Jacki Kellum

Juxtapositions: Read My Mind

Category: Depression

When What You See Is Not What You Get – Symbolism in Art and Writing

Symbolism is a peculiar game. You say or paint one thing, but you mean another, and the odd thing is that you really want people to figure what that other thing is all about and yet, you camouflage your meaning. It is rather like the silly game that is played by petty wives.  When their husbands hurt their feelings or if their husbands forget birthdays or anniversaries, the wives sulk.

The husband asks, “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.”

“But I know something is wrong.”

Even though the woman protests that something has upset her, she behaves as though something has, and she wants the husband to guess what that something is. It is as though the true test of love is clairvoyance. If another person can see deep into my soul, he wins.

When I was married, I wanted nothing more than for my husband to stop on his way home, even if it was on a deserted lot, and to pick me bunches of wildflowers or daisies or red clover or whatever else that he could find. But he never did. A smarter wife would have simply said, “I need flowers from you at least once per month.” But that would have ruined the whole thing for me. I needed for my ex-husband to intuitively know that I needed flowers–even free flowers–at least once per month. I seemed to believe that if another person could read my mind, and if he could decipher all of my wants and my needs, he would be my one, true love. No doubt, that is a reason that I am divorced.

But I play that same kind of game with my art. Allow me to illustrate my point:

thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Across the Lake – Watercolor by Jacki Kellum

A couple of years ago, I was home alone for Thanksgiving, and I was remembering Thanksgivings of my past–a time when family, hearth, and home seemed to glow a great deal more than they do for me now. I was a little bit depressed, and  I painted Thanksgiving Across the Lake.  I could write the long version of this post, explaining in detail that the painting and its meaning grew AS I painted it; but I’ll summarize by assuring you that I did not realize exactly what I was painting nor why until I completed the work.   By the end of the painting session [not before then], I knew how the final painting would look; I knew what the title would be; and I knew what the painting would mean.  Notice that the “evergreen” trees are hardly green at all. They are dark and bluish.  The Thanksgiving colors dance around my painting; but the most warmth–the greatest glow is not in the center of attention–not in the main grove of trees that are in the foreground. That was where I was standing in this piece, and that was a dark and foreboding place. The golden and glowing warmth of Thanksgiving was within sight but not where I was standing. It was across the lake, somewhere that I could not reach. In a symbolic way, my painting says that happiness and home were in a place that I could not trouch or access in any way.

Dec1cropped

December River – Watercolor Painted by Jacki Kellum

As I painted the creek or the river that is snaking its way across the snow in the above painting, I thought about Joni Mitchell’s song River.  I consider Joni Mitchell to be the greatest poet of my generation; and every time that I hear her sing River, tears well in my eyes.

Not wanting to try to ride on Joni’s coat tail, I initially decided to just name my painting December 1, but in writing this post, I decided to be totally honest.  My painting means more than December 1.  I am not Kandinsky, and my paintings are more than mere numbers.  My painting December River means that I, too, wish that I had a River I could skate away on……Thank you, Joni Mitchell.  No one has said it better than you.

I do not want to be the prophet of doom; but both of the paintings that I have shared today have been a reaction to the holidays and to my own feelings of aloneness during this time.  Yet, on a more positive level–on an art-as-therapy level–perhaps my art [both my visual art and my writing] are my River that I do skate away on. I do that through symbols.

I often write in symbols, too. At least 15 years ago, I wrote a group of short verses about flowers. My idea was to illustrate each flower and to publish the book of paintings and verses together, and I would call the volume Garden Songs. [Shhhh! I didn’t just tell you that. I still plan to do it. But like so many other things, I simply haven’t gotten it done yet].

Keep in mind that I want all of the poems to be very short so that they don’t detract from the paintings that will be the true focus of the page. Even though the verses are short, however, I want them to have greater meaning. I want the verses and the images to be symbols for greater truths. Here is the poem that I wrote about Snapdragons:

The Painted Parade
by Jacki Kellum

Watch the painted parade,
With bold and biting dragons,
Teasing all the toddlers—even me!

They’re really just pretending.
Everyday’s a New Year,
A fun and festive firework jamboree.

© Painted Parade Jacki Kellum October 19, 2015

My grandmother always had snapdragons in her garden, and I used to love to pinch the snapdragons and allow them to bite me or to at least close around the tip of my finger and nibble. When I heard the dragon part of the word “snapdragon,” I thought about the Dragon Dance in the Chinese New Year’s Parade, and that provided me a springboard into what would become part of my greater meaning.

Therefore, on one level, the poem is simply about a colorful bed of flowers that have the capacity to nibble at my fingertips–like a biting dragon. On another level, the parade is talking about the non-scary, scary dragon in a Chinese parade. But on the deepest level, my poem is about something entirely different.

When I said, “Watch the Painted Parade,” I was actually chastising all of the people around me that I thought were being pretentious, wearing masks, and playing games.

My simple, little ditty about Snapdragons was actually a symbol for the way that I felt deep within myself about people who are fake. I do this type of thing all of the time. In other words, what you think that you see in my art and in my writing, is not all that there actually is. My art and my writing are only the tips of an iceberg that lies deeply within me.

Now, here is the silly part: I actually want my viewer and my reader to know what I am thinking, but just like a silly wife, I want you to guess what that is. As I pointed out yesterday, in writing and painting in symbols and metaphors, I may be playing a bigger game than the people in the Painted Parade, but at least, I do dare to look inside myself.

Too many people are nothing more than the surfaces that they reflect to everyone around themselves. Although I am lacking in many ways, I know that I am much, much more than a shallow image, and my art and my writing are keys to some of the gems that I keep locked inside.

You use a glass mirror to see your face; you use works of art to see your soul. – George Bernard Shaw

©Jacki Kellum September 10, 2017

Peculiar

Opening Up by Writing It Down: How Expressive Writing Improves Health and Eases Emotional Pain – Including Sexual Abuse

After performing extensive tests, James W. Pennebaker, PhD, has written a series of books that examine the question of whether or not the practice of writing has the ability to heal emotional wounds. I do not intend to recite his laboratory findings, but I do believe that he says things in his books that most of us need to know:

“Major secrets can be stressful. Like other stressors, keeping secrets from those close to us can affect our health, including our immune function, the action of our heart and vascular systems, and even the biochemical workings of our brain and nervous systems. In short, keep back thoughts, feelings, and behaviors can place us at risk for both major and minor diseases.

“Whereas harboring secrets is potentially harmful, confronting our personal thoughts and feelings can have remarkable short- and long-term health benefits. Confession, whether by writing or talking…can neutralize many of the problems of secrets.” Pennebaker, James. Opening Up by Writing It Down, pgs. 1-2.

Denial

“Virtually all of us have actively avoided thinking about unpleasant experiences. Some have actively avoided thinking about unpleasant experiences. Some issues are so painful that we deceive ourselves into thinking that they don’t exist.” Pennebaker, James. Opening Up by Writing It Down, p. 7.

“Most striking, however, was that those who reported a sexual trauma evidenced more health problems than any other group we had ever seen.” Pennebaker, James. Opening Up by Writing It Down, p. 14.

Writing Is A Way to Organize

“We don’t need to talk to other to tell our untold stories. Whether we talk into an audio recorder, scribble on a magic pad, or type on our iPad, translating thoughts into language can be psychologically and physically beneficial. When people write about important events, they begin to organize and understand them. Writing about the thoughts and feelings connected with unexpected experiences forces us to bring together their many facets. Once we can distill complex experiences into more understandable packages, we can begin to move beyond them.

“Writing, then, organizes upheavals.” Pennebaker, James. Opening Up by Writing It Down, p. 65.

Writing Clears the Mind

“Before beginning a complex task, it can be beneficial to write out your thought and feelings. Indeed, many professional hypnotists often use this technique to accelerate the hypnotic procedure. Basically, they ask their clients to jot down their current thoughts and feelings. When their clients finish writing, the hypnotists tell them to tear up the paper and throw it away. This serves as a symbolic form of clearing the mind.” Pennebaker, James. Opening Up by Writing It Down, p. 72.

Benefits of Freewriting

“Freely writing your thoughts and feelings before beginning any formal writing can loosen your writing skills.” Pennebaker, James. Opening Up by Writing It Down, p. 73.

Is Writing on a Blog Helpful?

Yes. Pennebaker, James. Opeing Up by Writing It Down, p. 76.

Writing Needs to be Self-Reflective and Not Research

The author recalls that a scholarly person, who had been writing for a while came to his center and wanted to share his writing, which apparently had not helped him.

“He was a fluid writer with an impressive vocabulary and a keen eye for nuances in people’s behaviors. In his writing, he drew heavily from Jung, Spinoza, Aristotle, Lao0Tzu, and other intellectual luminaries. Despite his insight into other people’s behaviors and even his own mental processes, he never wrote about his own emotions or why he felt the way he did. He was so concerned with demonstrating his own brilliance that he forgot why he was writing in the first place.”

“…don’t expect intellectualization to improve your health.” Pennebaker, James. Opening Up by Writing It Down, pgs. 79-80.

Don’t Use Writing as A Forum for Uncensored Complaining

“Remember that a prime value of writing is that it forces us to ask how and why we feel the ways we do. Ideally, writing helps us organize, structure, order, and make meaning of these experiences. As a self-reflective exercise, it is beneficial to acknowledge our deepest emotions and thoughts….Merely complaining…will not be particularly healing. Indeed, it hay be harmful.

“Many studies have demonstrated that blindly venting anger often makes us feel angrier. Hitting a pillow, pretending it is someone we would like to slug, ususally increases our blood pressure….Talking or writing about the source of our problems without self-reflection, merely adds to our distress.” Pennebaker, James. Opening Up by Writing It Down, p. 78.

Don’t Recite Memorized Facts – Be Real

“Although these overdisclosers appear to be confiding their deepest thoughts and feelings, a closer analysis suggests that they are divulging traumatic events in a repetitive fashion without self reflecting. Again, they have rehearsed the events in their minds and in conversations thousands of times, but have not explored either their emotions or the meaning of the events to their lives.” Pennebaker, James. Opening Up by Writing It Down, pgs. 78-79.

“Whereas periodic self-reflection is healthy, it can be carried to an extreme. …

“If we live completely in this self-reflective state, we cannot be empathic….To the degree that writing helps us understand and even reorient our lives, it is beneficial. When we self-reflect to the point of self-absorption, it becomes maladaptive.” Pennebaker, JameOpeninging Up by Writing It Down, p. 79.

Writing Is Not A Substitute for Talking and Friends

“Other people’s views and opinions usually ground us in reality. Without consulting others, we can blow many of our thoughts and emotions far out of proportion–cans can help provide us a ‘reality check’ that we often need. …

“Friends…can offer emotional support, advice, and other forms of assistance in ways that writing just can’t do. Just because you may no be able to talk to some of your friends about a specific topic, remember that they are available for general advice and friendship. If friends are unavailable, psychotherapists and other people in the helping profession will listen to your problems and help keep your sense of reality intact.”  Pennebaker, JameOpeninging Up by Writing It Down, p. 80.

People Who Have Significant Emotional Problems or Who Are Seriously Ill Still Need Professional Help

“For people who are deeply distressed and who are unable to cope effectively, therapy is often the only realistic alternative….Similarly, when individual suffer from a significant health problem, writing (or therapy) may positively influence their bodies. In most cases, however, they will be much wiser to visit a physician first….

“Writing, then, should be viewed as preventive maintenance. The value of writing or talking about our thoughts and feelings lies in reducing the work of inhibition and in organizing our complicated and messy mental and emotional lives. Writing helps to keep our psychological compass oriented. Writing can be an inexpensive, simple, albeit sometimes painful way to help maintain our health.”  Pennebaker, JameOpeninging Up by Writing It Down, p. 80.

Pennebaker’s book confirms several ideas that I have had for quite some time. If you need a more detailed analysis of his test results, find a copy of this book.

©Jacki Kellum September 11, 2016

© 2017 Jacki Kellum

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