A Creative Life

Erin in the treehouse, Baton Rouge

by Erin Denk

My devotion in this life is to creativity in the form of visual art and human storytelling and experience. The origins of these interests evolved from strong individuals in my life and from places that inspired creation. Creativity as a way of being has been my source of feeling alive and safe as long as I can remember.

Creation was first experienced in my body as a three-year old sitting on my bed drawing on my wall. I moved across the wall drawing a castle with an elaborately jeweled princess. I could enter into that wall and feel the crayon princess. As I drew on reams of my mother’s typing paper, I imagined myself in the picture I created.  Our house was filled with an eclectic, “Addams Family” collection of furniture and treasures my father would find in plantations, antique stores or the side of the road. My mother was always creating something: etoufee, feature articles, woven scarves, paper flowers, egg tempera paintings and paper dolls for me. My father was creating sketches of houses, furniture and gold leafed tables while listening to George Shearing, Dave Brubeck, Sarah Vaughn, Peggy Lee and Burt Bachrach.

My grandfather, a WWII vet, naturalist and writer was the most influential person in my young life.  Colonel William Hornsey was a bigger than life man who was perfectly comfortable with acknowledging my imaginary friend at the dinner table, teaching me how to tell an Indian story around the fire, making frog houses in the sand and publishing my poem in his hunting and fishing column in the Times-Picayune in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He, like my mother, nurtured imagination as a normal state that brought wonder and faith in the unseen with no fear.

Stone Camryn Ballet School at 185 W. Madison in Chicago, influenced my awareness of creation from within my body starting at age 8.  I loved the ritual of the studio and ironically the discipline: it helped me define my youthful impulse to express my body with grace and poise. The Siamese cats weaving in and out of my legs while we worked at the barre and hoping to avoid the swat of Mr. Camryn’s cane on my foot during the tendu all gave me a sense of creative space. I felt strong and beautiful.

The Art Institute of Chicago’s Young Artists’ Studio influenced my further appreciation of creative space. I attended there in the 70s from ages 15 to 17. The smell of linseed oil, paints, and clay from the classrooms is still in my memory and I have had a love affair ever since. Whether sitting in the galleries sketching Ming Dynasty sculptures or weaving a tablecloth I was embraced by children like me and teachers that had been me. It was at this time that I began to experience physical and mental compulsions to create. My adolescent years were very hard for my family with my father in and out of advertising jobs. During those times of parental fights over money I learned to escape in art making.

Understanding how to create healing space for and listen to the life story of another is the essence of my work as an art therapist for the last 31 years. My grandfather taught me how to tell a story, my mother taught me how to listen to others with curiosity and Ann Pringle, manager at Lord Taylor in Water Tower Place, Chicago, taught me at 16 how to be poised in front of people.  Ann was not just a manager she was a big sister and mentor. I learned how to handle the pissed off customer with grace and make a sale at the same time.  I learned how to communicate with patience and to let the customer know I am listening to them. I found my voice at this time. I had been painfully quiet in my adolescence.

My origins are also mixed with those dark empty spaces of creating nothing: no mark, no words, no gesture, no life. Loss has influenced my drive to throw the paint across the blank canvas or even speak and has paralyzed me to sit and just stare looking for that light of creation. Loss of trust, life, body, relationship took me down into the cave of psychological death. While there was no creating, there was silence that gave me sight to resurrect me into that place of creation….again. This metaphor of entering the cave of noncreation then resurrecting out into creation has been a pattern I have learned to embrace as an artist.

At 59, I surprise myself in how much I have no interest in being seen, known or approved of. Maybe because when I look back at my influences, creativity wasn’t really about the product but more about the experience. My creative life lives in me as a blood line for having a life to live. I see my life’s work moving towards giving form to the creation of sacred creative space and maybe another crayon castle on the wall.

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