5 Surprising Benefits of Painting About the Tough Stuff
What do Picasso, Anselm Keiffer, Goya, Kara Walker, Votan Henriquez, Alison Saar, and Diane Arbus, have in common?
They and all created monumental art that boldly drew attention to shadow aspects of themselves or society that many artists would shy away from.
Understandably, shadow exploration via your art is not for everyone.
But if you’re an artist like me, who is tired of spackling over things that won’t stay spackled, join me to look at five benefits (and four caveats) that two maverick artists have discovered from looking within.
5 Benefits of Drawing Inspiration From Your Shadow Side
Benefit 1. Bringing Peace To Pain and Diminishing Guilt
For nearly ten years after the crushing experience of her partner’s suicide in their home, artist Kat Bergman endured a reoccurring dream.
A dream she never had to endure again after she honored her compulsion to paint it.
“I entitled the painting “David’s Decision.” I cannot tell you what that painting did for me.” The work opened a door of art and healing for Bergman.
“I used to live a life of guilt. Pile on poor self-esteem, abusive relationships, and then Dave— I denied the guilt about his suicide out loud and to everyone I talked to, but deep inside I felt it was my fault,” said Bergman.
“Years later I finally addressed that guilt and for the most part I’m now free of that anchor.”
Bergman also thinks that “David’s Decision” and the paintings that followed, allowed her to let go of a great deal of anger, self-pity, confusion, and hurt.
“After I painted “David’s Decision,” I felt like I could love him again. I felt respect for him again and I felt at peace with wherever he was and for where I am today.”
Bergman is a full-time professional artist now in California and has since remarried.
“I feel so fortunate to have my art as a catalyst, and I’m grateful that I discovered a forever resource that enables me to speak of any unspeakable things that are within me now or in the future.”
Caveat 1. But You Don’t Have To Do It Alone
“You don’t have jump into making from the shadow — solo if you don’t want to. Actually, for some artists it may be best not to,” said LCSW Gale Nienhuis. Nienhuis advises you to consider doing the work in the way Hershberger and Bergman did; in conjunction with a supportive online group, offline community, art therapist, or talk therapist.
“When you open an interior box that contains a lot of grief or trauma it can lead to all kinds of wonderful places but sometimes you may find yourself in a Pandora’s box type of place, where you need some backup,” said Nienhuis.
For Bergman, “Being real and dealing with things that happened to me through my art has allowed me to charge my art with raw life. It has grown my practice and in turn, I have grown as an artist also.”
Do shadow issues hold peak painting potential for you and me as well?
Benefit 2. Peak Painting Potential
Many long-time patrons of artist Carlynne Hershberger’s have told her that “Silent Voices,” (her ongoing series begun in 2007 which explores the dark side of the adoption industry) is her best work ever. Hershberger agrees and said she feels more assured and inspired as a painter than she ever has before when she works on the series.
“It absolutely could, because it’s so personal,” said Hershberger. “If you are putting a lot of meaning and so much of yourself into a work it’s bound to come out on the canvas. You’re totally invested in it. It’s not about approval or sales or what the market wants, it’s just about you— and people can often see and sense that in the work.”
Hershberger was inspired to write a book Silent Voices that features the painting series alongside her narrative about adoption, from the natural mother’s point of view.
Caveat 2: Lower Your Expectations
Though you may soar higher than you have in decades when you make art inspired from a difficult place within, be kind to yourself and keep expectations low. Do this in order to give yourself the freedom to make unappealing, chaotic, or nonsensical art if that is what needs to be let out. There are no rules.
Benefit 3. Shadow Work Has Its Audience
It may seem counterintuitive, but occasionally shadow pieces are highly appealing and important to art buyers. Especially those who see their own life stories reflected in the work or find solace or hope in what an artist has depicted.
Bergman has sold several pieces of work that examined trauma.
“In one instance, I painted a piece about a very scary surgery that I went through which involved my eyesight, it had a mysterious darkness in it and it sold because the buyer felt some peace within it –the aftermath perhaps.”
Although Bergman says she feels every bit of pain as she is painting pieces inspired by hard topics, the resulting works have been described by others as having a “victorious feel,” specifically a victory over darkness.
“Maybe people want my darker pieces in their home,” said Bergman, “because the painting reminds the buyer that someone else, the woman who made the art, has faced things; deep fears that everyone faces, and lived to tell about it. And perhaps they look at the work and feel more hopeful that they too can survive their own pain.” Bergman has also given away several shadow pieces to those especially touched by them.
Caveat 3: None of It May Ever Sell, Do It For Yourself Anyway
Darker pieces typically won’t fly off gallery walls.
But most artists don’t mind.
“Even if it didn’t lead to anything art business-related, making art about darker issues gives artists greater insight into themselves, said Hershberger whose Silent Voices series is currently not for sale.
“It’s such a personal journey. Who knows what it could lead to? It could bring joy or it could bring healing from a past issue. You don’t know until you go there. It might be scary but I think the risk is worth it.”
“Whether you show it or keep it private, you’ll still be rewarded for your efforts to make it,” said Hershberger. “I didn’t show anyone my paintings about adoption for a long time and that was just fine.”
Benefit 4. Shadow Work Can Lead To A Wonderful New Series
“Around 2002 I got to reunite with my daughter, and my other two children were starting college,” said Hershberger. “Empty nests and eggs must have been on my mind, and by 2007 I put some imagery of them in the adoption series.”
In 2016 Hershberger was feeling in a rut with her landscapes, which she loves making.
“I’ve always been intrigued by nests and around that time a family of wrens had been making its usual square nest at the back of my mailbox,” said Hershberger. She extracted that season’s abandoned nest and painted it, then saved another and painted that.
People began giving Hershberger found nests and she painted those as well. Hershberger’s studio is now filled with an assortment of nests. “The nests became a bridge between my two painting worlds (landscape and adoption), as well as a symbol that has great meaning for me.”
The Nest series also has meaning for many others who have flocked to purchase one for themselves. Hershberger has sold over fifty nest paintings since then.
“I think the nests somehow connect with different people in different ways. Some folks are just crazy about birds. They love everything bird-related. Some in the adoption community relate to the nests for the symbolism. For me personally, it’s both.”
Benefit 5. Community, Within and Without
Shadow artwork can help you befriend yourself.
Like many artists, Bergman is a self-described introvert. “I am socially awkward, and I avoid relationships. Outside of my husband and close family I don’t tell my struggles to others very much.”
But since embarking on the internal journey set in motion by “David’s Decision,” Bergman has an additional ally in her life who wasn’t present before, an inner confidante who deeply understands.
Shadow artwork can also open the doors to understanding in the outside world. Bergman first only shared “David’s Decision” with a support group for people dealing with grief. “I had so many people tell me how the painting helped them and gave them hope,” said Bergman. “As you can imagine, this was incredibly rewarding for me as well.”
There is certain trauma that is too hard to wrap your head around unless you’ve undergone it yourself. When artists find people who experienced the same exact thing there is a special connection.
“Mothers of adoption loss and adoptees have a unique experience and perspective,” said Hershberger. “One of the most healing things for me was finding other mothers who went through the same thing.”
Hershberger thinks the “Silent Voices” paintings extended the hand of healing to other women as well. “Some women see the paintings online and think – ‘Yeah, she gets it.’ Many of them also seem to relate to the nest paintings, which came later.
Caveat 5: Possible Pushback from Shadow-Inspired Art
Bergman has dealt with negative reception for her suicide-related work when she shared it in a gallery setting.
“The live showings to co-artists and the gallery reception were pretty much the same as I have experienced in life—people still recoil and don’t want to talk about suicide,” said Bergman. “I think the stigma is alive and well.”
Hershberger has experienced pushback in public too. “If you show the work in public and it’s controversial, be prepared to be censored or have people try to censor you. If you take on a more activist role, as I have online, you really have to develop a thick skin.”
A Final Note on Creating from Your Dark Side
Here are a few final words of encouragement from Bergman for artists like me who want to do shadow inspired work but are big chickens:
“Just hold your nose and jump in!” said Bergman.
“You can only heal when you open the wound and clean it out.”
“You have to be willing to understand that it will not make you any worse to do the work.”
“It will only help you to heal. There may be a treasure inside waiting for you to discover.”
Who looks outside dreams, who looks inside, awakes. — Carl Gustav Jung
What do you think?
Have you ever painted, sculpted or done any process work that was inspired by a difficult time in your life?
Or have you ever been drawn to the work of another because it mirrored your own struggles?
I would love to know and it may help other creatives to know too.
Please leave a comment below.
A version of this article originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of Professional Artist Magazine.