Mudpies, Fingerpaint and Creative Block

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A theme seems to have emerged among my entrepreneurial “peeps” recently about creativity, creative blocks and self expression.  Some of my favorite bloggers, Sandy Dempsey ( and Ken Robert (  have posted on the topic recently. This got me thinking about the art classes I’ve taught and attended over the years, the “creative” writing instruction our children are exposed to and how so much of it stifles our expressive flow. 

As a fine arts and art education major, I was immersed in theory and technique. While developing those skills was necessary in order to implement the images dancing around in my head, a focus on “getting it right” got in the way of getting the feeling down. As my work moved towards precision, it moved away from expression, became stiff and too cerebral. In other words, I spent too much studio time in my head instead of my heart. For me, the process of painting became joyless when I began judging my work on outcome. 

I realize that classic elements and theory in visual art, music, dance or writing are vital aspects of a solid education in the arts. I cringe when I read grammatical errors in literature. But how do we balance the mastery of the details with letting the creative light flow from our inner source? 

I recall a conflict with the director of the preschool where I first “taught art” in my early twenties. I used my alloted art instruction time to expose the children to elements of design, showing them how a squiggly line gives a different feel than a straight line and how muddy colors put them in a different mood than bright or pastel colors. I helped them observe how objects further away were less vibrant and smaller than those in the foreground.  Pretty complex concepts for a preschooler, yet they appeared to grasp the basics because we made it fun.  I showed them the color wheel and then let them “play” with mixing colors. Some of the exercises were eatable. Ketchup and mustard make orange. Add mayonnaise and you get peach or what we in those days so socially inappropriately referred to as “skin tone.” 

When introducing the kids to the works of different masters, I tried to make it fun and relevant for them. We had a Jackson Pollack morning when the kids squirted different colored icing all over white sheet cakes and then got to eat their “paintings.”

None of this went over well with the director who said she understood the purpose but wanted to please the parents who didn’t understand why their kids weren’t coming home with identical turkey crafts at Thanksgiving or gingerbread men at Christmas. We butted heads, I stuck to my guns and knew I needed to be self employed soon. 

Fast forward three decades and  I missed the creative process. I’d let it go, I believed, in the interest of earning a living selling other artists work. The truth was, I had stopped creating because when I tried to “do it right” it lost it’s joy for me. I enrolled in creative workshops with descriptions like “Intuitive Water Color” and “Painting from the Soul”.  The first day or so in these classes, I was able to get out of my head and connect more with my heart. the expression flowed and it was joyful. Imagines were forming on the paper, bypassing my head. I swear some of them emerged from deep in my bones, almost as if my DNA knew things I couldn’t possibly know. 

Then came the “sharing” and suddenly I was judging my art. In one workshop, the facilitator, a psychologist, had us “act out” our paintings. When I returned to the act of painting after that, the flow was blocked. I knew I’d have to dramatize what I painted and again became attached to outcome. Once I knew what came out of my hand would be analyzed, I froze. 

When my son, Todd, was young, he loved to write. His work had a fresh, open tone. Then an adult in his life began correcting his grammar and punctuation mid stream and he gradually stopped writing for pleasure. He also loved to go to the piano and just “play” as opposed to reading music. Then, lessons meant practice and correction and while he played well once he understood theory, he no longer “composed.” 


We’ve all known kids who after their first ballet lessons were discouraged from continuing because they lacked grace and poise.  I think about how different the experience would have been if the same child had been put in a room without mirrors and encouraged to just “feel” the music and move freely without attachment to appearance. 


I recognize that if someone is planning a career in the arts, it’s vital to master technique but what about all of us who were either discouraged because we weren’t “naturals” or eliminated ourselves from the creative game because we judged our outward appearance? 

Looking back over my teaching and learning experiences, I am convinced we should all spend more time finger painting, drumming on pots and pans and dancing blindfolded. 

What are your creative blocks? What puts you in the flow? When was the last time you made mud pies or painted with your toes?

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