Creativity exists everywhere. Even in homelessness.

lov eholds no memory
Art Journal Page Mixed media on watercolour paper

Yesterday, on Live & Learn, David Kanigan, the blog’s host, shared a beautiful story of a moment on the train into NYC where a woman surprised everyone with what she had to say. (Go read it. David’s writing is exquisite and the story is beautiful.  Click HERE. )

He reminded me of an event we tried to launch here in Calgary several years ago in an effort to shift stereotyping of individuals experiencing homelessness.

At the time, I was the Director of Public Relations at a large adult singles emergency homeless shelter. I was also the founder and overseer of its art studio/program – and that’s where our story begins.

Creativity, the desire to spill words onto the page or cast them from a stage into the air, to throw paint at canvas, use our hands to mould clay and other objects or write music that stirs the soul is not relegated only to ‘the housed’.

Creativity does not discriminate. It flows everywhere, into and through everyone, including homeless shelters and those who use its services.

One of the collective experiences of individuals experiencing homelessness is the mocking and shaming they receive from those who do not understand the experience of homelessness.

It is debilitating. Harmful. Painful.

When visitors came to the shelter, they were always surprised by the art clients of the shelter created in the studio, often purchasing pieces for their homes, gifts, workplaces. There was always this moment when a visitor would look at the art and say, “A homeless person created this?”

It wasn’t meant to be derogatory but its unintentional consequence was that their comment highlighted the stigma and the misconceptions we hold of people experiencing homelessness — they are somehow less than human, devoid of creativity. Of grace. Of heart and soul. Of dreams. Of humanity.

We wanted to change that perception and decided to bring the creative expressions of those experiencing homelessness ‘to the people’. To those who every morning and evening rode public transit.

We worked hard (myself and another woman who was part of an initiative to support art-making within the sector) to find a way to convince the City that having individuals experiencing homelessness perform pop-up concerts on public transit, particularly the C-train and its many platforms throughout the city, was a good idea.

It never happened.

There was just too much resistance, and too many excuses why it was a bad idea from those who held the authority to give the idea the right stamps of approval it needed to be put into action.

Our resistance to shifting perceptions is harmful to those whose lives have been impacted by homelessness, poverty, addictions and other societal woes. It keeps us safe from changing, and it keeps those seeking to find change, in their place.

In the box we hold inside our minds of what it means to be ‘homeless’, we rigidly hold onto what we believe is true of ‘the other’ and lose the elasticity of thought necessary for our truth to live freely with the truth of others. We cling to labels, like ‘homeless’, as a means to keep from having to broaden our thinking to include more than just the one or two words we use to describe those whose lives are different than ours.

Homelessness is a state of living. It is not ‘who’ the person is. Everyone experiencing homelessness is first and foremost, a human being.

The presence of homelessness in someone’s life is an indication of the many things that have contributed to their finding themselves in that state — big system factors like lack of supports for mental health, addictions, poverty, education, jobs and lack of access to the programs that do exist. Lack of affordable housing. Lack of personal resiliency due to childhood trauma, divorce, abuse, deaths in the family, and a host of other social woes, we all experience, and for which most of us have the capacity to cope with — while some don’t, leaving them suffering gravely from its impacts and their inability to access supports in times of crises.

In all of it, the word ‘lack’ is prominent.

The lack of what individuals and families need to be able to thrive in society — not because they don’t want to, but rather, because the structure of so many of our systems act as barriers, not entryways. Bureaucracy and a belief ‘we know what’s best’ prevents people from gaining access to the supports they need to deal with life’s challenges.

There is no lack, however, of creativity, of vision, dreams, and most of all, humanity, in those experiencing homelessness.

There is only our lack of understanding that, when we paint people into boxes and stick labels that help us understand where we believe they’re at, we take away the very things they need to create better futures for themselves and their families. We take away their belief in their humanity.

Where the Wild Things Roam

His eyes are dark and piercing. His coat tan and shaggy, fluffy fur collar around his neck.

From where I sit at my desk, looking out the window, he appears like a wraith flowing through the forest.

He stops at the edge of the trees, just by the fence that separates our property from the trees and bushes that line the river.

He stares up at me.

I stare back.

I reach for my phone to take a photo. It’s not on my desk.

I get up, grab it from the island and race back to my desk. He is gone.

I wonder if I actually saw him. If this big, fluffy wild thing really was there.

I open the deck door. Step out into the chilly January air, move across its cold surface in my bare feet and peer upriver, through the trees.

And there he is. Loping along the river bank further upriver. He stops. Pauses. Turns his head to look back at me. He turns back towards the way he was going and continues on his way.

I snap a photo of his retreating back and he is gone.

I sat at my desk yesterday and a wild thing appeared in the woods in front of my window.

For a moment, I was surprised. Taken aback.

He looked at me as if to say, “Look at you sitting there in warmth and comfort, all domesticated while I wander the woods, wild and free. Come. Play with me.”

From the safety of the deck, which is 10 feet off the ground, I watched him lope gracefully through the woods, following the upstream bend of the river.

The closest I came to playing with him was to capture a photo from afar.

Perhaps it is best to keep my distance from the wild things. To watch from afar their fearless journey through the wilds of the city where the river flows through it and houses edge its banks.

Perhaps, being wild at heart doesn’t mean throwing off the cloak of gentility I wear to fit into this tamed and wild world I inhabit.

Perhaps, his call was not to come play with him but to remember the wildness of my heart calling me to cast off fear and run free as the wind through all my creative explorations.

Perhaps, he is my spirit animal calling me to remember I am wild at heart.

Or perhaps, he was really just saying, “This land is my land. I live here too.”

A coyote watched me as I sat writing at my desk yesterday.

A wild thing wandering the banks of the river as it flows through the city.

He paused, looked at me and continued on his journey to the west. To the grasslands beyond the city, the rolling foothills that lead to the Rockies.

He didn’t stay long in my view but his passing through reminded me to give in to the wild callings of my heart.

I am grateful.

 

Watch me! #BellLetsTalk

 

No. 54 #ShePersisted Series
Mixed media on canvas paper
11 x 14″
©2020

It has been a while since I created a painting for the #ShePersisted series I began in March 2017.  Yesterday, I pulled out a background I’d created on the weekend, drew a circle and began to throw down paint.

I didn’t know what I was going to paint. I didn’t have a destination or image to reference. I was going with the flow and letting whatever appeared to be what was visible on the canvas.

She appeared.

She was challenging. Faces always are for me.  They take practice. Skill. An understanding of light and its play with the shadows. A willingness to mess up and dig in.

They’re best painted with a reference photo.

I had none. Somewhere, early in the process, I made a commitment to myself to paint from within me, to use my inner memory/knowing of the face as my reference.

It’s a wonderful challenge. There’s that scared, uncertain place within me where I worry I don’t know enough, I need something solid to guide me. There’s that voice of doubt that takes great joy in whispering, “You can’t do it.”

And then, there’s the vibrant, alive place within me that doesn’t like can’t and don’t and shouldn’t. That voice likes to leap into the fray, calling upon my courage and self-belief to rise up and call out joyfully, “Watch me.”

I painted a woman’s face yesterday.

I didn’t think I could.

And then I did.

I love the magic that happens when I let go of working hard to control the process and instead let myself be the process.

I love the mystery that opens up to wonder when I accept it’s not about ‘doing it perfect’. It’s not about creating something that is a reflection of something else. It’s all about allowing what is calling itself to be expressed from within to become visible on the canvas before me.

This morning, as I look at her, that little voice of doubt and uncertainty, the one who likes to find criticism in so many things, it wants to tell me all the things I could have done differently. I could still change.

I’m not listening. Not heeding that voice. It is the voice of the past. The voice of millennia of women being told they can’t, they musn’t, they shouldn’t, they don’t dare.

I dare.

Yesterday, I painted a face.

Her origins are a mystery. Her story is not.

She is every woman before me who was told she couldn’t.

She is every woman who was shut down, put in her place, pushed into dark alleys and corners, hidden from the light, hidden from the truth of her power, her beauty, her strength, her courage.

She is every woman who was told she had no power, no voice, no right.

She is every woman who was held captive to the lie she had to be perfect. That she would never be enough. The voice that still whispers from the dark roots of the past, “You can’t do that.”

They said, “You can’t do that.”

The wise woman within rose up and shouted to the winds and the seas, the stars and moon, to heaven and earth, “Watch me!”

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Today is “Bell Let’s Talk Day“.

Speaking up about mental health is important. Taking action is vital. Erasing stigma. Changing minds. Providing supports and help for those whose mental health is preventing them from living joyful and productive lives is imperative for everyone.

Changing the story of how we view mental health changes how we treat each other, how we build strong and healthy relationships and how we create a better world.

For women, our mental health is tethered to a past where we had no voice, no rights, no power. A past where we lived under the shadow of men and the laws and societal mores that were designed to create a ‘just and fair’ society and that ultimately were tools to keep us in our place.

There is no place in the shadows for freedom, self-efficacy, self-determination, equality, self-hood.

Cutting the ties that bind is an important act, not of rebellion but of freedom.

May we all be free to speak up. May we all know we have the power to take positive action to be actively engaged in creating a world where everyone has a place to belong, no matter the state of their gender, race, sexual orientation, faith, beliefs and economic, mental or physical state of being.

Studies on a Heart of Gold

Heart of Gold
Mixed media on canvas paper
11 x 14″
©2020 Louise Gallagher

They say she had a heart of gold. That she always put others first. Never said no to a friend. Was always the first one you’d call in a crisis.

And then one day, her heart quit beating. Stopped. She fell and had to learn to get back up without straining her heart with the needs of others. 

She had to find the balance between needing to be there for others and needing to be there for herself. 

She had to learn how to say ‘yes’ to herself by saying ‘no’ to others first.

We extoll the virtues of the ones who are always there. Who turn up in every kind of weather, in spite of the hardships to get there, their own pain and suffering, the circumstances of their lives and the many demands they must put aside to turn up for others.

And yet…. where is the self-compassion in always putting your own needs aside to run and help another? Where is the self-compassion in putting yourself last?

Being able to say yes to yourself by saying no, to set loving boundaries, to be clear on when you can help and when you can’t, when you can turn up and when it’s just not possible, are essential building blocks of owning your own voice, of hearing your heart’s song and creating a life worth living.

Yes, it’s important to help others, to be there for them in times of need — as long as being there isn’t a habit that undermines your well-being because ‘being there for others’ means you are tearing apart your peace of mind, increasing an already precarious stress-load or wreaking havoc on your primary relationships.

We all want to feel needed. To be there for our friends. To be someone others can count on when the chips are down.

But, when we consistently put our own needs last, when we constantly turn up for others even when to do so means having to let go of our own priorities and needs or let down people we love, the question we have to ask ourselves is… In turning up for others where am I not turning up for me?

I went back into the painting I shared yesterday and delved deeper into the story it ignites in my heart.

The message that became loud and clear as I painted was one I keep returning to again and again:

Listen to your heart.

In a world filled with distractions, demands and disruptions, it can feel challenging to find the balance between ‘yes’ and ‘no’. It can be hard to hear our hearts calling us to rest, to let go of worry and obligations and simply be present. It can be easy to forget to stop and breathe.

Just for this moment….

Stop…Close your eyes…

Breathe.

Slowly…

In… Out… In… Out…

Now again.

Breathe.

Slowly…

In… Out… In… Out…

Feel. The air entering your body.

Feel. Your breath flowing in your veins.

Feel. Your lungs expanding/contracting, expanding/contracting.

Feel it all. Be present in it and with it.

Feel.

And breathe.

Now… whisper to your heart, “Yes. Yes. Yes!. I hear you.”

Namaste.

 

In the studio. I am free.

Your Heart Knows
Mixed Media
11 x 14″ on canvas paper
©2020 Louise Gallagher

Listen to the beat of your heart.
It is unique.
It is your song of joy.

There is a song in every heart, a unique, precious beat that calls each of us to come alive, to ‘live true’, to walk our own path, dance our own song.

In the studio, there are few questions about what is ‘true’ for me. There is only what is appearing as my thinking mind quietens and I sink into the embodied present where I am connected through and to all of life. Immersed in the process, my intuitive being guides me as I fearlessly throw colour and texture onto the canvas.

In the studio, there are few questions about right and wrong, is this best, is this going to work, what do I do next?

In the studio, I feel safe to feel, to hear my heartbeat, my intuition, my deep inner knowing.

In the studio I am free.

Time in the studio teaches me about life, about living true through being who I am without worrying about being someone else, some other way, some other person’s or society’s idea of what is best for me. Unfettered by concerns of the ‘outside’, I listen into the rhythm of my heart and allow all my senses to awaken.

Being in the studio I come alive.

Take the painting above. I had zero idea as to what I was creating yesterday when I began. Much of the painting is the result of a ‘happy accident’ along with a bit of impatience on my part.

I’d begun the day creating backgrounds on deli paper — it’s a wonderful free-fall process of putting paint onto a Gelli Print Pad, making marks and pulling off prints. The deli paper is ideal as it’s relatively translucent and much stronger than tissue paper which tends to tear when it gets wet.

As a girlfriend had joined me in the studio I was showing her how to create a background painting and then collage in the deli paper prints to create interest and texture. Because I was impatient, the printed heart I’d used was still wet when I applied gel medium to get it to adhere to my painted background.

Most of the paint lifted off and suddenly, I had a whole new ‘look and feel’ to work with — as in, the heart became a different colour, was larger than originally intended and had some interesting marks in it that weren’t there when I first began.

From that point, adding colour, more marks, more pieces of printed deli paper along with collaging in bits of ephemera was pure fun – no plan, no ‘thinking’, just playing.

I may still go in and work on it some more. Play with gold. Maybe some white because the beauty of intuitive painting is – ‘done’ is just a relative term. I’m not seeking a final product. I’m breathing through the process, exploring my intuition, relishing the expression of ideas transformed into energy on the canvas and living through the process of expressing what is present. Not a version of what I want it to be but rather, guiding it into becoming what is seeking to express itself through me.

I played in the studio yesterday.

In the studio I am free.

Naked We Danced

Photo by Velizar Ivanov on Unsplash

 

In my twenties, I lived alone in a small community about 45 minutes from the city in which I was working at the time. It was all rolling hills and wooden houses perched on tree-covered hillsides. During the week, I drove into the city and worked in the corporate world. Weekends, I cast off my tailored suit and spent time amidst the flora and fauna, savouring time along and time spent visiting with neighbours and friends laughing and sharing stories and drinking wine and eating meals we cooked together.

My closest neighbours were a husband and wife about 20 years older than me, Alan and Claire. I adored them, especially Claire who constantly encouraged me to shed the tentacles of what she called my rigid Catholic upbringing and ‘let loose’ in the here and now.

After a rainfall, Claire would pound on my door and invite me to come ‘squelch in the mud’. Clothes optional.

Sometimes, she’d challenge me to join her around a fire and dance with the woodland fairies as we flung our bodies into the air. Breathlessly, we’d call-out to Demeter and Aphrodite, beseeching them to release us from the metaphorical ties that bound us to outmoded ways of being alive in this world. Clothes optional.

On full moon nights, she’d stand in the woods below my deck and howl into the night, inviting me to come play with her and the forest nymphs. And always, clothes were optional.

In my twenties, it was easier to shed my clothes, though sometimes, my mind didn’t always make it comfortable. Back then, unfettered by the worry of wrinkles and folds, of gravity’s inevitable pressures on the loosening in the elasticity of my skin, I didn’t let vanity or fear hold me back.

In my sixties now, I can feel the weight of time, of years of gorging on unhealthy body-image messaging doled out by mass media extolling the virtues of achieving a ‘perfect’ body. A body that can only be achieved if… you try this diet, wear this style, don this perfect make-up {formulated specifically for women of a certain age of course} and pile on oodles of dyes and product to your hair. Products that promise to wash away time’s passage because, everyone knows, time damages you. Time makes you less beautiful. Desirable. Seeable.

I don’t want to believe that. I don’t want to believe beauty is a diminishable element. It’s just different from ‘back when’ I fearlessly danced naked amongst the trees and didn’t worry about propriety and wrinkles of time.

In the years gone by, I have learned that the passage of years makes me… who I am today. How I am today, how I feel about me, how I express my life is an alchemy of time and elemental beauty that wells up from within. It is weathered lines softened in the evening light. Curves and edges blending. It is my expression of the wounds and wisdom I carry and release, how I breathe lovingly into beauty and the beast, dark and light, vanity and uninhibited self-expression.

Then again, when the sillies are upon me and I look aghast upon the ravages of time, I wonder if maybe it’s time to hire an army of a-gazillion tiny minions to airbrush my body in the here and now. In their careful and perfect ministrations, I will look like I am agelessly flowing through my days, svelte and all filmy and gauzy like sheer curtains blowing in the gentle breeze wafting in off a mediterranean sea.

Then again, maybe, rather than taking giant leaps of imagination, I just need to forget about time’s passage and take baby-steps in the here and now letting go of the ties that bind as I fall into the loving embrace of life as it is, in this moment, right now.

____________________

Thank you everyone for sharing your thoughts and ideas, your own vulnerabilities.

____________________

Photo by Maru Lombardo on Unsplash

 

 

 

Morning Reveries

A Chinook arch hangs low in the sky above the city.

The temperature rises with the warmth of its breath caressing the air.

The sun hides behind the arch.

I sit at my desk listening to piano music softly playing in the background, my fingers resting lightly on the keyboard of my laptop. Thoughts skitter through my mind like the squirrels leaping from tree branch to tree branch outside my window. The warm winds have cajoled them out of their nests. They run across the snow. Play chase in the trees and bushes.

On the far side of the river, the water runs freely in a slim channel under that hugs the shoreline.

Outside my window, on this side of the river, there is only the stillness of ice stretching out from the river bank.

The river lies quiet in the morning.  The ice clings to the cooler temperatures of night. Its surface is a glassy expanse of smooth ice and granulated snow blocks backed up against gravel bars that stretch out from the abutments beneath the bridge.

Morning has broken. Day has begun. I want to cling to the soft, cloying blanket of sleep. To remain cocooned beneath the covers, my body pressed up against my husband’s back.

Beaumont the Sheepadoodle has other ideas. Morning business calls. His wet nose pushes against my hand lying on top of the covers. He pulls me from my slumber, out into the coolness of the morning.

Day has begun. Morning has broken. The sky hangs low and grey. I stretch my body into the day. Welcome the softness of the air against my skin.

Morning has broken.

I greet the sacredness of this day with a whispered prayer of gratitude.

Morning has broken.

Here I am.

__________________________

I am grateful to David Kanigan of Live & Learn who shared a verse from Rainer Maria Rilke, “Part Two XIV,” from Sonnets to Orpheus on his blog this morning. Rilke’s words caressed my mind, stirred my heart into morning reveries.