Several years ago I was driving home to Minnesota through central Wisconsin after a visit to my parents, a four-hour drive. My mother had criticized me for a minor matter that morning, and I responded with wounded intensity, feeling the injustice of her criticism. Somehow, a lot of the unfinished business in our relationship bubbled to the surface, because my emotions were heated out of proportion to the actual insult. As I drove home, I replayed our hot exchange over and over in my mind, unable to let it go.

Frustrated that I seemed unable to forget the argument, I went to my studio and did a pencil sketch and then a painting of a dark ugly sharp-toothed animal, chewing on a little piece of red meat. I wanted to capture what the argument looked like, and tried to make the image as dark and frightening as I could, attempting to match the foul bitterness of my mental state. When this small 8” x 10” work was completed, I stood next to it, viewing the two of us, creature and creator, in a large mirror. “This is not me,” I observed, looking at the dark animal, and for the first time I felt my heart lift in a gesture of release from the toxicity of the argument.

Several weeks later, a Minneapolis artist mentor gazed at the painting I now called “Critic”, alongside about 20 other works. I periodically sought out her constructive and critical insights on my artwork. “Do more of these,” she said, pointing at the Critic, which I thought was the ugliest painting in the bunch. But I took her advice, and over the next five years, fourteen more images of little grotesque creatures emerged, each one relevant to some specific emotion or mental habit that had been troubling me.

A variety of motivations contributed to this enthusiastic response. Pure frustration with the seeming intractability of my mental processes certainly figured powerfully into the creation to the Critic. Even though I had spent years of reflection, therapy, journaling and introspection, keeping depression at bay was a constant preoccupation. It was frustrating that my reasoning skills seemed incapable of revealing why this was occurring, or how I could prevent it. But once I discovered the power of an image to help understand my feelings, I didn’t want to let it go. It was almost as if I had spent years trying to walk on a floor slippery with soap, and suddenly, with the Critic, I gained traction.

Art therapists have prescribed a variety of different methods for contacting unwanted emotions, such as the Critic. Attention to the content of dreams is one method I have used to lubricate the imaginative artistic process. A dream that I had a week or so after completing the Critic revealed how contacting the image had released the fear and pain associated with the emotions. Here was the dream: “I was walking on a rope bridge in an area where someone had reported the presence of ghosts. The lens cap fell off my camera and rolled to the floor of the bridge. I dropped down to my hand and knees in the dark to look for it, and immediately became aware of a sinister presence. I closed my eyes, and a goulish creature appeared. I could see that it was similar to the one I had painted. My fears instantly vanished.”

In the years since I completed the Critic, I have learned that I am a critical creature. However, criticism no longer has the power to send me into a depressive funk. By creating the image of the Critic, I have grown in my compassion for this trait when I manifest it myself, or recognize it in others.

Author's Bio: 

Martha Greenwald has used art as a cathartic healing process in her own life, and has taught her processes to other artists, adults, and middle school students. Her work has been exhibited at a variety of galleries in Minnesota and the Upper Midwest. In her continuing work to develop awareness through visual images, she created a series of “Creatures of Habit,” humorous and grotesque beasts with stories illustrating mental foibles, pitfalls, and bad habits. Her work can be viewed at