Story Submitted by Sushama Kirtikar

Charcoal sketching and oil canvas painting were my favorite leisure activities growing up in India. My grandfather was a commercial artist who did caricatures for news magazine covers and his fine arts paintings of portraits stand today in a couple of museums. My mother is a natural artist and always stoked the fires of my art work. She guided and encouraged me all along. After coming to the US I dabbled some in my art. As I started a family I got involved in the pursuits of raising a family, managing a household and establishing a career. In the last 4 decades my art work languished.

A few years ago while training to become a certified coach I took the Values in Action Character Strengths Survey which immediately highlighted ‘Creativity’ as being on the lower rung of the survey: in fact it ranked #22 out of a total of 24 character strengths! I stared disbelievingly at this revelation. I have always thought of myself as a creative person. What was this?! It put a huge dent in my self-image. Something had to be done to rectify this unexpected upsetting of the apple cart.

I didn’t know where to start. Yes, I have on occasion busied myself with crafts such as cake decorating, knitting and sewing, particularly making gifts for others. But that was never my passion. Visual arts like drawing and sketching were my true passion. How was I going to pick it up again? Someone suggested ‘doodling’. I tried my hand at it and found it to be silly. But wait, it seemed to unlock something within. The first night I saw visions of colorful shapes in my sleep. A creative spark of some kind had been awakened. Nothing tangible yet, just a crack.
Then, I came face to face with cancer last year. It hit hard with full force. I went through a tough journey of comprehending, researching, information gathering and decision making. That was all grist for the mill. This was followed by treatments and multiple surgeries. I came home after complicated reconstructive surgeries, relegated to a wheelchair and total leg elevation for the first few months. My daughter gifted me with an adult coloring book of mandalas with a set of color markers. That opened the door.

I gave myself permission to immerse myself into what felt like self-indulgence. Ouch. Such a harsh inner critic could only be silenced by the realization that since I could not move I could allow myself to ‘play’. It took being immobile to free me up. To think of creativity as ‘frivolous or play’ was a travesty. I have always valued the creative arts as a gift to mankind. But it looks like I valued and admired it in ‘others’ not in ‘me’. I had to be dutiful and tend to mundane matters. Where and when did such self-destructive thinking permeate my psyche? I am still shocked by the utterly enervating effects of such oppressive thinking.

I began my journey into the world of colors. I got my feet wet (pun intended) by playing with colors and filling up the mandalas one at a time as they started to burgeon and burst with hues I did not even know existed. Now, my mother, my daughter and my 3 1⁄2 year old granddaughter name each mandala as it is finished. Each one tells a different story as I pick diverse color schemes and play wantonly letting my instinct and imagination run wild. I no longer feel guilty engaging in coloring. It relaxes me; I notice how the vital signs begin to self-regulate as my breath, heart rate and pulse stabilize and even out. It is the magic potion that soothes any stress whether it is global concerns, national politics, career pivots, house repairs, personal health or concern for loved ones in this pandemic. It is truly a panacea to all discontent. Art is a gift that needs to be received with grace, held with humility, cultivated mindfully and shared generously with others to spread its joy. It has a ripple effect, multiplying and growing as it roils and blends, bathing this one and that one with its infinite glory and beauty. So when my granddaughter announces to me over FaceTime while I am doing sketches for her on a large pad that stands on an easel, “Aji, you are the best ‘drawer’ in the world”, I take that with a smile and think, “Thank you for calling me a ‘drawer’, best or otherwise. I am so grateful for the fact that my long lost love of art has finally come home to roost.” The artist within me has thrown me a life line.