at 17 my creative voice discovered a new language
When I was seventeen years old, my best friend-we’ll call her Ada*-introduced me to art journaling. It was the first time I’d seen words and visual art combined to create a singular piece of art. It was the first time I’d seen a journal be used for more than just writing. Before then I couldn’t fathom that paper was capable of holding anything heavier than a staple or any other adhesion but glue. Her notebooks varied in size, and some had thicker pages than others, but they all held paint, pencil, thread, charcoal, fabric, tape, glue, photographs, gel medium…she experimented with it all. Some pages were designed to be secret doors to drawings, words, collages, and photographs hidden behind blank ones. Ada’s invitation to explore the worlds she created in her journals and sketchbooks showed me how to create a visual language for experiences I couldn’t articulate any other way. I didn’t actually start trying it out for myself however, until I was nineteen.
It was 2002. I had just finished my first year of community college, after failing the spring semester. I had also left home for reasons I couldn't explain to my mother. Explaining would require my bringing visibility to a long simmering issue, but more importantly to me and some very deep pain and shame I wasn’t ready to face. Exposure was the opposite of what I was longing for: continued numbness and the ability to disappear. No one knew I was failing three classes, had withdrawn from the other two, and had spent the entire semester working at the campus radio station instead of attending classes. Somewhere between February and March, I had a break with reality and was quietly having a nervous breakdown. I was able to hide it from everyone around me except for Ada.
When my grades came in the mail and my mother demanded answers, I simply walked upstairs to my closet and grabbed the duffel bag I had intuitively packed when winter began to thaw into the warmth of spring. I made zero eye contact as I walked out the door. Her confused and angry shouts of protest hit my back like heavy rain. She followed me onto the sidewalk, demanding to know where I thought I was going. I remember we tussled over the bag when she grabbed it in an attempt to stop me, I remember her stepping in front of me to impede my progress, and I remember my stepfather telling her to let me go. She wanted answers and the ones I had I couldn't give to her then. When I finally tried to do so two months later, it was an exercise in futility; she didn't believe me anyway. In response, I simply went further into myself, refusing to speak of the events that had led to my breakdown and abrupt departure to her ever again. I was 19 then and even as I approach the end of my thirties, we still haven’t discussed it. I’m not sure we actually ever will.
To this day Ada is the only person who knows the exact whys and hows of that season in my life as well as what had been happening over the two-year time period that broke me down until I felt as though I had no other choice but to leave home. She was the only one who ever has. Ada was my closest confidant because she believed me when I told her what was happening. She didn’t ask for proof, she didn’t say it was because I was “fresh” or a “flirt”, she didn’t ask me what I’d done to “deserve” any of it. She believed me and shared her own stories with me which were similar and secret too. I didn't always do right by her as a friend, but I'm grateful for what she gave me: a place to stay when I left home, friendship, and an escape through writing and art journaling. In many ways, watching her live art as much as she created it modeled for me a state of being and moving through the world that I longed to embody and experience for myself. I would show Ada my writings, she’d show me what she was creating at home or in her studio, and whenever I compared or doubted my own artistic voice, she’d always gently remind me to trust it. It was she who first told me that really, I was an artist, born to create and be expressive. A poet. A wordsmith whose words bore power. I remember during one of our conversations, I mentioned that I was afraid to write because writing had always been dangerous for me, that it exposed me to both emotional and physical violence from the authority figures in my life. My words-unfiltered and raw on the page-seemed to trigger something visceral in the adults around me and lead to outbursts that would silence my voice and invalidate my sense of being in response. I told her I wasn’t sure how to get over that fear of writing; her advice was to create an alias. We actually came up with it together: Nicole Paul. My middle name + my favorite apostle. (Paul is definitely not my favorite apostle today, but that’s commentary for another time)
We haven't spoken in a few years, but I think of her often, now that I've returned to art journaling again. I pulled out my very first one tonight and thumbed my way through it, feeling tears rush to my eyes as I read some of the words I'd written that summer, at 19. I wrote my way out of madness with that book. It was the beginning of my journey toward healing and wholeness, my way of finding my voice and letting it speak in the face of fear and depression. I had grown up being conditioned to silence, to being muted, but I finally fought back in that book. I took it everywhere with me and wrote even the most mundane words and thoughts in it. It’s a hodgepodge of images clipped from magazines, cd liner notes I’d collected over the years, labels I’d made while working at Sam Goody, photographs from my childhood and that Ada took of me, and words. There were so many words in the forms of letters, poems, prose, notes and random thoughts I’d pinned to the page so I wouldn’t forget them later.
I started that book on June 29, 2002. It was a new beginning for me, a quest for identity and embodiment, a determination to completely dismantle the life I had been given and rebuild it on my own terms. It would take me the next 11 years to do so.
*Her real name is not Ada, but she has become a well known, accomplished visual artist in the years since we were teenage friends. I remain deeply grateful for all that she taught me back then because it has helped me become the artist I am today.