I’ve always been a sucker for trying new things. Every month I attend at least one creative workshop, engaging my brain in anything from cross-stitch to watercolours to game design. While none of these short classes gives me qualifications, that’s not really what I’m looking for. Whether online or offline, engaging with fellow creatives and like-minded folks is always one of my main goals.
Hillary Wall, founder and creative director of Cork & Chroma, says their paint-and-sip sessions are designed to create a supportive, social atmosphere. “When you’re surrounded by people who are in the process along with you,” says Hillary, “there’s a lovely sense of connection and community that we think enhances and emboldens your individual creative process.”
In such an atmosphere, learning is no longer a chore, but a choice. I feel enthusiastic about the task in front of me, rather than overwhelmed. When doing my very first painting at Cork & Chroma, I felt encouraged to explore and be playful. Everyone else’s cactus paintings looked different to my motley spikey friend, not necessarily because mine was “bad”, but because everyone’s expression was uniquely their own. “You can paint for fun, or you can paint to become technically great,” echoes Hillary. “There’s no right or wrong way. In our studios, we encourage painting for the fun of it and for the benefits that come along with self-expression.”
It’s this ability to learn through self-expression and play that keeps me coming back to creative workshops. I don’t need assessments to tell me I’m good at embroidery or sketching because I can see the results I want in front of me. According to Simmone Spring, coordinator at handmade craft workshop provider Hands on Brisbane, “A craft is a great way to engage your brain in learning, from that first try to developing and learning what you’re making to practising and playing. With a craft no one is marking your efforts and you can work at a pace that suits you.”
And while my efforts might not be considered “perfect”, they’re perfect to me and when I leave class, I leave with exactly what I came for: confidence, self-expression and a new skill. “We encourage a judgement-free environment,” says Reilly Keir, studio coordinator at the aptly named workshop provider Work-Shop. “It’s not about the quality of work you come away with, it’s about trying something new and finding new passions.”
Workshops give me newfound confidence and a spring in my step that I take back to my regular life. Days after concocting a terrarium or mood board, I feel enthusiastic about equally creative and non-creative activities, even boring things like household chores. I can’t stop thinking about how I conquered this really cool and interesting thing, and my whole world is coloured by it. “People surprise themselves,” agrees Reilly. “Workshops often begin with nervous excited energy, but by the end, students have gained confidence and knowledge that we hope they’ll carry with them for years to come.”
Due to several lockdowns, I’ve found myself bouncing between online and in-person workshops. Online workshops involve a certain amount of multi-tasking (checking the text chat, making sure I’m on mute), while in-person workshops have a different creative sense of catharsis that’s away from the computer screen. “It’s perhaps more important now than ever before that we find meaningful ways to spend our time doing things that enrich our lives,” echoes Hillary. “While our digital world expands and we spend more time online, we need to find grounding activities that keep us connected with our humanity and the physical world around us.”
This connection to fellow humans through a shared experience helps keep my brain active, even though I’m no longer attending any formal schooling or university. “Our brains, like our bodies, need a bit of a work out and maintenance as we get older,” agrees Maria Yebra, general manager of marketing and communications at Laneway Learning, a space for fun classes in anything and everything. “Learning new things is like doing a push-up for your brain and the more you work it out, the more flexible and young it will be. The beauty of community learning is that you improve two important issues at once: brain degeneration and social loneliness.”
With daily routines of workdays and weekend chores, learning and socialising are two things many folks don’t even contemplate tackling. I encourage creative thinking and play when my friend’s kids show me their new Lego creations, but I often don’t give the same encouragement to myself. “It’s no secret that, as we grow up, we lose touch with our innate creativity,” states Hillary. “Studies have shown that we are at our most creative as children. As adults, because we are less naturally inclined to express our creativity, we need to purposefully expose ourselves to opportunities where we can express our creativity and enrich our brains.”
It’s tricky but vital to carve out space for creative expression in a world of busy day-to-day demands. “Hands On Brisbane connects with a lot of crafters who are trying to find some ‘me time’ and a creative hobby they can pursue and learn,” says Simmone. “The great thing about choosing to learn crafts is that you can often do one class (or a few) and have enough skills to go about developing your interests at your pace, in your own home. Crafts are often rhythmic and have a set pace, as well as being able to pick up and put down when needed.”
Many of the skills and crafts I’ve learned in workshops are those that I’ve continued engaging with for years, especially when I’m feeling in need of a little relaxation or wanting to do something a bit different. And if my brain pops up with judgemental thoughts, I remind myself there’s no right or wrong way for me to be creative, especially in that moment. I’m designing something that is uniquely mine, whether it’s a homemade necklace or a painting, and that self-expression is full of playfulness and joy.
Rae White is a non-binary writer and artist. Their poetry collection, Milk Teeth (UQP, 2018), won the Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize and was shortlisted for the 2019 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. Rae is the founding editor of enbylife.net, a journal for non-binary and gender-diverse creatives. Their work has been featured in Archer, Overland, Pink Advocate, Sydney Review of Books and others.