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  • Writer's pictureTamanna Rahman

Unleashing Creativity Through Embroidery: Exploring Ideas, Emotions, and Experiences

In my daily work as a psychiatric provider, I tend to focus on narrative: guiding each person I work with in crafting a story of how they came to be where they are, and in that process, developing agency to shape what comes next.

I think this focus for my work is rooted in my lifelong practice of journaling - I have been keeping a journal for as long as I could write, going back to early childhood. I never revisit them, yet have carted them with me from home to home for the last 35 years, from Los Angeles to New York, Baltimore to West Virginia, East Coast to West and back again. Boxes filled with the story of how I got here.

My focus on personal story is also deeply a part of my background as a labor organizer. The model I was trained in focused on slow, meaningful, individual connections, centered on the giving and garnering of stories, as the glue that holds the revolution together. When things get tough - as they will if you are fighting injustice - when we are not sure if we want to keep going, if the potential loss of a job and livelihood, deportation, jail time, is worth it, these bonds to one another are what keep us strong. This is the literal meaning of Union, how we become a collective that is more than the sum of its parts. I still believe that change is possible in this world and that we can make it.

These beliefs, and this spectrum of professional work, informs my textile work implicitly. I think of the type of exploratory embroidery that I teach as "narrative." Delving into the experiences of the mind and body, and revisiting our historical experiences both as an individual and as a community - I see all of this work as storytelling, narrative driven. This can feel rather abstract - how the heck do we translate sensory experiences into stitch form? What about memories, ideas, dreams? I've been honing a structured process for doing just this.

I have found that most students tend to fall into one of two categories: visual thinkers or verbal thinkers. Some are more drawn to images, and find it easier to brainstorm or express themselves in doodles and sketches, while others like written instruction, list making, and playing with language. In my class, we play with both of these methods of translation: first practicing assigning increasingly abstract language to ideas and experiences, then creating marks from this, which we can build up into images and stitch. Or, we go straight to drawing. I encourage my verbal thinkers to try the visual method, and my visual thinkers to play with the verbal method. I find it expands my creativity in different ways to flex to modes of thinking that don't come naturally. It is the space where I am most surprised by what surfaces.

Creativity should be playful, and my classes are usually composed of numerous "games" and explorations. But refinement and rigor is also key to finding satisfaction in the work, developing actual skill, and creating finished pieces. So after the periods of play and brainstorming, we learn techniques to apply constraints, edit, and draw out the ideas that we find most compelling from the chaos. This is the part that I love the most. Sometimes it's a single line from a page of doodles that calls to me and I think YES - where is THAT going?? It's exciting.

I'll be teaching this method online for the first four weeks in January, Fridays at lunchtime, 12-1, virtually. But I'll also be teaching in person for the first time in over a year, and this is definitely the teaching I find most fulfilling. Being able to actually watch your process, give feedback in the moment, and learn from the way you are working makes the teaching process much more of a reciprocal exchange, how it should be. I hope you will join in one of these workshops, whether you can afford to donate or not, you are welcome.

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