Just when we’re sailing along in our lives, up pops a roadblock. So we experience frustration, mount the hurdle and resume the normalcy of our life. Yet, many people face roadblocks that are so enormous and life changing that it is only because of their compelling creative spirit that they go on.
My sister, Dr. Tobi Zausner, writes about creativity, artists, and inner strength in her book WHEN WALLS BECOME DOORWAYS ((http://astore.amazon.com/caringcrafts-20/detail/0307238083/104-6646567-9699112). Tobi says: “When we look at the influence of physical illness on creativity we often find that instead of stopping artists, physical difficulties transform them, enhancing both their life and their work.” Her book is based on years of research and from an experience with ovarian cancer in 1989. “I was not expected to last the year,” she says, “yet I survived and my life transformed for the better.”
In looking at the lives of other artists in her book, Tobi shows a similar pattern of illness and personal growth across cultures and throughout the centuries. All of these artists used their creativity to combat the effects of physical difficulties and made the world a better place because of their work. The Mexican artist Frida Kahlo became a painter after being severely injured in a traffic accident. A farm accident changed the life of the Native American Frank Day, who discovered his gift for painting while recovering in the hospital. It was dyslexia that influenced the Italian Leonardo da Vinci to be an artist and he became one of the greatest of all time. The American artist Dorothea Lange had polio in childhood, yet she turned her suffering into compassion for others and shows that caring and compassion in her photographs. After severe hepatitis, the Japanese artist Itchiku Kubota found a new way of working and is now one of the leading kimono painters in the world.
Even physical conditions that would seem to impede a career can turn out to be enhancements. The Dutch artist Rembrandt was color blind but used his great ability to see light and shade to give enormous power to his work. The African-American artist Henry Ossawa Turner became a painter after an illness in childhood and the Chinese-American artist Raymond Hu, who has Downs syndrome, does work that combines Eastern and Western techniques. The French artist Henri Matisse was a young lawyer until the long convalescence from an appendectomy turned him to painting as a way to past the time. Later at the age of seventy, his doctors thought he would die after an operation for intestinal cancer went very badly. Yet Matisse lived another thirteen years and did some of the best work of his life while sitting in a wheelchair. “Whether you can or not, you hold on” insists Matisse and “when you’re out of will power you call on stubbornness.” He believes that what we think is our weakness can turn out to be our greatest strength.
So how can we learn to create and embrace doorways when faced with what appears to be impenetrable walls in our lives? In researching biographies of artists for her book, Tobi found that they shared these qualities:
• Hardiness – the strength that helps us thrive despite obstacles,
• Resilience – ability to bounce back after difficulties and adapt to new circumstances,
• Self-efficacy – our belief that the things we do make a difference,
• Mastery – success in performing tasks or in the outcome of a situation,
• Perseverance – the determination to keep going,
• The ability to handle stress – and in a very long life there can be a great deal of stress,
• A focus on work and the urge to create,
• And they are all looking toward the future No matter how old they are, these artists insist their best work is still to come.
As Tobi says, “Everyone has the capacity to grow and change. It comes from the great well of inner strength that we possess and can access in times of need. We are all not only stronger than we think we are but stronger than we can even imagine.”