Crossing Mediums: A Talk with Writer Jennifer McGuiggan about Making Art at Squam

10 years ago
This article was written by a member of the SheKnows Community. It has not been edited, vetted or reviewed by our editorial staff, and any opinions expressed herein are the writer’s own.

Last week 135 people went to scenic Squam Lake, New Hampshire to attend Squam Art Workshops. I asked seasoned writer Jenna McGuiggan of The Word Cellar to tell me a little bit about her time there and the experience of crossing mediums and being a beginner.

You decided to go to Squam Art Workshops (SAW) this year even though you're a professional writer. Was it scary to be in such an image rich learning environment when your primary medium is words?

When deciding whether or not to go to SAW, I kept saying that I felt scared. But then I stopped and listened to myself and realized that I really wasn't afraid; I just felt like I should feel afraid. My inner gremlins of doubt had me convinced that an art retreat was something scary, even though my heart knew that it wasn't.

Being around so many artists was both new and familiar to me. Because a lot of the women who attended the retreat are bloggers, the vibe was like a more bohemian version of a BlogHer conference – held in the woods! Being around so many visually-inclined people was different, but not uncomfortable.

On the second day, I took a Travel Journaling class. The instructor set us loose in the woods and told us to create whatever kind of art our hearts desired. I immediately thought, "Oh, well, I'll write." But then I decided to stretch myself a little and try something new. I gathered up my paints, brushes, and some little blank postcards and trundled down to a gently rocking dock on the lake.

And then something magical happened: I found liberation in using images to capture my surroundings and my experiences.

I adore words. But since I know I'm supposed to be "good" with them, writing can sometimes feel a bit daunting, especially when I long to capture a visual or ephemeral scene. It's easy to let the craft of writing get in the way of true expression.

But since visual art is so new to me, I was free to just play and make a mess. I even painted a whole postcard with big swaths of extra paint I'd mixed up, just because I liked the color and thought it fit my mood. You can't do quite the same thing with just a bunch of words. So in a way, being in an image rich environment was liberating.

That said, I'm still not thinking of myself as an artist. It took me a long time to claim the name of "writer," but "artist" feels like something different altogether. To me, "artist" feels wilder, more exotic, still something beyond my grasp. I'm interested to see if that changes over time.

What surprised you the most about the experience?

I was most surprised when I looked at my big painting from the first day of class and realized that I didn't hate it. I'd spent the whole class loathing it, bemoaning my color choices, wondering how so little of me had ended up in this thing that I had created. But after I gave it – and me – some space, I discovered little bits and pieces in it that I actually liked. That was a total surprise. And a big lesson about how I react to being frustrated (which is to either run away or get angry). But being forced (or perhaps "encouraged" is a better word!) to stick with it was so valuable in the end. It helped me to overcome my innate desire to do things perfectly. (More on that below.)

What classes did you take and how did you find the learning environment? How do you think exposure to art making in this way will impact your writing?

I took Painting as Process with Lisa Occhipinti on the first day. She did a great job of combining demonstrations with time for us to try things on our own. Her encouragement and ideas are what kept me from ripping up my painting and fleeing to the safety of my cabin!

On day two I took Travel Journaling with Penelope Dullaghan, which was a very free-flowing class. Penny provided some art supplies and some good prompts in case we got stuck. I ended up with a prompt that got me painting on my little postcards. It said: "An acorn gives you three wishes. Find an acorn, sketch it, and then list your three wishes." I'd found the quintessential acorn the day before and decided to paint it. (My three wishes? They're a bit cryptic, but I think you'll get the gist of it: 1. Dream cottage. 2. England, Ireland, Iceland, and Italy. 3. Book.)

On the final day, I was in The Superhero Life with Andrea Scher, who was assisted by Jen Gray http://www.jengray.com and Jonatha Brooke. The class was a mixture of photography tips and life coaching. We broke the ice by doing photo shoots with partners, complete with crazy props like pink wigs and fun hats. Then we got into the heart of things by working with a partner to uncover our core values. That was a great exercise and reconnected me with some things I already knew to be true about myself: that my guiding principles in life are a sense of Joy & Wonder and a need for Connection.

Any new blog crushes? What blogs and resources did you discover?
I'd heard of the magazine "Cloth, Paper, Scissors" before, but had never looked at it. We got a free issue in our goody bags and I realized that it's a great resource to learn about mixed media art. I think that seeing what other people are making and what materials are available will be a huge help to me as I explore this new path.

Other inspiration from the weekend includes two lovely new books: Taking Flight: Inspiration + Techniques to Give Your Creative Spirit Wings by Kelly Rae Roberts and Ordinary Sparkling Moments Christine Mason Miller . I'm also in love with Elizabeth MacCrellish, the amazing, vibrant woman who organized the whole event with grace, aplomb, and love.

What would you say to another writer who's considering giving art a try? Any bits of advice for keeping perfectionism at bay?

Oh, perfectionism. My constant companion and enemy. When I get frustrated, my fight or flight response kicks into high gear. This had me wanting to rip up my painting on day one and start over. And I just wouldn't believe anyone when they said they liked my painting. All I could see were the flaws.

Even before I went to SAW, I could have allowed myself to be overwhelmed by the materials I needed. I didn't know what matte medium was or what kind of brushes to buy, or even how to pronounce "gesso." (FYI for you other newbies: The "g" is soft, like in the word gelatin.) So I went to the art store and said, "I need these things. Can you help?"

And here's what I'm learning: It really and truly is okay to be a beginner. I'm realizing that not knowing isn't shameful or embarrassing or an indication of my intelligence, skill, or capacity. It just means this is all new to me. There's no shame in that! In fact, it's exciting, fun, and beautiful to learn something new.

I'd encourage writers to give visual art a try, even if they've spent their whole lives thinking (like me) that they can't draw or paint. By giving my verbal mind a bit of a rest, I've come back to my writing with renewed love. Playing with visual art has also helped me to really pay attention to the world around me and look for new ways to express that in words. Plus, because I am so word oriented, I found that it's fun to mix writing and text into my art images. It's a little bit of the safe and familiar mixed in with something new and exciting!

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