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: http://www.openingthesky.com/2017/09/painting-together-elbow-to-elbow.html


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 Allied 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 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 sweet moments I have had teaching art... I came with a project to teach Danny from Jordan who is blind and 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... http://www.openingthesky.com/2019/02/process-art-with-kids-with-disabilities.html