How Artist and Mother Leah Guzman Unlocked the Art at Heart

Here is the second post in my ABC (Always Be Creating) Inspirational Guide to Pandemic Survival: A look at one mom’s journey from post-partum frustration to unstoppable creation.

In the weeks after my first child was born, I remember staring up through bloodshot, envious eyes at my sister-in-law, Leah Guzman, while clutching my tiny new human to my chest.

I was still trying to figure out the least awkward way to hold a baby; Leah scooped up our newborn with confidence and grace only a seasoned matriarch could exude. Her calmly inquisitive face seemed to radiate sunbeams, in contrast to the dull gray skin of the involuntary insomniac who looked back at me from the mirror.

She was thriving as an artist and a mother of two. I had a harder time keeping up with her constant conveyor belt of prestigious art shows, novel collaborations and inspiring achievements than I did with the constant stream of multicolor poopy diapers that emitted from my daughter.

Leah Guzman and daughter Carmen engaged in beach-side creativity.

Leah was clearly in her element, and from my tired, unshowered, spit up-covered place on the couch, it appeared that her breed of quiet confidence had been instilled at birth, emitting not even a hiccup as she crossed the threshold of motherhood.

Now, almost four years later, I finally mustered the courage to ask whether my impression of her as an unwavering, unshakeable, artistic warrior mama was correct.

It turns out it wasn’t.

“I was shocked by motherhood,” she told me in a recent interview, much to my surprise.

She said it was during her first post-partum walk — a pastime she had always enjoyed before — that her new reality had truly hit her. “It felt so strange pushing the stroller, realizing ‘Wow, he’s always going to be here. This is a new world and I’m going to have to adapt to this.'”

She’d been accustomed to taking spontaneous trips, whether across town or across the Atlantic. “I used to always just get up and go places. But when I became a mom, it became too hard to get ready and get us out the door.”

Throughout her life, her art had always been center stage. But now, between balancing a full-time job as an art therapist and taking care of her first, and then three years later her second child, time to create her own art soon evaporated.

Leah leading art therapy students in mural creation.

As her daughter approached her second birthday, Leah started to feel the wear of a five-year drought of self-care.

“I wasn’t happy. I had a lot of anxiety and bouts of crying,” Leah said about that time period. She started taking yoga, which provided some relief and helped her tune in to what was actually happening inside her.

“The signs started showing up that I needed and wanted to paint. I would wake up at 3 a.m. and feel the need to get out of bed and do something, and what I did was sit on the bathroom floor and just draw. We had a tiny house so I couldn’t put the light on anywhere but the bathroom, so that’s what I did.”

It didn’t take long for her to realize that the 3 a.m. studio sessions next to the toilet were not sustainable. And so, she began dedicating her lunch breaks to her art, unbeknownst to her family or friends. “It was my own little secret, and it felt good.”

She searched for a way to meld her old identity — an independent, spontaneous artist and art therapist — with her new identity as a mother and a creator and an art therapist. What she settled on was a children’s book that tied in her son’s love of monster trucks, her art therapy practice and her art.

Leah’s first book endeavor, Rad is Smad — a children’s story with an art therapy connection.

Rad is Smad, released in 2011, is about a big, friendless truck named Rad who is feeling sad and mad — or “smad” — and how he navigates those feelings. Leah created it over the course of a few months, found a co-publishing company, and began promoting it to some success.

And then, about a year after its release, she tired of it.

“Once I got to the point where I didn’t feel like talking about the book anymore, I realized the whole thing had been a healing for me,” Leah said. “I had been feeling sad and mad. And now I was ready to focus on my art in a different way from how I had done it in the past.”

In her former life, she had created art privately — quietly — and given it away to friends and family. Now, she said, she was ready to put it out there for people to enjoy, and if they wanted to own it, they could pay for it.

“I started painting again because I had the space to paint again.” she said. “I was making art that felt very spiritual, like it was connected to the yoga classes I was taking.”

In hindsight, though, she appreciates more what that period represents than what it produced.

“I look back at it and see the colors are so bold — it wouldn’t be something I’d even want in my environment anymore. It doesn’t feel like me and the portraits don’t look like me. I’m in a different place energetically.”

Still, it was a beginning.

As she continued her metamorphosis, she kept her feelings of mom guilt at a minimum. “I knew I wasn’t selfish to do it. And I have an awesome husband who knows that when I’m creating, I’m much happier. So he helps me get that time, and he has time for his outlet, too.”

Leah gets her children involved in her art as well, inviting them to paint with her and setting them up with their own canvases and supplies. And even if their interests don’t completely align with her own (her son is an avid fisherman, for example; her daughter aspires to be a baker), she feels that witnessing their mother’s passionate creative pursuits will inspire them to pursue the thing that feeds them, too.

Leah’s children, Joaquin and Carmen, co-creating a painting with their mother.

A game-changing moment came for her as an artist when she was commissioned by a neurosurgeon to create a series of brain paintings to sell at a medical conference.

“That’s when I began to feel like a legit artist,” she said. “He had seen one of my pieces in a hair salon when he got a haircut.”

The art on display in the salon didn’t lead to any sales, but her exhibit at the conference did. This is the kind of serendipitous growth Leah has enjoyed over and over again as she’s followed her curiosity to new and experimental artistic endeavors.

“Everything is planting seeds,” she said.

Leah’s work has since found its way into collections at Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, Jackson South Hospital and the Society of Vascular Interventional Neurology, among others. She’s partnered with brands like Bombay Sapphire, Athleta and West Elm. She’s been featured in Spirituality & Health and Self magazines.

And — wait for it — she just published a new book titled Essential Art Therapy Exercises with Rockridge Press. The book provides healing art exercises that can help readers manage anxiety, depression and PTSD.

“I think everybody needs it in this time period. We’re at a point where there is all this uncertainty and all this anxiety, and art is a great way to express yourself. You don’t have to be an artist. Just open yourself up and try different materials.”

At the end of our chat, I asked Leah this:

If she had known exactly what had been going on in my fragmented mind that day she came to visit me and my newborn babe — or if she could share some encouragement with her shell-shocked former self as she pushed that stroller into her new reality — what would she say?

(She chokes up as she formulates the words.)

“Be open to this amazing opportunity, where you’ll get to share your life with this being,” she said. “This is just a processing time period, and even though it’s really tough, you can’t even imagine how much joy it’s going to bring you.”

Mama’s Groove is a meeting place where moms in all stages of their roles can find stories of strength, healing and inspiration. Please support the Groove by subscribing, commenting and sharing.
— Camille Guzman, Mama’s Groove writer & founder

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