The Power of Creative Engagement

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Inside her studio, with a big brush in her hand, Martha Jo Mahoney is talking to herself, arguing with her painting and communicating with the outside world — all at the same time.

“Whatever I have to say, this is how I say it,” she said as she waves her brush at a brightly colored canvas that looks a bit like a slow, controlled explosion of happiness.

While painting is how Mahoney communicates with the world, it’s also how she escapes it.

“When I paint, I forget about anything else that might be bugging me,” she said. “Anything I’m upset about I can take it out on the canvas and get it out here.”

Mahoney is approaching her 73rd birthday, and her passion for painting not only gets her up in the morning, it drives her to her studio. “I’m in the studio three hours every day,” she said. “I have to paint. It’s my language. It’s in my soul. I can’t imagine my life without art.”

Art is war; and at times, Mahoney enjoys engaging in the battle — trying to extract a finished piece from weeks of trial and error. “I love the process. I love the problem solving,” Mahoney said. “But I’ve finally learned that sometimes letting go and moving on is more important than solving that damn problem. Quit stressing over it. If it’s not working, turn it upside down and go for it. Pull out your big brush! Life is precious, paintings are not.”

Paintings might not be precious, but the process of painting is. Decades ago, Mahoney was diagnosed with aortic valve stenosis, a disease of the heart valves that can lead to sudden death. She was in such bad shape that doctors performed open-heart surgery to transplant a life-saving bovine valve. The operation was a success, but recovery was difficult. It wasn’t until she had a brush in her hand that she found her way forward.

“Painting was the most important part of my rehabilitation,” she said. “It gave me hope and inspired me to keep going.” Mahoney’s main artistic influence has always been her travels. “I take a trip and absorb the culture, the colors, the history, the essence of a place. When I return to the studio, I start a new series and the experience somehow finds its way into my work.” She is also influenced by other artists.

“I have, at times, painted a Monet or a Picasso,” she said. “In doing that, I’ve discovered how they solved their problems. I also go to workshops and paint with other artists several times a year where I learn new techniques, new brush strokes or new ways to mix colors.”

Mahoney is still experimenting, learning and growing. She said, “I haven’t closed myself in yet, and I hope I never do. I want to create something I haven’t seen before every new year. I want to take another step forward.”

Mahoney believes that art is for everyone.

“Whether it’s creating pottery, sculpting, painting, whatever — take a class,” she said. “When you create something, it changes you. It helps you understand yourself and puts you in touch with thoughts, feelings and abilities that you never knew you had.”

Research reinforces Mahoney’s message. A long-term study, published in the “Journal of Aging and Health,” looked into a variety of personality traits and concluded that only creativity confers significant, life-extending benefits. Subjects who demonstrated above-average creativity enjoyed a 12% decrease in mortality risk over an 18-year period.

The mechanism for the health benefits of creativity is not fully understood, but most researchers believe it’s because creative thinking draws on a variety of neural networks within the brain. Creativity, at its core, is problem solving. A blank canvas is nothing more than a problem to be solved. Mahoney says the opportunity to develop our creativity surrounds us all.

“Every little town in America has an art community that you can join,” Mahoney said. “Does it make any difference whether you’re any good or not? No! It doesn’t make a damn difference. Art is for you.”

Ultimately, creating a great life is a lot like creating a great abstract painting. Both rely on continual problem solving. And when things aren’t working, Martha Jo Mahoney has a suggestion borne of experience: “Turn it upside down and pull out the big brush!”