I’m having a lot of conversations with spring in my work these days. Some days spring is popping; others it’s buried under a fresh dumping of snow. Likewise, some days I paint the conversation with reckless abandon and no image in mind, but as my head turns, outdoors again, I find myself going back to the land to absorb and paint it as I feel it in the moment.
The natural world feeds my soul.
A few months ago, I worried that returning to representational landscapes was simply a fear of being brave enough to paint abstract. Now I realize that the mountains and changing seasons are not only integral to feeding my soul, they breathe new life into creativity.
Going back to the land doesn’t become a choice between abstraction and reality. It is the way to connect the visible world to the abstraction that lives in the soul.
I’d read the same paragraph about neuroplasticity three times and been unable to remember what the major point when I made the decision to kill off a part of myself. I did it with a tiny little pill. It will be a drawn out death, but it’s not a murder. It’s self-defense.
For as long as I can remember, a highly structured, complex fantasy world has occupied a good portion of my brain. Psychiatry journals tell me I use it to cope with anxiety and PTSD that I should be old and experienced enough to manage without a tiny little pill. But, as I annotated another article on the miracles and vulnerabilities of the human brain, I realized that by letting my cranial amusement park stay open, I’m a hypocrite.
My still embryonic career as a special educator has focused on children with intensive needs, specifically children with behavioral and mental health issues. I’ve been where many of them are. They’re my tribe. But the most important part of my job is to helping them be present in the world — something I’ve lacked the courage to do consistently. To be present for them, I know I have to be present for myself.
I’ve had the the pills (and several other similar prescriptions) in my pill drawer for a few weeks now. I’ve told myself I’m holding off to make sure the side effects don’t get in the way of work, but, after reading a paragraph three times because I keep returning to the fantasy world, I realized things are already getting in the way of the first truly meaningful professional experiences of my life. The fantasy world even gets in the way of making art.
There are things that get in the way of work and life that you can’t control like a chronic illness. I’m starting to accept mine, albeit ungracefully. But there are the things that you can control, and all of that control starts with being honest with yourself. Honest that mania and depression do not improve your creativity; they keep you from picking up the brush. They are not the inevitable byproduct of discovering a very real disability; they are the excuse to wallow in the fantasy world.
Killing that world is scary. It means cutting off and escape from reality. It’s even scarier than admitting that, in your fifties, you have the fantasy world in the first place. But, today, the realization that it, and not any disability, could keep me from doing the things I desperately want to do, meant that it, like a tumor, had to be irradiated.
I’m doing a very different set of paintings right now. Winter seems to be losing its grip, the light is glorious as the angle of the sun shifts, but I am still stuck in my inner world. It’s the one I find myself painting recently because, for the first time ever, I have found the perfect medium for it.
My inner world could only be called abstract. The stories in my head could only be sketched as chaos — documented fodder for a future commitment hearing. Giving into that world when I am in front of an easel, however, casts new light on the value of retreating from the world.
Everyday I work to help kids who are not neurotypical manage stereotypical behaviors that are barriers to educational and social development — not always but still too often because of a world that fears any behavior that isn’t “normal”. As a special educator and a doctoral student studying behavior, I understand the importance of helping children interact with their surroundings and with society. As someone who has lived with her own atypical her behaviors, however, I sometimes feel like a hypocrite.
My own inner world is vast and complex. I am always mindful not to wade into the undertow, but, as I’m dancing in front of the easel to a random playlist, splashing my feet in the foamy fantasy, tension from the last few weeks dissolves. I stop worrying about being too fat, about endless to-do lists, and budgets.
Conscious detachment from the “real“ world, aided by brush and paint, soothes body and brain. It leaves me alone with my frailties but also my strengths. Problems become manageable, and the same behavior that sometimes has me and the world holding each other at arm’s length becomes a secret weapon.
And I remember why so many children with behavioral issues revert inward in the first place.
I know my job is to help kids self soothe with intention rather than isolation and possibly perseverate on an issue. It’s an important concept to master for anyone, but it makes me wonder if our societal worship of “normal“ and of being constantly entertained and occupied, is training us out of the ability to be alone with ourselves, and to be calmed by that.
Sometimes to help someone, you need to disconnect just enough from your empathy to keep the other person from the fog instead of marching into it holding their hand. I’ve had a few such cases at work lately. I can recognize my own traumas in the person I’m helping, but to use the lessons of experience and education, had to resist the temptation of wading into memories.
One of the pitfalls of that professional detachment is that it is sometimes hard to reconnect with other parts of life.
Painting is usually my lifeline, but the latest sessions felt as flat as the rest of my day. I’ve recently moved into abstraction, channeling the emotions inspired by our local mountains and the storms that move through them, and the emotion wasn’t there.
I tried faking the emotion. Then I tried painting the flatness.
Finally I decided to fight the flatness and get out of the studio for a day and go to the fields and woods.
I hadn’t been plein air painting since summer, and I rarely paint outside in the winter. Sometimes, I paint in the car with watercolors, but last Saturday, I knew I needed the kiss of the cold and wind to bring my whole brain to life.
It was bitter cold when I parked the car by my favorite field. I had my fingerless mittens and layers of shawl and scarf, and, after finding the right way to position my easel by the car door so that the wind wouldn’t blow things over and wick the heat from my body, I queued up a new playlist of mostly melancholy music to match my mood.
I was keen to get the racing clouds as they brushed the tops of the mountains with a new dusting of snow. I could feel my fingertips freezing, but there was a glow of life in the midst of this winter scape. I could hear ice cracking on the nearby Battenkill as the sun briefly emerged, and some creature, disturbed my presence, rustled nearby, invading my iPod playlist with their own music.
For the first time in days I was fully awake, intensely aware of every emotion, completely at peace, and seeing the answers to a question that had been plaguing me for months: Why do I need to paint nature?
Is there a point to painting nature when the world is in chaos? Aren’t there more important subjects? Why do I need nature in order to paint?
The answers had happened as winter’s soundtrack and sights and my moving brush reconnected with the same emotions that make me want to help and hope for a world at peace in the first place.
I used to think about December as the beginning of hibernation. Creative output always seems to slow down as the days get shorter, and work seems far more intrusive than it does in the crackling light of autumn.
For last last few weeks my output has followed the same trend. It took me a while to recognize the pattern because I initially blamed the slowdown the Ménière’s disease that’s been with me in earnest for a year now. Yesterday, though, as I drove down the mountain and had to stop and catch my breath as fast moving clouds dusted with powdered sugar the top of a mountain across the river, I realized that this time of year is not solely about hibernating.
To catch that moment, you would’ve had to be in the exact spot at the exact time with me. The peak of the mountain is almost hidden by two others that “overlap“ each other in the view that is only seen when coming down the road from our remote town to a “main“ route. The moment sparked attempts to repeats – something that shouldn’t be too difficult in Southwestern vermont in the winter – but it was the only one that day. The moment and the search germinated hours of wonder and reading and discovery.
What do I want to capture when I paint or draw? Moments of breathlessness? Revelations of the grit that lies at the foot of these mountains? Or appreciation of one the few places humans haven’t tamed?
Tonight will be occupied with the work of work, but in the back of my brain, the next painting session is germinating. It occurred to me that every racing thought, every quiet space that arrives with the dark of winter is not about hibernating through depression. Instead that darkness may just be the needed incubation for what will come next.
“Incubation” and other pieces are on my Etsy shop and ready to ship.
Several days into break, I was still having trouble mentally disconnecting from work and reconnecting with family and creative life. Our family had chosen to skip the bacchanalia of presents under the tree, filling each others’ stockings with small items instead. We had all enjoyed shifting focus away from obsessive shopping, but, even as we enjoyed a low-key day and prepared for a lovely family meal in Columbus, Ohio, I was in limbo.
But my present was about to arrive.
My parents had invited friends — a professor and an artist – to join us for Christmas dinner. We had known of each other for years, and the two sets of strangers were friends by the time coats were hung. The professor chatted with the rest of the family in the kitchen, while the artist and I brought hors d’oeuvres over to the living room.
The artist is also a professor, and, through my parents, knew that I painted and drew. We had barely traded cheese and crackers before she asked about my work. I had seen some of her work and, knowing she was a serious and classically-trained artist, was a bit nervous showing photos of some of my work. Like most of the committed artists I’ve known, however, she was genuinely interested in seeing others’ work.
“I’m getting away from landscapes,” I said as she scrolled through images of mountains and trees and then through abstract images. I explained a desire to make art that was more than decorative. “I connect with nature when I paint them in real life, but it still inspires the abstract,” I told her.
“I love landscapes,” she said. “I don’t paint them very much.” She told me about her work painting portraits before teaching and creating more abstract pieces. We talked more about creating work with meaning, and then she said, “I like nature, but I don’t really connect with it. It doesn’t inspire me.”
She told me about her recent work painting flowers using a more academic approach and how her search for castoffs from grocery florists had added a new facet to her project. As she talked about mountains of plastic and dying flowers that were thrown away each week, it occurred to me that her project was as much an investigation and revelation as it was the result of inspiration.
My brain was suddenly churning, and, for the first time in weeks, it was from enthusiasm rather than apprehension. Dinner preparations and the gathering of other guests in the living room were about to redirect the conversation, and we dug in deeper for a last few intimate moments of art talk. We talked about giants of art like William and Elaine de Kooning, Pollack and Krasner, who had found inspiration but also frustration in nature, and I began to think of how much of art emanated not from waiting for an impulse from something beautiful but from seeking and investigating.
The Big Guy and Thing1 and 2 and I continued talking about the ways a creative spark is fanned as we drove back to our hotel after dinner. We were still talking about it when we drove home from Ohio a few days later.
As we plodded through miles of shopping malls to get from our hotel to the highway, I realized how difficult it might be to pack up a plein air kit and connect with the natural world there. In a landscape of strip malls, an artist has to create their own vision.
Years of being surrounded by mountains and woods have made made connecting with inspiration easy for me, and I wondered if it had made me lazy as well. Waiting for it to hit, rather than seeking out revelation also made it easier for anxiety to settle in where creativity should have been raging during the downtime.
My mom’s friend had inadvertently given me the best Christmas gift any artist could give another. She had opened a window to a new way to connect with creativity.
The alarm is set for 8 o’clock. It’s just past midnight, and I am staring at the ceiling, my eyes glued wide open. For once, neither I nor the ceiling or spinning, but nobody has managed to get the gremlins in my head to stand down.
The last few weeks have been defined by bouts of Ménière’s-related vertigo that have forced me to use a wheelchair to keep from falling down at work and to depend on other people to get me from point a to point B. At home this translates into far too much time spent on the couch watching reruns while mindlessly doom scrolling through text and images that I’m far too nauseous to absorb beyond a headline here or there.
When the fog clears, I try to paint – especially when the gremlin are keeping sleep away. Sitting and scrolling are becoming far too habitual, however.
This morning – it’s morning now –– I’m out of thinner for my paint. I’m desperate so I get up and fill the tub, grab the first book I see in my office and sink into the bubbles.
It’s not a novel. It’s a book about the history of English which turns out to be great. I expect to be engaged, entertained, and sooth, when I read fiction, but I’m surprised how relaxing it is to learn something new at two in the morning. I’m having the age old problem of not being able to put the book down, but it’s a different sensation from scrolling through toxic pages of social media posts.
Scrolling is turns my body into a clenched fist.
Each turned page, however, slows my heart rate. Each new factoid relaxes another muscle.
The book may keep me up all night, but I’m not worried about being worn out in the morning. The clarity that comes only from calm has helped me make a new rule. The next time anxiety tempts me to pick up the phone and scroll, I’ll grab a book instead.
Sometimes my drawer full of failed inner ear fixes looks like I’m opening my own pharmacy. I’ve been trying to figure out what changes are effects or merely side effects and starting to feel like Gertrude Mcfuzz, waiting for one of the little magic seeds to sprout one or even two little feathers of hope.
And if that hope can sprout in the right place, that’d be awesome too.
I’ve been holding back on sharing too much of my newer work. It is much more abstract than I’ve ever done. I am completely prepared for the reality that people who liked my old stuff, may not like the new stuff, but a mentor’s advice to keep the thoughts of any potential audience out of my head while I’m working — to just create art, for art sake with no thought of sales or like – has been driving my work lately.
It has been a really good experience, helping me find my voice, and integrate my other self — the teacher – more and more into my art.
For the last four winters that other self has dominated my life, sometimes crowding out painting, and even making me question my life as a painter. This fall, however, has been different. This fall, adopting a daily discipline of painting, even when I don’t feel “in the mood,” creating even when the demands of school seem to push everything else aside, has helped me see that teaching and painting don’t have to be two sides of my personality. They can be overlapping facets.
Teaching, like painting abstractly, can seem chaotic. There’s a lesson planning, the paperwork, the communications with parents, and, of course, meetings. And, if you love it, if you really love it, there’s the learning.
The deeper you get into learning about all the things that can derail a kids future – – and I see a lot of that as a special educator – the more invest if you become in learning about the best ways to get them back on the tracks that give them their best futures. For me, I was led to countless courses and webinars and graduate work, and it has led to thinking about where I want this blog to go.
As I embark on another course load and a research project looking at the disparate resources for students who struggle with dyscalculia (a math, learning disability), I’m realizing I can’t not write about education. And I can’t not right about art.
One gives my life purpose; the other gives it perspective, and I’m not always certain which does which.
If, like me, you are passionate about education and making sure every kid can read, or if you can’t stand the new art, feel free to vent in the comments. And, if you have enjoyed and keep enjoying the posts and art (good, bad, and hilariously ugly), please consider making a small donation using the link you’ll see in the sidebar of any post. 100% of any donations will go to funding curricula, and supplies in my classroom.
Original art will be on my website (www.Rachelbarlow.com) and 25% of sales will also go towards fundraising for my classroom and
So I realize there’s this one–OK not only one – weird thing I do when I paint lately.
I’m trying to get more into working in abstraction, and to “get in the mood“ for whatever try emotion I’m trying to conjure up, I have a playlist of songs. I’ve always listened to music while I paint, and I usually dance a little (much to the mortification of my kids).
Lately, however, I listen to Zepplin when I’m in one kind of mood, The Doors when I’m in another kind of mood, Beethoven for another mood. This week in Vermont, everything is about fall color. Two days of near frost temps have turbo, charged the colors, and I took a little detour from abstract backed who painting some of the countryside.
Cue a little Vivaldi. I hadn’t listened to it in a while, but Zubin Mata‘s performance with the Israeli Philharmonic is still astounding 29 years after it was released. The best part, when you’re painting, is that after every few interludes, Itzhak Perlman‘s violin is so fiery that the studio audience explodes with applause. And, you are really into your painting, at that point, you can almost kid yourself into thinking that the applause is for you. Almost.