Cultivating creativity in the age of COVID
Alexandra Hewett is on a lifelong odyssey to live creatively and to teach others to do the same.
A former psychotherapist, current instructor in the dramatic arts, stage and film actress, and 5’1” perpetual motion machine, Hewett seeks to liberate people’s creative expression, dormant for any number of reasons.
Given her experience and passion, it’s fitting that Hewett is teaching a course through Odyssey, the non-credit liberal arts program of the Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts & Sciences. Odyssey features courses, workshops and lecture series led by Hopkins faculty and community experts like Hewett, 52, a resident of Baltimore County.
Her current Odyssey course, “Cultivating Creativity Amidst Trauma,” provides her students with the keys to unlocking their inner muses.
“In ancient Greece, theaters were built near hospitals because it was believed that music, storytelling and dance provide healing to our souls,” Hewett said.
Creativity is ageless
Hewett noted that many of her students are older adults who already have degrees. They’re interested in learning for the fun of it.
“It’s about keeping your brain agile and young. I don’t believe in age…creativity is ageless,” she said. “As you get older, you start to reassess your life. It’s a time to step back, see where the gaps are, make new friends.”
Hewett’s popular course, originally called “Cultivating Creativity: Techniques for Finding the Authentic Artist Within,” has evolved since she started teaching it five years ago.
“The class was tweaked due to the pandemic,” Hewett said. For one thing, students now attend classes via Zoom.
She added a few more artists to the curriculum, she said, “artists whose pain and suffering influenced their art, like Frida Kahlo and Maya Angelou, who didn’t speak for five years as a child due to abuse…Her writing, her poetry became her salvation, her healing.”
While the course name’s reference to trauma might suggest a study in bereavement or grief, it’s anything but.
“William Shakespeare wrote ‘King Lear’ during a plague. I think this is a time when everyone is forced to make tremendous changes, and having a creative sensibility helps us deal with change more effectively,” she said.
Hewett’s class takes inspiration from Julia Cameron’s bestselling 1992 self-help book, The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. Hewett once attended a three-day retreat led by Cameron in the Berkshires in Massachusetts, “which was transformative and really allowed me to make changes in my life.”
Working with others
Hewett’s four-week Odyssey course is divided into four topics: writing, visual arts, music and performance.
“Students will collaborate to write songs together, explore creative writing, draw self-portraits and engage in performance art, like improv — which is terrifying for some people but really fun, and requires a connection with others, and that’s something we need right now,” she said.
Former student Caroline Umana, 54, of Baltimore was impressed with Hewett’s “positive energy [and] the exercises that she introduced us to, such as popcorn notes.”
That’s Hewett’s term for an activity she teaches in class: writing — and throwing — a compliment to a classmate.
“Often our fear and low self-esteem keep us from sharing our words or art. Receiving a written note helps boosts one’s courage. I called it popcorn because they could crumple up the note and toss it to the student,” Hewett explained.
Umana credits Hewett with inspiring her to write in a journal regularly and to “explore ways that I could bring creativity into my personal life.”
This led Umana to start a creativity support group dubbed “Baroque Pearls.” She and some of her classmates would meet monthly for a potluck dinner and “a show-and-tell session of our creative projects.” As she put it, “Baroque or freshwater pearls are unique, [coming] in a variety of colors and shapes, unlike a saltwater pearl which is perfectly round.”
Umana and her fellow “pearls” work in a variety of media, including cooking, crafting, sewing, photography and puppetry. She also said she has returned to water color painting.
“I am creative at home, at work, in my volunteer work, even my family life: We have lively Zoom calls where we dress in costumes, dance and sing karaoke.”
A registered nurse, Umana says her creative projects “allow me to bond with my patients [and] encourage healthy eating and healing.” And, sounding much like Hewett herself, she said, “Creativity feeds the body, mind, heart and spirit.”
Trying something new
In explaining what motivates her to teach the course, Hewett reveals her therapist roots in her desire to heal.
“If I had a superpower, it would be to swoop in when a parent tells a child that there’s something they can’t do. I know how scarring that can be to creativity.
“So, I get to do that as an adult with adults. For me, my creative work fills my soul with joy, and I want them to find that joy within themselves,” she said.
Hewett attended a meeting of Umana’s creativity group last year. She was touched to see that one woman, who had always been interested in photography, found the courage to start taking pictures and launched a photo website.
“I can’t make somebody creative,” Hewett said. “But I try to help them realize that they can do these things that perhaps they were told they couldn’t or shouldn’t or just weren’t good enough to try.”
Cultivating Creativity Amidst Trauma meets Tuesdays from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. for four sessions, Feb. 23 to March 16, 2021, via online Zoom. Fee is $140.
For more information on this or any other Odyssey course, or to enroll, visit bit.ly/OdysseyCourses.