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Visual Models: Process, Stories and Powerful Takeaways

Visual Models and Leaving Home

I just finished a workshop with the California Rural Indian Health Board, Inc., Visual Cultural Models. What does visual – cultural – models mean? When I read the title, I felt the same way. What will we do with visuals, blended cultures, models, theories, ideas, and concepts? Like any task that feels unsurmountable, I thought about it for a few weeks and did nothing.

What am I willing to leave my home, family, and life behind for? Not much. The pressure mounts as I realize that the workshop must be the best it can be. Participants will travel from all over the state of CA, leaving their loved ones and responsibilities behind. Anything less than “over the top” is a failure in my mind. Pressure builds. Feelings of not enough, not an artist, and this is going to be so lame are the lyrics playing in my relentless unconscious mind.

But, like all well people, I reached out and asked for help. I am lucky because I am surrounded by creative people who have ideas, and we balance each other. I tend to land on extreme concepts that may be unattainable to execute, they bring me down to reality, and we meet in the middle. It was a Friday afternoon. A long week of staring at Zoom screens, budgets, Word documents, and PowerPoints zapped my creative energy.

I called Jeanne Bowman and shared a few ideas about visual cultural models and what I would do... She’s a professional illustrator. I am a wannabe artist. Jeanne told me about her favorite author Lynda Barry.

Barry teaches adults to draw, many of whom left art and drawing in childhood because they were not perfect in art. We talked about her "Accessing the Imaginary"teaching.

We took this concept and developed a life-meaning exercise I could use in the workshop.

Seeing Others and Progressive Stories

We were intentional as we carved out the creative space for people to settle in. Seeing others’ faces rather than the backs of their heads was absolutely necessary. We rearranged the table and chairs into a U shape so everyone faced one another. We did some brief introductions, “Who are you and where do you work?” and then started a progressive story. I asked the group if anyone had heard of a progressive story… silence.

Two photos were projected onto the screen, a girl in a car with a dog hanging out the side window and a line-up of traditional dancers in ribbon skirts.

Every person was instructed to create a sentence that builds on the previous, similar to the game of I am going on a trip or telephone. I started… Jane just got her driver’s license and is taking Zoe, the dog to the park. Next participant… Zoe jumped out of the window to chase a squirrel… The story ended after about 15 people added creative ideas to the storyline. It ended with the squirrel throwing nuts at Zoe and Jane and driving off; the squirrel went home. The end.

The progressive story worked because it required presence. We listened intently to the storyline and considered what we would add. We laughed and connected just 5 minutes into the workshop. So far, this experience was something I would definitely leave my home for.

Starting the Creative Process

Next, we started the creative process. This is where things get a bit dicey because it’s not easy to take people from telling a story about Zoe, the dog, into a creative space where they are bearing their heart, soul, mind, and legacy to a room of strangers. But the meetings with Jeanne, the illustrator, paid off, and we had some practice examples.

1. Draw a mouse, step by step.

steps on how to draw a mouse
Illustration by Jeanne Bowman

2. Draw a human, step by step.

Illustration by Jeanne Bowman

I thought this process would take 5 minutes. It took at least 30 and some people were not done at the end of our three-hour workshop. They had difficulty getting into the creative flow, and there is no judgment; this is just the space they occupied. Next, we started the first actual drawing exercise.

3. Draw four squares on a large piece of paper.

You may fold the paper in half and then in half again (lines without lines). After you complete this task, create headers for each square.

1. Who are you?

2. What is the most significant event in your life?

3. How did you get where you are at today?

4. What legacy do you want to leave?

Here is an example illustration that Jeanne Bowman created.

Illustration by Jeanne Bowman

We worked on these four steps for quite some time, about 2 hours. But we were not in a space bounded by time. When one of the facilitators told me it was time for a break pointing at her watch, I smiled and said, “People can leave any time. This is all a break.” She smiled back. I could see people start to relax. Thinking this is a safe space.

I can be who I am. I can share what I think and feel. I can be grateful for this time.

The end exceeded my wildest expectations, seriously. People shared from their hearts. Tears were shed. Healing happened. Intentions for the future were set or at least illustrated. This process made people feel relaxed, grounded, and grateful.

As we ended our time together, we reflected on what the experience meant and how to apply it to our lives and professions. People are more than just their physical and professional identities, the letters behind their names, titles, and expensive clothes.

It is human nature to compare ourselves to others, resulting in feelings of inadequacy and discontentment. But art changes that. People connect their hearts and minds to their experiences and history.

Often drawings represent memories of an experience an individual had (loss, birth, death, struggle) in the past. Sometimes, people have never talked about or written them down; they are buried beneath addiction, guilt, denial, and disease. These show up as powerful drawings and images that present a visual story of a person’s soul experience. In these spaces, there is not much ego; in contrast, it is quite humbling.

Takeaways for Becoming an Artist In Your Work and Life

  1. Ask for help; find creative people, trustworthy people. Share your ideas with them, get support, grounding, and out of your mind.

  2. Get into art. Seriously. I am always amazed at how many students, adults, and people talk about loving and leaving art. Life events happened. They feel they are missing time and the creative space. It’s time to come back into the creative circle.

  3. Art is a language of the soul. It conveys meaning and messages that words never will.


This was entirely worth leaving home. And I feel grateful and empowered by the stories that will be ingrained in my memory for a long time because they were conveyed with visual illustrations and feelings not found in our busy reporting, academic, and evaluating world.



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