Friday, March 15, 2019

Some lessons from accidentally having an art-filled life...

Happy are the painters for they shall never be lonely: light and color, peace, and hope will keep them company.  --Winston Churchill in his book Painting as Pastime

Lately, people have been telling me, "You would be much different if it were not for Elias (my son with autism). I nod my head agreeably, smile, and answer, "Yes, it is true. You are right." (But I say to myself if you only knew how different). At one juncture of time, my life turned upside down when I thought about his diagnosis and what lay ahead, but now I mainly see the unfolding of so many views I would have never seen before.

One of the gifts he has given me is a more creative, art-filled life. Deep down there was a lot of hidden creativity and canvases ready to be painted in me. I just didn't know it yet or remember (because I agree with Picasso that every child is an artist and just forgets how as they get older). I was not a trained artist when I had the audacity (as Winston Churchill says is the first component to be a painter)--just someone who liked to mix colors, go to art museums, and talk about art. However, Elias excavated some layers that had been hiding for a while with his insistence that "he wanted our house to smell like art."

As we prepare for a monumental exhibit here in Doha at the Fire Station (where Picasso's paintings came to exhibit), we sometimes paint for four hours a day. As we sit together elbow-to-elbow, we listen to music, mostly Vivaldi, Bach and the cello since I play the cello. The music calms us, and we both lilt off into a creative zone. He was the impetus for me to ever start the cello too--another story.

As the paintings have gathered colors, textures, and perspective--turning into a beautiful creation, I often think about the many life lessons I learn from taking out the paintbrush and paint. Here are a few:

1) Planning your vision...

Anny Ku, an art teacher who helps Elias here in Doha says 50% of the work in a painting is in the planning.  Envision the scope of what you want to convey with your colors and paintbrush. Start with the vision and then weigh in on how you are going to make it come to life. Prioritize, size it up, and watch the vision begin to formulate. As in life, most everything we accomplish will take strategizing and planning.  Blog about teaching art to teenagers and making a group painting:

I remember sitting with this team of painters as they painted together one ocean painting. But it took a lot of planning, collaboration, designing in one's head. Whether it is a group or individual painting, creations have to be envisioned first.
2) Be astonished by your audacity!

It takes some boldness, even a little impetuousness to make the initial brushstroke--especially on that first canvas you attempt. As Churchill states, "Audacity is your ticket." Most things are just learned by doing so no need to be afraid of the result. 

Be bold and have astonishing audacity. To begin is the dawn of discovery.
3)  Paint it big!

As an older man, Wilford W. Anderson remembered his seventh-grade art class with fondness. The word that continually came to him in the ensuing years, he said, was "perspective." He observed, "Make sure you know the size, proportions, and what you want to be in the background, foreground, and middle ground in not only your paintings--but in your life. Remember your priorities and how big you paint them. If something you designate as critical, significant, important, then paint it big." Any successful painter or person knows how to balance all the priorities and which ones need to be "painted big."

Painting a white winter walk with Elias's art teacher. They studied the below photo to understand the "perspective" for a long time.

The photo I took outside of Stockholm, Sweden on a walk with my cousin, husband, and Elias. I turned around that day and saw a sweet image I wanted to remember. To recreate it has been very special as the moments of that day repeat in our minds.

4) Pause, Step back, look/reflect on what you have done. 

Sometimes you have to step back from what you are doing to see the full picture--to see it in its entirety--the commanding view. Just as in life, we can become myopic or short-sighted in our view when challenges come. As we pause and take a break to reflect, we can begin to see all those hundreds of blessings and fortuitous opportunities in our life.  To see how the vision is meaningfully coming together, we need to step back. As David L. Bednar has taught, "In my office is a beautiful painting of a wheat field. The painting is a vast collection of individual brushstrokes--none of which in isolation is very interesting or impressive. In fact, if you stand close to the canvas, all you can see is a mass of seemingly unrelated and unattractive streaks of yellow and gold and brown paint.  However, as you gradually move away from the canvas, all of the individual brushstrokes combine together and produce a magnificent landscape of a wheat field. Many ordinary, individual brushstrokes work together to create a captivating and beautiful painting."

When life seems boring or difficult and we don't know if all the "individual brushstrokes" we are making are ever going to culminate into our vision, then step back, pause. We will see the unfolding of something extraordinarily beautiful. At a distance, you will marvel how things are converging and becoming your own masterpiece.

We had to pause and step back a great deal on this painting. All those autumn leaves create a golden luster--another day to remember in Utah.  But it required so many brushstrokes to make it happen.

5)  Nothing is ever permanent. You can always recreate it.

Note: This does not apply to watercolors, but to oil and acrylic paint: 

I marvel at the process to modify, adapt, revise, and even completely transform a painting. As I teach teenagers art in the summer, I can't tell you how soothing these words are to them: "Nothing is ever permanent. You can do it again. It is perfectly acceptable to erase (or gesso) the canvas completely over so you can redo it or start over." I visually see the stress drain from their face and the realization they don't have to be perfect the first or second or third time. Sometimes I think it the first time anyone has ever told them they can redo something and it is ok--even sometimes preferable because the second or third attempt will likely be much better. They always look at me with a little bit of incredulity and say, "Really? I can do it again?" It gives them so much power to know that perfection and skill do not have to be immediate.

This is a very large canvas that we call the Season Celebration of the Aspens. In this image, it is far from finished. Only the summer painting in the far left corner is done. You can see we gessoed the top right winter scene, but after this picture, there were about three other "gesso treatments." The spring painting in the top right was gessoed later too, and the fall below has been "modified" and "revised" several times. It is not completely finished. But it takes (for us) sometimes a lot of starting over. And that is ok. I have found that every time, without fail, we begin again, it becomes better.

6) When you walk around during the day, bring the beauty home to create it again. 

One of the immediate benefits of painting is that you begin to see more colors all around you. All of a sudden, there are so many hues of green, blue, or even brown or white. You glimpse views and hues you never saw before. There is a yearning to replicate that same beauty in your own version so you can hold it in your hands. 

As William Blake said, "To see a world in a grain of sand, and a heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hand, and eternity in an hour. "

Sometimes your soul is never the same again when you are surrounded by rapturous beauty. You crave, yearn, and strive to manifest your own version of what you see.

7)  Find other tools outside the "toolbox."

You can paint with other tools other than a paintbrush. Lately, we have been using ocean sponges, toothpicks for fine details, and palette knives. Think outside of the regular "toolbox." 

Painting with a toothpick the fence on a barn in Grand Teton National Park

8) Creating heals the soul and calms the mind--bringing peacefulness.

Recently I asked Elias as we painted together, "What is your favorite thing about painting?" I was surprised at his answer--to be able to verbalize what he felt.  He said, "Painting gives me peace." I hear the same comments from the teenagers I teach art to in the summer: 

"I feel peace--so much peace right now."
"I usually never feel peace like this."
"I don't want to stop."
"This is so much fun."
"I want to do this every day."
And even, "Maybe I could make a living at this someday...." 

One of my favorite stories about the healing of art is from Winston Churchill's life. After his leadership in the desolation of Gallipoli and the crush of the Alli army there, a family member observed his crippling depression. She suggested that he should try painting to calm the depression that he called "his black dog"--a condition that he said was always lurking around the corner for him.  He painted for the next 40 years about 500 paintings. Many are exhibited in his house at Chartwell in England. He often said painting staved off his depression and was a salve for his spirit. 

Tresa, one of my dear friends who died of cancer a few years ago, said this about the process of creativity that she lived and taught others to live by. The piece of wood is about five feet across and hangs in a barn where she taught pottery.
9)  You get to meet remarkable, creative people...

Ibrahim, a very amazing artist from Syria, gives us a lesson on sketching one day.

Meeting an artist from Iran in Doha who paints her family history. Since I enjoy family history, we found we had a lot in common--family history and art.
Meeting Carolyn Metcalf, a well-known artist from Montagu, South Africa
10)  Bringing art to others

I have felt so strongly about living an art-filled life that I have wanted others with a faint voice or maybe no voice at all to experience what I have seen and known.  One of my greatest joys in the last few years is to teach typical teenagers to paint as a group and individuals, painting with my mother who has much creativity and at a school here in Doha for children and young adults with disabilities. Each is a precious memory of me--watching young people find the creativity they did not know was there. To watch their astonishing joy and wonder has made me shed some tears. Sometimes I wipe away a teardrop with my smudged-painted hands, and then look at my face later and laugh--seeing the smeared colors on my cheek. 

Teaching art is to be on the front row seat of watching a person's potential to be unlocked and unleashed. I can see a new light in their eyes, realizing their work is special and uniquely beautiful. I see a restored confidence that bursts forth and is transferred to other endeavors. Suddenly, the world is a more satisfying place to sojourn for them. 

I have had the privilege of seeing people realize all the colors they ever dreamed possible can happen because they have discovered they are an artist. It is like something they lost at the playground has returned to them. And hopefully, when they feel a twinge of fear they will remember that moment when everything seemed possible and beautiful. And even more, they will have in their possession the painting they created to remind them when they ever doubt.  

One of the countless moments I have had teaching art... I came with a project to teach Danny from Jordan who is blind and who has autism. But he just wanted to hold my hand. We did an art project later, but there was an unmistakable sweet quietness I felt for about 20 minutes as he pressed my hand to his stomach that was in pain after a recent abdominal surgery. Everything else around me ceased to matter. It was just he and I in the room as I felt his heartbeat. The next week he was eager and ready to paint. These are some of my cherished times to be with people who have a faint voice.

I love that Elias gets to teach art with me to kids with disabilities with me. Some of my favorite moments...
 And sometimes it is just fun!
This made me laugh when this little student with disabilities was supposed to be painting.  His mother must have painted nails. Ha!

If you want to see more ideas about "process art" for children. Here is a blog
Bubble painting...

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

"Process Art" with kids with disabilities: The beginning of art in all of us....

Trying out the watered down tempera and straw technique! It was a huge success for every age group. Their squeals and "Ahs" made me very happy. Sometimes as I watch these kids, I roar with laughter at their joy. And I have been known to have a few tears drop too when we experience so much wonder together.

Process art is about the discovery, investigation, and enjoyment of the materials without the notion of an end result.  --Barbara Rucci

Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up. --Pablo Picasso

Picasso's notion that everyone is an artist is a nudge or reminder we all have a yearning to make beauty. There is a creative reservoir that awaits to be expressed in all of us--even if we forgot it at the playground long ago. As a child, I was lucky enough to have long stretches of time to play in sand, dirt, water, clay, puddles, and paint. I could sit and mix oil paints together for a long time, feeling a quickening of excitement watching the colors merge and swirl together. I was on a little vacation in my mind as a ten-year-old sitting in a neighbor's garage mixing paint for an art class. To put the colors that I mixed together on canvas was my first awe of art. 

As a mom with six kids, I tried (even when it got messy) to bring the wonder of creating to my children. When my last child, Elias, was first diagnosed with autism, I struggled to discover what we would enjoy together. I hauled out the art supplies like I had with my other children. I would never have imagined the journey we have taken together (In one month he will have his own exhibit of about 27 paintings here in Doha). Blog coming. Be ready to be wowed! 

As I look back on the "process art" approach of exploring with materials, I see how it has worked dividends with him. As we paint, we sit and talk about the world, colors, music, proportions, light, darkness, seasons, memories, so many things. We listen to music, especially Vivaldi's Seasons. As I watch him paint, I remember the little girl in the garage who was enchanted by mixing paint and boldly bringing it to the canvas. Doing art together has made us have a strong bond because we have discovered and explored so much beautiful terrain together.

Since art has brought him focus, confidence, and joy, I wanted to see if it could happen with other children with disabilities here in Doha. Elias and I have been lucky enough to teach several dozen magnificent children and young adults. We have seen so many children mesmerized with art materials, some who barely speak or do not speak at all, willingly take a paintbrush or a cut up piece of cardboard to dip in paint to do printmaking or whatever. I have seen confidence and concentration grow. I have seen incredible collaboration when they work together. But mostly, I have seen astonishing joy as they are captivated by their creation. 

Picasso was right: every child is an artist...  

My daughters long ago showing their pure joy by capturing their feelings on paper.  Of course, there were lots of messes, but I think it brought a joy that moved me every time. To watch them become more observant about the world and try to make sense of it was worth it. This picture reminds of the quote by Claude Monet, "I am chasing a band of color."

My son Peter, who is now 22, rolling his cookie dough. I believe to give kids the opportunity to explore and discover is one of the best gifts we can give them.

Some favorite art supplies

 Here are just a few of my favorite materials to use. The Isopropyl alcohol drops on paint make some wonderful effects, kind of link a cell. There are white dots on the paper. The salt pulls away from the pigment of the paint, showing a splattering effect, like a spray--good for backgrounds or an ocean scene. The droppers are for the alcohol or to drop watered down tempera or watercolor on paper--and then blow it with a straw. Sponges are also a wonderful effect for frothy oceans or random speckles for a bush. I found many sponges one day on a beach in South Africa. I love using them. Leaves of any kind are great for printmaking. I use the gesso to make small canvases with cardboard or paint over other paintings--if we want to recycle a canvas.

Some different tips to give interest to the "process artist."

Art projects that have brought so much joy to my students:

More straw painting--a really big hit!

This young man loved watching a gorgeous picture emerge before his eyes--with the vibrant colors colliding and mixing together.

Balloon painting

Splattering with the paintbrush--making bubbles, waves, spray of water. Besides, it is just fun....
Doing some "Matisse style" creating with the kids--dividing up areas for them to collaboratively create together.
Just tape it off, and see the designs they make...

Finding the joy of bending and folding paper...

Making a city with folded paper

Painting with Q-tips--another favorite. Sometimes a brush for kids, especially with disabilities, can be a little daunting.  The small Q-tip spreads well and just absorbs a little paint or glue.

Q-Tip painting, with pastels as a background...

 Elias teaching some of the students how to paint the dabs for their falling leaves...

This is my son, Elias. With some practice with Q-tips, he has made some beautiful paintings with dots, the technique known as Pointillism.

Another favorite is to bring several lazy susans and put them on paper. The child loves to twirl and make circle paintings.

String painting

 Making an ocean scene--dabbing lots of paint and layering saran wrap on it to pick up the paint--showing bubbles and froth of the waves. They love it.

Jackson Pollack style dripping. Watch the joy... 

More splatter painting

Bubble art--This was fabulously successful for all age groups. I was surpirsed. You just add food coloring or watered down tempera paint in a bowl with some dish soap and water. The children blow the bubbles and then put a piece of heavy paper on top of the bubbles. One smart kid said the painting looked like bacteria, cells, and viruses swirling around together. 
More bubble painting, and then peeking in to see how their painting is shaping and forming.

This picture makes me inordinately happy because this student was definitely not happy about 20 minutes before this painting. For children with disabilties, process art shows immediate, fun, and experimental joy.
Making a group mosaic with different colors of squares. Sometimes its good to have a collaborative project and to work together. 

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

What next after Christmas?

Part of our Nativity scene at home on Christmas Eve...

  When the song of the angels is stilled, 
  When the star in the sky is gone, 
  When the kings and princes are home, 
  When the shepherds are back with their flock, 
  The work of Christmas begins:

  To Find the Lost, 
  To Heal the Broken, 
  To feed the Hungry,
  To Release the Prisoner, 
  To Rebuild the Nations, 
  To Bring Peace among others, 
  To Make Music in the heart.

    ---Howard Thurman

I always find myself a little reflective after Christmas. The tree and its ornaments, the stars in the windows, nativity sets, and old cherished stockings bring rivers of memories. I just don't want all the festivities to end. I want to continue to feel my loved ones close, hear the familiar music, and see the stillness of a winter night with all the sprinkled lights under the stars. But then I think, what do I do with all the extra light, music, and love from this season? I agree with Ebeneezer Scrooge who says in The Christmas Carol, "I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach."

I believe every Christmas we can discover who we want to be for the rest of the year. We can bring some laughter and a smile to a child because we remember what it was like to be a child. We can invite someone who looks lonely to come in. We can talk to someone who looks scared or sad. All those Christmas lights, laughter, and love were meant to teach us something: to remember to be a little more like Him for the rest of the year.

All Elias wanted this year was a Santa suit. He wore it on the streets of Stockholm and Doha. Maybe we should bring it out in July to have me remember Scrooge's promise to live with all the past, present and future Christmases together.

     I like this poem that my friend, Erik Jacobsen wrote.

     Christmas Afternoon

        He is there. 

        Amid the cast-off wrappings 
        and trappings of Christmas-spent, 
        in the fatigue of gifting and getting, 
        for both the perennially disappointed
        and those who got all they wanted.
        He is there. 

         In the stories and the stockings, 
         but also in the cold, dark, lonely streets, 
         in the homes of the unbelievers
         and underachievers, 
         He is there. 

         This newborn babe
         with eyes to see and ears to hear
         soon will have words to speak:
         "My peace I give unto you...
         Let not your heart be troubled."

          In the fallen pine needles
          on the floor around the dried-out tree, 
          among the broken ornaments
          and too much chocolate, 
          in this loud or quiet place, 
          He takes my face
          in his tender newborn hands
          and softly shows me, 
          "Here I am."

              --Erik Jacobsen  2018

One thing I do to keep Christmas alive for me is to leave my stars up. Hopefully, it will remind me of the new stars that have arisen in me this season. (Heleman 14:5)  I don't want them to fade away...

Monday, January 14, 2019

Sweden (Part 2): Three Swedish words for a more beautiful life (especially in the winter)...

Happiness, knowledge, not in another place, but this place, not for another hour, but this hour.              --Walt Whitman

It is impossible to win the great prizes of life without running risks, and the greatest of all prizes are those connected with the home.                                        --Teddy Roosevelt

Having fun on a winter walk with the tomte (Swedish elves). We found a few in a burrowed tree on a long winter walk--embracing mysig
There are distinct reasons for the same Scandinavian countries to keep popping up as having the happiest people. Sweden, Iceland, Denmark, Finland, and Norway consistently make the top ten list, sometimes all five in the top slots. A lifestyle of maximizing life is consciously observed: embracing the winter light outside, but being content with the coziness of the four walls we live in, our home. It also laps over into other seasons: summer is a time to start a hike at 8 pm, and get home at 3am--enjoying the summer midnight sun. (One of my favorite summer memories in Iceland). People try to enjoy interludes of time to the fullest--even a few moments reading by a candle add contentment to the day. Whatever season, a pleasant resolve to connect with others, yourself, and nature reigns.

My cousin and I meeting with some Icelandic friends. As we talked, I learned that these two men are from my great-grandfather's little town of Flatey. That's what happens when people just sit around and talk with strangers. You find out those things when you take the time to sit and talk to people--having mysig time.

It seems a bold statement, but I believe in our lives, especially with a new year upon us, we can be happier by just a few adjustments and tweaks.  Most of us don't really need an entire overhaul or major shift--just a new habit or two can transform our joy levels. In a place where the weather can be harsh and dark, Scandinavians understand some core principles to make life more fulfilling, more joyful, especially in the winter.

Lakes and water abound in and around Stockholm. In every moment, whether light or dark in December, I was spellbound by the assessability to so much beauty. I kept asking myself, "How can the world be so beautiful? So good for the soul to embark on finding beauty--even when it was cold.
Since I was just in Sweden, I was taught these words by my Icelandic cousin who lives there. Every day we strived to embrace these words or lifestyle--no matter the weather or lack of sun. Each day was filled with a deep sense of new wonder of nature, bonding with conversations and strengthening relationships. During the day, there seems to be more permission to detach yourself from the world (and the phone)--to enjoy the people and the beautiful world around you.

A painting by the Swedish artist Carl Larsson showing the Swedish tradition of showing children how to learn and love the  winter time....
  Three Swedish Words to make your life even more beautiful...

1) mysig--a noun meaning a conscious commitment to celebrate and enjoy the wintertime, to slow down, get away from the stressful, make time for friends and family, turn off the social media, relax and/or meet a friend for fika (explained below), eating and making delicious food together, adding an extra layer of clothing and going out to enjoy the white forests or glassy lakes, etc. The Swedes even use an app called App Forest that allows people to get off their phones and get credit to buy a tree with their earned coins from not using their phone all the time.

So many much light in the winter darkness....

Mysig can mean cozying up with a blanket or duvet, lighting a candle, drinking a hot drink in a mug and reading a book by yourself, watching the snow fall outside. But it can also mean gathering loved ones together to enjoy a movie or conversation while the fire crackles beside you. It means making your home full of mysig--like candles, delicious smells, playing games, donning your knitted socks, enjoying the warmth and coziness of home. The Swedes also have a word for Friday night times called Fredagymys that is a combination of Friday and mysig or coziness--like being with your friends and family on a couch watching a good movie and eating together--destressing from the work week.

Taking time to mesig--playing chess with a lit-up board

The Danish have a word called hygge, in Icelandic it means gluggaveour (window weather), and in Norway it is koselig. Yet, from my understanding, the Swedish word mysig goes a little further: to enhance the coziness of your home. As Anne Hart describes, "Mysig means a lack of fussiness, contentment and quiet confidence, functional architecture, pared-back design, modesty, and wholesomeness." 

Maximizing fun in the winter

This playground is right next to a lake and beachfront, with the elementary school across the street. Kids learn early how to have a mysig life.

Every day maximizing the light--no matter how cold...

For the new year, mysig could be to create good memories with others, get in touch with yourself, and enjoy nature. Here are a few ways I thought of: taking up a new seasonal activity, visiting friends and family, cooking seasonal food (like making more soups), making your abode more cozy with fluffy pillows, candles (Swedes never seem to worry about the fire hazard of candles), wearing comfortable and cozy clothes, hosting a game party or musical soiree (a musical concert at home with friends who are willing to play their instruments and/or sing), listening to music, making things from nature and bringing it in the house to enjoy. Here are some great ideas for creative fun projects like ice lanterns. They are enchanting and so easy/fun to make!

Having some mysig time with the siblings.... An ice lantern I made for an even more enchanting evening...
2) Lagam is the approach to life that is balanced and appropriate--meaning not too much and not too little (Just what Goldilocks used to say)--just right. The word lagam originated in Viking times when they would all sit around a table drinking out of a horn or pitcher of mead. The first person would sip some mead, and then the second until the container had been passed around. No one took too much so that the last person would not have any. It is living in moderation, not in excess--being mindful of taking care of the environment, your finances, not living a life with lots of clutter, being temperate in your habits. It is about finding happiness in the middle, not overindulging or not getting enough. Striving for the peaceful, appropriate, moderate place/space is what lagam is all about.

It extends to relationships, in the workplace, and in families. Decisions are made in a group, with a team-like approach, nothing too authoritarian. Being mindful of others' feelings and saying, "What do you think?" or "Just a suggestion or thought, but I was thinking..." That's lagam too.

My cousin told me about her triplet's experience in seventh grade--around age 13. We all remember the occasional bullying or teasing, maybe even a lot at that age. But she said in Swedish classrooms and homes, there is a lot of talk about lagam.  There is very little conflict or bullying at school; that's not the way people behave, even 13-year-olds. They know when the imbalance erupts and they stop it or they go tell someone who can bring the tide back to lagam (or balance) again. No one is supposed to disrupt the lagam.

3) And last, but certainly very important: remember to have your fika--at least a few times a week, if you cannot fit it in every day! Fika time is to carve out a few moments to have a hot drink with a friend or loved one. It is a sacrosanct time--doesn't have to be long--but just to again remove oneself from stress or cares to enjoy a mug of hot drink (I like my herbed tea and occasional hot chocolate), perhaps a little sweet dessert (Swedes love their pastries). In every office, there is a "fika room"--known as a safe way to socialize. There is no alcohol, just a hot drink and almost always a little sweet (but just lagom--not too much and not too little).

Choose your fika to make--savory or sweet

Welcome to a fika!

Walking about 10 km before a "little fika"
Having a fika together with family
Time to get come inside for a fika
Sweden--known for taking time for their fika

The unspoken rule is not to have conflict or talk about politics, but to be respectful, polite, friendly. It is a time to chit-chat, enjoy another's company. Fikas usually happen around 10 am, sometimes at 3 pm, and then occasionally at night. It is a time to recharge when the weather is cold and a non-threating way to ask someone for a little chat. It doesn't have to be deep, just fun and enlivening.

This is a hilarious youtube that went viral about the necessity of having a fika every day.

So now you know how to have mysig, lagom, and fika! Here is to a blessed, happy, and healthy year ahead!