Drawing the genie from the bottle

Van Gogh Painting Sunflowers, 1888, Paul Gauguin. If still life couldn’t express emotion, Van Gogh’s sunflowers wouldn’t move us.

I have a young Facebook friend on the other side of the country who likes to draw. I try to give him pointers long-distance, but that isn’t always easy. His problems are less technical than emotional. He was the victim of significant and deep abuse and is now separated from his family. He has a creative block—lots of ability, lots of feelings, but he’s been taught (or taught himself) to repress them so deeply that even expressing them through drawing is difficult. His default behavior is to anesthetize his feelings with drugs, not unpack them and look at them.
He often asks, “What should I draw?” This is not a question most teens ask; usually their ideas outrun their skill. It doesn’t mean his creativity is impaired; it means he has his thoughts and emotions bottled up. The genie-in-the-bottle is so big that it must be unpacked and examined piece by piece.
If he were here, I would have him draw and paint still lives. They have no meaning of their own. They are a means through which art students learn technical skills. However, powerful emotions have a way of leaking out around the edges no matter what the subject matter is.
Red Poppies and Daisies, 1890, Vincent van Gogh
Yesterday, I was coming back from New Jersey, and found this Facebook message from him: “How do I make drawings of how I feel? What do I draw? I want to draw it but I don’t know how.”
In recent weeks, my friend has made a good start by drawing the temple that symbolized his abuse. He has drawn it consumed by fire, wrapped in a snake, destroyed by a fire-eating dragon. It doesn’t take a psychologist to see this as a leap forward.
I often refer to Vincent van Gogh when discussion the importance of practice in drawing. This is Miners in the snow at dawn, drawn in 1880.
Earlier this year, I wrote about a test called the House-Tree-Person. As initially designed by John Buck in 1948, this test was meant to be purely subjective—the artist would draw a house, a tree, and a person. The psychologist would interpret them.
And this is Road with Pollard Willows and Man with Broom, from 1881. What a year with a sketchbook can do!
I suggested to my young friend that he start by drawing these three things. They are both universal and meaningful, because they represent home, life and growth. But I’m a painting teacher, not a therapist. Any of you with proper qualifications who want to chime in with suggestions, they would be very helpful.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!