As a child, Mandy Thompson’s world was clay dirt roads and tiny white churches, the Ohoopee River and colossal oak trees.
“I grew up in Tattnall County, in Glennville, Georgia, which is about an hour and 15 minutes from here. You wave at everybody because you know that they know your mama even if you don’t know who they are. If you don’t, you’re going to have a talking to about it,” she recalls with a giggle.
It was in this rural and rustic landscape that Thompson began to walk the path that would lead her through life, that of a creator.
“I was either outside playing, roaming around in the woods by our house ... or I was drawing. I was coloring. I was getting my hands on every piece of Lisa Frank I could find,” she says.
“And when my mom would take me shopping in Savannah, I would beg her to take me by Michaels because I loved all things visual arts. I loved drawing and I was actually into very realistic drawing when I was a kid.”
She took a slight detour through music, but after moving to Brunswick was drawn back to the world of color and crafting. Many locals likely equate Thompson — a highly respected and thoroughly beloved painter — with that particular medium. Fewer likely realize that it was journaling that pulled her back to painting.
But it wasn’t all rainbows and daisies. Thompson’s journey into the world of journaling began in a rather dark place.
“I was in my early 30s, around the time we were starting our family, and I went through some pretty significant grief. I was also realizing that the way I felt inside was actually anxiety and wasn’t normal. I just thought everybody was terrified inside all the time. I had no idea,” she says with a shrug.
“So, I was talking to a mentor of mine and she suggested that I get a mixed media journal, then flip through magazines, find images that felt true to me, cut them out, and glue them down. That was the start of my entrance into journaling, specifically art journaling.”
While the goal of art journaling is much the same as the traditional method — logging feelings, emotions, and happenings for a cathartic release — the process is different. Rather that using complete sentences and narration, art journaling allows participants to paint, sketch, color, or list out words that encapsulate their inner world.
Since beginning, Thompson has found it to be incredibly helpful in nurturing her mental health and relieving her anxiety.
“The reason that was so significant for me and the reason it seems to work for a lot of people is that art journaling allows us to put on paper what we have a hard time putting into words,” she says.
“In some ways, it’s safer. You don’t have to be so specific. It doesn’t have to be so on the nose, like a confession, but you can still cathartically release. There’s something about entertaining that inner voice, releasing that voice, getting it out on paper, and separating it from ourselves that makes anxiety calm down.”
It’s a way to acknowledge any brooding storms and help to quiet the internal tempest.
“We can say to our worries, ‘I heard you. I see you. I’m getting you out and down on paper. Collecting you and putting you on paper.’ Then, you can close your journal and walk away.”
Thompson’s journaling practice has become a grounding force, something she uses everyday in a number of ways. Not only does she spend time sketching and coloring. She’ll also often list words that capture her emotional state. And she even incorporates some of the daily to-dos into the notebook.
“My journaling practice has two rhythms. Nearly every day I spend some early morning time in my journal. In that time, I am turning my mind to my to do list. I might make small piece of art in my journal or write out some of what is bouncing around inside of me,” she says.
“My journal is also my planner. I live out of it — but not into it. My journal goes with me through the day. I keep track of important conversation, events, and ideas that I have. I make notes. Just today, I glued tiny thumbnails of art from an artist I really like into it. I do all of it there. There are so many parts and pieces of me that I need to find a way to pull them all together.”
About eight years ago, Thompson shared some of her journal entries on Facebook and received many inquiries from followers who wanted to purchase the pieces.
“I told them that these were in a notebook but I could put it on a canvas for them, so that’s what got me back into the visual arts as an adult,” she says.
Prompted by her friend, Megan Davis, who formerly owned Color Me Happy downtown, Thompson started teaching the technique in class settings. She expanded to other circles, reaching even more people through her church. Prior to the pandemic, she began offering courses at Coastal Pines Technical College.
“During the pandemic, I did Zoom classes which really focused on journaling from the spiritual, soul care side. It was incredible to be able to do that since journaling is a very physical experience but we were able to include some meditative readings and poetry, just vibing off of that. I loved it,” she says.
Thompson is getting back into the rhythm of leading classes but she’s also always willing to offer tips. She shares many through her Facebook page. One of her first and foremost pieces of advice is to start small.
“Start simple with bare minimum goals. You want to do something that will allow you to create a regular practice. You don’t have to build a home studio or spend two hours journaling every day. You can do small, bite sized things. Do a thumbnail sketch of items on your kitchen table or your favorite bird bath in your backyard,” she suggests.
“Then maybe scratch notes what’s going on inside and outside that day — your brain and your environment. It doesn’t have to be complete sentences. It can be a list of what’s in my head. Write for five minutes and let that be your journaling time.”
Designating a time for journaling can be the key to sticking with and building a rewarding practice. Thompson typically embraces the stillness of the morning (and the aid of coffee) to journal but that doesn’t work for everyone.
“It may be a lunch break or every day in the carpool pick up line. Just find a time when distractions are minimal. Then, spend whatever you want to put into it — 5 or 15 minutes. But keep it regular, our brains respond well to external cues of ‘hey, it’s time to do this thing,’” she says. “If you set a regular time, that choice is already made. You don’t have to negotiate with yourself about when you’re going to do these things you want to do.”
As far as what to put down, that is as individual as the person doing the writing. However, Thompson has found that a few, open-ended prompts can help open the flood gates.
“There are two to three prompts that I might use when I don’t know what to do on the page. They’re all subjective but one I like a lot is: I think ____, I feel ____, I want ____, I need ____, I can ____, I have ____, I love ____. That is a very quick self check. You can fill in those blanks and decorate the spots around it. Within five minutes, you have a check in for the day and I don’t have to worry about myself. I can get on with what’s happening.”
One thing Thompson encourages newbie, artistic journalers to avoid is prompts that are too broad or that target a specific area of one’s life or past. Instead, the idea is to encourage an artistic bloom by keeping open.
“You want prompts that are super open-ended, rather than something like, ‘my favorite childhood memory,’” she says with a laugh. “Just no, no, no. We want a way to crack the door open and let whatever needs to flow flow.”
• Mandy Thompson is a professional artist with work featured in a number of galleries and shops around the Golden Isles. For more information about her journaling classes or art work, visit mandythompson.com.