Safe Space Painting Project

I wanted to make a series of abstract paintings for an exhibition this fall, but the figure kept coming into the composition. You may not be able to really see the figure yet, it's partially cropped out, and not clearly articulated.   This image began to emerge after hours of painting and wiping everything away, and starting over.  Again and again.

After I got past my own trying, this movement came, and I knew it was the beginning--it just felt right.  It's incomplete now, in the raw, unfinished.  But it's real.  I plan on keeping things unrefined for now, but we'll see where the process goes.

Here is a start of a series inspired by my daughter.  Who says that the only place she feels safe is at home with mom.  I've wanted to create a space for a seven year old who is smart and sensitive, who somehow has figured out why she and her classmates have lock down drills at school, and understands things I wish she didn't have too.

I don't have answers for all of her questions.  Just an endless amount of love, and encouragement to persist with a messy grittiness.  I tell her over and over that she is innately good, and loved just the way she is.  That the whole damn thing is one bittersweet gift.  Except I don't say damn, she's only seven, after all.

Now that I've stated working on this series, I realized that there is an ache in all of us for this.  Hemingway wrote about it in "A Clean Well Lighted Place."  Dillon sings about "Shelter from the Storm."  Many artists have tried to articulate what shelter looks like.  Or what the absence, or lack of shelter feels like.

So here is the beginning of the Safe Space Painting Project.

I Failed And I'd Do It Again.

What do I love so much that if I failed, I would do it anyway? 

It’s a question that has been following me around lately.  It’s become helpful in all sorts of unexpected and compelling ways.  It has taken mental and soul weights off of me, if you want to know the truth.

You see the question used to be “What would I do if I knew I could not fail?” 

The answer was always the same:   I would live authentically.  I would love myself and others well.   I would make things and share with others.  I would pursue a life well lived.

 

But I found that question seemed to have the opposite effect on me.

Instead of taking weights off and finding freedom to pursue a good life, I felt elevated pressure and anxiety.  The question was unrealistic, because failure is always part the picture of being human.  It is unavoidable.  So the question of ‘not failing’ never gave me peace of mind.

“I should not be worried about failing.”  I’d say to myself in quiet moments.  Then worry that I was not living up to being a loving wife, or mother, or artist.  That I was not being authentic enough.

Recently I’ve begun to ask myself a new question: 

What do I love so much that if I failed I would continue on?  What is so important that failure, when it happens, loses its power?  

When I started asking this question, immediately, my heart got lighter.  I felt a new shift in perspective.  It was as if I had been walking around with large weights tied to my feet, and I was able to take them off.

Because failure is part of living fully.  Living fully is what I wanted all along.

In spite of the certainty of failure, imperfection and life’s inevitable setbacks, I continue on with resolve and resilience.   My heart knows heaviness, but it also knows lightness…and lightness is winning.

 

 

Forward Movement

I played on a golf league once.  It did not go well.  I joined on the invitation of some good friends, because, the "league we play on is not a competitive league.   It will be a good place to learn."

 If you have ever played any sport, friendly or not, you realize that all competition is, well, competitive.  

This league was no different.  It didn't take long for everybody to know how terrible I was. There were many  individuals who were helpful and positive, offering advice and encouragement.  But for others, playing with me must have been really annoying.  I had a terrible handicap.  On the rare occasion when I pared a hole, (and when I mean rare, I really mean...once, when I pared a hole...) It must have been challenging for my opponent. In those tiny moments of personal victory I could see the furrowed brow on my opponent's face growing and taking shape.  The lines on their forehead deepening the same way the Colorado River etched out the Grand Canyon.  When I won a hole from my opponents, their faces often looked like 40 miles of bad Texas road.  Nevermind that they were handedly winning all the other holes, my small win probably meant that they were going to be ridiculed for the next week, (at least) for loosing that hole.  Golf is a sport after all, and even the kindest of sportsman is still a competitor.

I wanted to be a good golfer, and I wanted to have fun, but it didn't take me long to realize that I was in no way prepared to reach my potential as a golfer.  I had jumped in head first.  Which is really great. I'm happy I had the courage to do it, but I had so much to learn.  Today, I've taken lessons and occasionally play, but  I am still a hack golfer. I have experienced just enough playing time to be dangerous, but I am far from the top of my potential.  

Which is why when Sergio Garcia won the Master's Golf Tournament, I found myself tearing up and cheering for him.  It took Sergio 74 starts, but he finally won a major tournament.  He had spent most of his career in the top ten, according to world golf rankings, which for most golfers would be considered really good.  But Sergio had started is career as a favorite, a golden boy, if you will.  A player who had potential to go down in history as one of the greats.  So the fact that he had never won a major--in the world of golf--was disappointing.  In the last twenty or so years he played the game, he has had his fare share of critics, his fare share of opponents with furrowed brows.

I often wonder what it takes to reach my full potential, not as a golfer, but as a person.  If I've learned anything from Sergio, it's that consistent, continuous, forward movement is the best way to find out.  I want to reach beyond what I am capable of today, but I can find so many obstacles and reasons to stop.  And the stakes are high--what kind of relationship I have with the people I love most, my husband, my kids.  I would die for them, but do I have the courage to truly live for them? What sort of legacy I leave all comes down to slow, continuous, tedious, uncelebrated, forward movement.  

It's worth saying that no one may know the inner places where we choose to either recede or reach out.  The world is a hard place to remain optimistic, to continue to reside in a space committed to forward movement does not come without a cost.  It's just the way it is here.  We have opponents, both internal and external. We have challenges.  It can, no, scratch that, it will eat away at your heart.

But wins, small or large, are still possible.  I'm choosing to keep holding on to the small wins, writing them down here.  Because I think that our circumstances are more pliable than we think.  Jumping in has its costs.  But as far as I can tell, jumping in, taking a chance, trusting forward movement to make the next right choice, tends to work.  It doesn't work instantly.  It may not be pretty or correct.  

But it is forward movement, just the same.  

So even if it takes me countless imperfect strokes to get to my green, I'm still committed to playing my game.  I'm staying committed to continuous forward movement.  I believe that you can, too.   

 

 

 

 

When Enough Became Enough

 

When I was completing my Master’s Degree in Fine Art, I studied abroad in Italy.  What I learned there changed everything.  I had come with the idea that I would encounter an ancient culture, and by ancient I mean a culture that was less advanced than what I knew.  I found just the opposite. As I was walking through the remains of the city of Pompeii, I realized that we have not done things better than in Renaissance Italy.  Partially because of the intelligence, the design, and the innovation.  But mostly because of the hand-made craftsmanship that is everywhere.  The handles on cutlery found in a Pompeiian home are painstakingly well crafted.  The quality of the marble floors and intricate detail of the mosaic walls, the expanse of the architecture, it all holds up and surpasses anything that would be made today.  In a postindustrial, information saturated age, the cost of such craftsmanship is irreplaceable.  We couldn’t afford it.

 

 When St. Paul writes in Ephesians 2:10 that, “…We are God’s handiwork…”  I consider his words in the context of the culture Paul was writing in, a culture similar to what I observed in Pompeii. I am not talking about Religion or a Christianity that is overly Westernized or simplified.  I am searching for what it means to be fully alive and human.  The Greek word Paul used for handiwork is “poiema.”  It is where we get the English word for poem.  Some researchers would go so far as to say that Paul is describing humankind as God’s Artwork.  In Paul’s day, artwork wasn’t in some quiet museum waiting to be observed, it was all around. A part of everyday experience.  Everything was handmade, and considering what I observed in Pompeii, handmade extremely well. Paul was a craftsperson, financing his travel through work as a tent maker.  I imagine craft would have meant a great deal to him. Considering where Paul lived and traveled, he would have been exposed to Etruscan frescoes depicting beautiful landscapes and Roman Architecture with grand and expansive columns and ornate reliefs. I wonder if Paul was thinking about a particular work of art when he wrote this passage, and if so, what kind of significance did it have to him? I do know that he asks me to remember my identity is a beautiful, one of a kind, hand-made thing.  Maybe he knew something about creativity and craftsmanship that we have forgotten today.  Maybe this is how we are designed, to make and invent things.  Innately, just because…

 

I used to think my value as an artist came from what I did, but now I know that the real flesh and blood matters are found in my artist’s heart.  The heart I was born with.  I used to put the mantel of financial success on my work. Or how popular my work became.  Or praise I got for its uniqueness.  Because if I am honest I have a real fear that…when it’s all said and done that I will have missed it. That my life will pass and that I won’t make a significant contribution, that I screwed it up—my one chance—and now I will dissolve like a vapor into the unknown and nobody will notice or care.  There is this primal longing within me to matter.  I try to get a handle on this fear by performing.

 

We live in a culture that affirms the idea that people who work hard enough, who are smart enough, invest their money well and don’t buy expensive jeans, that keep that twenty something appearance well into middle age, or who get all A’s, who exercise when they are supposed to, and who have a diet of only greens and lean protein. That they are the ones.  They are the ones worth it.  They are the ones keeping all the rules just right.  Those who reject this social norm we label dilatants, slackers…they are shamefully insignificant. It’s probably why we don’t value our elderly like we should, or our mentally challenged, or even our children.  Because when you get down to it, we find a person’s real value resides in the status of what they do.

 

But we are poems.  We are artwork.  It sounds too good to be true. It sounds like a lie that dreamers believe who don’t live in the real world where results matter.  But what I have observed is this: Those who are truly doing creative work, who have the kind of lives that everybody else wants, they know this.  They let this belief reside in their bones.  They don’t do work chasing anything, they do work because they already have it to give.  They have changed the dynamic of life from one of a transaction i.e. you do this to get that, to one that starts and ends with joy.  It is life changing.  It is changing me.  It changes the space from which I make my work, whether it is work that supports my family financially or not.  I no longer work for money, I work for money that supports a life well lived.  Money is a means, not a master. It creates more opportunities to be grateful on all kinds of levels.  And when I get a chance, I break bread and wine with others, and maybe cry and then laugh, and then cry some more.  Because poems we are.  Every one of us.

 

If you like the ideas I have shared and would like to take this information to the next level, sign up to my News Letter to receive a free digital download on Creativity and Finding Your Individual Voice, here. 

Being Rich, Dark, Ink is Not a Mistake

 

Today I painted the canvases thick.  Red, Yellow, Blue. Zinc White. Galkyd Gel. Mix. Repeat.  Gradually.  Slowly.  Until the deep rich darkness of the three primaries coupled with white blended down together and began to take on the appearance of think black ink.  Not too purple, not too brown.  Dark and heavy and viscus.  It’s the color of black tar, of murk, of lurching echoes underneath the Milky Way night sky.  

It longs to become clear fresh, crystal clean water, but for now ink it remains. 

I have come to believe that it is not a mistake to sit in the dark ink places.  Maybe, as Sister Glennon says, it's a response to being a sensitive soul in a messed up world.  The veil of time that keeps us suspended in the ink needs to find expression.  And that's okay.  In fact it's a healthy and wholesome act.  A vehicle to truth telling in a world largely more comfortable with glossy and perfect and presentable. Especially from a girl.

Because that girl has been called beauty.   Skinny jean and hip enough to play a part with the arty girls, wearing oversized eyeglasses and dyed hair.   Or she's felt that she needs to be jock enough in a man’s art world, speaking all moxie and bravado to be heard.  And/or smart enough for the Deconstructionists, the philosophers, the smart people in the know.   Or how about just sexy enough for plain good old fashioned advertising, let's just start there.  Edited enough on Photoshop.  A body with all the right proportions, a vehicle to sell.  I would be remiss if I did not add a curated Facebook feed, complete with memes and updates at just the right times with just the right about of content. And on. And on. And on.

I’ve wanted to be something other.  But what I’m finding is to be the dark ink.  I want to look like the water.  But that would be dishonest.  Pretending.  Because it’s not a mistake to be the ink.  In the light, water may get the attention.  It may speak to perfection.  But in the ink is where the Know is.  It's good soil for creativity if you let it be.  And there is power in that. 

Because I’m tired of putting on roles that don't fit, and never did.

Today, in the studio, a small dismantling of those roles took place, leaving me to speak from my voice.   In writing these words, too.  I need both paint and words just as much as the ink to make them.  

If this is you, if you have been feeling like ink when all you want is to be the water, then let’s find places to dismantle together, you and me. 

Because that is where the life is.

 

For further resources and reading, and to connect with others who are finding their voices through dismantling, I recommend:  

Love Warrior by Glennon Doyle Melton, Finding God in the Waves by Mike McHargue, The Artist's Way by Julie Cameron, The Poems of Mary Oliver, especially The Journey.  Shauna Niequist quotes this poem in her new book Present Over Perfect, which is wonderful as well.  Anything written by Brene Brown, especially Daring Greatly.  These authors have taught me so much about being brave.  It's possible to be in this world and do the work that brings you to life.   In fact, I believe we are wired and created for it.

 

Story to Spill: A Blog Series Dedicated to Being Fully Alive Through Work.

I have found myself endlessly curious about what it means to be fully alive.  

I have begun to be compelled to tackle this mystery.  You see, I chose to go into art as a way of being in this world--of being present in the moment, as a way to connect with others, and as a way of being fully alive.  But I found that making paintings in a studio was not the definition of fulfillment that I thought it would be. Now you can imagine making paintings is hard enough, but couple that with a motivation that started to go away, and you get frustration.   What you get is the death of a dream.  I started to feel vocationally homeless, wondering why I didn't quite fit in at art school.  What I had worked so hard for began to feel barren and lifeless, like ashes left over from an enormous fire.

Which started to remind me of my old college professor, Mr. Bippes.  This wise and endlessly voracious art professor with a red beard and a limp, who who had once extended everything he knew about drawing and life to me as a student took the time to read one of my essays.  He found me later, and as he so often did, seemed to have the gift of prophecy.  Liz...(he is one of the few people who I allowed to call me Liz).  "Liz, you're a writer.  You're really a writer."  That was it.  He turned around, walked out of the classroom, and was gone.  He left me to stand there wondering how I was supposed to finish my undergraduate thesis exhibiton with THAT particular bit of teaching. Not helpful, Mr. Bippes.  

Except that it actually was the thing that I needed to hear.   It's a testiment to my strong will or ignorance that it has taken me an additional 20 or so years to act on what I knew:  that he was right.   

I'd like to invite you to a journey with me.  Because what I know for sure is this:  what we all are looking for is to find something that makes us come alive.  That makes our hearts beat just a little bit faster.  That is compelling enough that we would do that thing no matter what.  Something that latches on to a larger idea in the evolution of humankind:  that engages us in the larger story and invites others along.

But how?  That's the hard thing.  Because your work can and often is different from your vocation.  Because we have families, and health insurance, and lists of the next 'right' thing to do.  But what I am starting to see is a pattern.  People I am meeting who are actually living this 'aliveness' for themselves seem to be following a different way.  I'd like to introduce you to a few of them.  Together, maybe we can learn and start to establish unexpected patterns in our lives.  A new way of being in the world.  Maybe even something that looks like being fully alive.