Using the creative process to find inner peace

I stared at her face. She stared at mine. Our eyes were still but our hands were moving. Black-rimmed glasses, a little nose, eyes that sparkled, hair neatly tied back. Her gaze was strong but loose. Mine was direct and weak. She couldn’t handle it. It was too much for her so she just laughed out loud. It was a laugh filled with pure joy, and so contagious that almost everyone in the room started to laugh along. It took her almost a minute to regain her composure. She said it had been a long time since she had had this much fun.

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This was one of several activities we had at Ve Thu Gian (“Art for Relaxation”; VND350,000 for a 2.5-hour class), a workshop at Toa Tau (“The Train”). People came to the workshop with different purposes. Some seek to calm their mind while others come to have fun.

After playing games to warm up, we sat on the floor and tools were brought out: paper, crayons, pens and black ink. “First, draw some lines to divide the page into four,” instructs Do Huu Chi, artist, Fulbright scholar and co-founder of Toa Tau. “Anyone know what’s the most difficult when it comes to seeing and drawing?” Someone said “portrait” and before I knew it, we were sitting in pairs, facing a stranger, and trying to draw their face. It was stressful. I had always been terrible at drawing. I couldn’t even draw a simple flower properly. I did my best not to insult her with my sketch. “Ok, now that you’re done with the portraits,” says Chi. “Let’s do that again, but this time with your other hand.”

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I started to loosen up because, since it was with my left hand, of course the portrait would come out looking bad. He then told us to redraw our partner for the third time, but this time we were not allowed to look down at the paper, instead keeping our eyes focused on each other. My partner just moved her pen randomly on the paper, which she found was more enjoyable, and started to laugh. At that moment, I felt a connection with her even though we were strangers.

“Now close your eyes,” Chi continues. “And draw your partner’s portrait once again.”

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As I closed my eyes, I envisioned her face. I could see it so clearly and started to draw with ease now. However, when I opened my eyes and looked down, on the paper were tangled lines and scribbles, nothing resembling her face… Well, it was fun.

Chi explains, “Doing these activities was to show you that by lessening your own expectations to draw something beautiful, you will truly be able to let go and enjoy the moment.”

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We were then provided with paints and non-traditional painting tools such as straws and toothbrushes to use. I recalled what Chi had told us at the beginning of the class: “This workshop is not about how to draw, but about how you feel.” And staying true to that, he played songs from La Vie En Rose to What Makes You Beautiful and asked us to paint the emotions the songs evoked. There were no longer chains of expectation. I was completely sucked into the moment, my mind was blank, all I could see were colors and lines, and I was filled with the joy of being able to express myself without being judged.

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Finally he tells us to lie down, close our eyes and imagine a place where we’re completely free to be who we are, to exist in that particular place, to truly feel peace. For our last activity, we had to draw that scene. I started to draw simple lines then added a bit of color. I could gradually see it. There it was. That place, my place, the place where I could truly be free.

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IMAGES BY NEIL FEATHERSTONE