I had to walk away.
I simply had to walk away. I had been painting for nearly three hours, knew the painting wasn’t finished, but also had no clear sense of what it needed to take it from a work in progress to “yes!” I suppose that’s a strange way to express the sense of rightness that indicates a work is complete, but that’s about the only way I can say it.
I will be working on a piece, make a brushstroke of some sort, pause and know that I can do nothing to improve it, that another stroke may well be the one that takes it from finished to overworked, from “yes” to “shit,” from satisfaction to a strong desire to simply trash it. It’s entirely intuitive and, at the same time, based on years of practice and experience. It’s that inner sense that knows, that simply “knows.”
At this moment, I’m oddly grateful to have experienced the inner prompting that said, “Take a break.” It’s a grateful joy, actually, the joy of seeing an old friend and knowing all is well even though the hiatus between visits has been years. It’s a homecoming of the most profound kind, a coming home to self.
That probably sounds overstated, but it’s nothing more than simple truth.
I am painting again. Regularly. In an improvised studio with a small table-top easel (since 19 months ago I gave away the easel that had been my companion for more than 25 years, having not used it on a regular basis in ages). I am painting.
It seems like a miracle in my life at this moment. In 1979, I took my first art class and discovered an unexpected joy in creating images. Through most of the 1980s, I painted on a regular basis for the simple pleasure of the activity. I used to say that painting kept me sane.
In August 1989, I visited the Art Institute of Chicago, seeing work by Masters in person for the first time. Cezanne. Van Gogh. Renoir. All of the Impressionists that I had studied in books and magazines were before my eyes and I could see the way they manipulated paint. I could see the way they used color.
I had an epiphany that day I didn’t share until years later. I realized that if I did not paint, my life would be wasted. I returned home and began, in typical fashion, to begin conducting research. By early the following year, I had one-year, three-year and five-year goals as well as an action plan. Slightly more than a year later, I had achieved all of those goals. All of them.
And seven years later, I was well on my way to supporting myself as an artist. With a grant that I had been awarded, it would no longer be necessary for me to juggle art activities with two jobs. I could pare my life down to one part-time job and some artist residencies in addition to my own creative work. Nearly a decade of hardwork was beginning to bear fruit and I was excited.
Then, the phone calls started. A small art center needed a director and the caller felt I would be perfect for the job. For months she called. Eventually, the part of me which cannot resist helping others, if it’s at all possible, persuaded the part of me that knew deviating from my plan was a risk to accept the position.
It was a disaster. Eighteen months later, I was out of work, burned out and profoundly depressed. I stayed in bed for days on end, ate Cheetos and Hershey’s chocolate bars, and repeated to myself over and over like a mantra, “I cannot leave my girls motherless. They have no one else. I cannot leave my girls motherless. They have no one else.” Those words stood between me and suicide.
Eventually, I found another job and started painting again — not the elaborate pieces that I had been exhibiting, but landscapes. I was finding my voice as a plein air artist when I answered the siren call of another nonprofit and history repeated itself. That time, lifting myself from the ashes like a phoenix did not involve painting. I did some scrapbooking for a creative outlet, but essentially forgot how to use a brush.
And then, in October, I saw a listing in our diocesan newspaper for a one-day retreat called “Prayerful Painting” at the local monastery. I signed up, got cold feet and went anyway.
I still cannot believe the dynamic that was unleashed in me that day. Sr. Terese Marie began by giving each of us a leaf to draw. As I worked, I was taken back to 1979 and my first art class with Signe Stuart, an incredible artist whose work continues to be exhibited around the country. She, too, had us draw a leaf as one of our assignments.
As I worked, I thought of Signe and the way she encouraged me. In some ineffable way, she saw the artist in me before I did. On a spiritual level, I realized that God, too, sees me and the gifts that are mine to express into his world before I know them myself. That was a profoundly healing thought, coming as it did at a time when I’m working in a convenience store, joking about the downward mobility of my life, and trying to come to terms with working at a job that is by no stretch of the imagination a professional position.
I left the retreat with an inchoate understanding that I still have gifts to express into the world and a strong sense that I need to start painting again. In the following weeks, I cleaned out the second bedroom in my apartment, which had basically become a storeroom, set up my improvised studio and began to work.
Most mornings, unless I have other commitments, I get up, make coffee, feed the cats, scoop their litter, grab a freshly-brewed cup of coffee and head for my studio. There, I work for two or three hours before cleaning my brushes so that I can spend some time in prayer and eat before going to work. In the past month, I’ve completed three paintings and have a fourth nearly done.
Granted, the paintings are small — only 11 inches by 14 inches, much smaller than any of my previous work — and the subject matter is slightly absurd for an artist known primarily for unconventional portraits. I’m painting leaves — not clusters of leaves; each painting is essentially a portrait of a single leaf. I picked up four one day while scouting Custer State Park for possible painting sites and carefully store them in a wooden cigar box.
I should probably be embarrassed by this activity, but I am not. Rather, each time I am simply grateful to be working again. I call the series — and I think of these paintings as part of a series — “Simple Gifts.”
The double entendre is intended. The subject matter is simple and the act of painting is a gift in my life. But the title also refers to the Shaker hymn written in 1848, a hymn I first heard in high school as part of Aaron Copland’s “Appalacian Spring.”
“‘Tis the gift to be simple,
‘Tis the gift to be free,
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.”
This place in my life is undoubtedly just right. This place is a valley of delight.