Permission To Color Outside the Lines

Updated: Feb 28

As a child, and now as an adult, I have always loved to color. I enjoy the way Crayola crayons smell and the way the paper feels between my fingers. I new box of Crayolas lights me up! I am a real brand snob about my crayons. Crayola or bust. I love coloring books. I've been buying children's coloring books my whole life and I'm so thrilled there are all these mandala and coloring books for adults now. I like to color while I watch tv or while riding in the car on a road trip. Selecting new colors to color on a blank coloring sheet is exciting. I launch into a new coloring page and wonder "Hmm, what will this look like when I'm finished?"


When I was in elementary school, at good old Salemburg Elementary in southeastern North Carolina, my teacher would often give us coloring pages to complement our lesson plan. Yay! More crayons and less math! Bring it on, Mrs. Henry! Sometimes our coloring sheets were (gasp!) graded on how well we colored. I was then and have alway been prone to perfectionism. After much therapy I realized that has a great deal to do with my continued state of trauma brain / survival brain. I also have a hefty Virgo South Node that dials up my compulsion for order and correctness; but I digress.


At any rate, what the heck were these teachers thinking to grade our coloring sheets? Talk about squashing a young one's creativity! "Heather, you colored too hard here and too soft there. Why did you color that broccoli purple?" I often heard other kids being critiqued for coloring outside the lines. Not me! Not this little rule follower!


Fast forward to college and my decision to be an art major. Try as I might, I could not get into the flow of fine arts like the other students. My creative style was tight and controlled and excruciatingly balanced. My oil painting class required that we refine our painting styles by replicating the works of master painters like Van Gogh, Monet, Manet, and Seurat. This really stressed me out! These artists had such flowing styles. A dab of paint here. A swosh there. This didn't jive with my perfectionist qualities. My painting style was way more "Tableau I" by Mondrian!


My instructor, Dr. Green - what a cool name for an art professor, right? - would stand back from my easel and say "Heather, dear Heather, you need to loosen up. The paint brush is an extension of you and of your soul's expression. Painting is a dance. Loosen up!" Well, if painting is a dance then I am doing the robot, Dr. Green. My other fine arts classes followed suit. In Ceramics, Fibers, Life Drawing, and Basic Color Theory I struggled to flow and flex in creative spontaneity. I made decent grades, but it was clear to me that I was not going to be living in a cool boho apartment in New York City in the Village showcasing my artwork at funky galleries and making a living as an artist.


In 1988, midway through my sophomore year, Dr. Green and I had a pow wow. He suggested "Heather, I see your eye for attention to detail and thoroughness in your work. Have you considered shifting to graphic design instead of fine art?" What? What is graphic design? Dr. Green helped me register for Graphic Arts 101 for the next semester and that, as they say, is all she wrote. I had found my palette. My technical, creative, precise, colorful, impactful niche in the art world.


The design and print world was on the cusp of shifting from hand drawn comps, paste/ups, and rubylith overlays to the fast paced new frontier of desktop design a la MacIntosh, now known as the tech giant Apple. I excelled at graphic design. I got it! For me it was the perfect blend of my right brain (creativity) and left brain (technical) gifts. It was easy and accurate and I was great at it. That fateful winter day in 1988 ushered me along my path of almost three decades of graphic design, marketing, communications, branding and controlled creativity. Blissful perfectionism at its colorful finest.


During the past three decades of desktop design, my hobbies have included less precise outlets for creativity. Painting with acrylics, oils and watercolor, ceramics, coloring with crayons and markers, painting murals and displays, carefree and fun activities that gave me a break from the tight and technical vehicals of my daily work. I've taught "wine and design" style classes for kids and adults, hosted scrapbook workshops, and for the longest time jumped at every chance to spend time with kids doing facepainting at fairs and festivals. Little by little, I relaxed into my own self, my own style, my own creativity and slowly began to allow myself to color outside the lines. I learned to not freak out when my portraits turned out more Picasso than Rembrandt. Now, this did not happen overnight and believe me, that little perfectionist, rule-follower inside me shows up during each piece of art I create. She clears her throat and says "Um, are you going for the messy look?" in a voice and tone that sounds like Alexis Rose on Schitt$ Creek. And each time I grit my teeth, shush her and say "Yep! Beautifully messy! That's my style!"


Life, as they say, imitates art. Throughout my life I have often done my damnedest to color inside the lines. To shush the inner and outer critics who seek to grade me on the masterpiece that is MY life. In 2009, as I approached my 40th trip around the sun, I had grown very tired of concerning myself with the views of others as they commented on whether I was coloring too hard here and too lightly there, and I began to expand my artist soul. I continued to earned income in graphic design and marketing, but this time, I added to my toolbox healing arts like Reiki and ArcAngelic Light. I learned to meditate and become aware of energies and beings around me. I became a student of spiritual education and explored topics diversity versus inclusion among marginalized groups in America and abroad. I learned that my creative soul was not simply meant to be tight and technical, it longed to paint with all the colors, all the emotions, and all the senses. It longed to tell the truth even when others did not want to hear it. The longer I tried to shove myself into the box of perfectionism, the more my soul roared to be free.


Somewhere along the way, one of my spiritual mentors, Deb Bowen, enlightened me to a song by Jewel titled "Life Uncommon". The lyrics in this song spoke to my heart.


"And lend your voices only To sounds of freedom No longer lend your strength To that which you wish To be free from Fill your lives With love and bravery And we shall lead A life uncommon"


For far too long, in so very, many areas of my life I had lent my strength to that which I wished to be free from. I longed to be free from judgement, from negative family patterns, from titles, awards, expectations of others that support only their egos and outcomes and not my dreams. I had created a basis for my life in controlled creativity and perfectionism, and that perfectionist crutch is a hard one to throw down! For far too long I had been that little, elementary school Heather seeking the praise and a gold star from my teacher for handing in an acceptable coloring sheet.


The last days of 2019 brought with it heartache and heartbreak that I could never have predicted. If you're a student of tarot you would call the upheaval that hit my life a real "tower card moment" full of "dark night of the soul" type stuff. Once again I faced a trauma that swallowed me up and spit me out on the other side to a new year and hindsight that was 2020. There was no going back and going foward seemed impossible. Once again I realized I had bent as far as I could for so long, for so many ungrateful people who were showing me exactly who they were. People who approved and aligned with me as long as I colored inside their lines. Listen to me. When someone shows you who they are, don't second guess it. Believe them. Pack up your crayons and color pages and fill your life with love and bravery. Life is short here on this big, blue marble. Days are numbered and you, above all else, get to choose your color palette in your paint by number world. Once again I am reminded that if I want to live a life uncommon, I'm going to have to give myself permission to color outside the lines.



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