The Snowy Day

Sometimes I can see the church across the street and sometimes I can’t. After a week of beautiful weather, with temperatures into the 50s (which is warm for South Dakota at this time of year) and glorious sunshine, I woke this morning to dismal grey skies. When I crawled out of bed to evaluate weather conditions, the sight of a semi fishtailing — though not completely out of control — down the hill and snow creating a picturesque burden for the pine trees across the street suggested I cancel my planned roadtrip.

I had wanted to travel to Rapid City to spend some time with Katie. Work — and an ultra-conservative priest who delights in praying for our “misguided president” during the celebration of the Mass, leaving me feeling isolated instead of included — have encouraged the winter blues to visit a tad bit earlier than usual this year. Usually, they don’t hit until February — and last year after the joy of spending several weeks with my granddaughters, they didn’t hit at all. I suppose that hiatus makes this year’s early arrival seem more burdensome.

Fortunately, age has given me a little self-knowledge and I know I need to resist the blues — or at least make the effort to do so. My instincts are to withdraw and suffer in silence. However, I know that getting out of my apartment and engaging in social activity usually brings a modicum of temporary relief. And so, that was my plan for the day.

I was going to engage in a little shopping therapy. I have discovered that my stash of art supplies from the long ago days of landscapes doesn’t lend itself very well to my intimate little Simple Gift series. I have huge tubes of blue paint in every hue from the warm and pale cerulean blue to the dark and cool phthalocyanine blue. I even have the dark, almost black, prussian blue that can add richness to the right palette.

I needed blues for landscapes, went through them faster than Dove’s chocolates, in fact. It’s just another color on my palette these days, and I’ve discovered a desperate need for other colors. A similar situation exists with brushes. The marvelous filberts and flats — brushes with long bristles — I preferred to use with landscapes because they encouraged greater spontenaity, don’t give me quite the control I desire with my Simple Gifts. Unfortunately, the brights — brushes with short bristles — from my portrait-painting days are so dry they lack flexibility.

I had planned very carefully what I was going to purchase and eagerly looked forward to picking up a few things. Then, Katie and I were going to test drive a few vehicles since she’s in need of one these days. I was going to end the day with Mass at the Cathedral, where the priests tend to be a little more inclusive in their prayers of the faithful. Just thinking about the day filled me with greater peace than I have experienced in weeks.

But, with snow and hazardous road conditions stranding me at home, I decided to go into my studio and work on a piece that hadn’t been going very well. The joy I experienced in painting again after my six-year break from the activity has been tempered in recent weeks by the unwelcome arrival of The Harsh Critic. THC made his presence known when a piece that showed great promise turned into garbage that even a grid salvage operation (i.e. adhering strips from shredded journals) couldn’t save. His most effective technique with me is pushing me to overwork a painting so it loses its vitality. However, he’s nearly as effective when he simply plants the seeds of general discontent. That can keep me out of the studio altogether.

He was using that approach with the last painting I started. However, after being forced to abandon my plans for the day, I felt I had nothing to lose in working on it. I started listening to “The Outlander” by Diana Gabaldon, the first in a series of books I enjoy and the only one I have on CD. Before long, I couldn’t hear THC any longer. I was immersed in Claire’s story and Jamie’s, and allowing my intuition to guide my color selection and brush.

Lo and behold! By mid-afternoon I had finished a piece that satisfied me. THC tried to tell me the colors weren’t quite working, but I told him I didn’t care. It felt like joy to me, like falling in love, like seeing my grandgirls, and that’s all that mattered in that moment. Joy falling like a feather into the darkness that has been smothering me.

I decided I didn’t need to go to Rapid City to engage in shopping therapy. I went online and ordered some paint and brushes from Dick Blick, where I purchased all of my supplies for years. They’ll arrive in a couple weeks. And I decided that sharing time isn’t the only way to reach out to loved ones. Writing outstretches the hand at well, and I sat down to write another post for those few friends who actually read my blog.

This snowy day didn’t bring the experiences I had anticipated, but it brought blessings. I think that’s one of the ways God shows his love. It affirms that I am still am part of the family of believers, despite the priest’s efforts to make me feel otherwise, and that brings additional comfort as well.

I am grateful.

Grids

I’m at it again.

That’s the thought that slithered through my mind this morning as I sat at my tabletop easel with brush in hand. I’m at it again: trying to make order out of chaos.

I’d spent two successive days in transit, flying from Sacramento, California, to Rapid City, South Dakota, via San Francisco and Denver with an overnight delay in Denver due to a flight cancellation. The plane had mechanical problems — several planes, apparently, had mechanical problems because more than one United flight from Denver to Rapid City was canceled.

I staggered with exhaustion last night as I unpacked. I don’t sleep well the night before a flight because I’m afraid of oversleeping; I wake up repeatedly in order to check the time. Flying for two days in a row resulted in two successive nights of frequently interrupted sleep. I expected to sleep for at least twelve hours when I finally pulled tired feet into my own bed.

I was wrong. Nine hours later, I was awake and feeling the tug of my improvised studio. I started the coffee, fed the cats, scooped their litter, and collected a couple containers of water to clean my brushes as I worked. (Acrylics are great in that way — none of the fumes of oil paints and simple soap and water for cleaning brushes.) After circling back to the kitchen to get a cup of coffee, I settled in to work.

I decided to warm up by beginning to rework one of the leaf paintings that didn’t entirely satisfy me. Before heading for California to visit the grandest of twin girls, I had laid a grid of shredded journal strips over a portion of it. It’s the second time I’ve tried this approach to salvaging a leaf painting. As I mixed the paint for this piece, the thought struck me.

I’m at it again. I used a modified grid format (I Ching hexagrams)for the first series of portraits I exhibited, and an obvious grid format for my Inside/Out series. For that series, I collaged squares cut from portraits and landscapes together with other materials (such as mica and flower petals). Why, I wondered, not giving the question much conscious thought because I was focused on stirring gel medium into paint with a toothpick.

I discovered while building my career that I could manipulate acrylics more easily by mixing paint from the tube with a little gel or gloss medium, depending upon the consistency of the paint, before I started working. I had also discovered that mixing the paint in a 10-well round tray reduced the surface of the paint so that I could keep the paint workable for a longer period of time simply by misting it with water. Each time I sit down to work, my first step is preparing the paint, and that’s what I was doing when the question popped into my question.

Why do I so often incorporate grids into my work? My answer years ago was simple: I lack imagination and that is an easy design element to use. Today’s answer was different. I need to make order out of chaos.

On my overnight layover in Denver, I visited one of my brothers and his wife. As usual, we ended up in one of our philosophical discussions about the way our lives and those of our two absent brothers have evolved from our humble (i.e., poor and dysfunctional) beginnings. I never cease to be amazed at how well the boys have done — wonderful homes, six and seven digit incomes, strong marriages. Everything, in fact, that I don’t have.

As I mixed paint, I thought about my life. Our mother, bless her dysfunctional heart, had provided me with extremely poor guidance regarding relationships and intimacy, guidance which compounded by the grief of losing her at the age of 17 resulted in a great deal of emotional pain and numerous missteps in young adulthood. I suspect at this juncture in my life, that more than any other shortcoming I experienced growing up — family life that did not teach me to make decisions, to trust my own judgment or to live authentically — Mom’s poor guidance regarding relationships probably had the most far-reaching effect on my life.

It’s hard to live alone, to raise a family alone, to be solely responsible for keeping a roof over their heads and food in their bellies while meeting as many of their emotional needs as possible and providing them with a few of the experiences and possessions they desire. It’s hard to make decisions alone and live with the consequences alone. It’s hard to live day after day, year after year with few breaks and fewer indications of success.

Each time my girls have passed a milestone — graduated from high school, graduated from college with honors, experienced success in any guise (personal or professional) — I have been filled with a deep, heartfelt gratitude. Thank God, I pray silently, I didn’t handicap her in such a way that door was closed to her. I think Katie understands how much I sacrificed and the fear with which I lived while raising them, how much I struggled to give them the roots of love and the wings of self-confidence. I’m not sure Sara has been able to put herself in my shoes that way, but that’s OK. She’s soaring personally and professionally and I am satisfied to see the way she has used her wings to achieve her goals.

So, what does this have to do with grids? Nothing and everything.

My life is stable at present and I am content. I’ve made peace with most of my failures by understanding the factors which influenced my decisions and the circumstances which shaped me. But the process of finding this place of peace has involved taking the pieces of my life, shattered over and over again, and holding them up to the light one by one. I have needed to mourn losses, to forgive myself, to forgive others, to recognize the precious quotidian blessings that have made it possible for me to continue putting one step in front of the other.

I have needed to find the underlying plotline in my personal narrative and to put the pieces in place like jars of cannned peaches on the shelf of a pantry. I have needed to make order out of chaos, and to the extent that art is true it reflects what is true in the heart and life of the creator — not the mind, the heart and life.

And so I use grids, to honor my story of survival, in a personal tribute to the process of picking up the pieces of my life and creating beauty — such as it is. And despite the lack of a companion, the lack of financial security, the lack of a home I can call my own, my life does have elements of beauty and I am grateful.