Saving Grace

I took a break from packing this afternoon to paint.

On a good day, packing does not rank among my top ten favorite activities. On a bad day, well … I just need to walk away. I reached that point this afternoon when I ran out of garbage bags and boxes. I suppose I could have gone out to scrounge some up, but my intuition suggested I needed time to think.

How much am I willing to trash if need be? The crafting supplies from those years when I began making Christmas ornaments in July so I could enclose them in cards when the holiday rolled around? What about the frames I picked up on a clearance table 15 years ago and never used? And the scrapbook supplies I can’t even remember liking?

So much is still usable. Shouldn’t someone be willing to take it off my hands? Something inside rebels against just throwing it all away. I’ve worked hard for every dime I’ve earned and spent; throwing things away feels wrong. Wasteful. And yet, why move what I will in all likelihood never use? That’s not a dilemma for which a resolution was easily forthcoming.

So I picked up a painting I had finished earlier this year, “grace.” Over all, it was a bland painting, but one section of it pleased me. The color was used in a sensuous manner and the brushstrokes were spontaneous and loose. But, was that section strong enough to carry the painting?

When I hung it beside other paintings in the series, my first impulse was to take it down. However, each time I pulled it out of storage, I was again drawn to the area that pleased me. Last night, when I was looking at it yet again, a simple thought ran through my head: why don’t you work on it again and see what happens?

And so, that’s what I did. I added some geometric and collage elements. I deepened the color in a few areas with glazes. In just a couple hours, the bland painting was transformed into a visual feast, and I was struck with wonder because the process had been entirely intuitive. I hadn’t planned a single one of the elements which had given it life.

As I gazed at it later, I found myself recalling something I’ve read a several times in recent months. In her book, “Following the Path: The Search for a Life of Passion, Purpose and Joy,” Sister Joan Chittister wrote, “The problem is that people who are unusually gifted in something often tend to take it for granted. They got it without effort, after all, so everyone else must have it, too, right? In fact, they are often inclined not only to discount the gift itself as commonplace or even worthless but to doubt their own abilities in anything else.”

I’ve been stuck on that chapter because I found myself asking, “At what am I gifted?” Her premise is that each of us is gifted in some way at something. That premise probably comes with the territory — being religious, she undoubtedly believes we’re created in the image of a gifted God. Still, that doesn’t make the premise invalid.

Painting brought the question to mind again because it reminded me of those days when I attended art receptions and considered artists to be among my coterie of friends. I was often moved to wonder by their work, and was articulate in expressing my admiration, but quick to toss aside any praise that came my way. I’m not sure why I thought my work was included in juried exhibits, not only at local art centers, but also elsewhere when I had the funds to enter competitions and ship the work. I’m not sure why I thought my work was being purchased for corporate collections. I just knew that my paintings weren’t extraordinary in any way — not like the work that my friends were producing.

And yet, when I started painting again last fall, I was often frustrated because the small pieces I was struggling to create did not begin to compare to work that I did nearly two decades ago. Not only did I no longer have the intuitive color sense which once characterized my work, but I had also lost the delicacy of touch when it came to brushwork. About the only thing I could still do was mix paint from the tube with gel or gloss medium so that it was easier to handle.

As I struggled to regain my skills, I was often amused to find myself looking with pleasure at my earlier work, which lines my walls as though I lived in a gallery. I was often amused to find myself amazed at my skill in portraiture and at the unique ways in which I handled materials. In other words, more than a decade after my last exhibit, I was finally beginning to appreciate my own work. Brava! Brava!

I find myself asking, was I discounting a gift in failing to appreciate my own work earlier? I used to say painting kept me sane, because no matter what was happening in my life, I could lose myself in art. I could stand at the easel and forget everything except the work. When I emerged from that sacred space, I was better able to shoulder the burdens that challenged me in life.

Sr. Joan wrote, “one of the unfailing ways to identify our own gifts is to begin to notice what it is that moves us into an emotional zone beyond consciousness of time.” If this is true, then perhaps I am somewhat gifted at art — but it would also mean I’m gifted at other things as well. Writing and problem-solving come readily to mind.

What does this have to do with moving and decision-making? Maybe nothing. But maybe it means I need to let go of those parts of my past that I’ve been carrying around for years. And if I have to throw them away, maybe it’s not so much a waste as a symbollic gesture, one that says, “I’m open to what the future will bring. I’m ready to discover how to use the gifts that I have been discounting.”

Maybe I need to read the rest of Sr. Joan’s book to find out what comes next. It may turn out to be a saving grace in my life.

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