Self-Care Through Art: How to Make Art About Hard Stuff | Jamie Smith | Skillshare

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Self-Care Through Art: How to Make Art About Hard Stuff

teacher avatar Jamie Smith, Artist, Teacher & Community Builder

Watch this class and thousands more

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

    • 1.



    • 2.

      Your Class Project


    • 3.

      Your Hard Stuff List


    • 4.

      Your Symbols List


    • 5.

      Your Symbol Statement


    • 6.

      Sharing the Hard Stuff


    • 7.

      Sharing Your Class Project


    • 8.

      Building Your Team


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About This Class

It can be very hard to dig deep and put our hearts and heartbreaks into our art. In this class I give you techniques to make art about hard stuff, through the creation of a personal symbol! I created this class to give you techniques on how to infuse more of yourself and your story into your artwork and to give you some “do’s and don'ts” about how to share your very personal art in the world. 

Art can be a way to express what we are feeling on the inside to the outside world. The most powerful artwork I have seen typically comes out of hard stuff. Together in this class we are going to create a personal symbol that represents something we care about and the symbol we create we can start using in our art practice. 

In this class…

  • We look at past and present artists who use difficult subject matter in their art.

  • We will create a personal symbol for our own work.

  • We will write about our personal symbol statement.

  • We will weigh the pros and cons for sharing personal stories in our artwork. 

Who is this class for?
This class is for any creative who wants to share more of themselves in their artwork and is not sure how to do this. This class is for any skill level and instead of teaching an art making technique we will take us through a journey of self-reflection and taking stock of our own art practice. I believe art is important. I believe we all have a story to share and I created this class as I wish I had had a guide to help me plan and decide how to make art about tough stuff. Thank you for coming along with me on this important journey together!

Who am I?
I am Jamie Smith- an artist, teacher and founder of an online community of female-identifying  artists called the Thrive Together Network. I’m a  creative entrepreneur through and through and believe the world needs more creativity and entrepreneurship. My personal motto is “Do The Work'' and this class is a guide to help you to do your important work. Let’s do it together!

You can see my personal artwork here and check out the TTN online community here

Meet Your Teacher

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Jamie Smith

Artist, Teacher & Community Builder

Top Teacher

My name is Jamie Smith and I am an artist, teacher and community builder living and working in beautiful British Columbia, Canada. 

A long time ago I went to art school and left without a clue about how to make a living from my work. Over the past ten years I have been learning how to make a living as a creative. I believe the world needs more creatives embracing entrepreneurship and making their dreams a reality. 

Here on Skillshare, I have created my classes to cover business skills, self-care and art making (all the things I care about most). So thank you for being here! 

Let's stay connected...

INSTAGRAM- Follow along on my art and business journey here. Follow me at @jamiesmithstudio

NEWSLETTER- I send out art stu... See full profile

Level: All Levels

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1. Welcome!: The most powerful artwork I have seen typically comes out of hard stuff. The history books are filled with art that takes on tough subject matters in life. Somehow the artwork is so niche and specific to the individual artists but yet it becomes so universal as all humans experience loss, love, heartbreak, joy, and grief. It is so hard to dig deep and put our hearts and heartbreaks into our art. I know from experience, but I want to give you some techniques to make art about hard stuff. I'm Jamie Smith and welcome to my class, self-care through art. How to make art about hard stuff. I'm an artist, a teacher, and educator. I created this class after putting on my own art show about my personal fertility journey. My partner and I have been trying to have a baby for close to two years. After a failed round of IVF, I just started drawing. Getting all my feelings out was my form of self-care. I did decide to make a body of work about this time in my life and have an art show. This is truly the best artwork I have ever made, but it was the hardest to create and to share for sure. I created this class to give you techniques on how to infuse more of yourself and your story into your artwork and to give you some do's and don'ts about how to share your very personal work in the world. Together in this class, we're going to create a personal symbol that represents something we care about, a symbol that then we can use in our own art practices. We will also look at past and present artists who use difficult subject matter in their own artwork. We will create a personal symbol for our own work. We will write a personal symbol statement as well. We will also weigh the pros and cons about sharing our personal stories in our artwork with the outside world. It can be hard. This class is for any creative who wants to share more of themselves in their artwork and isn't sure how to do this. This class is for any skill level. Instead of teaching an art-making technique, I will take you through a journey of self-reflection and taking stock of our own art practice. I believe art is important. I believe we all have a story to share. I created this class because I wish I had had a guide to help me plan and decide how to make my art about the hard stuff. Thank you for coming along on this very important journey together. In the next lesson, I'm going to walk you through the class project we'll do together and how to create your personal symbol. I'll see you there. 2. Your Class Project: [MUSIC] I've always struggled with making deep art. I've had my fair share of struggles, but nothing seemed art worthy. I also don't typically make realistic artwork, so I had no idea how to share personal things in my work. There were symbols and elements I always seem to draw and put into my artwork, but I wasn't sure how much meaning these really had. It wasn't until I hired the amazing artists consultant, Pennylane Shen. Pennylane runs a business called Dazed and Confucius. You can hire her or someone on her team to spend an hour with you to look at your artwork and give you feedback. What a rare gift. I see her every few months and about two years ago she gave me the best art advice I have ever received. She said, "You should start creating your visual vocabulary." I thought, what is that? Basically it's to start a library of symbols, colors, and ideas that you continue to work on in your work. It's a catalog of the things that you really care about. These personal symbols can then be used to tell your stories in your artwork. This blew my mind. I started seeing that I was drawing a vase all the time. Really the vase to me symbolized the woman's body and femininity. I started to think about this vase a lot than when I was trying to get pregnant and making this new body of work about fertility. It became part of my story, part of my visual language. The egg is another symbol that I use over and over again. To me, this is a symbol of hope and it started showing up all the time in my drawings. When I made the choice to do an entire art show about hard stuff, this hard time in my life, and with my IVF journey, my visual vocabulary was what I really leaned on to take my difficult subject matter into the real-world, into my art-making. Your class project is to create a visual and personal symbol that will start your vocabulary library. This personal symbol can be then incorporated into your work over time and you will start to build your own personal language over time. This will help you share your stories and themes that you really care about. Materials for this class is you can use any medium you want. Again, that is up to you. The class is about bringing a new way of thinking to your art practice. I highly suggest having a sketchbook or notebook close at hand to take notes and mark down any ideas that come as we deep dive into this content together. I created a personal symbol PDF to help guide you in the project. But you, of course, can journal along and go along with us as we go. In the next lesson, we're going to look at artists who also tackle difficult subject matter through their own visual vocabulary. This will give us some ideas of how to use these symbols in our own practice. I'll see you there. 3. Your Hard Stuff List: [MUSIC] In this lesson, I am going to show you a selection of female identifying artists who use symbols to convey difficult personal and cultural topics in their artwork. As artists, we can share hard stuff that has happened in our own world, or and we can share hard stuff that is happening in the world around us and how we are reacting to it. One very famous artist is Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. She is very much known for her beautiful self-portraits. Frida spent most of her life in chronic pain. She was in a trolley accident as a very young adult, and she was not able to have children because of this. She often painted in bed and was trapped by her body that did not work for her. Her paintings show her body often embraces and will often have fetuses and umbilical cords that symbolize the sadness of her not having children. Her tragedy became beautiful works of art. Another artist that shares a personal hardship is contemporary artist, Danielle Krysa. Danielle lost her grandmother that she was very close to. In her work, she uses the color pink often to symbolize and commemorate her grandmother's influence in her life and her work. This is a great example of color becoming a visual symbol. As artists, we often use our work to share our personal stories, but we are also reacting and engaging in the world that is very complicated and often unjust around us. Canadian artist Sandeep Johal makes work about gender injustice specifically in the Southeast Asian community. Her work share stories of women that have been murdered just because they were women and they were not willing to follow the gender rules that were set out for them. She tells their stories to honor them. In her work, we see symbols from her Southeast Asian folk art culture, for example, she depicts the snake in her work. For her, the snake symbolized shedding of one's skin, transforming into something new. She hopes this transformation can happen in her own culture. Sandeep is a great example of making art about a global issue, but also, it becomes personal because she grew up in a Southeast Asian family and culture and herself felt these injustices. Another artist that is very famous who has created her own visual language is American artist, Kara Elizabeth Walker. She is known for creating room size Tableaus. A black paper cutout silhouettes that explore gender, race, sexuality, and violence. Her medium itself is rooted in the issue she is speaking about. She uses the historical significance of the cut-out paper as a symbol that engulfs the viewer in the issues that she is speaking about. This is such a good example of the very material you use become a symbol in your work and help bring your meaning to life. For this lesson, I want you to write a list of hard stuff that you care about. This could be personally difficult things or could be on a more global level. You can write this in your sketch book or use the PDF provided. I want you to write down anything that comes to mind. Don't filter. You don't need to be making art about all of these things on your list. This is just a brainstorm, a place to start. Spend some time making this list. You want to really think about what you truly care about and what are the tough things that have happened in your life or that you see going on in the world. You can of course keep adding to this list over time, but this is where we want to get started. This is where our visual vocabulary really begins. In the next lesson, we will brainstorm symbols that go with these hard and difficult topics. See you there. 4. Your Symbols List : You now have a list of the hard stuff. For this lesson, we're going to brainstorm symbols that will work and connect to the things on your list. Often just one thing on your list, one hard thing can generate many symbols, and as we saw with the artists in the last lesson. Often one thing that is difficult can be the main topic of a whole art practice. It can take a lifetime depending on what the topic is. For example, Sandeep Johal making artwork about gender injustices is a huge topic. It will be her lifetime to explore and work through this. Her library of symbols are tools that she can use to create each new series of work as she explores the topic. Sometimes we want to just create one symbol and just use it from time to time, like Danielle Krysa with the color pink. It comes in and out of her work when she thinks about her grandmother. I'm going to walk you through an example, how to create symbols for one of your themes, one hard thing that you care about. For me, my list is long, but a few things that I care about are inequality in the art world for women. I also really care about women's stories being shared in the world. I care about equal pay a lot. I'm deeply concerned about the environment and the future of our world. I personally have had a lot of loss in my life, so I have a lot of thinking through the grief process in my work. I'm on a journey with fertility and going through IVF. This is a real mix of personal and worldly things that I care about. For this example, I'm going to use my fertility journey. I have been dealing with these issues for years and my personal symbols were the eggs and vases, and I use them in many drawing. But it wasn't until I decided to go through IVF and when that happened and it didn't work for me, I really started to push my language. I wanted to make a body of work and have an art show just around this topic. Keep in mind, it's not necessary to make work only about the things you care about, only about the hard stuff, we can use these symbols throughout our practice, but sometimes we can make art directly about the hard stuff like I did for my art show. I am going to talk more about how to think about sharing these ideas out in the world in the next lesson. I want to go through the process, a really working on my visual language. I spent months doing this. One of the pieces I made for my art show, I made three family crest. Each family Crest focus on one hard part about the process of trying to get pregnant. I worked on this art show for about eight months, and over that time I journaled, I sketched a lot and I tried to figure out how was I going to share this to my audience. I'm going to give you my example. This piece is called the crest of the players. It is all about the mental work of playing the fertility game. I realized a big part of my struggle to get pregnant was also the mental fatigue of thinking about it so much and also trying to stay positive, even though every month there was a lot of disappointment. In my work, the Roman Numeral XIV became a perfect symbol for me. I was constantly counting 14 days to get to ovulation, where is the highest chance for you to get pregnant, and from there you would count 14 more to see if you were pregnant. This was very mentally draining, but this symbol became a perfect way for me to share this. I also added in the infinity sign into the work to express the feeling of being exhausted of this never ending cycle, the ups and downs, the hopes and the disappointments. There is also a lot of mental work of warding off jealousy. As we live in a world where lots of people are getting pregnant, there are lots of pregnancy announcements, people having their second and third babies, and you have to really stay sharp. You have to not get tired and start to feel jealous. In the middle of the shield, there is a symbol of blades of grass, and this for me, was that age, old adage, the grass is always greener on the other side. It's a cliche, yes. But it also became a reminder to me, a reminder to stay focus on the things I do have and the things that I love around me. As I continued to build my symbols, I kept thinking of the proverbial cup of non plenty. Is the cup half full? Is the cup half empty? Again, for me, adding the cups into my work was all about this mental work of trying to be grateful and trying to enjoy the present, which can feel really hard. There were even more symbols in this crest and as a whole there was way more. It was so fun to build up my visual language, also to really create a catalog of symbols. Since the show ended, I still use my cup symbols. I still use blades of grass in other work. It really to me now they've become a symbol about saying positive of not feeling jealous in regards to many things in my life. The symbols become a way that I can continue to share my stories and my hard stuff no matter if the show or the artwork is directly about one theme. You can use it throughout all of your work. Now it's your turn. I want you to look at your hard stuff list. You are going to pick one thing from that list, and even that, we could have so many symbols. For your one thing, your job is to brainstorm 3-5 symbols that represent this difficult thing. This could be objects, colors, words, figures, etc. In your PDF, I left space for you to brainstorm your ideas. You are welcome to write things down, draw, collage, printout images, anything to get your ideas out. Nothing needs to be perfect, this is a Brainstorm. I also wanted to say that I often will look at Google, to look at historical symbolic meanings of things. I want to see what is the history of certain symbols that maybe then I want to think about how I would use them in my own personal story. Remember, there's no wrong answers here. This is your symbols. These don't need to connect. People don't need to understand the connections between them, like no one would associate cups specifically to going through IVF, but for me it holds a lot of meaning. In the next lesson, we're going to take a closer look at one of our new symbols and really flesh out our ideas about it. I can't wait, and I'll see you there. 5. Your Symbol Statement: [MUSIC] We now have a list of the hard stuff we care about, and we have picked one to focus on and brainstorm our symbols. So we used visuals to think through the topic we picked. Now, we're going to focus on one of those symbols we brainstormed. I really want us to explore this one deeply and make it our own. For me, I have so many symbols as part of my visual vocabulary because this has been over the years. With my fertility journey, it's been things like cups, blades of grass, Art Nouveau, IVF needles, candles, pathways, doorways. Over time, I've worked on developing these and making them really mine, creating meaning that is personal to me. But I would say the symbol I have spent the most time with and worked through the most is my egg symbol. A huge part of me connecting with the symbol and really working on it, was that I started to write about it in my sketchbook all the time. Any ideas that came to me, I would write them down and I started to craft the symbol statement. So that I knew what it meant to me, I could then share this in my artist's statement easily or online as I need it and wanted to. In the next lesson, I'm going to talk a little bit more about sharing this hard stuff online. I think it's really important that we consider the ups and downs and the do's and don'ts of that topic. For this lesson, you are going to pick a symbol from your brainstorm list that represents the hard thing. We're going to write a short simple statement. You can write this in your sketch book or journal, or you can use the class PDF provided and I've made you a little template. I'm going to pick my symbol, the egg, and I'm going to write my symbol statement. My symbol is the egg, and it represents my fertility journey in my artwork. The egg symbolizes the hope of being able to have a child. It is one of the biological parts you must have to make a baby. It also symbolizes the process of freezing my eggs and then using them in the IVF process and the feelings of hope and disappointment during the time. Remember, this is a template. You can use it or not, but I've made these prompts for you so that it's a little bit easier to get out these feelings and ideas. You can write more, you can write less. The purpose of the exercise is to really get out your personal story and your connection to the symbols in your work. I have found, the more time I spend to think through my symbols, the more ideas I have about other symbols, and the more meaning that then gets infused into my work. It is literally a cycle of creation that feeds itself and it took me years to figure out. Now, I spend time thinking about my symbols, writing about them, and then more writing and more symbols come out of that experience. Explaining my work in an artist statement or in-person has become so much easier. There is real depth and meaning to this hard stuff. In the next lesson, I'm going to talk about when and when not to share about the hard stuff in your work. We are always taking a risk by putting ourselves into our artwork. We want to think about how we want to explain this to the outer world. I think it's so important to consider the do's and don'ts when it comes to this. I'll see you in the next lesson. 6. Sharing the Hard Stuff: [MUSIC] You are amazing. It is hard to dig deep. It is even harder to then think of visuals to go along with that, and then to write about it. Wow. I now wanted to take some time to talk about sharing your work and the hard stuff in the world. I had this experience of sharing my hard stuff. As I mentioned, I have my egg symbol and my vases in my work. For years, I put in my artist statement a simple sentence. I explore themes of loss and fertility in my artwork. That was great. Just enough. If I wanted to share a bit more, I could and it showed people how deep an RDI was, but it didn't actually say a lot, didn't really share my heart stuff. I would post sometimes on social media about how the egg symbol is about hope and trying to start a family. This added intrigue to my work and I was comfortable sharing this when I did. Often when I spoke with other artists or did artist talk, I would share a bit more with a few artists and fellow creatives and really got into the harder stuff about my work. But it's when I felt comfortable and safe. It wasn't until I did an entire show completely about my fertility journey. The work solely focused and referenced on this hard thing I was directly sharing and my struggles. What I found was there was a huge amount of support and love for being vulnerable. But it also made this an okay topic and space for these conversations, whether I was ready or not. This is a beautiful thing, but it's also a hard thing. It wasn't long before I got advice messages as well as supportive ones. for me, I was healed, I was ready for this. I knew what I was getting myself into. I mentioned this because it's easy to share on social media. We are in a culture where vulnerability is valued and praised. But know that once you open the conversation, there is no going back. You can't be unvulnerable. Everyone still knows. I recommend sharing the hard stuff if you have done the personal work and are healed about the subject you are sharing. Share if you like sharing about your personal life. Share if you have a supportive audience on your social media and in your life as a whole. Only share if you feel safe mentally, emotionally, physically, safe to be vulnerable about the hard stuff. Please, do not share if you are unsure of any of these answers, give yourself and your art time to grow and get strong, and over time, you can slowly open up if you want to. You can also never tell anyone this is your art, these are your symbols and it is no one's business really, quite frankly. I believe diving deep and into your hard stuff. I believe the truth of these symbols in your work will make very strong and powerful work. But it doesn't mean you have to share it with other people. At my art show, I shared a lot of writing about my work. I think this is my biggest tip for sharing hard stuff in person is to spend a lot of time writing out your ideas. I had tags beside all of my artwork and I made a booklet that viewers could see, and it saved me from explaining the hard stuff to each person in the room. It gave the viewer time and space to think of the meaning of the work. Overall, I am very happy I did my show. I am very happy I shared my story. I had some beautiful conversations. I talked with women who are going through a similar journey as well. But to be honest, It was very exhausting as well. My art for me served as a form of self-care as I went through my IVF journey, it became a little escape. When I made my story public. It kinda took away that place of escape. I just want you to think through some of these things before we get on social and share about everything. My biggest win and take away from the process was how much I fell in love with fusing my work, with my personal stories, meanings, and symbols. It's why I made this class. My wish for you is that you share your story and the things you care about however that looks for you. Privately, this could be in your sketchbook, or of course, publicly, your art is important and so are you. On this note, I want you to share your personal symbol in the class projects area of this class. If you want to include your symbol statement, please do. This is a safe space and a community of creatives, but please do what is best for you. There is no pressure to share if you don't want to. I am so excited to see your personal symbols. It's so rich and enlightening to see what people connect to the visuals about the hard stuff in their life. Thank you for sharing and in the next video, I will show you exactly step-by-step how to upload your project below. See you there. 7. Sharing Your Class Project: [MUSIC] What I love so much about Skillshare is that students are able to share their finished projects with one another. It's really unique, and I have taken a number of Skillshare classes myself and I find the classes that I push myself to actually post my project are where I truly learn the most. Please take time to share your project with me. I can't wait to see it. I'm going to give you a little demo of how to do this. You want to take a picture of your work. I always do this just on my iPhone or my iPad and you want to then go into projects. On your screen here, this is a class, this is my vision board class and there's projects and resources here. You're going to click this green button that says Create Project. Here, you're going to see a place to upload a photo. I just have this in my photo library. It's going to upload and this is going to become my cover image that people will see. I can then put in my title, so "My vision board", and autocorrect is the best and then I just wrote a little description of what my focus is for the year with my vision board. You can write what you like about your project, what you found difficult. You can always make your project private, but I do love being able to share and see other people's. Then you're just going to press this green button is publish. Publishing takes a couple of minutes for this photo to show up, but you're going to see it right under your projects will be there. One thing I love is if I go back to my profile and I scroll down, you can actually see where all of your projects live. I find this really exciting. I'm really proud of the projects I've done and the classes I've taken. People can like it, people can comment, and it's a great way to have community within Skillshare. I find the creative life can be a little hard sometimes, it can feel a little lonely. But remember that you're part of the Skillshare community and it's a creative one and it's an important one. I know that I am a better artist when I'm working in community and I am participating. It can feel scary, but it's worth doing. It's so easy with online classes to start them, get distracted, and just not finish them. Push yourself, get that project up, and I can't wait to see what you've created. 8. Building Your Team : [MUSIC] Thank you for creating a personal symbol with me. I can't wait to see your projects. I wanted to end this class with a couple other important aspects about sharing the hard stuff into the world. Being a creative can be lonely. It's a lonely path and it doesn't have to be. I highly recommend you start building a team of supportive people in your life as you push your artwork further and start working on your hard stuff through art. Having fellow supportive artists around you is very important. You can do this by finding local artist communities or Instagram to support fellow artists and get to know them on there. I started a community, of female-identifying and non-binary artists called Thrive Together Network, and you are welcome to join me there. All the links are in the resource area below. Another person that makes up my team is the artist consultant, Pennylane Shen of Dazed and Confucius. You can hire her to look at your artwork and concepts and she helps push them even further. I always leave with a huge list of things to do to push my art. Just to recap this class, art can be a tool for self-care. Continue to add to your personal symbols library, build a supportive team, and remember, only share the hard stuff when you're ready to do so. Remember, being a creative is a long game. We build this over time, just like our symbols catalog. For this class project, please share your personal symbol. Of course, I leave it up to you if you want to share your symbol statement. Thank you for taking the time and space to use your art as self-care and dive deep with me. Thank you for sharing the hard stuff.