For the past couple of years I’ve been writing a memoir. I have a story to tell and it’s kind of burning to get out. Okay, it’s a glowing ember, not exactly a flame, but I have kept at it, little by little for a while now. I started somewhere in the middle I think, and have been writing around that middle, adding a little here and there, always looking for the big idea of it all. This writing stuff isn’t for sissies, I definitely recognize that. How do you take a story from a mildly interesting chronological listing of events that happened, to a story with a heart and a purpose? That has been my struggle.
At the end of my painting class we had to do a final exam painting. I started without an idea for that project. As I sat looking at my canvas, my friend said “Paint the story.” She was referring to a story I’d told her, one that is at the heart of the memoir. It is a story of the heartbreak and fortitude of a young woman who had no other choice but to be strong through such a difficult time. I shook my head, my eyes tearing up, and said, “Why does everything have to hurt? I don’t want to paint that story.” The teacher walked up and overhearing me, asked me to tell her the story. I did and she told me to paint it. “Begin with the wall. Paint the wall first.” I began by drawing a tipi and some parallel lines with charcoal and then smudging them up. I didn’t really want those images in the painting but I did want them in the memory of the painting, so once they were drawn I began to paint over them. I used titanium White, Unbleached Titanium White, Burnt Umber and Parchment. Both Titanium whites are completely opaque, but the others aren’t so at first the charcoal images kind of ghosted on the canvas.
As I continued to add layers of paint and new images, I felt the story unwinding within me. I suddenly realized that the story is about how we struggle through heartbreak without even realizing how badly we are hurt. Sometimes life is too demanding to take time to stop and really feel it and thinking about it threatens to take us under. In that moment we really don’t have the strength for it, so we just forge ahead, doing the daily tasks that must be done until the edges of the hurt have been blunted. That leaves it buried deeply, where it can quietly gnaw at us for the rest of our life. I have been surprised on several occasions to feel that old hurt rise up with all its rawness, triggered by something unexpectedly powerful like a movie or or a book, or even a conversation. The recognition of the continuing pulse of my story, even after so many years, enabled me to understand and finish the painting. I think that maybe the realization of what was happening in my heart way back then has replaced some of the hurt with admiration for the young woman I was then.
I am finding such a compelling companionship between writing and painting. When the words are stuck, sometimes painting about it helps. As the words begin to flow, the important elements of the painting become more obvious. Translating these words into images is a challenge for me, and that’s okay. This is new, and I’m still quite clunky as a painter. But I have learned that if I stop and center myself for a few minutes and turn on some music before I begin, the ideas and images are easier to see in my mind and I am less judgmental about the work I produce. The heart of the story surfaces as the images become clear. There comes a gentleness within me that I’m able to carry into my painting session. This feels like a breakthrough, actually, so I suppose the benefits are indeed reciprocal.
Continuing to foster the intertwining between my art and my writing seems to offer promise. Maybe I will actually figure out how to tell the story that wants so to be told.
I have long harbored a desire to learn to paint. The handling and moving around of pure color has always fascinated me. It was so far from anything I knew about, yet I was really drawn to try it out. I had long been a quilter, a collager (is that a thing?), a photographer and a mosaic maker. I understand color pretty well and love playing with it. But painting, the conscious moving about of gooey, pure color, has always seemed like a delicious mystery to me.
Last summer I took an online class that helped me get my feet wet a little bit. I bought a bunch of student grade paints on sale and just started pushing color around, layering it, making marks with all kinds of items. I used sponge brushes, peeled corrugated paper, bottle caps, ferns and my fingers. And brushes. It was fun, but I wasn’t satisfied with anything I ever painted. It remained just that, moving around and mixing color, going from one canvas to the next, none of them anything I ever wanted to share. Nothing that was ever about anything, or even of anything. And that was okay with me, actually.
Long before this time, about five years ago, before I bought any paint or tried painting, I discovered some work that I loved that was done by a local artist. I loved the randomness of her work, the abstract purposefulness, the way she uses color so subtly and the recurring elements in her pieces. After a little investigation (hoping I’d find that she offered workshops once in a while), I learned that she teaches painting at the local community college. I promised myself that I would take her class when I retired if she was still teaching then. As it turns out she is still teaching, I am retired and I am in her class. Lucky me! (P.S. Her name is Simone Senat. You can Google her work and see why I like it so much.)
The first thing I learned was that I’d need to buy some better quality paint. I forged ahead, not looking at prices and bought a bunch of Golden, Liquitex and Graham acrylics. I decided that for now I just want to paint with acrylic. I didn’t like the feeling of oils and their accompanying chemicals on my hands when we tried them out in class. I did like the creaminess of the colors, but I decided on acrylics anyway.
So, having bought paint and brushes and canvasses I was ready to paint. Listen to the names of these colors: Quinacridone Crimson, Deep Magenta, Phthalo Blue, Azo Yellow, Bright Lime Green, Titanium White, Prism Violet, Cerulean Blue, Yellow Ochre, Burnt Sienna, Raw Umber, Mars Black…the list goes on and on. Truly, I just want to smear them around, all at once. And I have tried that. It gets a little over the top, though so I’m trying to pull back now, to limit my palette a little.
This week our assignment is to paint a still life. It is due on Thursday and is our first painting. We will be bringing food to class and looking at everyone’s paintings. I think we will talk about them. This isn’t as scary as it sounds, but it is a little daunting. There are all levels of skill in our class and I am in awe of some of these painters. The cool thing about painting this still life is that we are not required to try to duplicate it on a canvas. We can choose one element of it and place it out on a desert if we want to. Pretty much anything goes, which is freeing. Here is how the still life is staged in the front of the classroom:
UGH. I didn’t want to paint any of that. No color except in the background, all those bones and pottery. I just didn’t know where to begin, so I worked on a sunsetty sky I’d photographed a while ago. It’s kind of cool, but the assignment was to paint the still life. So yesterday I began to organize it. I drew what I wanted to paint on an old repurposed canvas and started filling things in. It was depressing. Such dull colors, and once I’d drawn it, where to put the background? Ugh. I’d have to paint over the stuff I’d drawn. I put that canvas down and decided I needed to just lay down some bright colors on another canvas, because that lifts my spirit. I’d deal with the still life later. Here’s what I came up with.
At first it made me really happy. So much true color all over the place, and I liked that. I decided that maybe this could be my still life if I used negative space to fill in a teapot, and maybe a horses’ skull. But having done that, I hated how it looked. It went from filling me with joy to depressing me. The pucey color around the horse’s skull, the stupid little mouth line. The teapot was barely recognizable. And all those angles kind of around the center made it look like a paint factory had exploded. It hurt me to even look at it. But I took it to school anyway.
As soon as I got there I painted over that horse skull. Then I started painting over a lot of it, trying to calm it down a little. I added some grey squares which were supposed to represent those little things hanging on the wall behind the still life but which actually looked like windows. Eventually Simone came around to look at everyone’s work and help us decide whether it was finished or not. Mine was definitely NOT. She said, “Let me help you,” and she picked up a big wide brush, squeezed out some Titanium white and Hooker green paint and started covering things up. She suggested what I might do next and shortly was on her way to the next student. Suddenly I understood a little more about how negative space works, how a little can go a long ways and I’m on my way to liking my painting. Here’s how it looks now:
When I first decided it had to just be done, I felt a little sick inside. I really didn’t like it. At all. There was nothing else I could do with it that would improve it. My feeling of its awfulness were reinforced when I showed a photo of it to a friend and a family member. They were quick to point out all its obvious flaws. But, having no other alternative, I took it to school anyway. In preparation for Critique Day, we lined all the paintings up on easels, went around and looked at them, and then discussed them one by one. And funnily enough, even though it was so hard to take it up there and introduce myself, admitting that I had painted that weird looking painting, once the talk began I felt better. From a distance it looks better and it just is what it is. The teacher said my color sense is magical and that this looks like a Matisse, totally. While I think she was being kind, I’ll take it and I’ll paint again tomorrow. Because how else will I ever get better? Something had to be my first painting.
The thing that is so stimulating for me about this class is first, that it takes me out of my comfort zone. Way out. I am good at working with other mediums, but this is not my area of expertise at all. NOT ONE BIT. But I show up every day, and I squeeze out that color and smear it around, again and again. And little by little I am learning some things. Perhaps the biggest thing I’m learning is to show up with my work despite feeling embarrassed and frustrated by it. I show up and I don’t give up. I just keep squeezing out those colors and smearing them around. One day I may actually paint something I like. But whether I do or not, I will keep on showing up. I will face my own demons, those of not being good enough, not knowing as much as another person, not being able to face what I perceive as my own weaknesses. I will rummage around inside those feelings and maybe over time, I will let go of my attachment to them and I will accept myself a little more, as I am. I will discover, once again, the power of showing up and persevering, no matter what. Just that, at least. And that is enough.