Lessons from Art: An Interview with Ashley Mary on Healing, Process & Spirituality

“And I believe in an expansive God. My God is a breathing entity. Ever expanding…like water and air but bigger than either of those things. And there isn’t a door to the God I know. There’s just a field surrounded by a forest and your ability to turn in any direction to enter into it’s unknown” -Ashley Mary

This snippet was part of Ashley’s "Let the Chaos Happen” Creative mornings talk last Winter. Her description of God instantly moved me to tears.

Yes. This. This is how what I’ve been trying to name, I thought. The freedom, the permission, the space. No special doors or codes just an open beautiful field filled with light that I can enter from any direction.

Now, at many points in the past decade I would read the beginning of this blog post and immediately close out. “Click!” No thank you. Hard pass on the God talk. I would have been insta eye-roll annoyed. Faith felt like a club I faked belonging to in mega church lock-ins, something many people I knew used to spiritually bypass self responsibility and the impact of their actions.But I realized through some work, some aging, some internal wrestling, a decent heaping of meditation, and some heartfelt conversations with the lovely Natalia Terfa that I had mixed up God and faith with my pain around a few individual people, a couple of cultural norms, and a lot of anger around the cards I had been dealt in the family department. In essence, I kinda threw the baby out with the bathwater. Or maybe my anger was disguised as a baby? You get my drift. 

But this isn’t totally about my journey with faith or God. Not just that. It’s about something bigger. And it led to something pretty special. The idea of expansiveness. About choosing what something means TO US. Allowing ourselves to have and relate to important internal constructs (faith, gender, success, beauty) in ways that WORK FOR US is so incredibly powerful. I didn’t think that I got to claim my spirituality or relationship with God because I didn’t fit into a Christian, Buddhist, Catholic, Lutheran, etc. etc. box. I felt like because of that I didn’t get to play. It didn’t even occur to me that *I* (BOLD UNDERLINE ITALICS) was the one who got to decide what this relationship was and could be inside of me. That I got to claim it and nurture it and foster it regardless of how much I fit (or didn’t) into any category. An open field. Your ability to turn in any direction.

It makes me so happy and comforted to see what feels like a slow moving but true and deep cultural shift towards fluidity and complexity.  In so many places--gender, vocational trajectories, the many ways that life can look and be perfectly acceptable, meaningful and unique. And as is relevant to my line of work—healing. It doesn’t have to be, and never is, one way. Sometimes we want it to be just to feel like we are on track. We like time-frames. Checklists. The promises of relief. To have some sort of lighthouse guiding us in the dark. To know where we are heading and whether or not we are going to be okay. Of course we want that. 

AND a big part of healing I believe is embracing that we are expansive too. To allow ourselves freedom to relate to our own process of healing and discovery- that there are no special doors, codes, or secret handshakes. If we can observe our process with a bit of space, a bit of revery, a bit of trust and and dare I say faith, we tend to see (key) often after the fact- that there was meaning, growth, evolution embedded--divine intervention even- it was meant for us. 

This is a long winded way of saying this concept for me is profound. So much so that I decided it needed to be on my walls permanently. And so, I asked Ashely if she would be willing to paint an expression of that initial quote in whatever way felt true for her. I told her I wanted to put it up in my office for my clients to see as they did their transformational work and lucky for me she said yes. 

For those of you who don’t know her, Ashely is has a spirit and energy so bright and alive that lots and lots of people pay to have a trace of her good juju and amazing talent in their space be it Google, Target or the best little local pop-up in town. Ashely is an incredibly gifted artist, a very intelligent human, and is one of the hardest working most thoughtful people I know. So not only was I hoping to have this symbol of faith, transformation and healing on my walls- I truly hoped she would be the one to bring it to life. 

I asked her to document her process to highlight this idea of so often feeling in life and love and healing like we don’t know where the hell this ship is going, it’s not until the end we go “ohhhhhhh theres’ the pattern”  “wowww that really came together didn’t it?!” or “that was a mess the whole damn time but now I see the meaning.” 

I sat down with Ashely recently and interviewed her about the painting she created, about healing, process and spirituality. There is so much we can learn from art, and from artists, humans, like Ashely. Gems and wise nuggets abound in this conversation. Read on.

Dr. Anna: I feel like there's a lot of parallels in my mind between a creative process and a healing process. And I'm curious to know, what is your creative process? When you have a blank canvas in front of you...I think there's something we can learn about healing from that.

Ashley Mary: I think in terms of this piece, I knew that you genuinely wanted me to create from a soul space, and not a certain design need...that you wanted me to really be in the process fully and for it to be an expression of myself. So I, right away having just the client freedom to be like, okay, I'm going to explore this idea for myself. And I'm going to let this be a little bit more intimate of a dance.

The way that I come to a canvas and my materials, I'm not treating them preciously. There's no rules here. And I think ultimately, that is the same permission that I want to give myself when I'm when I'm understanding something I'm going through, that I’m gentle. There's no certain way this has to look, It just has to be true to myself. It has to be attentive to the process, and not so much the outcome. 

People always ask, how do you know when it's done. I could work on this piece for the next 10 years of my life, and it would never need to be done or have to be done. Because that's not the point. The point is that it's layered. And it has like a flowing aesthetic, and it's balanced. But those things could happen if I put 10 more layers on it still too. And that is so true to myself, like I'm I me right now, and I'm fully me. But that doesn't mean I don't have the rest of my life to continue to become fully me. And I may feel healed in this moment. But that doesn't mean I'm not gonna go through a whole other process of pain, and then healing again, and pain and healing again. It's always ongoing. And I feel like with my paintings and this specific style, I could have just kept going forever. But you stop and you you say, now it's done. It's done for now. This is what it this is what it is. And that’s life right there.

I really found it quite therapeutic to paint.  I used different mediums in this painting, which I don't normally do.This style just invited me to bring in a lot of different toolsI use pastels, I use colored pencils, I used acrylic paint...I wanted it to be a bunch of different types of mark making, I didn't want it to just have one visual that was repeated over and over again. Because to me the complexity fits my sense of spirituality, which is what this pieces grounded in. 

Dr. Anna: How do you relate to the in between places...where you're in the process, and you don't know where it's going. There's no sense of pattern, there's hindsight yet or emerging meaning you're just in it and maybe feel lost. Do you ever experience that in your process, or have you found a way to relate to that, that fuels you that we could maybe learn from?

Ashley Mary: I definitely on a personal level relate to that, not having yet picked up on a pattern... I do believe all things have one when we can zoom out. But when you're in it, it's sometimes very hard to see. And with painting, my messy abstract pieces, which your commissioned piece would be an example of, is a good comparison to life as some moments of my life are more spontaneous, and they're not meant to be thought out. I run into moments where I don't quite know what I need to do next to have it get to a place that I'm I love with or I'm excited about. 

And sometimes the best thing for me to do in that is to step away from it for a little bit, let it breathe, not like not fester on it too much, like give myself some personal space from it. And sometimes, when I actually start focusing on a different painting, the one that I can't quite figure out starts to make a little sense. So I'm letting other projects influence the one that's I'm hung up on can be a good way to then dive back in. And sometimes because my style is pretty messy, I might just have to entirely go over it with the whole new color, a whole new idea and then start from scratch. 

Often times those are usually end up being my favorite moments is where I like, I'm like, Okay, this isn't working, let's just try something a little extreme. Let's cover it all up. And what happens when I cover it up a lot of times, I'm not covering it up fully. I'm leaving little chunks to show themselves still. So you've got this contained little chaotic moment, but it's surrounded by this new layer. And what happens, the surprise that happens there, when I leave a little bit to be seen is really fun. And I do think there's entirely many things for that in my life. For me, the best thing is to create something new out of the old but not by covering up the old but by giving it new life. I'm not trying to erase my old work, I'm trying to like reinvent it or like, give it fresh face.

Dr. Anna: What allows you to take that leap to be like, this isn't working. I think that can be one of the hardest moments in a personal process. What allows you to do that?

Ashley Mary: Sometimes it's just playing out the worst case scenario and, and then realizing that it's really not that bad worst case scenario, what's going to happen to this painting is maybe I have to start over.And usually, that's often the case with anything big going on in my life.  Like, worst case scenario, I have to move out, I have to let down this client, they're going to be one person bummed at me. I'm thinking of recent things, I've gone through those worst case scenarios that they do suck, they don't feel good. And they can make me sad or stressed or panicked. But in the big scheme of things do I still have? Do I still have people who love me? Do I still have a roof over my head? Can I still breathe, move my body? Worst case scenario usually doesn't mean everything has gone to shit. It's just one thing that's not working out. And same with my painting. Like, yeah, I have to paint over this one. But I've got other paintings that are working. And that means that I might learn something new in this process of starting over. 

I think giving yourself permission is just a life practice. The more you do it, the easier it gets. So The more I can say no to something or to give myself permission to start over the more I give myself grace when things that aren't going that well, the easier it does to do it is to do it next time. So I'm trying to get better at being gracious with myself and asking for things when I need them.

Dr. Anna: What role does spirituality play in your life? How do you relate to it now? 

Ashley Mary: My spirituality feels like the act of paying attention to things around me. As they're happening, paying attention to themes, being connected to nature, and my relationships are probably the ways I experience my spirituality the most, and being alone in a space breathing and thinking. That's my living spirituality, as simple as just being outside.'s all encompassing. It's not a certain time or place. It's like a mindfulness and the the choosing to acknowledge all things that are outside of myself inside of myself and beyond myself all at the same time. And that nothing fits into a box, I like, loosen my grip, and open my hands, and then let life happen. Paying attention to those patterns. That's my spirituality.

And letting all of that constantly impact the type of person I'm becoming.movement is a major theme throughout my entire life. My art has movement in it, my life rhythms have movement in them, physically I'm a mover, I love to move, I feel most energized when I can move in my job. After work, when I need to be recharged when I'm with other people, I like to move. And so I want that theme to also play into my character, I want my character to move forward, I want the way that I love people to have movement,I want to be a better version of myself in five years than I am now. But that requires change and change is movement.that's a big part of my spirituality is a sense of point A to point B and what's happening, that line in between is my spirituality. But point B is eternally moving forward, forward, forward. And it's maybe point B might not even be on on the side of this earth.It's probably elsewhere.

That's it.

That's exciting to me.

And horrifying.

But mostly good. Yeah. mostly good.

Dr. Anna: So where you're sitting now on that couch? Yeah. My clients for the as long as I will be working are going to be looking at your art (crying obvi) in all of their tender places, broken places. What do you hope they see. 

Ashley Mary:  Oh, yeah, you’re going to make me cry too, about that. When I think about the role therapy is played in my own life and what you mostly crave when you're in a space of being really vulnerable. And being usually kind of scared of yourself and scared of what's happening in your life. Right? It's like a place where you have like permission to be just scared. It's a vulnerable space. I hope that anybody that looks at my work ever, in this space or not, feels lightness first and foremost, one of my most favorite words. 

Breath. Complexity, Peacefulness. I love if a piece can make you feel like joy. I think that's very strong. But I think in this space, I would want that to feel like breath and lightness. I think joy has it has its place but in this space, imagining what people are mostly confronting themselves with I would hope that they can breathe, know that...I mean, it's not my pieces role to tell people this but like that they understand that this is safe and good and hard work. And that it's worth it.

A gigantic thank you to Ashley for sharing both her talent and her wisdom. You can learn more about Ashely Mary and her work here. To get future writings and blog posts sent directly to your inbox you can sign up for my newsletter to here.

Finished product! One for my office and little one for my home. So special!!

Finished product! One for my office and little one for my home. So special!!

Ashley and the painting she created for me in my office <3

Ashley and the painting she created for me in my office <3

Anna Roth