The Opposite of Sick

I tested positive for Covid on Monday which wasn’t a huge deal (we’re all vaxxed and boosted, the symptoms are mild) but it was hugely inconvenient — until the break it enforced helped me find a needed change to disturb this winter’s rest.

Ordinarily, getting an extra week off right before spring break would have been lovely, but Constant vertigo is a fog. It’s an exhausting, involuntary hangover that turns a successful trip from my desk to the copier or kitchen to couch into an Olympic event. Almost daily Ménière’s attacks have sent me home so often that the word “disability” has been floated by doctors more times than I care to count.

The fog also clouds my identity. I feel like less of a mother, less of a teacher, and nothing like an artist. It was started to convince me that art was just a phase of my life that’s over.

A few weeks ago, my sister who had recently moved into a new house, texted looking for matches for framed photos I’d done a decade ago when I was still shooting weddings and portraits. I’d pooh-poohed my photos for a few years as I started drawing again. As I scanned dusty archives for a mate for this rose or that apple blossom, however, I remembered how much I enjoyed making them.

Yesterday, as I sat in the cool spring sun, the cats meditated on the chickadees swarming the budding lilacs. The dog lazed on the grass, occasionally lifting her head when she sensed a deer in the pasture beyond our woods. The spring sun warmed the wind and, for once, the rocking in my head made me feel closer with the rhythm around me.

I got up for a walk around the house, stopping to chat with the cats and dog who followed close behind. I examined branches, looking for incoming blossoms and studied the muddy mess that is my veggie garden after winter. My phone came out of my pocket and, almost mindlessly, I started to snap as I ambled, merging with the buds and even the puddles.

When my head started spinning last November, I felt myself detaching from work and life and, I thought, from art. But, as I snapped a branch or a racing kitty, I realized I can’t disconnect from art. Some people use art to comment on the world. Art helps me connect with it. It often helps me when I don’t expect but need it the most.

People talk about addiction as an illness, and it is, but a wise person in one of my classes once said that the opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety, it’s connection. I think that’s true with illness as well — the opposite of sickness isn’t a perfectly functioning body, it’s a life that’s still connected. Yesterday, for me, art — even in the form of blurry photos – was the opposite of my disease.

Mental Gallery

There is a painting of a sunlit stand of trees in the permanent wing of the Clark Art Museum in Williamstown, MA, And I have to stop every time we visit so I can feel its heat.

It’s bright and sunny here, but the light is cool, and I keep going back to my mental gallery for warmth.

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Picture this…

I told myself to find something, anything to draw while this virus has me couch surfing for a few more days.

The master’s degree is done, and I’ve set my sights on writing and illustrating books kids in my classes can read. For now, as ideas and word lists germinate, I’m practicing by picturing my life in doodles again, and Thing2 gave me the perfect tale to doodle.

My second pride and joy sat down on the couch to figure out a new song on the guitar for school. The incoming storm made the lights flicker in and out, and I started to draw as I listened to the unelectrified strains of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Pride and Joy.

The drawing was terrible — even for a first after a hiatus -but the picture it saved in my mind is priceless.

Down and In

Thanks to the boys’ “donated” labor last summer, my garden was mercifully easy to prep and plan this year. Thanks to the effects of my adenomyosis, it’s the only physical labor I’ve engaged in since May, but even though it’s kept me down on the bench, I haven’t been out.

Even before school finished, I knew I needed to paint again, but I wasn’t sure how it would work. I usually paint dancing in front of my easel, and the energy just hasn’t been there. An abstract course I was taking was too physically taxing, but it got me playing with acrylics, which unexpectedly presented a solution.

Knowing I needed more practice with the new medium, I dug out some old, smaller canvases.

Really small. Like playing card small.

I’ve had fun with small pictures in the past. You can put the paint and the canvas on the same palette board and do most of the work with a small brush or knife and minimal cleanup. And you can sit in a comfy chair in the living room while you do it.

This summer, going small has that even though I’m a bit behind the game, I’m still in it.

Teeming with Life

It’s been one of those perfect puffy cloud days here in Vermont. Storms rolled through a couple days ago followed by another day of soaking rain. In their wake is a landscape so green and lush it fools you into thinking that our “brave little state“ is steeped in opulence.

Teeming, 18” x 24”

A little “Appalachian Spring,” I thought, would be the perfect soundtrack to get some hyper saturated trees and skies on canvas. But as the music started to meander, so did the paint and water. The greens and blues started to play with the sun and shadows, and pools, where so much in the woods begins, started to form, and I realized the green isn’t about opulence, it’s about life.

Stand and Create

Some people tell me I’m brave.

I hold it together when my kids need me to. I keep my life and job afloat, even when the worst depression at hit, but that’s being strong. It has nothing to do with being brave. 

I’ve known ever since I self-published my first short story that I wasn’t brave. I spent months working on that story, with the bulk of the time spent worrying if it would be any good and the next largest chunk of time spent wondering if it would upset anyone of my family who read it.

Writing demands authenticity. It demands courage. When I write about depression, when I write about teaching, authenticity is easy. There are no perceived consequences. When I try to write fiction or about subjects that might step on toes, my keyboard is quiet. 

I’ve never found the courage to get around that.

For a few years, I found expression in painting. I paint landscapes because I need to save and share the intense, often simultaneous, feelings of peace and power they generate, the way new converts want to share religious awakening.  

Authenticity is easy in that context. 

I realized this week, however, that cowardice can seep into every part of your creative life, and that, as much as comparison can smother it.

Knowing that the school year is winding down and my schedule is opening up a bit, I registered for a free abstract painting workshop. The first lesson was two week ago, just after one of my last parent-teacher meetings of the year. I knew I had to re-organize my teaching space to make room for painting, a job that should only take a few hours.

Instead of digging into the filing of papers and clearing off of work spaces, I spent the evening using a design app to rearrange the office/studio. Then I went to bed muttering to myself that the best abstract painters could all draw  better than I do anyway. On the night of the second lesson, I checked the workshop’s Facebook group, admiring the efforts of everyone else who had completed the first lesson and knowing that nothing I would’ve done would’ve been nearly as good, I started moving crates of books and desks in the office, wondering if I should be writing instead anyway.

And then I remembered that I often don’t write because I’m afraid to be authentic. I’m afraid of taking a risk and making people uncomfortable. And worse, I’m afraid of just being bad. They were all the same fears that kept painting from happening the first few nights right up until Sunday when lesson planning put cleaning and creativity on the back burner for another 24 hours.

By the fifth night, there were no excuses. My office was a studio again. My progress reports were finished. And the only thing keeping brushes in drawers was a fear that the work would be bad, that people who liked my old art would hate the new art, that people would laugh in my face or behind my back.

But the free course was short, and so is the summer when creativity can be on the front burner.  And that is exactly the time to be brave.  Or at least, to make a start of it. 

“Incoming”, 8 x 10, Acrylic on Canvas

Same Song, Different Dance

The assignment was to take a new approach to an old idea. Pick something we’ve painted a bazillion times and do it in an entirely different way – new tools, different support, mix up more than just the colors.

I used my favorite spot — my Giverny — a favorite view of Mt Equinox in Manchester, VT, framed by white poplars. I twisted it from my usual landscape to a portrait view. Instead of my usual 8″x10″, I found a big canvas that had been gathering dust for a couple years and started painting one of my favorite Vermont landscapes with Lake Michigan colors. Instead of painting it in oil in a single plein-air session, this is evolving in acrylic in the studio at a slower, more meditative pace.

I have no idea where this is going or where it will end up.

It’s one if the reasons I’m loving this course. The course isn’t about being all things to all people or even about how to paint. It isn’t about changing who you are. It’s about  challenging yourself to better find the artist you are. It’s about seeing the same places with fresh eyes.

After over a year of pandemic and healthcare-related doldrums that have desaturated every part of my landscape from personal to the professional, being able to find a new perspective on the same old places and the old me is better than a rest. It’s  a new take on life and art which, for me, go hand in hand.

Big Dreams

The school year is coming to a close, and with it, the end of a period of intense creativity for me. Every day of every week has been filled with creating new PowerPoint‘s or NearPods and with silly real world math problems or virtual, literary field trips around the world.

Part of me can’t wait take a breath and only be focusing on a graduate research project I’ve been working on. The other part of me has been on the verge of (happy) tears all week. Part of it is saying goodbye to students who are moving on to bigger and better things and two teachers I won’t see next year, but the other part sort of came to me in a dream.

In the dream I was making another projectable book for kids his face as I couldn’t see it. The book morphed into a painting. Someone behind me someone was making it clear that I had to paint something or they’d pull the plug on the life support machine that was suddenly there.

I’ve been following along in a Facebook group for a free abstract painting workshop for the last week now, promising myself I’ll get caught up once everything settles down. I wanted to learn how to paint looser, But now, just things are settling down, I find things to do in the garden or around the house, and the painting doesn’t happen. Not even last night when the house was clean and my studio was no longer a digital classic and, for all intensive purposes ready for painting.

When the cat pounced on my bed this morning, jolting me out of my dream, I knew exactly what the dream was demanding. Sure have breakfast, finish your homework later, but the garden and the housework will wait. The only activity today is to make art like your life depends on it.

Maximum Distraction

I don’t know about you, but whenever I’m getting my painting kit together for an afternoon of escapism, I feel a little bit like James Bond’s messed up kid sister (yeah I like to pretend I’m that young).

Flipping open my beat up watercolor tin that looks like somebody’s five-year-old got into it and checking in the water pens to make sure there’s enough ammo for a few sketches, I can hear variations of the opening bars of every 007 movie followed by the Mission Impossible theme. I will be the first to admit that they probably don’t carry their high tech items in a Ziploc baggie in their purse, but there in lies the genius. No one would ever suspect this frumpy lady, carrying an even frumpier purse of smuggling weapons of maximum distraction around town.

Not even the housework and homework police doing their regular patrols inside my head.

So what’s in your art wallet?

Get Your Head in the Clouds

I love my job. I love doing the research to become more effective at my job teaching kids with disabilities how to access their gifts. It’s easy, however, to get absorbed by the work, Barely noticing when your feet turn to clay and your head turns to Jell-O (which is just as susceptible to gravity).

I painted the headless statue a few years ago at a friends’ farm during an open house they were hosting to celebrate rural and creative life. There were a dozen morbid reasons the robed figure could’ve lost his or her head, but, as I sat staring out at the mountains that rise up along the border between Vermont and New York, I felt a connection two it that generated a happier explanation for the decapitation.

Whenever I stare out of the mountains, I feel my spirit lifting into the clouds as I try to become one with nature. I never succeed at the merger, but the attempt always brings an unparalleled feeling of peace, followed by a burst of creativity. Whenever I see that statue, and one of my paintings or in real life, I like to think that the figure simply got lost in the clouds, and the feet of clay just got left behind.

I’m on April break this week, and I’ve spent most of it focusing on the things that keep my feet covered with clay. I’ve budgeted. I’ve done some windowshopping. I’ve done some research for my upcoming thesis. And I have bought into guilt for not getting in touch with creativity during this brief bit of downtime.

One of the things I do love about my job is that every day demands intense creativity. I know, however, if I don’t get my head back up in the clouds at least for a little bit this week, that well, while never running completely dry, will become tepid.

So today, instead of working on the feet of clay stuff like cleaning my office that looks less and less like a studio every day, I’m spending a little time giving into wanderlust with my watercolors in my bag. There are times when you really need to get your head back in the clouds.

Would, Should, Will Do

You would rather paint today, but there are things you know you should be doing.

You should be writing and working on your project, whispers your conscience. But the laptop closed with the last task. If you were really a writer, you would. 

Admonishment doesn’t fire up the keyboard. Instead it makes paintbrushes heavy with guilt, and now the screen and canvas are blank.  But you tell yourself you should be a writer (that’s what you’re better at) and not an artist, and end up doing nothing.

And — as Oscar Wilde warned becomes of people who exhaust their lives chasing identity instead of living in the moment – you become static, nothing.

You feel nothing until even doing the wrong thing is better than being nothing at all. And, even though you should be this thing and not that, you pick up that piece of paper, feed it into the ancient typewriter, and, for the moment, focus on doing rather than being.

Your cat, of course, is completely happy being a cat.