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This Mental Health Awareness Month, find inner peace and freedom with McGee's expressive journal
Abstract artist Jenny McGee highlights mental health
This Mental Health Awareness Month, find inner peace and freedom with McGee's expressive journal
Jenny McGee is living, breathing, tangible proof that anxieties, mental health issues, stress and cancer do not define a person.
She is proof that strength is measured in healing and that anyone can heal from anything. May marks the start of Mental Health Awareness month, and McGee is no stranger to struggle. She is the author of an expressive art journal called Self Expression & Art Journal: Healing and Positivity Edition, which is available for download on her website.
McGee wants readers to think of her as their own personal cheerleader to keep in their front pocket when they're struggling. Her journal is chock-full with words of affirmation, asking the reader to delve a little deeper into emotions and a judgement-free space to heal. She is hopeful that the journal can be a shining beacon of hope in a dark storm.
McGee got candid with Vox to talk about her mental health journey, her relationship with painting and her expressive art journal.
Riding the ocean of emotions
When asked if she is an art therapist, McGee is quick to humble herself. "Depending on the context, I consider myself a professional abstract artist," she says. She is neither trained nor licensed in any type of counseling or social work, but her resume in dealing with mental health is quite impressive.
Her journey started in 2002. McGee has just graduated with a graphic design degree from Missouri State University, and an opportunity of a lifetime presented itself that whisked her away to New York City to begin her career. But something wasn't right. It began with debilitating anxiety. And then came persistent panic attacks. "I felt like it was my body's first response to stop pushing something that might not be good for me," McGee says. "It made me wonder exactly what I wanted to do." So she moved back to Missouri, married her fiancé and now-husband, David, and they journeyed to Central America for a three-month honeymoon to El Salvador that turned into a seven-year stay.
The pair were hired on to front the communications team with Salvadoran nonprofit Enlace where she worked as a designer and David worked as a photographer. About once a week, she ventured out from the office in the bustling city to work with local children, some of whom had lives displaced by gang violence. Some days she would teach children to recycle sugar cane pulp from polluted rivers into paper. Other days she would lead art initiatives. Almost every day, she worked face-to-face with children who had survived devastating trauma and were plagued with anxiety.
For McGee, work was fulfilling, but the panic attacks were relentless. For two years she had suppressed the urge to paint out her emotions. The more panic attacks she endured, the more she felt she needed to paint. Finally, she made a bet with God and herself: She would paint a series of 22 paintings to test the waters of her hobby. If after the last one, she was still enamored by painting, she would take it as a serious passion. If not? Well, painting would be out of her system. One by one, she began her series: a visual diary of her experiences with the local Salvadorans. With each finished painting, McGee's anxiety washed away. "I'm not the best writer, but I can paint with my emotions and my colors like there's no tomorrow," she says. "The initial 22 series was very much about seeing the street children and emotionally processing that and working with ex-gang members and collaborating with them."
In the middle of her series, McGee realized one of her paintings resonated with a man named Douglas, a young ex-gang member. The painting was a big, rectangular canvas painted a vibrant crimson-red hue. With McGee's permission, Douglas took the painting to a firing range and unloaded several bullets into the canvas. When Douglas came back to tell McGee about his experience shooting the painting, despite his third-grade education, his response impressed her. He said the red resembled the bloodshed of his country as well as his past, and the bullet holes symbolized his physical, spiritual and emotional breakthrough to end the cycle of violence and to live his life for good. At that moment, McGee says she felt as if Douglas knew just as much about art and the artistic experience as someone with a Ph.D in art. "I think people get pretentious and think only educated people can interpret art," she says. "I was just really impacted by his openness and vulnerability."
Douglas is just one of the people McGee's art has helped heal. But everyone has their own experience with the art in order to tap into their inner beings and allow themselves the space to feel. McGee calls it the "Ocean of Emotions." She wants everyone to know it's okay to have feelings. "Humans are meant to have all sorts," she says. "It’s good to be specific about how we feel so that we can move beyond how we feel."
Hate cancer, love the cure
McGee remembers the first painting she finished after receiving her stage 3 breast cancer diagnosis. It was 2009, and she and her family hurried back to the U.S. to begin her treatment. Doctors inundated her with pamphlets and brochures and readings and "all that stuff you don't want to read." She tore them all up. She painted a middle finger and dressed it with the rippings and tearings from her cancer readings. Stemming from the finger was a bouquet of flowers.
She called it "Hate Cancer, Love the Cure."
It was during this time McGee felt painting heal her. For all the poison of chemotherapy, radiation and surgery that riddled her body, painting was there to cure it. "I just painted to heal and to help my body through everything," she says. Painting became a tool for expression. "I genuinely felt like it was helping my emotions heal. I felt like God was showing me that this can be a tool not only for (my) healing but for other people. It was just following that guttural intuition: This is what you're supposed to be doing
About a year later, the cancer was fading, and, in its place, anger began to bubble up to the surface. McGee found herself riding aimlessly through her ocean of emotions. To supplement her paintings, she took up expressive journaling to release pent up emotional tension. Whenever McGee had ten minutes of spare time, she would gather up materials such as permanent markers. Then, she would start doodling without an end goal in mind. Allowing herself to just be and to create and no longer ignore the impulses of her body were powerful experiences. "When I released exactly what it is that I needed to, my mind felt lighter, my spirit felt freer," she says.
Over the course of the next several years, McGee jotted down here and there, compiled lists of every journaling activity and self-care exercise that helped her with the intention of creating her own journal.
A year ago, McGee discovered Keri Smith's Wreck This Journal, an expressive journal filled with prompts to rip, crack, shred, paint and spill on its pages. It is meant to be an apparatus in the reader's unleashing creativity. McGee relished the freedoms the journal gave her. Ripping out pages and spilling maple syrup on them was beyond freeing.
But as freeing as the journal was, McGee says its weakness is its obsession with destruction. This gave McGee the final push to actually put her first journals together. "It was a burst of motivation to incorporate more positive reinforcement and thought and process," she says. Two weeks ago, she combined both editions together to make her Self Expression & Art Journal: Healing and Positivity Edition. In some ways the journal is like Smith's: It is a judgement-free space that prompts the reader to use different colors and materials to make their mark and experience with internal creativity. But McGee's book focuses on creating something beautiful and meaningful out of something ugly and disheveled while also offering the reader positive affirmation and the freedom to be vulnerable.
"Leave your editor at home," McGee writes on one of her pages. She encourages the reader to get messy, to get in tune with their body and to be honest and deep: All are okay and necessary to heal. "I feel like my journals ask a little more of the readers to emotionally connect their personal experiences and sift through those internal waves," McGee says. Some prompts ask the reader to scribble all over the page, to paint with watercolors and write in Sharpie positive words about them and to write out how they've been hurt and strengthened by others.
The healing section of the journal offers a space to vision map the future. McGee includes notes to remind the reader that they are "given permission to grieve," "free to release their feelings," and "allowed to honor the past to get to the future." Readers might paste photos and words of affirmation into the journal and are encouraged to look back at them when they want to see the future they would like to make or when they just need encouragement. "Vision mapping is a powerful, visual way to create a life you want and to break free from the things holding you back," McGee says.
The journal is intended to be a companion to any person, no matter the age and no matter how far they are in the mental health journey. On her website, McGee encourages counselors to utilize the journal in conjunction with other therapies or an additional resource. "I've heard that they give people a sense of freedom from whatever might be weighing them down," she says. "It's helped people feel more free and lighter."
There is space for negative thoughts in the journal, and McGee suggests throwing the page out after. Say the reader gets too vulnerable, or later on isn't manifesting such negative emotions, they are free to rip them out of the journal and destroy them. "A cool experience for me has been to have this mini ceremony of burning them in a bonfire," she says. "It's helped me have these letting go experiences."
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