Almost every month I have the pleasure of interviewing a different person about their creative process. I love learning how others define creativity (because, fittingly, there’s a lot of variety); what obstacles get in their way (because all of us run into bumps and barriers); and how they work (what does their creative process actually look like?).
Below, art therapist Lanie Smith, MPS, ATR, shares that and more in our interview. She also shares images of her beautiful art pieces. Smith is the owner of Integrative Art Therapy and co-founder of Matters of the Heart Retreats for Couples. I’ve interviewed her before for Psych Central about everything from bringing joy to our days to using art to reconnect to ourselves (no drawing or crafting experience required).
I really appreciate Smith’s compassionate perspective on creating and her emphasis on building a healthier, kinder relationship with ourselves. (After all, isn’t that the foundation for everything?) Which she helps to facilitate through all sorts of art-making. I find her insights here to be incredibly inspiring. And I hope you do, too.
Q: How do you define creativity? What does creativity mean to you?
A: To me, creativity is about personal expression and exploration. It’s about an attitude of play that allows you to potentially combine new and interesting ideas, images, materials, words, movement, sounds or something else like ingredients, fabrics, textures, colors, and/or designs to create something new. That means creativity is different for everyone and there is no right or wrong way to express such.
Creativity is also the byproduct of being one’s true self. We have an innate creativity within us that is only stifled by judgment and censoring of one’s natural inclination to express him or herself in the world as a result of programming.
Whether it’s creativity in the kitchen, with your wardrobe, home decor, business designs/ventures, or through some other means such as more formal expressive arts like drama, music, dance, visual art, etc., we all have the potential to be creative and express who we really are in the world.
Q: Why is creating important to you?
A: Creating allows me to see my creativity when I potentially forget. It delights parts of my brain and spirit that dance when I see vibrant color or rich texture. It reminds me I am fully alive when I am connected to my creative self and the world around me. This flow state takes me out of my head and aligns my heart and gut, so that I am more awake and coherent.
If I am not including all three components of mind, body, and spirit, I feel out of balance and lack the calm alertness that centers me and allows me to be the loving presence I aim to be.
Q: What are your favorite ways to create?
A: I love to write, paint, collage, dance, and just play in general. Getting outdoors to explore nature is probably my favorite. Combining natural materials in new ways to create impermanent sculptures, mandalas, and portraits have been especially fun.
I’m also a big fan of collaborative art and am currently sending art back and forth between my friend in Sri Lanka. So exciting to anticipate the mail each day!
Sometimes, my creativity is as simple as just showing up without an agenda to a session with clients where we get to co-create the hour together. That type of spontaneity energizes me. I feel completely exhilarated not knowing what issue might show up in the room, and yet listening to the feelings in my heart and gut to navigate me toward the next creative intervention.
Q: What inspires your work?
A: I’m inspired by humans and their emotion as well as their resiliency. Art was a portal to my own overwhelming emotion when I was younger, so I found myself drawn to Abstract Expressionism. Works from that genre represent raw, visceral feelings that are often covered by the many defensive masks we wear. Such art forms, regardless of modality attract me like a moth to a flame. Whether it’s a modern dance, theatre drama, or actual painting I can be touched in order to feel and experience those emotions that remind me I am human.
As an art therapist, I get to do this on a daily basis and find myself needing to seek it out less since clients bring this work to me. My own art is inspired by all of these elements combined. I find our personal and professional always overlap as we are all human.
Q: What does your creative process look like? For instance, maybe you have a certain ritual to kick-start your creating. Maybe you aim to write a certain number of words per day. Maybe you create best in the early morning or deep into the night.
A: My creative process is in some ways more ritualized than it once was and in other ways it is less. For example, as an art student my whole day once centered around art-making as well as describing, showing, and selling.
Over time, my art has become for me. In my own healing process, I found it important to create not what others wanted, but for myself. Now, I take time to center myself before diving in with a brief breathing activity and reminder that I am most interested in the benefits of the creative process more than the final product.
I try to do something on a daily basis and find it most satisfying when I use art to start or finish my day as both a way to set my daily intention and practice gratitude.
Q: There are many culprits that can crush creativity, such as self-doubt and distractions (I’m looking at you, Instagram). What tends to stand in the way of your creativity?
A: I’d say media in general creates distraction and can get in my way, which is why I love using ritual to keep me connected. Self-doubt and unrealistic expectations are another.
Q: How do you overcome these obstacles?
A: White space. I schedule it! I also let go of my TV nearly a decade ago now, and though I recently replaced it for the convenience of online music and movies, I have to consciously choose creativity over media.
My creativity/self-care clock help…that’s a fun exercise both my clients and I have appreciated. This is a directive I adapted from an ArtistStrong.com exercise, which encourages you to consider current rituals in your life, such as brushing your teeth, morning coffee, and/or evening prayer/meditation. Artist Strong invites you to schedule in art activities as ritual, while I use it for both creative activities as well as self-care rituals on an actual clock to provide a visual cue for myself and clients who often struggle to check-in with their body and care for themselves.
Boundaries are really important. I didn’t have much issue in spending hours at a time painting and creating when I was single and solely focused on my art. Wearing the therapist hat along with an entrepreneur suit and still being a good partner, friend, daughter, etc. can get hairy if I don’t put my creativity and self-care first. It can be difficult to prioritize actual artmaking and writing when I love my work and consider it equally creative since I get to use digital art and write for it.
I try to be flexible in recognizing it’s equally creative to design and launch an awesome new site with my significant other as it is to break out my paint jeans and hit the studio. I derive different benefits from different media so it’s important to stay tuned in and listening to what my body needs! As with all things, balance and moderation are clutch.
A: Love Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. I also love my collection of Abstract Expressionistic catalog raisonnes. They so inspire me when I am looking for a starting point. I also attend local art workshops and can’t wait to return to New York soon as it is always so huge in getting my creative juices flowing.
Additionally, I find inspiration in daily meditations like the The Language of Letting Go as well as frameworks that refer to natural cycles and stages like The Mandala Workbook and Dark Nights of the Soul. I’m currently reading Mindfulness-Based Ecotherapy, which is fueling inspiration for my next project: EcoArt for healers and helpers. I have so many great colleagues too that keep me fresh with ideas for warm-up activities and art journaling.
Q: How do you suggest readers cultivate their creativity?
A: Play. I’ve had clients completely convinced they “can’t draw a stick figure” and my response is “So don’t draw a stick figure. Let’s start where you are.” If you have a favorite color, grab it. You can just take your line for a walk on the paper or scribble with it. Then, compare that material with another one…example: If you started with marker, now try a watercolor pencil or chalk pastel. Set a timer and just play with these materials for 15-25 minutes. As you schedule your next creative play session, consider if you might like additional materials unavailable previously.
You may want to try closing your eyes to relinquish pressure and judgment. If you are drawing, take the drawing utensil for a jump, jog, or dance on the paper, when you open try to create an image or shapes out of this structure.
Regardless, of modality it’s less about perfection and all about exploration, expression, and play. Play means letting go of outcomes and enjoying the curious part of ourselves that is willing to just see where it goes. This is also called learning.
Q: What’s one thing you really wish people knew about creativity?
A: It’s universal and able to be cultivated. Like anything, it takes attention and exposure or repetition to the practice combining things in a new way or of letting go of existing or assumed constructs to see anew as with the attitude of “beginner’s mind” from mindfulness principles.
It’s also a portal to joy. To see ourselves mirrored in the world through a physical manifestation that couldn’t be produced by anyone else exactly the same way is powerful. To share that with the world is the pinnacle of self-actualization; to be who we truly are which is joyful in nature. One’s deepest desire, whether conscious or not, is to be integrated and whole. Creativity is part and parcel to this process.
Lanie Smith has worked with adults, adolescents, children, and families in a variety of clinical and community based settings over the past 8 years. Her work began with the National Institute of Health researching the efficacy of Art Therapy with trauma resulting in two scholarly publications to support her field.
Lanie has a true passion for combining art and nature which has allowed her to develop Environmental Art Therapy programming for sustainable practice at numerous inpatient, outpatient, residential, and community sites throughout the greater Phoenix area.
She currently specializes in supporting other helping professionals in both behavioral and allied health to cultivate creative and compassionate self-care to prevent burnout and recognize secondary trauma. Lanie provides individual and group Eco-Art Therapy as well as workshops, trainings, and supervision to support the ethical use of art in therapy as well as addressing unresolved personal traumas that prevent wholeness and healing within the practitioner.