Losing Control with Creative Play

This weekend I spent time tempting people into creative play at the Women’s Expo in Phoenix, doing make-and-takes for Arizona Art Supply. The (clever) theme at the booth was using art supplies in unexpected ways, and attracted a lot of curious would-be artists, DIY, and yes, people who got their hair chalked with pan pastels.

I love watching people approach creative play–some people jump right in, some people want detailed instructions. In each case, I explained that the techniques (and resulting postcards) would require giving up control.

Several people left. “If I give up control, who knows what will happen,” one said, walking quickly away. Aren’t you interesting in knowing? Something scary? Embarrassing? Shedding clothes and skipping down the expo? Because nothing like that happened to the people who stayed.

I had two favorite moments: One mother brought her son, and explained he has autism. I felt great empathy for the child, who was about eight, because the exhibition hall was a cacophony of sound, lights, movement, and I hoped he was not overwhelmed. After he chose his colors, I asked him if he would like to spray the water, or if he would like me to do it. He took the bottle, pointed it and sprayed me in the face. It was completely accidental, I’ve done this myself, not locating the nozzle direction. He looked curious, and then at his mother, who looked horrified. He then became agitated and I assured him it was fine with me. I then squirted myself and said, “This cools me off.” He looked dubious.

He applied the paint with great precision, made the paper sandwich, but stalled at the step where he rubbed the paper. Thinking the texture of the paper might be unpleasant, I handed him a paint bottle to use as a brayer. He loved this, meticulously rubbing the paper.

Then came the big reveal–peeling the two pieces of paper apart. His face was surprised, and a tiny smile crept across his face. I told him he could take them home and he checked with his mom. Once they were dry he picked up one in each hand. Later, as I crossed the hall, I saw him again, walking with his head down and his art clutched to his chest. It made my day. Art heals. Or at least, makes you happy.

The second happy-maker was a beautiful woman who sat down and asked where the brushes were. “There aren’t any,” I explained, “This is done with ink and water and a voluntary surrender of control.” Seriously, she nodded followed the few directions, and created the most controlled uncontrolled piece I’d seen. Turquoise and black ink in wonderful proportions, delicate and powerful. Before I could ask to photograph it, she said, softly, “Is this art?” I answered, “Only you can decide, but it looks like it to me.” She smiled, took the card and vanished into the crowd.

There were some rocky moments, I didn’t please everyone, but these two people, who let art into their lives and were delighted, made my day.

—Quinn McDonald is a certified creativity coach who teaches what she knows.