Creativity is a topic that is endlessly fascinating to me: how it shows up in our personalities, projects and propensities; how it is nurtured or cultivated; and how it doesn’t show up when you really wish it would. People often assume creative energies refer only to artistic endeavors, but it’s much broader and deeper than that, for creative thinking is used––or at least can be used––in every facet of our lives, including but not limited to planning and preparing meals, raising children, arranging the living room, fixing an engine, planning a vacation, building a house or running a business.
So, I don’t have a narrow definition of creativity, but when I heard about the coloring craze that swept the country and right into Ely, I did scratch my head a bit in puzzlement. I heard that the library held a coloring night and 25 people showed up! This is in Ely, where it’s hard to pry people out of their houses at night, especially in the winter. Not only that, they wanted more, so additional coloring nights followed. I noticed coloring books showing up in local stores featuring flowers, butterflies, mandalas, wild animals, fairies, and abstract patterns, many with very intricate and beautiful designs, including some gorgeous work created by local artist Dafne Caruso, owner of the Art Corner.
For years I’ve known friends who find it relaxing to color occasionally, who might sheepishly disguise it as an activity they’re doing with their kids, but this is a whole different magnitude, like an invasion of army worms that you just didn’t see coming and then, there they are, clinging to your house and dropping in your hair. A million coloring books sold in 2014 exploded to an astounding 15 million in 2015. In 2016, 3,500 new titles were released, up from 300 in 2014. The mega craft store Michael’s displays more than 140 titles, and Walmart, Target, and Barnes & Noble all provide substantial shelf space for adult coloring books and related art supplies. A small publishing startup, Blue Star Coloring, entered the market in March of 2015 with its first adult coloring book titled “Stress Relieving Patterns,” destined to become a best seller. They sold seven copies the first month, 15,000 the next month and over a million by the end of the year. A search on Amazon for “adult coloring books” brought up 89,522 responses. Wow. And, just by-the-by, to throw out one of those never-answered virtual questions, how does anyone ever get to the 89,522nd item? Or the 52nd one, for that matter?
The instigation of this craze is laid at the feet––or the hands––of Scottish author, Johanna Basford, whose book, Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt and Colouring Book, published in 2013, featured detailed images of topiaries and flowers with other images hidden within the complex illustrations.
There is disagreement about whether this very popular activity is either meditative or creative. Some people find coloring very relaxing while others find it is stressful, including myself. I can color for about ten minutes and then it feels too confining, and I want to be off doing other things. But, obviously, many others find satisfaction in this activity that can provide a reprieve from other activities and demands. The Ely Public Library coloring groups are not unique, as similar groups have sprung up all over the country in libraries, community rooms, and coffee houses. There are many Facebook pages for coloring groups where members share their creations and sometimes their stories of healing, managing chronic pain or fending off depression. One woman shared how it helped her survive the death of her baby.
It has long been recognized that art therapy give clients an opportunity to use non-verbal techniques to get in touch with feelings that are hard to express, and to process difficult circumstances in their lives. Although some would argue that coloring books are too restrictive, that techniques need to be more open-ended and free-flowing to be of help, Clinical psychologist, Ben Michaelis, sometimes recommends them to clients. He explains, “Distress usually comes from external pressures or internal fears of things that you cannot control. When you are coloring, you are engaged in a highly structured activity that is generally not goal-oriented. It changes your focus to something more manageable and, as a result, you experience less distress.”
Local author Nancy Scheibe, proprietor of the Art & Soul gallery, was ahead of the current game when she created a coloring book in the 90’s, Women’s Experience Coloring Book: A Playful Journey in Healing and Hope. She said art had helped in her own healing, and she combined counseling experience with art to create the book that might benefit others.
Research has shown that meditation can benefit mental and physical health, reduce anxiety, lower blood pressure and increase memory as well as the ability to focus and concentrate. There haven’t yet been studies exploring the recuperative benefits of coloring, but certainly many of the titles allude to that possibility, including descriptors like creatively calm, stress relieving, and good vibes. But the range of books goes far beyond warm and fuzzy, with talent and imagination abounding in the creation of the books themselves. Whatever your inclination, you can probably find an appropriate coloring book. I found one about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and others called Deco Tech, Dazzling Dogs, Disney Dreams, many based on Grimms’ Fairy Tales and some truly “adult” titles: I Don’t Give a Damn, the Swear Word Coloring Book and Adorable Animals with Foul Mouths. I’m sure there are more very adult offerings out there, but I didn’t want to pollute my search engine.
Clinical psychologist Craig Sawchuk of the Mayo Clinic claims coloring books do work like other mindfulness techniques such as yoga and meditation, working to turn down the stress response of the sympathetic nervous system. “Coloring can help slow down heart rate and respiration, loosen muscles and stimulate the brain.” He says, “the gentle pressing of pencil on paper, the texture of the paper on the hand, and the soft sounds of the coloring instrument moving back and forth in a rhythmic fashion have a grounding effect.”
Lina Assad Cates, a psychotherapist and art therapist, also uses coloring books as part of her practice. “The books help create boundaries—the literal boundaries of the lines and the metaphorical boundaries for drawing healthy boundaries in relationships. There’s also the potential benefit of just mastering something you’ve created.” But none of the art therapists are suggesting that coloring is true art therapy, which is based in the relationship with another experienced person, the therapist.
Those who like to comment on our society have said that during times of economic depression and recession, the popularity of board games (and particularly Monopoly, created in 1935) along with movies and video games surged. Perhaps there’s a coloring correlation here with people needing and finding an easy, soothing activity to do with others or alone, to smooth the jagged edges created by the ongoing political and economic turmoil during the interminable campaign years and since the election. Well, whether you like combining wild and bold colors within the safe confines of others’ designs, giving your hands something to do instead of smoking, or you don’t know why, you just like it…there’s bound to be a book out there for you. And if you haven’t tried it, maybe you should give it a go. Who knows––it might turn you from a seething, outraged liberal into a Zen-like moderate.