Draw a blank

Art Inside Me

“We’re always asking ourselves, ‘Is this it?’” says Art Inside Me founder Sharon DeMattia.

“We’re always asking ourselves, ‘Is this it?’” says Art Inside Me founder Sharon DeMattia.

Photo/Ashley Hennefer

For more information, visit www.artinsideme.com.

Art Inside Me founder Sharon DeMattia believes that delving into the nitty gritty of identity starts with a blank canvas. And that’s what the Art Inside Me, which DeMattia is registering as a non-profit, seeks to accomplish.

It works like this. Participants in an Art Inside Me event receive a large piece of paper, on which a simple outline of a head and shoulder is sketched (by DeMattia herself, who draws all of the outlines by hand). On the right side of the chest, a red heart is drawn, so that when the artist holds up their canvas to show another person, the heart is right in front of their own. Artists are given colored markers and can fill in their canvas the best way they see fit, emphasizing their strengths, weaknesses, hopes and fears. DeMattia will begin an event by walking artists through the process, but essentially, anything goes. Some choose to write words in decorative typography, while others focus on color and imagery. It’s an activity that borders on art therapy, but is much more about “self-expression,” says DeMattia.

The image of a blank piece of paper with an outline waiting to be filled in is effective and powerful.

“Even just looking at it, you know where to begin,” she says. “Most people’s question throughout life is, ’Where do I start?’”

The concept for Art Inside Me began in Dec. 2012. After a period of hardship—a divorce and a lay-off from her job—DeMattia realized that she needed to keep herself in check with her lifelong goals. She has two young sons and found herself tackling financial and emotional stress. DeMattia is a researcher by trade, and delved into the data that explored why people grow up to feel unsatisfied, anxious and insecure. From here, she realized that there was plenty of evidence to support an endeavor that she eventually could turn into her livelihood.

She cites publications like Forbes and Harvard Business Review. “These organizations say that creativity is the number one job skill for the future. Adults often say they aren’t creative. But if you give a kid a marker, they don’t think like that. So I want to try to protect that if it’s not gone yet.”

After coming up with the idea, “things began to move quickly.” A pilot event was held at the Livingthebliss women’s grief workshop last summer (“Miss bliss,” June 6, 2013) and was well-received.

DeMattia has conducted Art Inside Me workshops, some more structured than others, with several demographics—adult men, adult women, teens and children. She says that adult men are often the hardest to open up but eventually find value in the project. She loves working with children because she can help preserve that sense of potential that’s often pushed aside when kids grow up.

She’s also used the project as a self-reflection activity for those dealing with difficult life circumstances, including the homeless people near the Truckee River, who were very receptive to the activity and enjoyed the chance to open up and share their life stories.

“We brought them food, coffee and doughnuts,” she says. “Everyone just wants to be heard. Everyone just wants to love and belong.”

DeMattia has also worked with pregnant youth at Casa de Vida and breast cancer survivors, as well as local elementary schools. The most effective part of the process, she says, is when each person shares their portrait. Participants are instructed to exchange their portrait with another person, and must trust that person to take care of it. The image becomes personified, and she notes that people become protective over their own and are more careful with others. She also photographs people with their portraits but purposely hides their face to let their art speak for itself.

“[The portraits] unlock hidden conversations,” she says. “You allow yourself to be imperfect. It’s a beautiful way to get unstuck.”