Leanne’s father took her snorkelling when she was young, and she fell in love with the ocean then. As a teenager that culture became something she pulled away from because of its associations with a traumatic experience, the details of which her brain blocked out to protect her. Even though she was drawn to the ocean, she didn’t go in, and didn’t understand why.
Eventually Leanne decided to try surfing just once, while on a break in Mexico. She loved it, but when she got back to her home town of San Diego those associations returned. Luckily she stumbled across a surf therapy group, Groundswell Community Project, that gave her back the joy of surfing and helped her face, navigate and integrate everything she had experienced.
So what happens when a pandemic hits and you are told you can’t go in the ocean? In Leanne’s case a form of artistic expression is released, which completely surprised her, and she has continued to embrace and develop.
Clubhouse: @clairewaitebrown and Creativity Found Connect club
Artworks: Emily Portnoi emilyportnoi.co.ukSupport the show
For this episode, I'm speaking with Leanne Tibiatowski, who, despite living close to the ocean in San Diego, for a long time, couldn't bring herself to get into the water, something she had loved doing as a child. When she joined a surf therapy group, she stumbled across a healing activity and supportive community. But when the oceans closed during the COVID lockdowns, she had to find a new way to stay calm. And a surprising form of artistic expression started to literally flow out to her. Hi, Leanne. Hi, Claire, how you doing today? I'm good. Thank you. You're new creative outlet is quite original. How do you express yourself? I find great delight in painting surfboards. upcycled, boards primarily. So I find boards in my community, and let these designs flow through. Brilliant, the flow, I know is a very important part of your work now. But let's go back to childhood. Did you have a creative childhood? at home or at school? Yes, I would say for sure, in different ways other than art. My mother was very and is very aligned with music. So I grew up playing the piano, singing in choirs. And you know, for 12 years studied piano. My dad, on the other hand, was very into nature. So we were spending a lot of time in nature, which is ultimately will become the inspiration for the art that flows through me. My grandfather was very connected to the earth and crystals and gems and was a jewellery maker on the side. And so I did have this around me in my childhood and I feel blessed music, nature and transforming things of nature into into art, wearable art. And did you have a means to do that? And did you get to continue that at school or college? When I started college, I wanted to be an art major. I felt that I wanted it I've always had a very strong, creative pulse running through me. So I started taking art classes. And you know, I had a piece that was in a jury showing at my community college, very abstract, very linear, very black and white pen and ink. Yet ultimately, I would not choose to continue with an art major because at that time in my life, the critiques hurt, physically hurt. And I thought to myself, I can't imagine producing this way from my heart to have it just be broken down, cut down and so so I went a different direction completely. What was that direction? It went all over the place. Because I became a single mom. Right after I graduated from college. I ultimately got a communications degree fascinated with the study of how communications works between humans and groups and really find that art in and of itself, and ultimately would apply that love of communication into my professional life as a writer, and producer of events. So I had it from a different angle always was the work that you were doing was it led by necessity, perhaps rather than desire, or a bit of both, were you able to do things that you wanted to do? Well, you just got to work. I 100% had to work. I was a single income, single mom. And so I had to hustle to provide and I worked very hard to identify, identify places that I could find my employment that I still felt passion for. And the passion would be in creating experiences for people and using creativity. But I had to build my strength, I had to present myself as the linear, the organiser, the project manager, the producer, all of those skills that might not be the frontline skills for a creative and a visionary. Those became what I became very good at, which allowed me to eke in my creativity. Ultimately, I would bust through and be able to create a lot as I, as I moved along in my career from you know, working in a magazine, I was not hired to be on the editorial team. But I presented my ideas, and I offered a copy proof and then I would get to write, I worked in the nonprofit sector as a programme director for a bereavement programme that helped families navigate the loss of a child and young women in leadership development. And as a programme director, I was doing a lot of the producing and the administrative and the connecting and the details yet, I would get to create curriculum and create and design event experiences and branding pieces. So I would be expressing myself that way, which helped me survive the need to be an earner in a way that almost filled the need of wanting to fully express myself. Yeah, I completely understand I know exactly where you're coming from. You mentioned there that you worked in leadership and bereavement programmes for young girls. And you've told me in the past that you were compelled to help them have a better experience than you did. What do you mean by that? That was specifically for the Young Women's Leadership Programme. This was with the Jenna Drax centre, a very influential part of my career where I got to oversee this programme that was very social emotional based in how we were imparting leadership on these girls, with these girls from all corners of San Diego. And I just always was, you know, high school was horrible for me, that was that is my memory of high school, visceral pain, you know, and I think of discomfort and so my driver was always I'm gonna, if I can help it be just a little bit more comfortable for these girls than it was for me, then I'm doing a service that's meaningful to me. And I would do that through communication, teaching communication, breaking down barriers, helping women, young women and the women that would come and mentor step into their authentic voice and authentic selves, padded with art experiences, music experiences, to make it have that cool factor that would appeal to them. It took me a long time to realise what the true nature of that deep driving need to make it better for others. And it was great self realisation. For me when that happened. When I really think about that time in my career where I was so driven to help these young women. In that moment, I thought it was just because of the nature of high school for everybody, that for everybody. It's such a difficult experience at times fitting in finding a sense of belonging, feeling confident in yourself, you know, it's such a big developmental stage where we step into ourselves. I later find out in my lifetime, that there was actually a routed key moment that I wasn't I couldn't see. And that was around a sexual assault that happened when I was in high school that I told no one about, that I hadn't processed, it's my brain was working very hard, all of my life to protect me from that yet, my protecting self was very strong. So in that work, padded in creativity, that was all about pointing these young women to creativity, I would start to feel the bubbling of this past trauma in me. And is that the point at which that past trauma came to the forefront of your thinking, and you realised that was you, when you What do you need to address? Was it at that time? Or was there do you think there was something else specific that triggered a revisiting to that trauma? It was definitely not that time, because I didn't have an intellectual awareness, you know, I would start to because I was working with teenagers, and I have a son who was entering the age of when that incident happened to me. So my body was remembering a lot. And I started to have some intellectual remembering of what happened to me, but not processing it, there's a big difference between intellectually knowing something bad happened, or that a trauma happened, or, or anything really and actually going through it. So my brain, the trauma response of our brilliant brains is to protect us, and to do whatever it can to keep us from re experiencing pain again, and my brain was brilliant. It would take a secondary incident that would happen a few years after that, to really blow the doors off of my life and the protection mechanism and actually open the door to my creativity. So when you say that that door was closed? And I know I'm not talking about processing here, I'm talking about actually remembering. So for me to understand, did you? Did you consciously, completely blocked out? Did your body say I'm going to forget this for you? I'm trying to understand, yeah, it is a complex thing. And the way that the brain protects us, it's powerful. And it's taken me a while to learn. I am a trauma Support Specialist now. So I've had the opportunity in my own trauma recovery to get to understand this. So for me, in my situation, I was 15 years old. And my group of my classmates assaulted me. And I told no one and from that moment on the way that I perceived myself and the world around me changed. Because I did not receive help, that memory was frozen. And it would come in and interfere my perceptions throughout life. And when I would start to think about it, my brain would shut it off, there'd be ways to disassociate from the memory that was automatically happening from my nervous system, not consciously, one time. A decade later, later, I had a visual memory and that was when I started practising meditation. And I saw it. And nobody, the people I told didn't really have anything. Suggestions for me, and I, it hurt, and I just kept going people, we just keep going, right, that's what our culture's tell us is just keep going, you know, get over it. And it would be another, you know, decade before I would start thinking about it again. And that was when I was my own child was becoming a teenager and I was working with these adolescents. And it started to rumble again and rumbling, rumbling rumbling up, but only intellectually. And that's incomplete. For us to truly integrate the things that happened to us. We go through them, however painful and however scary going through them is how we can integrate and process in our brain can actually file that memory then it doesn't disappear. or, or distort our perceptions going forward. And so at the time I was working in that programme, I still was not processing. And it would be a decade later, as I mentioned in my life, where I would learn that I did indeed have post traumatic stress. And that was from a secondary trauma, all of it, I say, is what I had to go through in order for the art to come through all of these things, so possibly, if it weren't for that secondary trauma, you wouldn't have pushed yourself to process the first one, being brave enough to process the first one. It's hard sometimes for me to say yes to that. But that's exactly what I mean, it's hard to say that having something bad and painful happened helped me to grow and evolve and find my true self and defined my self acceptance and my sense of belonging and my sense of safety. And to open more freely and more innocently to the joy in life and the pleasures in life. It's hard to say that that required me to have a second traumatic event, but it's true. I had no choice because I was experiencing delayed onset post traumatic stress. And the only way out of that was either to succumb to it to medicate myself to cover it up, or to go through it. And because I had lived in disconnection from myself, for most of my life, I was determined to do that with out covering myself up with medication and without pushing it away. So when I had the second trauma, which was going in for surgery, and the surgery was a fibroid removal, just for comfort, completely elective and waking up to a hysterectomy that I did not consent to for non life threatening condition. That was a consent related situation, that this triggered everything that I did not process and it it ignited this PTSD in me. And it took me a year before I would discover or realise even as someone who worked in that bereavement world, which we didn't talk about very much where I was referring people, and working with people and running support groups, with folks who were experiencing trauma and PTSD, even with that knowledge. I could not see for a whole year and myself, because it is an over welcomingly painful experience to be in PTSD. It's just exactly like what you would imagine a soldier returning from more and navigating life with that post traumatic stress in the real world, you know, jumping at horns, feeling like the top layer of my skin was off and any change in the wind would be painful fear in my shower, depression anxiety, like things I'd never had before like that. I was straight up able to apply for disability, but I could not do the paperwork. Navigating the system almost took me down. And that's not how I was going down. That is not how I was going down. I was going to find a way and gratefully, I was able to reconnect with the ocean. The ocean. I wanted to be an oceanographer is the first thing I ever wanted to be as a child. My dad took us snorkelling, and I fell in love with the underwater world. It's so magical and beautiful. And I learned how much math and science and oceanographer would have to do with that plane go. And so I didn't go that direction. But I had this love affair of the ocean. And I've got pulled away from the ocean. You know, that assault that I was in these young men, popular sports surfing, I just had this association that would start to pull me away and I'd have fear around the ocean that didn't understand I still was drawn to it, but didn't go in it. And I live five blocks from the beach and During these years of the PTSD, I would walk up and down the beach up and down the beach. And you know, growing up in a surf culture and having just about everyone around me surf, I told myself, I wanted to feel that feeling just wants to ride a wave just once. And I was able to go down to toto Santos in Mexico and write a wave. And I became instantly addicted, the feeling, the liberation, the freedom, the joy, I had to feel it again. And it took me a while because when I came home, I was back in this land where there's all these surf guys and, you know, perceptions that my brain hadn't processed yet that would trigger all this fear. I didn't know who would teach me. It took me a few months and the universe dropped in surf therapy group right on my local beach for women navigating trauma, groundswell community project, and through an eight week programme, I was able to learn to surf. More than that way more important than that was through surfing, I was able to face myself to see what my brain was doing, to find my freedom through being able to see the trauma and integrated in a way that included Joy helped me to see that I did belong, helped me to find courage. You know, there's plenty of science that shows us when we are in, on or around the water, our nervous system shift, or happiness increases. So, you know, trauma recovery is not always that fun. It's generally a very lonely experience, including, you know, the talk therapy, which can be very valuable, of course, but to find something that reconnected me to the ocean that pointed me to home, home of the sea, but home to myself. And as I've become more at home and comfortable in my body, resolving the traumas of my past, there's this whole new expression of me, it's like I've stepped out of a cage, I didn't know that I was in. And I'm seeing life for the first time. And what's coming into my life, and through me, as I relate to the world around me, from more of a sense of feeling safe. Like imagine not feeling safe your whole life and not realising it. So now I come from a place of more self acceptance, more self love, a sense of safety around me, I'm able to regulate when my body has remembrances that aren't quite integrated, yet I can see it and be with it. And so now it's like, oh, my gosh, I feel the pulse of life in such a fresh new way. And then I get to have this art expression, which came from another adversity. It's amazing how adversity can be the key to Revelation, self discovery and creativity and innovation. And that would happen. For me just just recently, as you know, creativity found.co.uk is the place to go to find workshops, courses, supplies, kits and books to help you get creative. So if you're looking for your own creativity, found experience, go have a browse to see what's on offer so far. And if you can help adults to find their new creative passion, please get in touch on social media, or through the contact details on the website. Think it's all very symbolic, and it all follows a wavy pattern that gets to where you are now. So yes, do tell us about because I mean, I've seen your artwork, absolutely amazing, amazing stuff. Tell us about how you started that. I'm in this whole process. And so as we all have experienced, COVID hit and the life change for everyone in many different ways. About a year and a half ago, I was laid off from my job. And I thought to myself, I'm going to serve, I get to be off of the grind, and I get to serve. I'm just going to serve serve serve. I don't know what this is. That's happening. They're saying two weeks, but I'm going to surf four days later. The ocean closed. As devastated as I've shared. I made a choice a personal choice to not be on medication for PTSD. Just My medication is the saltwater, it is surfing. So when the ocean closed, I had fear rise in me, this was a great test, because I couldn't get my medication, you know, would everything that I've worked so hard to, to, he'll start bubbling back up again and take over I didn't know and in all of the uncertainty and in an environment where all of us didn't feel safe. And I felt desperate and afraid and alone and looking for ways to cope. So I remember that the, the surf therapy programme, the surf therapist that started it, before she did surf therapy, she was an art therapist, and she modelled this surf therapy programme on an art therapy model. And out of desperation, I thought, I'm gonna paint I'm gonna paint and I had a surfboard in my backyard that my ex had shaped. And it actually was the source of a lot of feelings for me, we, we parted ways, right after the hysterectomy, when I didn't know I had PTSD when it probably wasn't the best time for me to make decisions. And so I had a lot of angst around this board, I couldn't get rid of it, it was hard to keep. And so I had this process alone in my home with this big, beautiful board. And I'm pulling out paint, which, you know, as I said, I was like pen and ink linear, very harsh, Stark work that I would do, way, way, way, way back in the day of that community college time. And so I learned that using these Posca acrylic markers is what people used on the surfboards. And so I got some and I got this board out, I didn't know what the heck I was going to do. But what I did do was a lot of healing. And I touched the board and I prepared the board and I began to feel the lines in the board to discover what to paint on it. And I would remember at the same time, who made the board and I had tears on this board, not tears of upset but just like releasing and releasing and appreciating and I started painting turtles. I didn't even know I could paint turtles and this colourful flowy, kelp and little line of sea turtles came out. And I couldn't believe it, I literally showed pictures of it to people because I didn't know where it came from. But what I did know was that I found a piece and I was able to find this calm appreciation for the significant person in my life who made the board you know, I was able to see the beauty in that and and transform something that was painful my environment around me in that moment with the pandemic. And you know, my my last love into this beautiful board and they haven't stopped flowing sets. It just is flowing and flowing. And I look at them. I'm in awe that the colours and the flowy vibe comes out. And it's inspiring me to take bold steps. So I realised at one point that through the help of a friend that I was dismissing this art this expression, yeah, I need to get back to work but I'm doing these boards. Yeah, yeah, I need to get back to work. And he paused me to really look at them. And I realised that by dismissing this authentic flow that was expressing through me, I was dismissing my authentic self, my true self. So I made a choice to own it, to let it flow to, to enjoy it to feel it to love it. And one bold move I made was to enter it into a gallery showing at the Ashton gallery here in San Diego. And my board was selected to be in the showing. I entered another one and another one was selected to be in another juried showing and I just keep saying yes to this flow yes to the colour Yes to the curvy lines, yes to allowing what doesn't all the way makes sense, I'm not forcing it. I'm not saying, I'm going to paint a dolphin. Because when I do that, an octopus shows up. That way, just let it flow, you know, in life, we can really get attached to what we think is supposed to happen and how it's supposed to happen. And that can block us from what is happening. And so in this pandemic, where nothing makes sense, and everything is upside down, I started focusing on where there was flow. Work wasn't flowing, social connection wasn't flowing, but this art was in is flowing. So I'm gone with it. I'm dropping in, as we would say in surfing, you know, and that's a scary part of surfing is dropping into the wave. But I realised that was the worst thing that can happen when you drop in, is that you can wipe out and surf there be I learned that wiping out every time I do it. I am laughing on the other side, I'm smiling, I'm feeling more connected. I'm feeling the Stoke. I'm feeling the mana. And that's ultimately what I've named my, my art business is mermaid mana. And the tagline is see magic. SCA see magic, be magic. And it's my natural expression that reminded me of the treasure that nature and ocean gives to me. And when even when it was taken away from me. It wasn't all the way taken from me. And so when we can, especially in these extraordinarily difficult times, find ways to tap into nature and the things that help us breathe and find peace. Only good things can come. At least that's my experience. Your experience is tremendous. There is such a lot to think about there. And of course, it is very positive now. And we've gone back from the very beginning of your story where nature was so important to you. And the flow is an important thing. It's it's really, really positive. Do you think now having done it on the boards, you could do it on a different platform. You think about where the board has been before, you know, the people that have used the board, so it helps in your process, but I wonder if this might develop, you might feel freer to try other things. That's a great question. And I've been thinking about it a lot, because I'm starting to have people ask me, I have someone asking me to design a sea creature for a tattoo. You know, after going to the trade show that I just was in this past weekend. My first is launching this brand of mermaid mana. I talked to so many people had people asking me about murals. I've been asked about electrical boxes, we have a programme here. I don't know if you have it where you're at, but there's electrical boxes everywhere. And some neighbourhoods have programmes to paint them to beautify them. And so these different mediums are coming up and I'm thinking about it and I'm I'm going to say yes to everything. And my love. My love. My pure joy is working with the boards. It represents so much there's someone there's an original artist, the the board maker, the shaper who took a piece of foam and turned it into something that's aerodynamic, it's scientific and artistic. And I'm mostly painting on us boards. So there's pressure things and representations of someone dropping in and taking a chance and riding a wave and feeling the spoke. All of that is very meaningful to me. So like for the tattoo, I'm going to double up I'm going to I have a board that I'm going to paint she wants to a jellyfish. So I'm going to explore jellyfish on this new board and then design one for her. So I'm gonna do both. I'm taking close up photos of the sea creatures and printing them and matting them and offering those at the trade show. I've been making note cards using close up photos of the art. So I'm transmuting it into different expressions, all different ways that people can enjoy it because not everybody is going to want a six foot board on their wall. And as I show people in the world, the affirmation that I'm getting is very humbling. To see that people really find joy and looking at what is coming out of me. And it's, it's humbling, it's calming. And it takes me to this place of gratitude, deep gratitude that I was able to find my piece. And I was able to find, you know, make space to actually get help. Mine was an expert stream case. But all all of us humans have our stories, you know, and imagine, if we all took a minute to find the way to share or access help. For the trials and tribulations that we experienced, perhaps there would be even more beauty in the world. And so if I can speak to that and share a vulnerable story, as an extreme example of what happens when you start to heal the wounds that are acquired over a lifetime, where they don't even have to be wounds, just the just the intensity of the life trajectory, being a parent, being a partner, you know, being a professional takes a toll on our hearts and souls. And so the more we can cleanse them, and and he'll, the more we ope invite ourselves to open up to express our true selves. I'll keep telling the story. It's, you know, thank you for letting me tell the story. Not at all. It's an absolutely fascinating story. I just wanted to touch with you about the external connections as well, because I've seen the photos at the tradeshow. And the year there were the people that like your work, but you're connecting with all the other people at the show. And if you think about that culture that you were avoiding, and on the sidelines of, and now you're right in the centre of it, and they say these are your people now, that must feel I don't know, how does that feel? It feels right. It feels good. It feels calm. It feels authentic. I feel joyful. I mean, at the trade show, I got to talk to icons in the surf industry and just celebrate, you know, the ocean and surfing and talk to other iconic artists that paint on surfboards. I just felt at home. And I feel at home more than I ever have in my life just in my body. And it's I'm just so grateful. I could have made it I've could have gone through my whole entire life cycle without having this recovery and to have the chance to be able to actually step into surfing and have all these other discoveries and expressions open up I am eternally grateful. So grateful. And I am just grinning from ear to ear here. And how can people connect with you? There's a few ways I love to post on Instagram and you can find me at mermaid mana art at mA n a mermaid mana art. I have a website that's under construction right now. So the guided up for the trade show was really the impetus for getting this brand up. And I'm refining a lot of things right now. But there is a contact form that you can that I will be very happy to respond to anyone either by Instagram messages or on mermaid Mana art.com. If anyone's interested in the story of my recovery, and surf therapy and the mental health aspect, I have a website it's in ai n the number two clarity into clarity calm and you know sometimes hearing explicit recounting of a story like that can bring things up for people. I invite anyone to reach out to me I'll answer questions and offer any resources that I have. And I'd love to talk art to thank you for speaking with me. It's been absolutely wonderful to hear your story. Thank you. I've enjoyed it very much. Any mahalo Thank you. Thank you. Creativity found isn't openstage Arts production. If you're listening on Apple podcasts, please subscribe rate and review. If you would like to contribute to future episodes, visit K O hyphen F phi.com/creativity found podcast. If you contact any of the artists featured sign up to their workshops, or buy their products don't forget to mention creativity found podcast on instagram or facebook follow at creativity found podcast where you'll find photos of our contributors artwork and be kept abreast of everything we're up to