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Out of the Shadow: Artist and Writer

The artwork above was included in Radical Revolution, an art show hosted by Siren Nation PDX in downtown Portland, Oregon in 2019. It was inspired by the song “Tangled Up in Blue” by Bob Dylan. Artwork sold and in a private collection.

For a long time, I was a shadow artist. I spent years supporting other people’s stories and creative callings—as a journalist, a content creator, an editor, an art camp instructor, a workshop host, a pottery store manager, an art school admissions employee. I did everything I could to springboard people into following their passions, telling the world their stories. It was, in many ways, wonderful.

Until it wasn’t enough.

Shortly after my children were born, I developed eczema. For nearly a decade, I watched my skin turn red and scaly, beginning with my calves, working up to behind the knees, around to my thighs, and finally the inside of my elbows. Although I lived in Southern California, I didn’t feel comfortable in shorts, and eventually began to give up even my tank tops and short sleeves, in order to hide my skin. 

The eczema felt like a painful crawl from the inside, as though there were knives scratching out to the surface from deep in the center of my body.  

I imagined it must have something to do with hormones shifting in motherhood, some physical change brought on from carrying twins, like the new urge to pee mid-jump, or the complete lack of balance on roller coasters I’d once loved.

Or perhaps it was offshoot of a couple bouts of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis from when I was younger, an overactive immune system attacking my own body’s cells.

I wanted to fix it. I tried allergy shots, creams, pills, multiple dermatologists. Nothing worked.

And then, finally, I found the right healer. I began acupuncture as a last hope, terrified of needles, but desperate for a bit of magic. And it took time, but it healed me. Perhaps it was the needles. Perhaps it was the herbs. Perhaps it was the tweaks to my diet that identified and eliminated my trigger foods like tomatoes and honey. Surely all of that contributed. But most of all, I have to believe that it was the healer.

For it was through acupuncture that I realized that all of my shadow artist tendencies, my supporting others on their journey while suppressing my own personal, intimate creative impulses, was literally making my skin crawl. 

My acupuncturist was the first to recognize that I was carrying everyone else’s stories, everyone else’s dreams, in my body. He noticed I was tired when no one else did. He noticed where my energy was pooling rather than flowing. He noticed that while in many ways I loved what I did, connecting with people over their deepest stories, it was not serving me at all. In fact, it was harming me. 

He noticed these things. Not in so many words, but in gentle questions and an abundance of patience. 

After a year in his care, I was about 75% better. That was great relief, but we both wanted me to be fully healed. I remember a conversation we had in which he told me that he had been praying, because there were some things he recognized he was incapable of, and he thought he could use some help.

It was a turning point. I considered the changes I’d made to that point… driving an hour each way, once a week, for acupuncture; eating differently; better managing my sleep. And all of a sudden, I knew what else needed to happen. I needed to listen to what else my body had to say. And it was telling me that it was time to walk away journalism. It wasn’t only the intense anxiety around constant deadlines; it was the act of telling other people’s stories that I needed to leave. I needed to walk into my own.

For a while, that didn’t feel possible. I’d so associated writing with unraveling the deepest story in another’s experience that I didn’t know what to say. 

I picked up a paintbrush instead, and I began to explore and learn my visual language. 

I set writing aside, all the rules of story running around in my head, with beginning, middle, and end, a fully fleshed out character, a sizzling plot. None of it felt right. Telling other people’s stories was wrong for me, but so was telling my own stories in other people’s methods.

Painting allowed me to share what words would not. I was able to enter into that beginner mindset of exploration and experimentation. I found myself especially drawn to watercolor, as there was a push and pull between what I could control, and what the water and pigment wished to become.

And as I made a point to paint and sketch and learn who I was visually, what I had to say in that way, the words began creeping back. 

This time without a specific story or form. They came back in single sentences, in drops of poetry. I explored and shared freewriting in safe spaces, and then essay. And I eventually came to understand that they way I story, the way I share, only works when I honor it through me.

Once I walked away from the shadow artist, and into my own, the final bit of eczema disappeared. 

And I learned that it was not hormones or the birthing of humans that had changed me, that had brought it my way for nearly a decade. It was the fact that I was failing to birth my own artist; I was holding it back, afraid of success, afraid of failure, afraid of not knowing what to say, afraid of the cost of knowing what to say, afraid of being vulnerable.

Devoting myself to my creative practice has healed me in so many ways. It has healed my skin, yes. But it has also worked to heal the people pleaser in me. It has made me embrace more risks, set boundaries, listen to my body, speak my truth, and stretch the ways I work with discomfort or not knowing in my life.

It has changed me. And in changing me, it has changed those around me as well.

I am honored when a patron welcomes my art or my words into their home or public space, as I know that the love, joy, and struggle that went into each piece will continue to speak in conversations I have only begun to imagine. And I am honored when a person comes to me and says that watching me do what I do has awakened a well-suppressed or long-forgotten desire to create, when they trust me with their innermost dreams, and begin to witness the shifts that happen just by speaking them aloud.

That is why I now devote my life to making and sharing my art, and why I invite you along for the journey.

Copyright © 2021 Alana Garrigues. All Rights Reserved. | SimClick by Catch Themes
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