Art as Therapy

Most weekdays, San Rafael pschotherapist Shira Marin works with her clients, but every Monday she turns the focus on herself by picking up a paintbrush.

For two and a half hours, nothing else matters except what feelings are moving through her right hand. What color do the feelings inspire her to use? What shape do they compel her to paint?

When Marin is done, she adds the painting to a growing stack of previous ones. She has no plans to share them with the world. For her, the process of creation is what matters. “It needs to be an integral part of our lives if we want to live a healthy and balanced life,” she says.

Art is not the exclusive purview of those talented (or well connected) enough to have their finished product displayed in galleries.  Making art is a process that anyone, regardless of skill, can use to relax, to work through emotions, even to explore a different side of their personality. The creating itself is a path to personal fulfillment, tapping into something fundamentally human—the desire to express ourselves.

Although Marin had always considered herself creative, she didn’t fully embrace this potential until she attended a workshop with the Painting Experience. Founded by Fairfax resident Stewart Cubley, the Painting Experience is not your typical art school. Instead of emphasizing technique and expertise, workshops focus on self-exploration and expression through the process of painting. Participants are encouraged to listen to their imagination, to trust it and to paint what it inspires.

Everyone benefits from this different way of approaching art, Cubley says, even those who have never picked up a paintbrush or who have never pictured themselves as artistic. “It touches something that I feel is really core to everyone: a sense of their own greater potential. It’s an about-face for people to unhook themselves from feeling like they have to perform or achieve or accomplish, and instead be in the moment.”

That may seem like a stretch in a celebrity culture enamored of externally defined success, but for people who do take a chance, fulfillment is its own reward. Take Cheryl Berger. Twelve years ago the Novato resident had a demanding job as a computer systems programmer and project manager. She never had any formal art training, yet she was enchanted when she saw a local ceramics show. Intrigued by the idea of creating something from nothing, she signed up for a weekly ceramics class at the Terra Linda Community Center, where she was encouraged to make anything she felt like. She was instantly hooked.

Not only did she look forward to the evening class; she found herself so energized afterward that it was hard to get to sleep. Her mind buzzed with images of potential clay creations. She learned quickly to set aside her perfectionist tendencies and focus on the experience rather than the eventual product. Now retired, Berger creates ceramics in her home studio and still finds it a welcome outlet in her life.

“To this day, when I start really getting into it, I don’t want to cook, I don’t want to clean, I don’t want to eat,” says Berger. “I love that feeling.”

Even artists who earn their livings by their craft acknowledge there’s much more to their work than the pieces it creates. Mill Valley oil painter Eric Zener, for example, finds that whenever he’s away from his work, he looks forward to returning, whether on a Monday or after a vacation. “My wife always laughs because I’m always like, ‘I can’t wait to take a vacation,’ and then five days into it, I’m like, ‘I can’t wait to get back,’” he says. “I’m just really comfortable and at ease working on art that I like. The world just disappears.”

For those with jobs that don’t involve art, creating something can fill a different need. Matthew Hymel has his hands full as Marin County Administrator and as the father of three kids under the age of 10. Yet in his free time he’ll head to the garage, dig out his painting supplies from among the kids’ sports equipment and back out the minivan to give himself room to work.

“For me, it’s nice to do something that’s completely subjective and creative, and I just enjoy the process of doing that,” says Hymel. “It’s kind of a way to get away. It’s a lot more subjective than an activity like balancing the budget or something like that.”

During especially busy times, Hymel’s art tends to be abstract, allowing him to focus less on the outcome than painting a portrait might require. Overall, he views painting as a chance to create something uniquely his:“I don’t get hung up on how good it is.”

Belvedere resident Virginia Doyle, who has painted for 20 years, was forced to take a more relaxed approach to her painting when her eyesight deteriorated. About five years ago, she was diagnosed with macular degeneration. Back then her paintings were detailed, Impressionist-style works with intricate dots of color. As her vision further deteriorated, instead of of giving up painting, she changed her style. Her techniques now include collage and throwing paint on the canvas, sometimes in a way that clearly depicts objects such as flowers.

Today, legally blind, Doyle cannot see out of one eye and can see only shapes and colors with the other. Yet her art has become both more rewarding for her and more successful in the eyes of others: Two galleries now display her work—the first time it’s ever been formally shown.

“I think I’m looser; I let go,” says Doyle. “It’s freer and people see that form of art and they can relate to it. It isn’t so controlled.”

Before, says Doyle, she painted out of fear—of not getting the end product just right, of failing. Now, however, she paints to enjoy what she calls the bliss of the process: “I think I’m having a lot more fun. I know I am.”

That inherent fun is something children understand. They don’t worry whether they’re talented enough to try something new. They enjoy the creative process as much, if not more, than what they create. It’s as we get older that self-doubt and pursuit of perfection tend to stifle the creative spirit.

“The challenge is to allow ourselves to feel curious, curious enough to try something, to be experimental,” says Marin. “It’s not about being a fine artist with work hanging in a museum. It’s about following a little seed, tending it and watching it grow into something amazing.”

Finding Your Inner Creative Force

The Painting Experience
Workshops and retreats are held throughout the year in different locales. The next local retreat will be Oct. 5­–7 in Tiburon. Details at 415.455.4682 or

Sweat Your Prayers
Classes that create art through movement, teaching participants to realize their potential through dance. Information available at and

Community Centers
Many local centers offer a range of classes to inspire creativity, from ceramics to painting to music.