Oh no!
It looks like you aren't logged in to the Ethel community. Log in to get the best user experience, save your favorite articles and quotes, and follow our authors.
Don't have an Online Account? Subscribe here

Resurrecting the Artist Within Is the Best Part of My Life

You, too, can revive the creativity of your youth.

Comment Icon
illustration of painting easel with art supplies on table in room
Luis Mazón
Comment Icon

It’s Saturday morning in my breakfast room outside Chicago, where the light is brightly unforgiving, and I’ve covered the large wooden kitchen table with old towels. For my still-life sketch in today’s class, I position two boxes of pastels, drawing board, paper and a green vase of bright coral roses on a smaller table nearby.

Joining me for our in-person session is Sherry Shanahan, who is trying out her new woodless graphite drawing pencils. A 72-year-old retired teacher, she chats about her week as she unpacks a sketch pad and a book on portrait drawing. She chooses to draw the face of a baby whose looks are more John Candy than Gerber jar.  

At the other end of the room, Ann Marie Stephenson, a 57-year-old who works in technology support, positions her artist supplies on her table, along with a photo of her husband, Larry, in the Irish countryside. She will edit him out for her landscape sketch.

The three of us have been creating art together for nearly a decade, meeting most every Saturday in official courses or independently, as we are doing today. We have been there for one another through the birth of grandchildren, promotions, accidents, heartaches and recoveries.

Can I admit this is the best part of my life?

I took up art again as soon as my youngest child went to college, enrolling in a sketch class at the Art Institute of Chicago. This marked the first time in 24 years as a single working parent of three athlete sons that I had a free weekend not cheering them on in wrestling, basketball, baseball, football or soccer.

I painted as a girl (my parents would hang my acrylic or watercolor paintings in bathrooms and hallways), then through high school, college and into my 20s. I stopped due to the merry-go-round of work, family, children and then divorce. I missed the part of me that could manifest joy in a few hours with a paintbrush, pencil, charcoal or pastel stick.

Joy came back quickly as I sat enthralled by the instructor’s lecture on techniques, followed by hours in a gallery sketching a painting or sculpture. I tried to capture just the right glint of light, fold of drapery or turquoise accent on a rolling sea.

My artist companions share this joy and fascination. “When you are doing art, you just let all that other stuff go,” Shanahan says. “I love the way it makes you think about things and look at things in different ways.”

In the summer of 2017, the three of us signed up for Saturday plein air oil painting classes offered by an independent instructor, setting up easels at beaches, parks or gardens. For four summers, I covered canvases with pink hydrangeas, columns of slender trees, glimmering ponds and bridges shadowed by skylines.

The rest of the year, we enrolled in sketch classes to draw collections of birds, animals, tribal masks and statues. When COVID ended in-person classes, we joined a New York-based online art instructor on Saturdays. Every pastel portrait, landscape or still life she guided me to create blossomed into a mosaic of violet, crimson, yellow, cobalt blue and endless combinations of hues.

When our beloved teacher stopped offering virtual classes late last year, the three of us began rotating our homes as makeshift studios. On this pandemic timeline of disruption, loss and reformation, making art offers a resurrection into a part of my life, at the age of 63, that is blissfully without expectation. It is glorious escape.

“You can get a sense of something larger than yourself, of being part of a creative process and creating something of beauty,” says Melinda Ring, M.D., the executive director of the Osher Center for Integrative Health at Northwestern University. “It is a countering of difficult images and statistics to see something of beauty as part of balancing out the pain and suffering.”

While creating art feels therapeutic for many, this form of informal personal expression is separate from the field of art therapy, Ring says. Art therapy is guided by licensed, trained therapists who use specific methods to treat depression, anxiety, trauma, Alzheimer’s and other conditions.

Whether done with or without a therapist, artistic self-expression can be beneficial in two ways, says art therapist Cara Wellvang, clinical supervisor at the Institute for Therapy Through the Arts in Evanston, Illinois. “It can be about getting out an emotion or feeling, giving your brain a break to rest, so it is calming and relaxing,” says Wellvang. “Or it can take all of your attention, so you can lose track of time, be immersed in what you’re doing.”

Amy Tan, the award-winning author of nine books, including The Joy Luck Club, relishes her renewed practice of nature sketching. In the 2021 Netflix documentary Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir, Tan says, “Whatever imagination is, I am grateful for its elasticity and willingness to accommodate whatever comes along.”

I am grateful as well. I have framed dozens of my works and hung them in my home or given them away. They remind me I am more than my looks, résumé, possessions. And they free me from caring whether my grown children are upset with me, or someone may or may not love me at the moment.

With art, I boomerang to a more vibrant sense of myself and align with others who share my reverence for the process. When I draw, paint, smile, these immortalized slices of time and space are a doorway to a colorful identity I had lost but now gleefully reclaim.

For those who may have suspended their art, it is wholly possible to return to your creative practices. Pick up a paintbrush, pencil, charcoal or any tool you choose to reinvigorate your passion and reimagine the person you want to be.  

Editor's Picks
This always brings her back to me.
, May 16, 2024
How I have tapped into its power and you can, too.
, May 16, 2024
What one mother says about what your kids need to know.
, May 16, 2024