Art Helps Us Move Forward (And Grow A Thicker Skin)

by Michelle M. Johnson

I've been doing loads of mandala drawing practice lately. 

An idea for a mandala-like final page to my next book, Feminism Is For Everyone: A Coloring Book, has been brewing in my head for some time, but creating symmetry has always tried my patience. I knew I needed to teach my middle-aged-dog-self some new tricks before I could even think about beginning the illustration I had in mind, so I picked up a few books on the art form at a used bookstore last summer so I could teach myself how to create these beautiful, symmetrical, pattern filled pieces of art.


I used a white Gelly Roller on deep burgundy colored cardstock
for this mini mandala. I could barely see my pencil guidelines
 as I drew the white shapes, but I'm really please with how lacy
 and delicate the final piece looks, so having to draw blind
 was worth it:) 
The pandemic, the Black Lives Matter protests, and all the conversations that are swirling around those two things have me doing a lot of deep thinking and deep listening, two things I do best when I'm drawing. And, the hype surrounding mandalas as being good for meditation and creating internal focus is no joke; every mandala I have drawn over these last 13 weeks (six and counting), has provided me with insight into my art, my life, and the problems we are all facing this year.

I drew the above mini mandala on a spare piece of cardstock using a grid method to begin with, and then switching to a free-hand method to draw the design and details.

My lines and curves were inspired by a variety of inputs - the natural things I surround myself with in my studio (rocks, flowers, leaves, plants), the shapes I get obsessed with (I quite literally can't not draw circles & waves right now), and just staring off into space (it's amazing the patterns and and inspiration that can be found when you just zone out for a few moments - I'm convinced I can only see negative space shapes when my brain thinks it's looking at nothing at all).

One of the biggest revelations I have had while teaching myself to draw various types of mandalas is that it is time for me to more fully embrace the fact that the world I live in influences my art, my ideas, and I in turn want to influence the world with my art, my ideas. I cannot go forward from this moment being afraid of who I might offend or put off with my art, my ideas. I cannot continue to measure my worth as an artist in sales and followership alone. Doing so makes me a part of the problem and ignores the fact of my privilege: I may be a micro creative business super grateful for every sale, every scrap of attention I have in a very competitive market (why would you BUY a hand drawn colorable book, card or bookmark, when you can just download digitally drawn coloring pages for free?), BUT I have the safety, the flexibility in our household income, and the support necessary to even consider undertaking such a creative goal as being an illustrator of coloring experiences! I believe in racial justice and gender equality, and my work, my art is influenced heavily by those beliefs. Each "unsubscribe" and "unfollow" I've receive in response to moments where I have expressed those core beliefs either through my art or my words, I now realize I must not view as a failure as an artist, but as a chance to help my creative skin get thicker and thicker. Folks who know me really well would say that I was born with a thin skin, so if you really think about it, I ought to thank the people who do this for affording me the opportunity to grow more sure of myself, my art, and my mission because fabricating practice in growing a thick skin to criticism is time consuming. 

And, truly I get it - the artist and the art cannot, should not be separated - so, I deserve the "unsubscribes" and "unfollows." Studying how to draw mandalas for my next book has helped my perfectionist's heart to understand this. The art and ideas we spend time with feel personal to us. It is an intimate thing we do when we spend time with an artist's creations, and we want to feel good about the time we give to an artist and their work. I am the same way with the art and ideas I bring into my life - I can't remember the last time I even paused to look at a Picasso, and I have to say, I feel the better for it. 

I have much I want to listen to, to think about, to engage in about being a white, middle class, she/her female who happens to be an artist and teacher that's passionate about equality and the safety and well-being of people of color and what that means I should, need, want to be doing differently and/or more of going forward, so I there's definitely more mandala drawing coming from me. 

Even though this new practice of mandala drawing is so greatly helping me personally work through "all of it," I also have a strong need to believe that my art in all its forms has a 'purpose' (that unshakable feeling is what moved me into becoming a coloring book artist, I think - yes, even the Artist has a difficult time allowing herself time to create art 'for no reason'). To that end, I've decided I will send off the mandalas I'm proud of, the ones that look to me like I am making progress with this art form, out into the universe snail mail style to anyone who might need a bit of a happy mail to keep their spirits buoyant during this season of (continued) social distance and call for radical change.



Some artist's name their mandala art, but I'm not sure
naming is for me. On the back of this little mandala
I wrote a few phrases about hope and never letting
go of it before sending it off in the mail.
I recently said on both social media and in an email to the Have Color Will Travel coloring community that while hope for better, more "normal" times may be hard to hold onto right now, this is also no time for despair, no time to allow the conversation drift on to something easier to sit with. Radical change is actually being talked about (civilly in some corners, not so civilly in others, unfortunately) and we must stay centered and present in this moment, all of us, in order for a better, healthier, safer, more equal country to come out on the other end of 2020.

If you're interested in receiving one my mandalas practices, let me know by DM-ing me on Facebook or Instagram, and I will send one off to you as soon it's finished (the one pictured in this blog post has already been sent off to my friend and fellow artist, Toni Davenport of Turtle and Bird Creations - visit her Instagram page to see her amazing and beautiful creations, even inspirational ones like mini RGBs!). I am currently working through two more mini mandalas, and I have hopes they will wind up share-worthy. If there is any interest in this free-art-to-uplift-your-heart idea, I will use the "first come, first served" method to send the mandalas out to do their good work. 

And, if you're not interested in my free art-to-uplift-your-heart, that's okay, too - drawing is only "making paper messy," as my drawing teacher was fond of saying, and perhaps doesn't amount to a whole heck of a lot. But, if you are feeling the drain, feeling fatigued with the state of the world, feeling a lack of hope that things will ever change for the better, feeling like you just "need a break from all this," I do hope you are taking time for the things that buoy your spirits and help you keep on keeping on because this year is far from over.

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