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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Heart of Art: Deanna Shapiro's creative voice was there all along, waiting to be discovered

An artist writes about her long, winding path to finding and listening to her own creative voice.

Artist and author Deanna Shapiro plays the ukelele at the Ferrisburgh 250th Anniversary celebration in June, where the Vermont Ukulele Society was one of the featured entertainers. Shapiro says it took her until mid-life to start listening to her creative voice and following its lead. / Charles Shapiro

I have come to believe that we are always taken care of whether we know it or not. Take my creative voice, for instance. It was there in my childhood even though I didn’t know it. No one had introduced us. I wasn’t used to listening for it. But, well, things swelled up inside of me, and even though I wasn’t conscious of them, I followed those urges.

Why else would I have spent my allowance on pads and charcoal at the local art supply store, and my penny collection for a set of oils at Macy’s that had beckoned to me from inside their glass display case for so long? I bought a 5 x 7 flat canvas board and a brush and painted a bird.

Why else would I have followed Jon Gnagy art lessons on TV with my Jon Gnagy kit? I copied his covered bridge and the shadow it made. I was adept at copying. I worked from prepared craft kits, did pre-stamped stitchery and needlepoint. I had little opportunity to develop my imagination or technical skills. My family was first generation American, proud of making their way in this new land. They knew nothing about art. And what did I know about oil painting? Nothing. I wasn’t pleased with the results. The oil tubes languished.

And I didn’t yet have the drive or understanding to find what I wanted. I was quiet and unassuming like my mother. With the exception of a few additional forays into art and writing, it took me until midlife to begin to listen in earnest to that creative voice that was percolating, but neglected.

By then that voice was clamoring to express itself. It wanted art lessons. I was fortunate to have the time and resources to answer that ardent plea. I attended hand-picked art classes at several colleges in the area. I painted in local studios, workshops, and at home. At the same time I started journaling. I must have filled twenty notebooks over several years and then threw them all out. Nothing was worthy of sharing. I was just letting go of unnecessary burdens.

At first I painted in the style of Matisse and Avery, my favorite artists. But then I felt called to take photos of cows when we were on vacation, and I soon found myself painting cows. I photographed bare tree trunks and began painting them. After awhile a bright moon appeared. I added the figure of a little girl praying, birds, butterflies, and dragonflies. Why? I had filled many large plastic containers with collage materials by that time. Wasn’t that a signal I wanted to do collage? My paintings became mixed media—acrylics with collage and stitchery.

I had become conscious of my creative voice and used to honoring it. My journaling became essay writing and that became poetry. What a surprise. Staying open to the possibilities was endlessly pleasing. I had joined a poetry workshop in Middlebury and found I liked the economy of words and expression of feeling that writing poetry offered. It’s been 15 years that I’ve been in the workshop.

Poetry titles or phrases continually pop up in my head. One day, driving to Middlebury, I glanced down at my hands on the wheel. They reminded me of Grandpa’s hands. That led to a poem called “Steadfast Hands.”

My mother entered Helen Porter Rehab in Middlebury suffering from dementia. I started writing down the conversations we had. For years I had difficulties in my relationship with my mother. Now I was enjoying her, and found her observations engaging. A voice said, write them down. I wrote 70 in all. A few months later another prompt suggested I add some of the poems I had written about my mother to those conversations, and it became a book.

Why did I start interviewing family members about family stories more than 25 years ago and then get interested in genealogy? It led to writing family poems and then writing prose narratives to introduce each poem, thereby filling in more of the family story. Those steps became a book.

But, what, exactly, is this creative voice that is so ineffable, you might ask. Is it an inner intelligence, an area of the brain that becomes developed through use, like a muscle? And from what place does it come? Is it a spiritual place? Does it just well up inside until it breaks the sound barrier and can be heard or felt?

In any case, we don’t have to worry. The creative voice is clear about what it wants. It appears to me as a felt need or a voice, leading me from one step to the next in an unfolding process.

I can only say how happy I feel when I walk into my art studio, and how exhilarated and absorbed I feel when painting or writing a poem.

And if we hone our skills, listen deeply, and follow our creative desires, others may be enriched as well. So I know why I take action when my creative voice signals an interest. She is my best friend.

Deanna Shapiro is an artist and published poet, nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She has published two books and can be reached at

The original article can be found online here at The Burlington Free Press.

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