The Art of Not Censoring Oneself

I found the following post in the DRAFT department of my wordpress site. I didn’t publish it because I thought it wasn’t interesting enough, exciting enough? But thinking about it now, this experience was important to me. That’s what’s key- not second guessing what someone else may think. As I say later in this essay, it’s about trusting one’s intuitive voice. Enough of this self censoring…

The following is an essay I wrote up from a 25 minute writing prompt from from my class at Fishtrap Writing Conference in E. Oregon last summer. The prompt was something like write about a risk you took that changed you. This experience popped up in my mind so I ran with it…


In the photograph, I am standing by a 4-foot totem of raw clay that is constructed around a young tree.  I am sporting a broad smile with a coworker.  In another photo were several children deep in the process of constructing it.  The totem was the finished project I was assigned as a parent volunteer at my son’s 5th-grade outdoor school camp.  I signed up for the art station since I was a practicing artist.  Not only did I want my students to experience creative magic in this cathedral of Douglas fir, cedar, and hemlock, I wanted them to honor the revered creatures of the indigenous people who once occupied this land. 

This project was new to me – but my intuition beckoned me to it like a faerie whispering in my ear. I quieted the fears of all the potential pitfalls and risks and decided to proceed despite them. In preparation, I brought 50 pounds of clay the color of a threatening sky.  For details, I had blue, red, and gold paint in 2 oz. bottles, some small paint brushes, and a handful of large, colorful plastic beads.  The rest of the materials we would gather from what the forest offered.

Each group of 4-5 students had been assigned to a clan for the duration of camp; beaver, porcupine, salmon, crab, raven, squirrel, and eagle.  I had selected a perfect juvenile western hemlock standing straight in a small clearing for our blank canvas.  As each clan of boys and girls arrived at the site for their session we spoke of their totem animal.  What did they know about it?  Why did the Native Americans celebrate it? What was the purpose of totems for coastal native Americans?

To construct their totem animal I explained they were free to use all the clay and tools provided but the rest they would need to gather from the surrounding environment. I spoke about the cooperative process. They were to recognize what each clan member had to offer.  I opened the first rectangular block of clay, cut it into pieces, and let the students begin allowing them to organize themselves as they saw fit.

My first impulse was to step in and give guidance but I resisted.  Each group embraced an eerie reverence in their process and shared ideas with unbridled enthusiasm, “how about using moss?  This would work for feathers!”  Some students built the form, others scurried into the woods for materials. Before my eyes, the totem animals took shape, one on top of each other, surprisingly creative and realistic.  The raven was covered in dark soil for black feathers, the beaver had fur of moss, the porcupine had spines of twigs, the salmon was covered in scales from the tips of popsicle sticks making indentations into the clay, the eagle had feathers of leaf litter, the crab had beady eyes and the squirrel had painted on stripes with teeth of white beads.

At the end of the day stood a totem all the students were proud of.  I explained to each group that we would leave it standing as a gift to nature.  It would be consumed by the winds, rain, and snow of the seasons to come.  The totem animals would melt to the ground from the weather.  All the students returned at the end of the day to admire their work and the completed totem.  They took pictures and left with a sense of pride and respect.

I can’t be sure what those 5th graders took away with them that day, but I was left with a gift- the gift of trusting my intuitive voice and the creative vision of children.

If I had a photograph of that totem five years later I imagine the only sign of its existence would be a patch of raised earth the color of a threatening sky around the trunk of a young hemlock tree, moss, twigs, and a few brightly colored beads peppering the remaining clay.

Circa 1995. Outdoor school at my son’s elementary school was eliminated 2 years later due to funding issues.

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