Hello Friends from around the world! The workshop was over and half the women had left the table. We had a lovely time, and my apologies for not getting a better photo for you. It was a dream come true to have six remarkable women come along to my pop-up exhibition and workshop, where we used the ambience of the art as a setting to create our ‘Morning Sanctuary’. Just a little bit mad to pull this off in December, and I’m really grateful to those who came – Jan, Lisa, Melissa, Jen, Donna and Clara. Their listening and being simply trusting, open and willing to try this thing out, we’ll have a video documentary for you next February.

Thank you to my students, mentees and all of you for being part of my life this last year. Our connections increased along with my travels and meeting amazing people in the US and the UK. I love that we are an international group. There are a couple of gifts in this email. The first, within the text, is notes from the workshop on why and how you might set up a space to think with art, and the second is an easy contemplative art project to do yourself or share with a child and the link to download directly is at the end of this news. I circled back to my email around this time last year to find, reassuringly, the foundations of my work are the same. If I could sum up the underpinning truth, it would be – the processes and products of our creativity enrich our lives and culture like nothing else.

All my skills, as artist, a life coach, and a teacher, came together in presenting the intensive little session about why you would create a sanctuary wtih art, and how, using my readymade little ‘Peace Room’ boxes of paintings and ceramics. I’ve learned much since I began to dedicate myself seriously to painting with my private teacher almost 30 years ago. I know how counter-cultural it is to sustain an art practice, and it’s deeply meaningful for me to support my students in finding their authentic way. By that I mean, they let go of what’s not serving them and become more true to who they are, with less effort, more listening, responding, allowing creativity through their innate sensibilities and expression – and as they build more skills, something turns up – their painting! Fabulous to witness, it’s the process that’s transformational, and the outcome? Well, to make a painting you love is a beautiful thing, and what all my students set out to do. And there’s the change to you, and that is so much more than you can know at the outset of such an adventure!

Like many other women, conditioned by a culture that has mixed and confusing views on the making of art, I neglected the call to honour my own soul. I paid a high price, and the way back to health has been both arduous and galvanising. Are you doing what you love? Why not?! Thinking along those lines, I asked that dreamy question – what would I love? – many times over. As I contemplated a pilgrimage to Iona and visiting Charleston in Sussex, the former home of Vanessa Bell, my mind opened to fresh possibilities and remarkably, my health improved to be the me of the dream. I returned running up the stairs rather than limping!

Now, most people can’t help but wonder ‘what about the money?’ I’ve found this metaphor about investing in your Self to be helpful: If you want fire (to realise your desire), you must put wood on first; actions must be taken and resources used and trust placed in the wisdom that got you to that point of knowing – the thing with burn, so you plan it, do what needs to be done and enjoy the heat! For me, that fire took me to a new level of Life, gentle, welcoming and inspiring, and you can’t buy that. ‘Morning Sanctuary’ happened two weeks ago.

A pop-up exhibition composed of installations of my paintings and ceramics and a 2-hour workshop on how to create spaces with art to ‘hear yourself think’ each participant had a box with a wrapped painting, ceramics – a little vase, dishes, stones, beads – and linen to play with. This all happened in the light-filled side room of my favourite café – Simply Wholesome. About the value and hands-on experience of creating an artful space to stop, settle and contemplate, you might find the process useful. Just a guide, here’s the main points and a few extras that I’ve thought of since.

In his little book ‘Making Space’ Thich Nhat Hanh writes ‘We may have a room for everything else – a bathroom, a bedroom, a living room – but most of us don’t have a room for our own breathing and peace of mind.’ He advises us to – ‘Think about thesetup of this room or corner carefully. How much we enjoy being in a certain place very much depends on the energy that is generated within it.’ That is exactly what my workshop focused on. Particular kinds of art are more conducive to setting the ambience. That’s why I loved the Boston MFA’s ‘Seeking Stillness’ (2017) exhibition so much – it was full of powerful works full of light and the silence of timeless time: Ch’an scrolls, Agnes Martin’s and Rothko’s paintings, a stunning Joan Mitchell painting and the meditative process art of Dansaekhwa painters, among others.

When there are lots of depicted ‘things’ in paintings, the everyday thinking mind immediately assigns names and moves quickly onto the next thing. Repetitive chatter, critical and time-pressured, it triggers release of stress hormones and has us rushing about, the ‘monkey on your back,’ creating more of the same. However, simply seeing colours can interrupt this old pattern. Within seconds, half the brain lights up, says John Medina in ‘Brain Rules.’ Captivated, worrying can stop altogether, and Cortisol, the stress hormone, ebbs away. Isn’t that amazing?! Add any colour-related expression, the creative use of one’s hands, and gratitude, and feel-good hormones Dopamine and Serotonin flood into the blood stream, positively changing brainwaves and biochemistry. Fresh ideas can ‘pop in’ much more readily.

Setting up a space with different coloured and shaped objects can signal the nervous system to change gears and settle into a state conducive to calm and the better quality thinking that can naturally follow. We know from where we feel most at home, a space that feels nurturing is more than the sum of parts. The people and each object are important. Each object brings its’ energy to your composition. And the combination of each of your choices is unique, and brings an alchemy that is yours alone. The kind of attention needed to set up a special space, has much in common with the Zen tradition Chado – Tea. ‘The objects’ wrote Soetsu Yanagi in The Beauty of Everyday Things, ‘acted as intermediaries – the teahouse, the garden path, the utensils … allowed the tea masters to plumb the depths of beauty.’ He calls it – ‘the beauty of everyday life.’ And so, we gather objects and place them with mindfulness; with harmony, respect, purity of intent and tranquility.

For every wisdom tradition, there are prescribed ways of setting up ritual spaces; spaces for worship, prayer, contemplation and/or meditation. While this practice has guideposts, it’s more about aligning with your own sensibilities and intuitive prompts. Remembering how amazed I was at my first contemplative composition, I found the affirming writing of Christopher Alexander (Vol 4, The Nature of Order). He writes of people feeling great for days after making something – ‘It is as if they have taken food, but food for a kind of joy.’ That’s what kept bringing me back to this practice! For a long time, I thought I was ‘just arranging a few things.’ It can be that, and much more. Experiment for yourself and see!

My 2-hour workshop took participants through six steps to setting up and effectively using a contemplative space with art. People who subscribe to my news received the full instructions. If you’d like to receive such gold nuggets, please subscribe on the home page.

Art and craft objects can provide a visual reminder to stop, with colour to intrigue and settle the brain, simple, rustic things to notice and be at peace with and the slowing down to think more expansively, and brilliantly, without effort. When one person becomes peaceful, many people are affected. We know, with great sadness, a small fraction of the horrors unfolding for many families at this time. How many people are yearning for a gentle space to be right now? … Just one peaceful person can make a difference in their own way with a ripple effect we’ll never know. Wishing you a luminous Christmas season of peace and joy, with love & gratitude, Suzanne