Black Musical Traditions and Copyright Law: Historical Tensions. Mich. J. Race & L., 10, 463.

McLaughlin, Pamela Ann, “Mapping an identity: How women artists develop an artistic identity” (2006). Teaching and Leadership – Dissertations. Paper 25.
http://surface.syr.edu/tl_etd/25

Murad, M., Jemisin, N. K., (2015). Midnight in Karachi (podcast interview) Tor.com ahttp://www.tor.com/2015/08/20/midnight-in-karachi-episode-25-n-k-jemisin/

Rothenberg, A. (2006). Essay: Creativity—the healthy muse. The Lancet, 368, S8-S9.

Rogers, K., (2015) Niki Minaj: Black Women Rarely Rewarded for Pop Culture Contributions” New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/23/arts/music/nicki-minaj-black-women-rarely-rewarded-for-pop-culture-contributions.html?mabReward=CTM&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&region=CColumn&module=Recommendation&src=rechp&WT.nav=RecEngine

 

Sternberg, R. J. (1999). Handbook of creativity. Cambridge University Press.

Sue, D. W., & Sue, D. (1990). Counseling the culturally different: Theory and practice.

Tajfel, Henri; Turner, John C.Jost, John T. (Ed); Sidanius, Jim (Ed), (2004). The Social Identity Theory of Intergroup Behavior. Political psychology: Key readings in Social Psychology., (pp. 276-293). New York, NY, US: Psychology Press, xiii, 497 pp.

White, M. & Epston, D. (1990). Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends. NewYork: W.W. Norton.

Wilson, D. S., Van Vugt, M., O’Gorman, R., (2008) Multilevel Selection Theory and major Evolutionary Transitions. Current Directions in Psychology Vol. 17, No 1. 6-9

 

 

Stress Reduction and Relaxation

SR- Relaxation, Inspiration & Flow
Stress is an ever-present fact of life for most people at some time in their lives. For our purposes, when I refer to stress, I’m speaking of the physiological response to some event or situation that causes what is known as the “fight or flight response”. This is a thousands of years old evolutionary development that caused us to be able to react quickly when we saw a tiger coming for our group on the savannah. It developed for good reason, and it’s still really necessary, when all sorts of daily situations call for that type of quick response, both physically and mentally. The problem we have in our modern society is that we have difficulty distinguishing from real stress situations and responses and those that may not be life threatening. When that happens, the difficulty comes in not being able to return to baseline, or reset our bodies to a state where we’re not in a heightened response state. Over a period of time, our bodies and minds become “tuned for stress” and we go through life at a low level of fight or flight. The physiological effects of this can cause damage both in the short and long term. Some long term physical effects of constant stress are increased cholesterol that leads to heart disease, an impaired immune system, and increased inflammation, which is linked to a variety of health problems. There are also mental effects, which can be even more important for creatives to consider, since we are depending on the flexibility and quickness of our thoughts and ability to create. Ongoing stress can shorten the attention span, cause automatic or chronic habitual behavior, and cause people to be less likely to notice detail or perceive subtlety.
It can be hard to tease apart automatic stress responses and those that we bring on ourselves. Subjecting ourselves to deadlines, engaging in negative behaviors, allowing ourselves to be in a state of constant worry or anxiety are all ways that mental activity can cause mental and physiological stress responses.
There are 6 basic types of stress, 3 physiological and 3 psychological, as well as 6 basic types of relaxation techniques, which can counteract the response to stress events. Relaxation is a state of reduced tension, anxiety and stress. It can be considered the “baseline” or how we feel in the absence of some sort of stressful event or situation. Relaxation (R) states can be brought on with combinations of these 6 physical and mental techniques.

Sympathetic Nervous response:

holding a posture, crouching

holding muscles in chronic tension

short, shallow, rapid, breaths

autonomic stress/anxiety

negative imagery, self talk, thoughts

stressed attention focused negative aspect   -or-
divided attention multitasking/monkeymind

Parasympathetic response:

Stretching (Yoga, Pilates, Alexander)

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Deep Breathing (diaphragmatic)

Autogenic Training

Imagery

Meditation- centered, concentrated focus

Mindfulness- free, open focus/perception

 

Relaxation (R) states can either eliminate or bring on a type of feeling. It’s good to remember that with discipline we can control how we feel, and are not at the mercy of emotions, anxieties and fears that can bedevil us. Increased ability to attain these states can have a direct impact on mental and physical health, immune system functioning and longevity. They can also have effects and achieve goals beyond stress relief, such as changing mood or heightening sensation.

Negative
sleepy
disengaged (spatial, attitudinal, somatic)
physical relaxation
rested/refreshed
at ease/ calm (the feeling one gets upon the release of tension)

Positive
energized
optimistic
joyfulness
thankful/loving
aware, focused, clear
quiet, stillness
mindful acceptance

Transcendent
reverent/prayerful
deep mystery
awe/wonder
timeless/boundless/infinite

An Artists Guide to Mental Health

Artists are Different

In the spring of 2010 I was forced to stop working for 6 weeks, and took that opportunity to think about where I was in my career and life. After a season of figuring out what I wanted to do, in 2011 I was accepted into a Masters program in Clinical Psychology, and spent the next three years immersed in the notions of how people think and relate to each other. It was very refreshing and fun. In the third year of my counseling training, I was working for a private practice and was randomly assigned clients on an ongoing basis. By chance, in the beginning of my time in the practice I was assigned 3 working artists, a writer, an improv performer, and a visual artist. As I saw them over the course of the year, I realized that the things we talked about were specific to the experience of being an artist and how that identity affected their relationships and sense of self. One day I was in a session with the visual artist client who was talking about being blocked, how deeply he felt the loss of his inspiration, and how crucial his ability to make work was to his sense of social and personal identity. I was very affected, identifying strongly with his experience and how he described it, and, as we are trained to do, went to see my supervisor (who happened to be gay) after the session to process it. I was surprised when he didn’t understand why the session had such a profound effect on me, and that he didn’t understand what he thought was my extreme response. After a few days reflection, I realized a radical thing I had done when I was younger was coming into play here. //// When I was just beginning my working life as a designer, I consciously chose being an artist as my primary identity, not gender, or race, or any other social construct. This choice has influenced all aspects of my life, and given me a particular perspective on how I view the world and how the world views me. My supervisor’s response showed me that the rest of the world (or the field of psychology) didn’t feel the same way, and to a certain extent was dismissive of the particular issues that come from being a working artist. Seeing my supervisor again after a few days, I tried to explain my responses to the session, and asked him to imagine how he would have felt if he’d had a client who told him a coming out story that related to his own. It was as if I saw a light bulb go off, he got it.
My Story and Work in Perception,
After finishing art school, I pursued a career in clothing design, eventually coming to be owner and designer of a studio and creating a brand. One of the things that fascinated me about the fashion business was how designers, companies and customers decided what they thought was fashionable, how they were influenced to think the way they did, and how they perceived their own and other peoples styles of dress. I was particularly interested in how notions of what color was fashionable from season to season came to be “decided”. My commercial work was influenced not only by fashion trends but also by studies in semiotics, philosophy and psychology. I also produced work and installations intended for art galleries, which were mostly textile based, and had to do with texts and motifs I created, concerning perception, color, and light.
The subjectivity of perception became a theme in my personal artwork, and for the next decade or so I created pieces both for the fashion market and the art world that played with notions of how people perceived color and light, how they described it, and why they thought they knew what a particular color was.
These investigations led me to the world of cognitive psychology, and the study of how and why people think they know what they know. During the last few years before I put my business on hiatus, I read more articles and blogs on psychology than I did on fashion.
I have to tell a little story here, and it has sort of become a foundational story for me, I now realize it is a bridge between my fashion and color work and my psychology practice now. It illustrates the way perception affects our expectations of the group, a realization that our experience is subjective, and that no, they don’t all see the world the way we do.
I was at a friend’s house one evening and we were watching the moon rise, (she has a fabulous view of the lake from her living room.) It was an amazing color, and we spent several minutes trying to figure out what to call it. It started out a burning color, but by the time we decided to say it was more red than orange, it had turned salmon. She went to look up this moon cycle to see whether it had a name, and sure enough, it was called the pink moon. By this time it had gotten much higher in the sky, passing peach, getting paler, to dusty rose and then a sort of light pink. By the time I left, it had pretty much gone normal moon color, that whitish grey that we associate with it when we think “Moon”.
We noticed it because it was not the color we normally think the moon should be, but then, what color is “moon”? Our minds think it, and are surprised when it’s contradicted.
People think the color they see when they think a color is the same one everyone sees. That’s how our minds work, our thinking has to be contradicted before we’ll even question whether we could be wrong. The truth we believe is confirmed because we think everyone else sees the same. Pretty much the definition of a societal norm.
Even something as subjective as color, a simple hue, can be a source of disagreement based on belief. I was once asked to be in a fashion show years ago, the very first Red Hot Chicago, and all the designers were asked to create one red garment for the finale. OK, fine. I sent the garments, and get an irate call saying they can’t accept my piece for the finale because it’s not red.
What?! Huh. So what’s red? Cherry red? Fire engine red? Red Blooded Americans? It turns out that I wasn’t the only one who’s idea of red differed from theirs and they had to accept all the pieces from other designer they’d commissioned and just broaden their idea of what red was. The next year, they didn’t want to have to continue with an open mind, so they sent out a swatch of what they called red. A friend who was a painter visiting my studio, saw the swatch on the wall and asked what it was for. I told her the story, she laughed and said, “Ah they’re so silly, that’s not red, it’s orange.”
So what do you see? What do you believe? What color is this? Is the truth when we all agree?

 

When I finished my training in 2014, I began to think more seriously about what creating a practice would really mean to me, and realized that it would be extension of my work in perception. This time, as opposed to figuring out how people perceived color, I was looking at how people perceive relationships and interactions, specifically ones that come under the category of “therapy”. Even more nebulous than the perception of color, the perception of the therapeutic moment is delineated by the subjective experience of two or more people in assigned roles that may or may not be in sync with the perceptions of each person in the situation. Just as the confusion that was created by putting out a call for “Red” in the design community drew responses that were various and at odds with the intention of fashion show organizers, the notion of what constitutes a “therapeutic moment” is various and often there is wide divergence between what a client thinks will happen when he or she is engaged with a professional counselor or therapist, and what the trained professional has come to think of and expect when they are performing “therapy”. Everyone thinks they know what color red is, and it seems silly to question the notion. Only when we consider the realization that everyone has different images in their minds of what color “red” is, do we understand how the subjectivity of perception can affect us as well as our relationships. Spending time counseling other working artists made me realize that there is a particular need, and that my special understanding of artists’ problems and situations came from being one. I share their understanding that perception is malleable, and the need to create work or experiences that widen our ability to perceive.

How Tx~Art came to be.
I met a woman, a former curator, at a party in 2014 on New Year’s Day given by a couple in the art community that was full of architects, writers and visual artists. We were talking about what the New Year might bring and she mentioned a show she was developing called “Why Marriage”, looking to create and curate a show that would address the questions of identity, social roles and situations in the changing context of what society currently considers either traditional or modern marriage. She was also looking to explore and define the attendant attitudes and expectations of the participants in that institution. I mentioned being in the training phase of my Clinical Psychology degree and talked about what it was like to actually be seeing clients. “Can you do couples therapy” she asked? I said that I was qualified, although I hadn’t had much opportunity to do it, as my clients were ether single or kids. “Would you be willing to be the marriage therapist at my show? You have a background in the arts as well as the qualifications to engage in therapy”. We talked more about some of her ideas about the show, what it would entail and how I might go about it at an actual event. I decided this was so crazy I just had to do it. I spoke to my supervisor next, as I wanted to not only get his permission to do the piece, (as well as claim the hours for my training record) but also to get his opinion of what it would mean to combine the art and psychology worlds. I presented the idea of the piece to my supervisor as an experiment, not really sure myself of what I expected to happen, and as a one-time experience. I suspect he thought of it as a lark, and didn’t give too much thought to what or how it would proceed, but gave his permission to do it and claim the hours. He didn’t really address how the interaction of the art world and the psychology world might happen or whether it was a good or viable thing to pursue.
The first time the piece happened I was given three chairs and a table in a hallway on the lower level of the center where the show was being held. There was a sign-up sheet on the wall and couples were encouraged to sign their names for a 15-minute session. I began each encounter with a short explanation of what client-centered therapy was, that I had no expectations of the session, and they were free to talk of anything they wished.
What was so startling to me was how readily people were to sit and tell me the most intimate details of their lives. The sign up sheet was quickly filled, and I was busy the entire 4 hours of the opening evening show. I was approached from a variety of points of view, and I cannot truly say if everyone was presenting me with actual stories and situations from their lives, or whether they saw the artifice of the situation and decided to add to it in their own fashion. This event after all, was an art show, and a large number of the attendees were artists or people involved in the art world. That being said, with one exception, I do believe people were talking to me about their real lives, and were actively seeking the kind of contact that happens between a therapist and the client. After creating the piece again at Art Expo in 2014 and 2015, I also came to understand that artists and creatives are particularly drawn to therapy. Of all the people I saw involved in the arts as gallerists, collectors or administrators, and most were trying to work out how to reconcile their drive to create or live as an artist or within the arts with the demands of relationships, work and family.
The thought or action of going to a therapist affects various people in different ways. Some have grown up with therapy as a go to for problems in families sometimes voluntarily, sometimes not. Other people come from ethnicities or backgrounds where the notion of telling a stranger about problems or “family business” is unthinkable. One of the fascinating things I noticed when I did the Tx~Art project at Expo was how much artists and people in the art world wanted to talk, about their own lives, about their relationships, and about what it means to be an artist in the developed world today. When I did the same piece in a place with a general audience, it didn’t work as well, partly because some people had no desire to engage, and others didn’t want to engage so much as be reassured or diagnosed. Artists seemed eager to engage in discussions of meaning and the value of actions and life, and how that affected their lives. There is often a conflict between the cultural or familial attitude about therapy and the creative person’s desire to engage. This adds to situations where the creative person finds themselves with different attitudes about how to engage the world and be in it.

Your Story of Self is Your Personality
Artists are, by just about any definition, open to experience, and their heightened attention is enhanced by interest in the subject at hand. They can also be driven, ambitious, more confident in themselves and less willing to engage in conventional thought patterns and ideas. According to certain theories of psychology and mind, we are the stories we tell about ourselves. Our sense of self develops from a combination of genetics, familial experience, brain structure, personality traits and tendencies, and social experiences, both internal and external.
If the definition of an artist or creative person (an area which is an evolving discussion) is someone who has particular strengths on certain scales of personality, such as openness to experience, conscientiousness, and/or extraversion, is hyper-attentive to surroundings, and engages in divergent thinking, then this person will create a story of themselves that includes their creative talents and their expression.
This personal story will also include attitudes and experiences related to their socio-ethnic status and cultural group. If race is a construct (another evolving discussion) and racial groups and cultures are ethnicities, then the personal stories of people in various ethnic groups include perceptions of their relative place in society, other groups’ attitudes towards them, and their attitudes towards themselves.
The story that all artists tell to themselves and about themselves is a combination of their history, possibility, and familial connections along with their talent, discipline and desire. Their artistic experience is formed by their personal expression, the arrangement of their lives, and the embellishment of their situations.
There is a tension between the telling of the two stories, self-narratives of creativity experienced and talent expressed, and the internal and external experience of being an artist in our modern, competitive and materialistic society. Often these two narratives come into direct conflict with each other, such as when an artist chooses not to pursue the most financially rewarding or acceptable career or when they make personal and creative choices that their family or former associates can’t understand.

Primary Identities
The multicultural psychology movement has given the psychology field a way to think of one’s self-narrative as a description of an identity, and aspects of the story are often experienced as a person’s multiple identities. A primary identity is the way one thinks of one’s self first and most deeply. Most people tend to have gender as primary identity, with men in majority groups often thinking of themselves in terms of their profession primarily as an attribute of status. Minorities in society often identify according to racial identity constructs, externally and internally imposed. Artists and creatives, once they understand the concept and become aware of a sense of a creative self, often identify being an artist as the most deeply felt and important aspect of their being. Evidence of this is everywhere within the artistic community, from the oft heard refrain that artists think differently and “we’re not like them”, or that people who are not creative are “civilians”. Creatives have often experienced the sense of leaving a family, educational environment or community that is not welcoming or understanding of divergent thinking and finding a place, group or profession where people “get” them. Experiencing the appreciation of their talent, attitudes, and way of thinking for the first time can be a strong way for artists to bind themselves to what is considered an artistic identity and loosen the hold of their previous primary identity.
Integrating multiple identities can be a challenge, and every person of multicultural background can attest to its difficulty. Identity also can raise stressful or existential feelings. What is it like to be an artist in Chicago, if you’re from here, or if you’re not. How about being from or working in LA or NYC? Or Buffalo or Baton Rouge? What about being an artist while black? Or being a cis-gender white man? Or being a mother? Understanding how to be an artist and a member of some other primary group is a problem solved (or not) uniquely by each person. Whether they identify as something “other” in this society, or as an exception to identifying with the majority, they feel the need (and have the talent and desire) to solve for themselves how to become a working artist within American and global culture. Among the artists I have spoken with or surveyed, the solutions to this problem depend on the medium in which they practice and the level of acceptance of the type of artist society perceives them to be. Efforts to exist with multiple identities run the range from actively choosing one or another in a professional and/or personal sense, denying one or another in the context of their work, blaming society for their deprivation of expression or their inability to express one or both of their identities, or working to find a way to integrate both their social and internal sense of self with their drive and personal expression as an artist. Explorations on how to to come to a level of self-awareness and social understanding is another way that the therapy I’m proposing can help artists achieve.

Therapy and Career Counseling for Artists
Artists think differently. Some times faster, sometimes more idiosyncratically, often from a different point of view than people who do not consider themselves creative or a member of an artistic profession. This creates moments and situations in their lives that differ from those usually encountered in “normal” or “regular” psychotherapy. Depending on the type of work being done, there is a drive to achieve a personal vision that can come up against societal boundaries, whether it’s within the confines of a project or in the way one conducts ones’ life. An artistic vision can also come up against intimate relationships, and the habit of reducing desires and relationships to binaries, either/or, needs to be rethought. Spouses explain to their partners that no, the project is not more important than them or their relationship, its just all consuming in the moment. Parents explain to their children that they love them, but they also love the work they do, and please don’t make them choose.
As a counselor, I concentrate on the particular needs and sensibilities of the population of creative and working artists, for which I have a particular affinity (they are my people), serving the artistic community as well as society at large. Attitudes society has about artists, (art is just fun, it’s not serious, you can’t get paid for making art, etc.), go along with long held societal views of artists as being more prone to instability, addiction and mental illness. I have a two fold goal with regards to the image of artists in society, first to explode the notion that artists are not dependable, are unstable, “ crazy”, or more prone to addiction. None of those statements are categorically true. I try in pursuing this practice to challenge the misconception that artists are by definition mentally unstable or fragile. One of the problems with challenging this is that it’s the instability that makes news. Yeezy is not helping my cause, even though he has made it his life’s work to encourage and support artists and the creative endeavor. There are lots of talented artists who live stable lives and are extremely creative and productive. You don’t hear about them because they don’t have meltdowns or self-destruct in public. What is perhaps more difficult and insidious is to convince artists themselves that it is possible to be highly creative and mentally healthy. Everyone has a tendency to internalize societal norms, and creatives will often have these negative images of themselves as well, feeling a different kind of focus, inferior or less important than engineers or businessmen (No one is “just an artist”). One of the goals of my practice will be to make an effort to change that social paradigm, and help artists clarify their worth to themselves and their community. This can hopefully create a ripple effect and help society come closer to realizing the important contribution artists make to the world and everyone’s experience of it.
The same impulse to come therapy has led me to counseling people about their careers, how to have one, how to manage it, what sort of choices they can make, and how to wrestle the biggest dragon of them all, how to reconcile making a living with making art. There are a fortunate few who are able to make a living selling their work or actions, but the vast majority of people in the creative professions make some sort of compromise, either in the arts professions themselves, or choosing a job outside of the arts and then making their work on their own time. Because I have spent the last three decades exploring that question from every direction, I have found my clients feel comfortable engaging with me on the issue without feeling judged, or harboring expectations.
Another issue that arises and is particular to creatives is how to handle family commitments and still feel true to one’s self as an artist. This issue is particularly difficult for mothers or primary caregivers, having a child can throw life expectations off kilter, but can also become the event that focuses them and gives them meaning to create work that resonates for them. Navigating parenthood is a particular challenge when artistic inspiration gets called into question by a competing and demanding familial love and duty.

Therapeutic Examples
There are some instances I’ve had in my practice where I’ve felt being an artist made a difference in my sensitivity about the situation, things that perhaps wouldn’t resonate with someone who was not a practicing artist. Talking to a creative who is blocked, and is questioning their identity if they can’t do what they have always done resonates more if the person listening has been in their shoes. Another issue can be relating to the feelings of difference creatives have with their families, communities and environments.
Particular situations I’ve experienced include working on a project that can trigger emotions or memories of trauma, and how to handle unbidden responses. If a person was an illustrator, editor or photographer who had suffered from a traumatic event found themselves on an assignment that forced them to convey with their art the trauma they were recovering from, how should they cope? Do they lose the job because they are triggered? Or is it more important to be able to complete a project, particularly if money is on the line. Often the situation is no one’s fault, but feels unfair just the same, particularly if the creative doesn’t want to disclose their trauma to the people on the job.
A client once related the experience of being in a coffee shop and while standing in line, he was simultaneously: assessing everyone he saw as a character, watching the interplay of several groups of people in the room, and thinking about how to integrate all of it into a project he was working on. He felt that the rest of the world did not experience time and thought the same way he did, and was wondering how to live with the understanding of that difference. Acknowledging this feeling of thinking differently, faster, having awareness without judging yourself or the world that doesn’t get you as either better or worse is an important skill to learn.
Another situation particular to artists is when their work or livelihood is tied up in a project, and they have to be creative on demand. What happens when the flow stops? How does one recover it, and what if it comes back changed? How do issues of self-esteem get managed while being the creative force on a project or collaborative piece? Sometimes it’s necessary to confront demons that have been avoided for a long time in order to find the ability within yourself to come to terms with what sort of internal strength or ability is needed to complete a project

SR- Relaxation, Inspiration & Flow
Stress is an ever-present fact of life for most people at some time in their lives. For our purposes, when I refer to stress, I’m speaking of the physiological response to some event or situation that causes what is known as the “fight or flight response”. This is a thousands of years old evolutionary development that caused us to be able to react quickly when we saw a tiger coming for our group on the savannah. It developed for good reason, and it’s still really necessary, when all sorts of daily situations call for that type of quick response, both physically and mentally. The problem we have in our modern society is that we have difficulty distinguishing from real stress situations and responses and those that may not be life threatening. When that happens, the difficulty comes in not being able to return to baseline, or reset our bodies to a state where we’re not in a heightened response state. When this happens over a period of time, our bodies and minds become “tuned for stress” and we go through life at a low level of fight or flight. The physiological effects of this can cause damage both in the short and long term over time. Some of the long term physical effects of constant stress are increased cholesterol, leading to heart disease, an impaired immune system, and increased inflammation which is linked to a variety of health problems. There are also mental effects, which can be even more important for creatives to consider, since we are depending on the flexibility and quickness of our thoughts and ability to create. Ongoing stress can shorten the attention span, cause automatic or chronic habitual behavior, and cause people to be less likely to notice detail or perceive subtlety.
It can be hard to tease apart automatic stress responses and those that we bring on ourselves. Subjecting ourselves to deadlines, engaging in negative behaviors, allowing ourselves to be in a state of constant worry or anxiety are all ways that mental activity can cause mental and physiological stress responses.
There are 6 basic types of stress, 3 physiological and 3 psychological, as well as 6 basic types of relaxation techniques, which can counteract the response to stress events. Relaxation is a state of reduced tension, anxiety and stress. It can be considered the “baseline” or how we feel in the absence of some sort of stressful event or situation. Relaxation (R) states can be brought on with combinations of these 6 physical and mental techniques.

Sympathetic Nervous response:        
holding a posture, crouching

holding muscles in chronic tension

short, shallow, rapid, breaths

autonomic stress/anxiety

negative imagery, self talk, thoughts

stressed attention focused on negative aspect -or-
unproductive divided attention/multitasking

Parasympathetic response:

Stretching (Yoga, Pilates, Alexander)

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Deep Breathing (diaphragmatic)

Autogenic Training

Imagery

Meditation- centered,  concentrated focus

Mindfulness- free, open focused perception/focus

 

Relaxation (R) states can either eliminate or bring on a type of feeling. It’s good to remember that with discipline we can control how we feel, and are not at the mercy of emotions, anxieties and fears that can bedevil us. Increased ability to attain these states can have a direct impact on mental and physical health, immune system functioning and longevity. They can also have effects and achieve goals beyond stress relief, such as changing mood or heightening sensation.
Negative                                Positive                                Transcendent
sleepy                                         energized                                 reverent/prayerful
disengaged                                optimistic                                deep mystery                                                           (spatial, attitudinal, somatic)
physical relaxation                   joyfulness                               awe/wonder
rested/refreshed                       thankful/loving                    timeless/boundless/
at ease/ calm                             aware, focused, clear                  infinite                                                             (release of tension)                  quiet, stillness
mindful acceptance

 

Is what I’m doing art? Can it be described as a relational, performance or social justice interactive piece? Depends on whom you ask. I’m to the point now where I’m trying to create therapeutic experiences for artists, and whatever framework they happen to take is fine with me. Spending time counseling other working artists made me realize that there is a particular need, and that my special understanding of artists’ problems and situations came from being one. I call what I’m doing Counseling for Artists for a variety of reasons, some of which are philosophical and some that are legal, because of what I don’t do, and because of what I am uniquely qualified to do. I’m interested in the interpretation of the piece and my practice by others, but more importantly how I can disseminate the idea that artists are important to society, need to be appreciated and supported in their endeavors, and deserve parity in access to wellness and mental health counseling. I’m looking for opportunities to share what I can do in a variety of settings, individuals, groups, organizations, and I’m willing to shape the interpretation or presentation of what it is that I do. There is a dearth of counseling available for people who identify as artists or are working creative professionals. Therapy and self awareness can create change within a person, helping them become their best and most desired self, and can lead to improved ability to make art or pursue their craft.

The Lived Experience of Black Artists in America

Artists Who Happen to be Black: Identity and Race within the African-American and the Artistic Community.

I hope that you’ll be able to help me out with some research I’m doing for the project I describe below. I’d be happy to talk in person or on the phone if you prefer that to writing in the comments section below. If I can get enough information I hope to publish this as an article as well, since there doesn’t seem to be any current writing on the subject.

I’ve been asked to present at a conference for Black Psychology and Sexuality in October 2015, and I’m tying my presentation in with my interest in the lives and counseling needs of artists. My paper will be about how Black artists navigate the society we live and work in, and how and whether their racial identity has affected their artmaking practice and career.

I would appreciate any answers and/or you may have about the questions I have below, and am hoping you would forward them to African-American artists you may know, or forward me their info so that I may contact them.

Let me know if you have any other questions or comments, and visit the articles and research page for more information and an abstract of the article I am writing.

Please leave your responses to the survey in the comments below.
1. When did you come to the realization that you wanted to be a working artist, ie. make a living (or try to) with your artistic work?

2. How did your family respond to your realization? Were they supportive financially and /or/ emotionally?

3. How did you choose where you went to school? Was it art related?

4. Did you have many fellow students who were aspiring artists? How many of them or what percentage was black.

5. How did you first try to make your way professionally?

6. Are you in a field where Black Artists are rare, or are there a representative number?

7. Do you ever think you were subject to racist attitudes or actions professionally?

8. Do you ever think being identified as a Black Artist was helpful to you professionally?

9. Has being a creative professional ever affected your personal or intimate relationships?

10. Have you ever had any mental health issues or suffered from addiction? Have you ever received counseling for them?

12. If so, did your mental health issues have anything to do with or affect your art making in any way?

12. Do you consider your primary identity to be that of an artist or creative person?

13. Do you think you have internalized societal or community attitudes and ideas about what it’s like to be a Black Artist in America, or do you feel you “go against the flow”?

14. Do you think there is a difference between African American or Black Art and Art made by black or African-American artists?

Anything else you’d like to add?

Demographic info:
Age:
Gender:
Where you were born/raised:
Medium/Field