For our monthly series, “How I Create,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Joan Stanford, MA, ATR-BC, an art therapist and author of The Art of Play: Ignite Your Imagination to Unlock Insight, Healing and JoyThis beautiful book is filled with poetry, prompts and images to help us honor and reclaim our innate creativity.

Below, Joan shares what her creative process looks like; what inspires her; her go-to resources; how she overcomes her fears about creating; and so much more. One of my favorite parts of the interview is this important reminder: “When someone tells me they don’t have a creative bone in their body, I point out that they are being creative when they get dressed, when they choose what to wear, what colors, what jewelry; when they buy cards or gifts; when they cook and plate a meal; when they garden or arrange flowers and when they decorate their homes.”

Remember that your creativity is rich and vast, whether you call yourself creative or not. I hope you enjoy Joan’s interview. It’s filled with wisdom!

Q: How do you define creativity? What does creativity mean to you?

A: I love this passage from Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes:

“The creative force flows over the terrain of our psyches looking for the natural hollows, the arroyos, the channels that exist in us. We become its tributaries, its basins; we are its pools, ponds, streams and sanctuaries. The wild creative force flows into whatever beds we have, those we are born with as well as those we dig with our own hands. We don’t have to fill them, we only have to build them.”

I believe creativity is the life force moving in all of us and each of us has the ability to tap into that and express it uniquely. To create is to originate, to bring into form and this requires exploration, experimentation, play. All great inventions begin with a question, “What if…?” as the inventor seeks to solve a problem or improve a method.

As an expressive art therapist, I offer this question often, to move people outside the box formed by conventional thinking. What appears on the page is surprising. Creativity is about shifting perspectives, seeing afresh, accessing inner wisdom and our inner child/healer.

Q: Why is creating important to you?

A: Creating is important to me because it allows these connections. When I tune in to “that still voice within” as Jung said, I receive information not otherwise available. I call these insights “soul whispers” as I feel my psyche is speaking so softly that I need to silence the static of my busy life/mind to hear the messages.

Sitting quietly, writing or art-making opens the channel. It is my meditation, a realignment of body/mind/spirit/soul. When I am too busy, or even say I am too busy to spend this reflective, creative time, my life gets out of whack. I become irritable. I need the rebalancing that creativity affords me. 

Q: What are your favorite ways to create?

A: I like to collage and write. I often combine the two using phrases/quotes to stimulate imagery. Sometimes the images suggest a poem. I do journaling. I also create Soul Collage cards.

Q: What inspires your work?

A: Everything inspires my work…or as I prefer my play! I want to connect more consciously to my daily life so anything that catches my attention is a starting point. I mention in my book, a fridge magnet I saw that is great for framing ideas: What inspired me today? What surprised me today? What moved me today?

Exploring these questions deepens my experience. Conversations or interactions with others, news stories, something I read, poetry, something in nature—anything can inspire me. Other expressive artists also inspire me, so visiting galleries, taking classes or making art with a group is a great way to get my juices flowing.

Q: What does your creative process look like?

A: My life is not routine so I find it difficult to set a specific time to create but ideally first thing in the morning. Whether writing or collaging, I seem most open and productive at the start of the day. But, and this is a big but for me, I avoid the trap of feeling I missed my window and therefore, no creating today.

I have learned to make time. Too many of us push our personal time to the back burner. Especially women feel guilty taking time for themselves when the laundry needs to be done.

I encourage everyone to prioritize “me-time,” just as an experiment—maybe for one week—to see how that enhances all other areas of their lives. I know I am more productive [and] a better problem solver, partner and communicator when I do this.

Q: There are many culprits that can crush creativity, such as self-doubt and distractions. What tends to stand in the way of your creativity?

A: While there are many outside distractions—work, family, friends, social media, television—the main culprit that crushes my creativity is my own fear. This can be disguised as: why write, who needs to hear this; do something useful; what are you going to do with all these collages; you need to clean house, do email, etc.; others are so much wiser/better, etc. This is about doubting the validity of the creative process, doubting my own ability or the fear of discovering something I would rather avoid.

Q: How do you navigate these obstacles?

A: When these critical voices become a chorus, I always go back to “just play.” Asking clients to make art is intimidating while inviting them to play with art materials sounds like fun. And it is fun.

When I let go of caring about the product and just enjoy the process I am reclaiming that playful child spirit so essential for creativity. I may do a scribble or start tearing images out of a magazine, or sketch an ink and watercolor image just to do something. I also bargain with myself re: time, promising to spend a half hour cleaning after I play, for example.

Q: What are your go-to resources on creativity (e.g., books, websites, social media)?

A: My go-to resources: Art is a Way of Knowing and Art is a Spiritual Path by Pat Allen; anything by Mark Nepo, Mary Oliver, Billy Collins, David Whyte; Free Play by Stephen Nachmanovitch; anything by Lucia Capacchione but  specifically, The Creative Journal: The Art of Finding Yourself; Learning By Heart by Corita Kent and Jan Steward; Marry Your Muse by Jan Phillips; Soulcollage by Seena  Frost; Taking Flight by Kelly Rae Roberts and her website as well. I also use themed decks and there are many of these.

Q: How do you suggest readers cultivate their creativity?

A: The best way to cultivate creativity is to trust that you have it and just begin. I start people with collage. This can be used to create a vision board, to explore any question or respond to any quote. Collage allows non-artists the freedom to select images already there. This means they will continue, whereas drawing may frustrate them and cause a throwing up of hands. Journaling is also a good way to begin. I suggest supplementing writing with images. And I always encourage reflective writing for any art-making.

Q: What’s one thing you really wish people knew about creativity? 

A: When someone tells me they don’t have a creative bone in their body, I point out that they are being creative when they get dressed, when they choose what to wear, what colors, what jewelry; when they buy cards or gifts; when they cook and plate a meal; when they garden or arrange flowers and when they decorate their homes. Playing with colors and shapes on a page is just an extension of that process of choosing and experimenting.

I want everyone to know creativity is our birthright, that we all have the ability and I would add, responsibility, to express our individuality creatively. Everyone has a unique perspective formed by his or her unique life experience. Our communal lives, as well as our individual lives, are enhanced when each voice is heard.

Creative process allows us to discover and express those voices, to share these gifts to enrich not just our experience of life, but others as well. The healing and joy, by-products of this work/play, are for all!

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Joan Stanford, MA, ATR-BC, an art therapist and full-time inn keeper, has been facilitating creativity groups for over 20 years, encouraging people of all ages, especially non-artists, to expand their awareness through playing with art materials. While working as a school counselor, she co-created and taught a curriculum called “Alternative Mirrors,” using the creative process to address body image and self-esteem issues.

She has a private practice and offers workshops and retreats, most recently on Creative Aging. Currently, she offers imagination playshops at the Mendocino Center for Living Well, at the Stanford Inn, which she has owned and operated with her husband since 1980.

Her book, The Art of Play: Ignite Your Imagination to Unlock Insight, Healing and Joy was published in June 2016. Her book Dining At The Ravens, written with her husband, Jeff was published in February 2016. You can learn more about Joan at her website http://joanstanford.com/.

All images courtesy of Joan Stanford.