When I walk into the printmaking studio, the creaky wood-paneled floors give away my entrance. The studio appears dilapidated, with pipes exposed from an open ceiling, and I hear every other person’s footsteps and children screaming in the distance, but at this point it’s like a second home to me.
Smelling the strong scent of acrylic paint, I walk past the main table splayed with the usual refreshments: sodas, chips, and pizza. I am greeted by the familiar faces of my fellow artists, all lost within their own worlds but still kind enough to grant me a smile, and my teacher, who always seems happy to see me, and never fails to ask me how I am doing.
Then I arrive at my unassigned, assigned seat. It’s at the end of a long table hidden by a pole, which secludes me from the world and gives me the space to focus on my work without feeling self-conscious. I slowly begin to disconnect from reality, and transport myself into my own world, where creating art is not about perfection, but about enjoying the experience.
I feel like a kid again as my teacher plays hip-hop instrumentals by Nujabes and J Dilla, which evoke memories of me coloring outside the lines as my father blasted similar CDs.
“Look everybody! My daughter’s got talent!”
Although he is a man of many faults, my father was the first person to expose me to creative expression. The first thing I ever admired about him was his artistry, which I feel I inherited. As a kid, I would sit on the living room floor as he’d play music that he was working on, and he’d compliment my drawings while I’d compliment his songs. Other times, he’d sit me on his lap during sessions and would have me write song lyrics with him and his friends.
Once, I scribbled nonsense onto a piece of paper and handed the notepad back to him, just to see him announce with a smile, “Look everybody! My daughter’s got talent! Watch out!” It was the first time I remember feeling someone be proud of me. These moments of bonding with him made me feel as though there were no limitations to what I could achieve with my creative abilities and fueled my passion for art.
As I got older I started to lose that passion. My father and I drifted apart, and the support I had from him was replaced with criticism from other family members. By the time I was a teenager, I was made to feel that I had to treat art as a serious career, or else I was wasting my time. This ideology not only changed me as a person, but how I approached art-making as a whole.
Losing My Creative Joy
I took on my adult family members’ expectations and began to put immense pressure on myself, forcing myself to adopt a rigid mindset that emphasized perfectionism over enjoyment.
I hid the joy that making art brought me and focused on pleasing others so much that I became afraid of making art altogether, for fear of being told that it wasn’t good enough. Eventually that fear became a self-imposed barrier, and I downplayed my desire to make something out of myself by doing what I loved.
In pursuit of external validation, I lost part of my identity and the safe space that creative expression had provided. I also became overwhelmed with anger and resentment that I was prioritizing my family’s opinions over my own fulfillment, and I began to experience depression and anxiety.
Without the outlet of art, I turned to self-harm to release my pent-up emotions. Instead of splattering paint onto a canvas or scribbling words onto paper, causing harm to my body provided me a momentary sense of relief. It became my new means of self-expression, and I found solace in the feeling of control it gave me. But the scars it left behind reminded me of how inadequate I felt.
I was lost, feeling as though I no longer had purpose.
Art and Therapy
I eventually realized that I needed to seek help and started attending therapy. I was introduced to the world of printmaking around the same time when I received a random email from the studio inviting me to attend their free class. As an art-making practice that I had never tried before, I thought printmaking could relieve the pressure I felt to be perfect.
When I first started, I thought that the final product was the most important part of creating art, but I learned to find joy in the process of printmaking itself.
There is a sort of physicality involved with printmaking that gives me the same boost of energy one might get when working out or blowing off steam. When I’m at the art studio, have my headphones in, and am faced with the challenge of carving into golden-cut linoleum to craft my piece, I zone out from the real world, and it feels as if all my problems melt away. My mind often drifts back to making art with my dad, and I feel the same way I did when I’d color in our living room or sit on his lap and watch him make music.
At my unassigned, assigned seat, I begin by etching and carving my way into the linoleum’s thickened skin, taking caution to avoid hitting my own. The once-foreign tools in my hand now feel like weapons that I use to shred out the canvas, like I’m ready to fend off whatever gets in my way. They are sharp but lightweight, small but tough enough to get me through the moment.
My dominant left hand begins to burn and ache, but I can’t stop; I have entered a flow state where nothing can break my concentration. Before I know it, my etching, cutting, and needle tools have reached the bottom of the block, and I can no longer dig. I look up and come out of my haze, huffing and puffing as if the whole time I was holding my breath, and now I’ve never felt better; I can finally breathe.
The piece at hand is a butterfly made of barbed wire. At first I was inspired by the idea of metamorphosis, of being locked in a cocoon and eventually evolving and spreading one’s wings, as that’s how I see myself in relation to the things I’ve gone through. While researching, I stumbled on images of a barbed wire butterfly and what it symbolizes: “how strong and resilient you can remain when faced with problems or challenges in your life.”
Like the barbed wire butterfly, the process of printmaking can be a metaphor for my life, how I have to persevere and believe in myself and my ability to overcome adversity, even when it feels like progress is slow or non-existent.
Printmaking is also a healthy substitute for self-harming. It allows me to acknowledge my repressed stress and anger, and to release them in a more healthy and productive way. Even on my saddest and maddest days, when I enter the studio I have developed the habit of finding resilience in that moment, and pouring whatever I’m feeling into my work. At the start of a session, the thick piece of golden-cut linoleum seems like an unbreakable barrier, but by the end it is shredded with tiny creations made by my hands.
In printmaking, for the first time since I was a little kid, I’ve felt happy with the work that I’m making, and don’t feel pressured to create solely for the final product. When I shared this growing joy with my therapist, she helped me recognize why this space meant so much to me and that the process of printmaking combined with me being in a space where I’ve felt comfortable being myself is also therapeutic for me.
Also, being in a new environment with people who didn’t know me, and didn’t have built up expectations of me, I’ve been able to reclaim part of myself that I thought I had lost. I’ve been encouraged by a teacher who is patient with me and respects my work. I’ve felt genuinely happy to be in such a comforting space that allows me to be my authentic self and to take creative liberties.
At the same time, nobody has to see my work but me, and I’m the only person who has to be happy with it.
I felt as If I had been transported into a different world where people could see the real me, and whether they truly liked me for who I was or not, it didn’t matter, as I was no longer putting up a front to make others happy, as therapy had helped me realize that I wasn’t responsible for other people’s happiness.
As another form of therapy, printmaking allows me to connect with my inner self and externalize my thoughts and feelings in a tangible, physical way. My art is a means of self-discovery, healing, and growth, as well as an expressive outlet.
The free spirit of the printmaking studio has rejuvenated my creative joy and reconnected me to the child who loved making art.
Big Little Dani
Just as I am realizing that art is not about having final products that are only appealing to the eyes of others, but more so about enjoying and finding meaning in the process itself, I am reclaiming my ability to choose and to create a life for myself in ways that don’t conform to the pressures or expectations of others. I’m learning to enjoy being in the process of being and becoming myself.
I feel like a big kid who wants to make things even if I am not good at it because creating truly brings me joy. I am also relishing this reconnection with Little Dani while I am entering adulthood, because I don’t want to lose that part of myself just like I lost my love for art.
I often think back to my barbed wire butterfly print. It inspires and motivates me to keep moving forward. It makes me feel that I can keep breaking free from the old patterns and beliefs that have held me back.
My prints remind me how strong, resilient, and capable I am, and that I can transform my life into something beautiful and my own.