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Zentangle Instructor Jill Barber

All this month, mindyourmind is looking at creative ways to improve mental health, so I reached out to Zentangle Instructor, Jill Barber, to learn more about Zentangle and her experiences as a learner and instructor. 

Can you start by telling us a little about yourself?

My name is Jill. I used to be a primary teacher; first teaching Kindergarten, then a class of children with learning disabilities, then Grade 2 and Grade 3 - all the magical years. I was always drawn to the children who struggled, constantly problem solving to find another way to teach them so they wouldn't feel like the odd person out. I wanted them to get that 'aha' feeling that made things all of a sudden fall together and make sense.

I had grown up always being told I could do better if I tried harder, and never feeling like I was good enough. When I couldn't seem to help all of the children in my class, it caused me to crash with burnout twice in my career. Anxiety and depression hit me hard because I felt like I wasn't doing a good enough job for the kids. In 2003, I was finally diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder and went through trials of four different medications over two years until we finally found one that worked for a while. More trials with two or three more medications and combos have finally found me feeling good about myself and relatively happy. I have been working on my mental health since my first burnout in 1992 (over 26 years) - participating in individual and group therapy, working through workbooks and reading lots. I've been to psychiatrists, psychologists, and a specialized kinesiologist for help and continue with my psychiatrist and kinesiologist to this day but fortunately, a little less frequently. In 2013, I discovered Zentangle.

What does Zentangle mean to you?

With Zentangle, I can turn off my mind. I can escape the 'shoulds' and the self-criticism, and the spirals of constant chatter in my head as I go over and over what I might have done wrong. It took me a bit of time to establish the habit of turning to Zentangle when something set me off. Once I remembered, I would breathe a huge sigh of relief as I settled down to draw. First I had to recognize the bad habit and then remember to do Zentangle. Then I just added Zentangle to my daily life. Sometimes I forget and I have to remind myself that 15 minutes of Zentangle is better than turning to computer games or Facebook or searching for something to buy on Kijiji or… one of my other unhealthy habits.

What was your journey to become a Zentangle instructor?

A friend and I walked into a store on the main street of Grand Bend and saw some art on the wall. I asked about it and the proprietor, Brenda, said she had done it. She also said she had never drawn before in her life before two years prior to that time. I was astonished and wanted to know more. I have always loved art, taken community classes and not been thrilled with the results. She said ANYBODY CAN DO ZENTANGLE. There are NO MISTAKES. If you can draw a dot, an S shape, a straight line, an oval, and a curved line like a bracket, then you can do Zentangle. She had health issues, had been dealing with depression and now talked about her healing journey with Zentangle. I didn't want to leave. I wanted to know more. My friend carried on shopping while I talked to Brenda some more. She was teaching a 2.5 hour class the following week and I went back to learn.

Then I came home and played with the Zentangle patterns I found online every day. The patterns were laid out in five to six simple steps that I could follow without help. I was so delighted with my 'play' with the patterns (we call them tangles) and the escape from my constant worrying that I wanted to learn how to teach this wonderful healing art to others.

So, I went to Providence, Rhode Island to learn how to teach Zentangle from the originators of this art form: Maria Thomas and Rick Roberts. There were a hundred people in the class from all around the world wanting to learn how to help others benefit from Zentangle.

What are some of the benefits of Zentangle, especially for people struggling with mental health?

I want to shout for joy about the healing benefits of Zentangle! Here are the top 20 benefits of Zentangle:

  1. Quiets the chatter in my brain - one book is named YOGA FOR THE BRAIN by Sandy Steen Bartholomew
  2. Deeply relaxing
  3. Encourages mindfulness as each line is drawn thoughtfully and consciously to the best of one's ability
  4. Relieves stress and anxiety, panic attacks and insomnia 
  5. Helps with anger management, addictions, and depression
  6. Increases the ability to concentrate or focus
  7. Meditative for those of us who have difficulty sitting still to meditate
  8. Ritual of daily practice calms the mind
  9. Intuitive - follow simple steps, then repeat them over and over again to get into that meditative 'zone'
  10. Zen motto - "One Stroke at a Time" - applies to life as well
  11. Advocates doing your best - not to please others, but for yourself
  12. NO art experience required - for all ages - if you can print, you can do Zentangle
  13. NO decision making - usually done with a black pen (although adding colour afterwards is optional; so is drawing in a different colour)
  14. NO mistakes - there are no erasers in Zentangle - mistakes are just opportunities to do something different or change the pattern - JUST LIKE IN REAL LIFE
  15. NO pressure to draw something realistic - names of patterns are often nonsensical but allow us to refer to them by name
  16. Requires as little as 15 minutes of time but can carry on for as long as desired
  17. Sense of achievement and satisfaction comes quickly
  18. Convenient - can be done anywhere
  19. Inexpensive - requires a pencil, a 9 cm X 9 cm blank square of paper and a black pen or marker (I started out on a Post-it pad) or draw your 9 X 9 'frames' in a blank art book from the dollar store
  20. Encourages creativity - once you've learned a pattern, explore doing it by changing one aspect (smaller, larger, using curved lines, adding colour, or combine two or three of them)
What has been the most rewarding experience for you when teaching Zentangle?

I absolutely love watching people realize that they have created something beautiful in 15 or 20 minutes - especially those who are participating with trepidation. The surprise and joy on their face makes my heart soar every time. It's like they've just solved a magic trick and can't wait to learn more. It is exactly what I experienced. Now I get to participate in it again and again just by watching them and listening to their cries of excitement. They come to the next class with faces filled with expectation and anticipation.

Do you have any advice for people who want to get into Zentangle, but don’t know where to start?

Do you have any advice for people who want to get into Zentangle, but don’t know where to start?

Zentangle was started by Maria Thomas and Rick Roberts. They didn't invent the tangles (patterns). Patterns are all around us. They figured that if they could break patterns down into 6 or less simple steps using only the 5 symbols: ) . 0 _ S then perhaps everyone could have success drawing these patterns. The steps for each tangle are basically done the same way, so you can follow along. The new step is always done in red. The old step is done in black. Here is a link to their website:


Linda Farmer made the following website so people could find the links to many, many tangles. You can click on any of the alphabet letters across the top. You will find a menu of the names and samples of tangle patterns that start with that letter. Click on the tangle you like. Then follow the pink links to learn the steps to the tangles. Here's the link: Try also Googling Zentangle and you will find videos and tangles galore to choose from.

Here are some tangles that I really like:  Huggins, Puf, 'Nzeppel, Cadent, Agua, Laced, Henna Drum, Munchin, Joki.  Have fun finding your favourite tangles. I hope you can "Draw Peace From Tangling" as much as I do.

Check out David's blog about his experience with Zentangle. Also, check out this blog about Art Therapy and this other blog about Art Journaling for more ways to express yourself and calm your mind.

Photos by Jill Barber