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.
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.
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.
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 drawbetter 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.
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’sa new take on life and art which, for me, go hand in hand.
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.