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An Interview with photographer Amanda Sullivan

Spring 2015 | Snapdragon: A Journal of Art & Healing

Winston-Salem, NC based artist Amanda Sullivan serves as the Wellness through the Arts Coordinator at the Sawtooth School for Visual Art, works as a School Counselor at the Arts Based School, and is a professional photographer. Recently she sat down with Snapdragon Journal Creative Non-Fiction Editor, Cyndi Briggs, to talk about the connection between art and healing.

Cyndi Briggs (CB): At Snapdragon, we are all about using art to promote healing. We think of healing as a journey, and art is an essential part of that journey. I’m curious to hear your thoughts about how you feel art facilitates the healing journey.

Amanda Sullivan (AS): During a five year period through 2003-2008 I lost a lot of significant people in my life. At the time, I was working in a bookstore to supplement my photography business, and I was wearing myself out working all week at the bookstore and on weekends as a photographer. Because I was trying to earn a living as a photographer, I wasn’t taking photos for my own creative fulfillment… it had become a job. I am also the single parent of two children, so I just couldn’t keep up with it all. In 2011, I left the bookstore and let go of my photography business to begin working at Sawtooth. When I came here, I was surrounded by art and artists, and I remembered why I loved photography in the first place, that it was very therapeutic for me as a person. Before I came to Sawtooth, when I was working all the time, I had to put the losses I’d experienced “on hold”. Once I was at Sawtooth, they hit me like a ton of bricks. It occurred to me that there was a way I could combine my background in counseling (my career before my kids were born) with my love of the arts. I’ve always been a big proponent of different types of therapy. I don’t think that everyone fits one style of therapy, and I’ve always been a big believer in play therapy, art therapy, or animal-assisted therapy. Counseling doesn’t have to be solely focused on talking. As I experienced the healing experience of being around art and artists, I decided to develop a class for our students combining art and healing, called “Healing Grief and Loss through Photography”. That first day, I left my class and kind of went into a corner because I was so overwhelmed by the response. This class full of women had experienced all kinds of losses: loss of a child, loss of a spouse, really significant losses in their lives. And I felt totally overwhelmed by the power of it. Some amazing things happened in that class: not only were my students healing through their direct experience with art, I was healing as well. That experienced changed my life. I realized that my passion lay in the process of using art for wellness, healing, and self-exploration. I started photographing again, not for professional purposes, but for myself. My photography became a conduit for my emotions, for what I was going through, and all that grief I’d been carrying with me began to be expressed through my photography.

CB: I love that word, “conduit”. As a writer, I have that same experience as I write through painful experiences. Once the feelings are expressed, it’s like I’m able to put them down and move on with my day and my life.

AS: Exactly. And it’s all about finding the way that works for you, and it’s different for everyone. You have to find what works best for you, without feeling like you have to fit yourself into a mold, or follow what’s trendy. Like, for instance, the Zen coloring books that are popular now… they kill me! Because of my nature, I can’t sit down and relax with those coloring books. First, I feel this compulsion to stay in the lines, and second, I want all the colors to match up. I bought one of those books, colored part of one page, and gave up on it. It just didn’t work for me. Art journaling is another method that just doesn’t work for me. I buy journals, and begin writing or sketching in them, and then get frustrated when I mess up or make a mistake. It’s just not a medium that works with my personality. However, I have found that making my own notebook with a three-ring binder works great for me: I can remove pages if I don’t like them! I can include pockets for hiding notes and can add more paper when I need to. So, do what’s right for you! Don’t feel like there’s something wrong with you if you don’t like the coloring books, for example. They’re not for everyone. With that perspective in mind, I wanted to branch out from photography in our Wellness through the Arts program. It can’t be just one medium. We help our students explore what supports them in getting their emotions out. I’ve learned recently that watercolor journaling really soothes me. In a class I held last week, we played with acrylic paints and that was really fun. The goal is to introduce our students to different mediums until they find the one that really works for them, the one that helps them get “lost” or in the flow of creating.

CB: I think so many people are hung up on this mythology of “art”. They have an idea of what it means to be an artist, and they don’t see themselves as creative because they’re not “professional” or trained. How do you help students get out of their heads about what it means to be an artist so they can tap into their inherent creativity?

AS: I’m really blunt with my students. I don’t sugar-coat anything. One of my recent students talked about how she isn’t an artist, and she kept asking for specific directions on how to do art “right”. I finally told her to get over it. To let it go, and see where it takes you. There’s no right or wrong answer. I don’t care what it looks like. Just let it flow. And that’s really hard for some people. It’s hard to let go of that control. But I think that once my students find that medium that flips their switch, that helps them get into the flow, they stop worrying about the outcome and begin to play, allowing the process to evolve. They stop thinking about the product and start focusing on the process, what’s happening while they’re playing with art. And it’s wonderful. In our culture, adults aren’t allowed to play. We’re allowed to work. We’re allowed to work overtime. We’re allowed to care for our families and pay our bills. But we’re not allowed to simply sit and do nothing or to play, to throw paint on paper and make a mess. The irony is these very things seen as “unessential” (rest and play) actually allow us to be more productive over time than excess work. Yet so many of my students, women in particular, feel guilty when they sit down for 15 minutes without “doing” something productive. They may not make time in between our classes to do the assignments because they feel like they have to do for others instead of for themselves. Helping people get over their guilt for doing something for themselves is the greatest challenge I’ve faced. Recently, we had a couple of snow days and I decided to do nothing all day. I spent time in my PJs, painted in my watercolor journal, and simply let myself be. I ran into a friend a day or two later and she said, “Wow, you look alive!” and I said, “I am alive, because I took care of myself.” I was also more productive at work that week because I let myself rest and play. If all we do is work, there are going to be consequences. You cannot put off taking care of yourself, because it’s going to catch up with you, bite you on the ass, and kick you down. I always tell my students that it’s like the oxygen masks on planes: you have to put your own on before you can help others. I encourage my students to find their way to wellness: what helps them feel healthy and alive? And I tell them to tend to their own health so they can then be available for others.

CB: There’s a magical moment in the creative process where once you’ve found it, there’s no turning back. Even if you’ve been disregarding yourself, once you begin the process you fully recognize that you can no longer neglect your own healing and need for creativity.

AS: Totally. That’s absolutely true. I let go of myself for years, and it had really devastating results. I felt like I was spiraling downward. But once I discovered creativity for self-care, it’s wonderful. Just last week, I got lost in the flow photographing a dead leaf. I used different lenses, changed the light. I got lost in the intricacies of the texture and colors. This dead leaf brought wonder back into my life. I love the fact that I can sit with a dead leaf and find healing in that, totally in the flow, totally absorbed in this thing that is supposed to be “dead”.

CB: It sounds like mindfulness, being fully present in the moment.

AS: Yes. And I’m really discovering the role of mindfulness in art. In fact, I’m teaching a class on mindfulness in photography now. I also talk to my younger students at the arts-based school about mindfulness. They’re so worried about what might happen, or could happen. I encourage them to stay present to the moment rather than wasting time and energy in worry. And I remind them that if something bad does happen, they’ll deal with it. We have to stay in this present moment because it’s all we’ve got.

CB: And what’s so amazing about developing creative skill through art is that when crises do arise, we’re better equipped to handle it because we are more in tune with our creative selves.

AS: Exactly. It’s like having a problem-solving arsenal on your back.

CB: For people who are interested in cultivating their own wellness practice though the arts, but aren’t sure of how to start, what do you recommend?

AS: I’m a huge believer in prompts. So, a great way to start with journaling, photography, or any kind of art, is using prompts. Prompts can be found on the internet, and they’re usually single words such as “happiness”, “sadness”, “dark”, “layers”… really any word can be a prompt. I print them out, cut the paper into individual words, and put them in a pretty ceramic jar. I can pull out words as prompts and then write or make art around that word. For example, the other day I pulled the word “layers” and I just wrote and wrote about it. All these feelings came up and I was so surprised by how much I wrote. I also could have photographed things that reminded me of that word. To find prompts, you can also open up a book, point to a word or sentence, and let that be the prompt for your creation. I also clip pictures from magazines such as National Geographic. I choose a picture and can sketch or paint it in a way that feels good to me. It doesn’t have to be perfect or detailed… for example, when I paint in my watercolor journal, I usually go for colors rather than detail. Then, when I refer back to my paintings, I remember those moments so clearly, what I was feeling when I painted the picture. Or, you can choose a picture and write a story or about a memory that is triggered by that image. Also, start small, and figure out what makes you happy. For example, you can start by taking photos with your phone. You can buy inexpensive watercolor pads and paint sets at the drug store. You can also try simple art projects. In a recent class, I passed out black acrylic paint and brushes, and asked my students to paint a black square on their paper. The only instruction I gave was, “paint either inside or outside of that square with the black paint”. That was it. Because it was narrow and simple, it allowed people to simply play rather than overthinking how to create a perfect painting. Start small, trust yourself, set some parameters (but not too much). And don’t put pressure on yourself. Just play, enjoy and trust your process. It’s about that whole experience of releasing feelings… fear, self-doubt… and letting them go. This process will help you hone in on what your path should be and will help you heal and move forward.

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