A local woman navigated her way out of the trenches of trauma through years of therapy, emerging with a career in art.
By Heather Shoning
Margaret Galvin Johnson shared the story of her traumatic childhood inside
a large family fraught with mental illness by turning over 20 years’ worth of her writings to New York Times bestselling author Robert Kolker. He based much of his book, “Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family” (an Oprah’s Book Club No. 1 pick), on Margaret’s written recollections of her unusual childhood. While she does have memories of happy, rewarding moments, many were overshadowed by fear, abuse, neglect and violence.
Today, Margaret exudes calmness and confidence (even when being interviewed by Oprah), but it took a lot of work for her to get here. Although she avoided the agonizing fate of schizophrenia that gripped six of her 11 siblings, she’s had to find ways to cope. As a child growing up in Colorado Springs in the house on Hidden Valley Road, Margaret had to climb a hill to get to school every day. This physical movement and time spent in nature made her feel healthy and happy. She’s used this method of therapy throughout her life.
At a low point, she sought counseling in the mid-1980s. “I went in there thinking, ‘Oh, you know, I’m just having a little trouble in my life, and I’m going to go in and talk to somebody about it,’” she says. “I didn’t know it was going to become a twenty-year-plus journey of unpacking issues that arise and figuring out how to manage those in a way that’s healthy.” She adds that, for her, it was important to acknowledge it was not so much about what had happened in her life, but how she responded to it.
As she dove into her healing journey, Margaret experimented with a variety of therapies. Through equine therapy and brainspotting–—a spinoff of Eye Movement Desensitization—she made breakthroughs regarding long-held beliefs and shame. These experiences created opportunities for her to shed layers, allowing her to be vulnerable moving forward. But she says her growth and healing are rooted in a deep commitment to daily exercise, meditation, writing and art.
It was art that ultimately led Margaret back to herself. After taking pottery classes as a child, Margaret knew she wanted to be an artist, but as she grew up, she struggled to figure out exactly how to do it. She practiced photography for many years, but when she was reintroduced to painting, something began to click. She was referred to Bernie Marek, a beloved art therapy teacher at Naropa University, who practiced transformational therapy with a transpersonal model. “It really focuses on the health and well-being and the spirit, not just the mind and body of the person,” Margaret says.
Her individual and group art sessions began with meditation. Then, she would paint. “When you take a few minutes to focus your mind, inward meditation reduces stress, pain and depression while promoting a state of deep relaxation. It also helps lower your blood pressure, increases your creativity and helps you trust your intuition.
“It was this combination of using your mind and body and the physiology that you were experiencing, and then taking that with your imagination and just pouring it out onto canvas,” explains Margaret. “I couldn’t believe what I would create. After five years, I had a body of work that was beautiful. And I was so proud of it.”
With encouragement from friends, Margaret showed 22 of her paintings, and by the end of the night, she had sold 17 of them. Despite the success, imposter syndrome set in. She put art on the back burner and instead put all her energy into her nuclear family. It would be several more years before she took her artistic curiosity further.
When she was ready, Margaret enrolled in the School of Botanical Art & Illustration at Denver Botanic Gardens, and spent five years rediscovering her art. “I left with a complete toolbox of art skills, from pen and ink and watercolor, to drawing and light on form and color theory and color mixing. I felt that I could finally call myself an artist, and I started selling my work.”
Today, Margaret makes her mental health a priority by beginning her days with meditation, exercise, stretching and writing. Then she heads to her studio in North Boulder. She’s currently working on relief printmaking, and she uses her vast library of botanicals as the basis for this art.
“I genuinely felt there was something inside of me that just knew I was always going to be okay. That there was nothing wrong with me,” Margaret says. “Once I started to find my voice through writing and art, I think I really started to blossom into who I am today.
“And, you know, when you take in all that pain, and it touches you, there’s no way you can’t turn that back out into the world with the sense of compassion for both yourself and others.”
Margaret Galvin Johnson donates 10 percent of proceeds from her art to mental health organizations. She is a member of NoBo Art District, Boulder County Art Alliance and Boulder Art Association. View her work at mjgalleries.art.