MAKING ART: A Spiritual Opening?
By Judy Marshall Ferraro, Ph.D.

[En español]

I never could draw well. But as a child, that never stopped me. My passion to make art was undaunted. I particularly loved color, especially all the different shades of reds and blues. For hours I would line up the crayons from my 64 superbox with great care, as though each was a cherished doll and had its own place and personality. I would then test out the various color combinations in large abstract designs that did seem to say something only I could discern (although I wasn’t sure what). Then, as childhood went on, I gave it up. Again, I never could draw well—and there were other things I could do better.

Yet my love of color and art, especially the abstract and surreal, never left. Still, it took me well into my adult years to even think about making art again. It had been on the periphery of consciousness for some time—and then one day I walked into the art store, bought a bunch of paints (primarily reds and blues), and the rest is history. Just as I had as a child, I became immersed in the nuanced and colorful free form shapes that seemed to create themselves before me. And like being a child, it was the ultimate in joyful playing. There is so much earthy sensuality in some of the amusements of childhood, such as at the beach or in the sandbox. The mixture of surrounding smells with the unabashed enjoyment of packing the gritty dry sand into a bucket… or molding the muddy wet stuff with your fingers. Now it was paint, sticky and mixed in with odiferous thinner or mineral oil. I began to spend hours lost in the amorphous pursuit of pleasure, fascination and discovery, known as creativity.

Had I rediscovered an important part of myself? Yes, but there also seemed to be something more. A driving force pushing me? Beyond me? Within me? Was this true passion? I found myself spending evenings (merging into the early morning hours), focused on form after form upon the canvas on the easel before me. I clearly did feel led or guided in some indefinable way. Stranger still, it also felt like there was a mystical, transcendent presence with which I was connecting. At the same time, I began to feel that through painting I was going to a place deep within (while still focused on the painting). It was very odd and seemed akin to the experiences of meditation, worship, or prayer. On a nonverbal level, subtle and quiet, it almost felt like I was communicating with God.

What was quite noticeable was the suspension of time and ego. I would be intensely, obsessively engaged in the painting before me. But one hour would flow into the next and the next. I would be aware of time passing, but not to the extent it truly was. I would have the simultaneous experience of being almost merged with the painting I was creating, but at the same time seemed above and beyond it. Sometimes I felt separate from my ego or “self.” This wasn’t an out-of-body experience, as it didn’t feel that I had left my body. But it was as though my awareness was beyond normal experience.

Sometimes I seemed to drift off into reflection, somewhat in the manner of that in-between state between wakefulness and sleep (although I was fully awake, upright, and painting). Much of the time, I seemed to be in a state of mindlessness, as though I had entered an alternate dimension? Or was it an interruption of place and time? Also noticeable were the feelings of invigoration and replenishment I always felt after a day or night of nonstop painting, despite just standing on my feet for hours.

As I have spoken about elsewhere,* there came a time in my life, a turning point, when I underwent a spiritual awakening. This rediscovery from childhood of making art was clearly part of this. In retrospect, I do see that much of what I was experiencing was about opening to a relationship with God. When painting, I felt so strongly this foundation of caretaking connection in the background, a bond of spirit, and the enveloping presence of love. It was like I was embraced by God and guided—both in the actual artwork and that my creativity was a step towards some specific purpose and my ultimate good.

I also felt that I was being taught lessons. The painting served as a metaphor for life, it seemed. Since my art was so free form and abstract, in some ways, it was more open-ended. If I made a mistake who would know? Like Picasso’s ladies with the three eyes, “abstract” means you have final choice to do what you want. Yet, in other ways, it is more exacting. One extra or wrong brushstroke and it could throw off the whole gestalt or direction that I wanted (never to be found again). Of course, I wasn’t copying a realistic scene. But I began to feel, with each canvas I started, I was supposed to be capturing something that already existed. It just hadn’t been actualized in the physical world. In other words, I had the impression that the designs that would eventually be manifest on my canvas were already there… somewhere. My task was to discover them. Was I making the “unseen” seen? I don’t mean that in a grandiose way. It felt like this process of discovery that occurred with my painting was symbolic of so much of what we do in life. We are born, not a blank slate, but there is a life and a self and greater purpose to discover and uncover.

Also, in painting—like life—I learned there is a rhythm, a process and journey to it, with risks and inevitable ups and downs. I had to birth the creation and nurture it, bring it to fruition, but I also had to let it breathe and find its own way. One thing I observed early on was that there was a point when the painting was finished, and I needed to let it go, even if I wasn’t entirely satisfied. One more brushstroke and the final painting would never be what it could or should be, no matter how much I continued to work on it. And those times I did push too far, inevitably it was irretrievably gone. I hadn’t been able to let go. Was this the need to maintain control? To strive to create some nebulous and unattainable idea of perfection, rather than the truth or essence of what the painting was supposed to be?

Another life lesson was the gift of frustration. I had to learn to tolerate the creative process… the ups and downs, the “two steps forward, one step back.” Two days of painting could pass by, and all I had to show for it seemed stale or worse than when I started. It seemed like such a waste, even with all the feelings and insights I was experiencing. Of course, my first instinct was always to say I was no good and blame myself. Yet, with time, I did come to the realization that the truly productive journey is never linear, either in creativity or in life. The important thing is to stick to it, to learn, to keep to the vision, and to persevere.

Finally, there was the lesson of the power (and bias) of perspective and judgment—and how variable and unreliable are one’s self-assessment and emotional state. In surveying my work, satisfaction with a painting just completed could easily turn to disgust two days later (and then flip back again within a week, if I hadn’t destroyed it first). In fact, I ended up intentionally destroying a lot of work I really wished I hadn’t. Either it wasn’t “perfect” (but good) or I had created something that was too disturbing in some way and I didn’t want to be a part of it (even when it spoke to something that I and possibly others needed to see). I began to see I was choosing to control the narrative through hiding and destruction, almost always yielding later to regret.

But as I learned to tolerate the reactions of myself and others, which were so varied, I began to appreciate that I really didn’t have any control. At the same time, I began to see how sometimes I was affecting others through my paintings, a kind of spiritual sharing. This felt like a privilege and had been entirely unanticipated. The totality of the experience was, just like life, I loved it and wanted more. Still, I couldn’t control. My responsibility was to do the best I could, through my own truth and voice, and then give it up to the greater spiritual dynamic.

*House of Souls: A Psychologist’s Journey to God


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Judy Marshall Ferraro
About Judy Ferraro
California | United States

Dr. Judy Ferraro received her doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In thirty years of clinical practice in New York and Los Angeles, she has worked with many different groups, from children to the frail elderly, with particular interests including self-esteem, depression, sensitivity, and creativity.

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