DIANE URBANI DE LA PAZ: Being one’s own art therapist

IT GIVES ME great joy to write about other people’s art. Whether it’s painting or sculpture or choreography, I thrive as an observer. As in “Me, I’m not an artist.”

Then came that up-ender of all assumptions, the pandemic.

Maybe I could make some art as a way to put my mind on something new.

Something that doesn’t involve words and photographs, the stuff I wrangle all the live-long day.

Shopping the nonprofit Northwind Art class catalog, there appeared a course called “Coping Creatively.”

In just six one-hour sessions — Zoom of course — “students are guided through hands-on art activities that nurture our abilities to navigate life’s ups and downs,” the description read.

In this class, we’d get to play with “tactile mixed media.”

“Finger paints?” I wondered. “Why not?”

Since no one would have to see my artwork, I could experiment, even abandon a project and start all over.

Lesson one, it turned out, was about breathing.

Our instructor, the ebullient Lauren Altman, had us respirate while drawing triangles.

Inhale on the first side, hold on the way down the second side and exhale along the bottom line.

“Taking time to draw and breathe makes me feel at ease,” Altman said.

This simple drawing exercise challenged me, though.

After a few triangles — with my video turned off so classmates couldn’t see me — I was tempted to check email.

Somehow I resisted.

“Art is a nonjudgmental space,” our instructor reminded us.

She proceeded to prove that through each of the class sessions.

They varied from found-object collage making to embroidering inner mantras onto photographs to painting while blindfolded with a scarf.

One point of that last exercise: Let go of how your artwork looks.

I’ll admit I was skeptical. But it was a relief, I found, to apply color to paper without stressing over the end product.

Altman is one of the flock of instructors offering Northwind Art classes (northwindart.org) from cities around the continent.

She used to live in Brooklyn, N.Y., but by the time she started the “Coping Creatively” class, she had moved to Mexico City.

She spent a few seconds inviting us to visit her Instagram page, @thattiedyequeen, but then kept the focus on her students, five women in Port Townsend seeking a new form of self-expression.

“Wherever life takes us, we can always come back to our craft,” Altman reminded us.

Another session of “Coping Creatively” opened with journaling prompts.

“What do I need more of today?”

“How can I care just a little bit more for myself today?”

“Today, I’m feeling like myself because …”

And the capper: “The thing I love about me is …”

Normally, I roll my eyes at this kind of stuff.

Somehow, though, Lauren made the prompts seem perfectly appropriate.

At the top of an artmaking session, I believe they help the mind click out of self-criticism mode and into a freer place.

So I went ahead and did some collage-making.

I collected pine cones and sea-polished stones for a beach mandala.

One rainy evening, I goofed around with eight Crayola colored pencils, which came in a box that looks a lot like the crayons I had as a kid.

In our last session, Altman showed us how to bind our artwork into a homemade book using a big needle and thread.

This can be something you page through to remember how it felt to step out of the workaday rush to create something.

Or, she told us, it can be a book you compile as a gift for a friend.

Then came the homework assignment, even if our course was over.

“Send me anything you’re experimenting on,” Altman said.

“Keep making.”


Jefferson County Senior Reporter Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-417-3509 or [email protected] dailynews.com. Her column runs the first and third Wednesday of the month; the next one will appear March 16.

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