There is no hope in understanding a marriage. It is bound by love and faith, not analysis. There is love in one another and more importantly love in what they create together. This home, this family, this feeling, this conversation, this intimacy, this strength, the gift giving, forgiveness and courage they form together and this friendship only exists in this marriage. It is incomprehensible… and a wondrous fact.
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This commission is taking me a long time to finish. I make three decisions and then I’m exhausted, and the paint needs to dry. I walk away.
As I work, I think about my client. She has an irreversible and deadly disease. This painting is for her life partner as a parting gift, in memory of their life together. Their best memories are in the water, the mantas are metaphors and symbols.
Thrilling, intimate, scary, flowing, connecting …. fill in the rest here.
We all know life is finite. But it is another thing to know death is looming. It is another thing to be touched intimately by it and be asked to partake in the goodbyes.
I love her (my client). Every decision is a worth a million more than the thought that goes into it. I want to have all the time in the world to finish this painting. I want anything to slow down goodbyes. I never want this painting done so she can never give it to him. So she will never die.
So I slow down. And reflect on color and life.
The Birth story: color and life
Of the images she gave me, there were sea turtles, mantas, sea life, water, underwater corral. Of the words she gave me, mantas, moving together, light and colors, love and the stories she has shared with me about them.
This image burned for me. This is sketched and painted on 9 x 12″.
Which eventually led to a rough idea and agreement.
I changed the mantas as little as I worked on the larger image which is about 26″ x 26″. They are purple; regal and spiritual. They come together in a more fluid shape. They merge so one is undecipherable from the other. The energize each other at the connection point.
And then I add background color. I also altered the color scheme a little, adding deeper blues and simplifying. The challenge is to keep the eye on the mantas while creating motion, energy, support and a story with color. A vivid purple draws the eye in just the right places, there should be color and contrast where meaning occurs.
The aquamarine frames the mantas. Dark colors keep the eye inward. The yellow draws the eyes to it and the mantas. Purple and yellow are complimentary colors, they glow next to each other.
Now I’m happy with the basic composition which is different than the first sketch. I took what worked from it and added and subtracted. Then, I return to the blues and yellows, softening, shading, darkening and adding depth.
This week, I came back to the mantas with more layers of colors and shading. The rewards for patience pay back huge in vibrancy and motion. The mantas are deeper purple now, the result is higher contrast which builds more energy and richness to the painting.
What is left?
I need to keep working the shading in the two mantas, their upper bodies are still a bit ill-defined and the background colors still need a few more layers for richness and just the right frame.
She loves it. Believe me, she would tell me if she didn’t. I’m relieved and joyful. This project aches, but I’m so pleased that this painting is doing what she wants and needs it to do.
Today, I found my almost-6-year-old son on this ledge worriedly kneeling over a plant. He turned to me and pointed at it.
“What happened?” He asked.
“It’s dead. Daddy killed it.” I said. I’m sorry Dad. It was a flippant response. Dad has an amazing green thumb. This spot has been a difficult gardening space and the plant has been dead for 6 months easily, probably longer.
I did not expect my son’s response.
Daire choked up and fought his tears from spilling over. He wiped them away, trying not to let me see.
He has teared up like this before. Recently, I described Mt St Helens eruption. We watched a short video and his tears let loose as he learned 57 people died, all the animals gone and the trees completely blasted down. The story hurt him the way it hurt the earth.
It concerns me that he doesn’t want me to see the tears. I gave him a kiss and told him that I loved how much he cares. He leaned over and hugged me, a wonderful vulnerable moment shared openly.
“Do you know what happens when we die?” I asked.
He shook his head.
“We become a part of the world around us. When I die I will become a part of you, and Dana and your favorite places on the earth.”
He nodded, thinking.
“I don’t think it happens that way.” He said finally.
“I think we get old and then we die, then we are born again.” He nodded firmly, very confident.
“Yes. I believe that happens too. We become new beings.” I paused. “Is that sad or scary?”
He was still fighting his tears but he said “No.” Nothing more.
But it is change. Monumental, unstoppable, life-altering change.
Did you know that a baby sea turtle isn’t much bigger than a ping pong? And they are dark, almost black. From afar, they could be wet bark and then they move. Amazing. As they grow they stretch that layer thin and the green reveals itself.
Seeing one is witnessing a breathing miracle. The one in Mexico was deadly persistent in its pursuit of the sea. A wondrous role model. Sadly, it didn’t make it. There were many factors against the poor thing, including the crowd of tourists, the daylight, the gentle-ish yet inconsistent surf and the pelicans circling overhead. The survival rate of a baby turtle is about 1% and humans contact lower these chances more. Yes, we can kill them with our love.
It did not escape my daughter, Dana, that this was a and uncommon and momentous event. She drew the experience and then steadily persisted that I paint her drawing.
I’m grateful for sea turtle markings which are like an unique topographical map, and gave me some artistic freedom. Dana wanted a golden head. So gold she had it and though I was challenged by it, I’m thankful to not have to map that artistic decision.
Although I’m an abstract and illustrative artist sometimes I find myself struggling with the seen and seek permission to break through the literal. Why do I need permission? Why do I feel like my painting must look like what is? That makes me laugh. I insist there is much we don’t see. I’m very interested in making the invisible, visible. And yet, I struggle. It is a human bind.
Every choice is very deliberate in art making, even when it seems arbitrary. This turtle tested the balance between symbols, color, memory, relationships and art. Because in part, it had to be a turtle as you and I know it while more fantastic to satisfy my child and the child in all of us.
My father, who died 17 years ago, used to keep a 5 gallon water jug for spare change. It was a way of saving, a game and my confession: my brother and I used to “steal/borrow” from it as children.
Dad wanted to see if he could fill it up but he expected to live much longer than 49 years…so he didn’t. And our sneaking didn’t help his goal, the quarters disappeared fast.
After he died, my mom kept it and added a little to it over the years.
Today, she handed it over to our kids; a heavy bowlful of change that can’t be counted in one sitting. It is a gift from a ghost and from a time when having kids were little more than maybe a thought to the 23-year-old me.
My kids are through-the-roof excited.
Dad touches them, with a small habit, very tangibly right now like a small bit of time travel. I’m happy he could give them something they feel at this age, a small brushing of souls.
He touches us in many unseen ways too.
And maybe he meant to save the money for them and maybe he didn’t. I don’t know.
But legacies play this way. We think we know what we leave behind, but we don’t. We just do our best and leave it for the people left behind to make meaning of it. The meaning making is our legacy.
Dana is happier with the turtles progress now. The water has pulled in the ideas she was exploring in her drawing. She notices this. She feels seen, she feels important. I have had a small moment of connection and motherly victory. I'll take what I can get. I get a lot of eye rolls and sighs these days too.
I also washed the head in some deep yellow because she suggested a golden head. I'm really going to have to think about the head now. I'll look at some pictures, but as I write some ideas are forming.
So much of painting is looking, studying, thinking. I often take long breaks and photos on my cell phone so I can just look. Before I had my studio, I used to prop my painting at at the end of the bed before I went to sleep, just to look at it and make decisions for my next painting session.
Her original drawing has a nest of eggs. She has told me not to include it now. Honestly, I'm glad to not include it, I knew it would be challenging to design. It will let me focus on the other elements more thoroughly. I think it will also reflect the experience of seeing the turtles more acurately. And in some way, that makes it more magical for me, and less scientific. Is that weird? The turtle just appears and we don't know where it comes from now.
For me, There is a point in painting, when a the painting goes from being a painting “of something” to a reflection of my viewpoint, where I and the painting merge. At this point I internally say “Now, this is me, now I'm heading somewhere,”. It is as if I and the painting are making our ways towards each other.
Ironically, often when I'm done, I laugh and think I must be a little insane. I don't mind being crazy as long as it makes me laugh.
It is interesting to me how the practice of art is a melding of personalities and roles. The artist is the giver and the receiver is the subject or client or both. But somewhere in this process, I feel I’m gaining a very precious gift and our roles are reversed. I am grateful.
My daughter wants me to paint her turtle drawing (this is absolutely necessary since I finished Daire’s Dragon).
Daire’s dragon in many ways reflects him. It is all energy, desire and a frenetic wanting of everything without compromise. My son is 5, almost 6.
This turtle is calmer and more grounded, like my daughter. We saw baby turtles in Mexico this winter and large green turtles laying eggs in Costa Rica a couple years ago. It was magical, of the real life kind, both experiences were awe-inspiring. Unlike a dragon, turtles are a real life story. She draws what she sees and learns, she is very scientific and loves the natural world.
When she saw my progress, she was clear she wants more stimulating colors like the dragon – a golden head for example. This surprised me a little. She wants, in many ways, more of me in the painting. She also expressed the knowledge that I was only just beginning, and had confidence the end would be a lot different. She pays attention that way.
What I’m noticing is that through art, the giver and receiver express their relationship and that relationship matures in the process. It is very intimate and so wonderfully human.
I feel this in all the paintings I have done for others, but witnessing it being expressed from my daughters point of view is very touching and expanding. She is 8 almost 9, and really defining herself as a person. In doing so she is also defining me as her mother. She is making sense of me.
And this is in part what this painting is about, a mother making sense of her daughter and her daughter doing it right back.
Something we will do for the rest of our lives I suspect. I am grateful for it.
Being pregnant is a victory and triumph. It is a miracle that, even if you experience it differently, is not a simple task. It is complex, complicated, at a point inexplicable and by virtue of this - absolutely awe-inspiring. That accomplishment deserves a loud colorful scream - I did it! I did this! Look at what my body can do! Celebrate!
This painting is inspired by a friendship and her vision. To know her, is to know someone embedded in a journey with peace, not just of her own but to those most suffering. And in her journey, her deep strength unseen, her soothing calm beneath the surface. She carefully tends to herself as she rushes to tend yours. Her ability to do this is awe-inspiring.
I don’t know about you, but this has been a difficult week. It is as if I have been traveling for so long that the wonders of the world no longer shine with their marvelous newness. I know what’s happening is awesome, but I just don’t feel it. Once there were highs with each success, now there is just a “BLAH” – done it before.
I have been doubting myself and my goals. Maybe, I’m not good at this. Maybe I can’t possibly make this work. Maybe I was wrong about synchronicity and meaning. Maybe, I need a new high? I’m good at other things, and unlike art, “proven” to be good at it. Seriously, I’m a really good teacher, project manager, designer and other things. I’m an ideal employee.
BUT, it really did seem like when I started sharing my art that I was making not just a good choice, but one that cracked open a view of the world that made everything fall into place. An authentically, meaningful choice.
I’ve been trying. I’ve been coaching myself and telling myself this:
Doubt is a natural part of the artistic process, dance with it.
But doubt is a sucky dance partner, all he does is step on my feet and piss me off and he won’t leave me alone! Grrrrr….
This morning, I woke to two unsolicited messages. Seriously, they were in my inbox when I woke up from two separate but wonderful souls.
“So since I’m still up at 3 this morning, I want to tell you how incredibly beautiful your print is, and how much it means to me. The gold details bring such life to the vivid colors. The curves and circle touch something deeply feminine in me. And the reds and oranges takes the pain and hurt that has been my life-long companion and turned it into beauty. You created art that speaks to my soul, and I will forever be proud to have your work grace my home.”
And there it is again; this is meaningful! This is the right choice.
Dang, it is hard though. It is a boiling pot full of doubt, self-reflection, points of weakness, victory, beauty, vision and giving, giving, giving but… it is the right choice. And there are no borders – it is messy.
More awe-inspiring are two in-tuned people out there who snapped doubt back in place for me this morning. Thank you. Keep doing that to everyone in your life.
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