Saturday, January 30, 2021

Painting peace in pandemic times...

There is a healing power and enfolding when we create. We see again as a child, in the splendor of all colors, light, and textures. We again believe, if we ever forgot, that anything is possible. 
--Maryan Myres Shumway

This is one of my favorite pictures my son who has autism has painted. I guess you could say art has rescued us from some shadows: autism manifestations that can be draining, a lingering world-wide pandemic, and not seeing the stunning beauty of this world. If we allow ourselves, even submit to the creative process in all of us, art can bring astonishing peace.

"Painting came to my rescue in a most trying time."--Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill started painting when he was 40 years old--after the colossal deaths of Gallipoli during WWI. At the time, he was First Lord of the Admiralty and was immediately demoted after the Turkey campaign. The needless deaths, in many ways, haunted him for the rest of his life. Spotting his depression, his sister-in-law encouraged him to pick up a paintbrush. She even squeezed blue paint on a palette--emphatically charging him to start painting--now! When he was approaching 90 years old, he was never too far away from his easel--except when he was prime minister of England during WWII. His beloved paints always traveled with him. When he felt a "black dog" (depression) coming, he would head straight for his art studio. Or, he would wander somewhere to paint en plein aire (outside). Painting repeatedly saved his mental/emotional equilibrium all of his life--giving him peace when the world around him was seemingly falling apart. 

One of my favorite artist's houses I have visited is Monet's Giverny near Rouen, France. In 1915 when Monet was 75 years old, with failing eyes, he took up painting his famous water lilies murals. The waterlilies murals changed his personality and paved a peaceful path for the rest of his life. Before the war, he was known as proud, steely, and prone to a volatile temper. However, the war brought him familial setbacks. Instead of becoming embittered, he was more patient and submissive. His stepson was wounded and his own son had been drafted into the French army where one and a half million French men died. Fifty kilometers away from his home, the war stretched on. Sometimes he could hear the blasts and artillery as he gustily painted. While Monet dreamt and thought about peace in his country, he decided to paint his water lily pond and weeping willow trees catching the luminous light. With renewed vigor, he painted fourteen feet of murals. Later, after the war, he dedicated his beloved murals to remember peace for the Orangerie Museum. Instead of fearfully hiding away in his house during WW1, he painted like all of France was depending on him for an armistice. 

Beyond these stories of how painting changed Churchill and Monet, an unlikely place in the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague surprised me with the transformative power of art. I will never forget the paintings in those rooms that were filled with empty dreams and visions for ill-fated Jewish children during the Holocaust. Their art was created within the wretched conditions of a concentration camp. The profound need was met by a well-known artist, Friedel Dider Brandeis, who started an art class at the Terezin Concentration Camp. She gave hope to those scared, sad, and lonely children in the most desperate and bleak times imaginable. Out of 15,000 children, only 132 would survive after going to Auschwitz. Some of the children who later survived remembered that painting and drawing in the Terezin concentration camp were some of the fondest memories of their lives. Brandeis, their teacher, helped them to draw their memories, aspirations, and nightmares. She was a candle in a very dark tunnel. Here is a blog that I wrote about it: Children's Art: Candlelight in a Concentration Camp

I can honestly say art has rescued my son with autism. He is neverendingly fascinated with art--mixing colors, dabbing the paint on the canvas, and how a fond memory can magically become a painting. Art has given us peace so we wanted to give the gift to others. For the past three years, he and I have taught children, teenagers, and adults with special needs art in both the Middle East and China. It never fails to astonish me how a piece of paper and some paints can bring smiles and laughter to children who sometimes do not even speak. Conversely, I have taught typical teenage boys and girls who have not held a paintbrush since kindergarten. Initially, they are fearful, tentative, and edge away from others who look like they have more experience. But the colors on the canvas gradually draws them in. They too want to swirl and splash the paint again. There are smiles and a faint remembrance of the fun they had as children with a paintbrush. Another blog on Lessons from having an accidentally art-filled life

In a silent studio or a noisy classroom, peace enfolds when creativity begins. As a painting begins to have dimensions, the image gives clarity to what we are trying to understand inside of ourselves. The feelings we want to convey like a lost dream take shape. We begin to connect with something deep inside of us that has not withered but just been buried. Our souls become more luminous and alive, and we smile, knowing we have sparked beauty we did not know we had in us until now. 

           Lessons for life from painting peace in pandemic times...

 1) Perspective

Step back regularly to view the whole picture. If you just work sitting next to the painting, your view becomes myopic, blurry. The creator of a painting or the creator of a life needs to periodically view the entire composition. How are the background, foreground, and middle ground arranging themselves in the painting? Step back and do not focus on the details. When looking at a painting or a life in the entirety, perspective becomes key. 

2) Constantly look for the source of light. 

When you are painting, watch where the source of light is coming from. Shade and layer everything in that path of light so the light is distinguishable from the rest of the picture. As in life, look for your source of light. Those who know their source of light in life know how to spread light. 

3) Be prepared for a lot of layering when you paint

Layers add texture, richness, and depth that bring a multi-dimensional vision to a painting. You can almost put yourself in the scene. It feels that real. As in life and in our relationships, every layer of experience matters. Adding the darker and then the lighter colors add contrast, beauty. The most important relationships of my life have layers of history, with myriads of colors, that give me profound joy. Art is hundreds, sometimes thousands of strokes that eventually make a masterpiece.

4) Watch for the happy accidents

Of course, we always need a plan, image, destination of where we are going with our painting and in life too. However, notice that if it occasionally does not turn out as we wish, we can see the happy accidents. There is room for a stream we had not observed before or the sunset is more brilliant than we originally planned. Just as in life, we can watch for intersections, experiences, relationships that we had not expected. A twist in the plot can bring unexpected joy. The clincher? We have to be willing to note the change in design adds more texture, interest, and beauty. That means not be afraid to be a game-changer.

5) Art is an awakened voice that shows what you love and are connected to

Watch for the individual voice that beckons you to emerge from your vaulted cave. Gradually, you will know and understand what that voice is telling you to paint and become--if you have the audacity to do it. Conversely, notice the unique voice of others. Everyone has a beautiful story to tell. Look for the voice you see in others' creations and lives. 

6) Sometimes you need to come back and finish the painting

Lately, I have been coming back to paintings we started a few years ago. I thought I was finished with them. It has been wonderfully fascinating to return to a canvas refreshed with new ideas of how to make it better. With the passage of time, I notice the source of light more in the picture or it needs more contrast in color. I have added a few things to make the composition different. Just as in life, we often come back to a place or a relationship recharged to do better. Our eyes see differently and we want to try and do it better.

7) You cannot see the light without the dark. 

Like life, art is bland unless you have contrast, color, definition,  texture. The simple notion of working with light and darkness invigorates a painting--allowing us to view tension and balance. Think of a sunrise or sunset. Without the collision of darkness and light, the beauty would not be so sublime. Thus, with our lives: we need to know and understand how to mix the dark and light together in our lives. Both are inevitably part of life--and paintings.  

Here is a painting we started three and a half years ago, but we finished, I think, this week. Before, there was no stream. I added a bluebird, more grass. The barn and mountains have far more texture than before. 
This painting means a lot to me. A group of us went to Grand Teton National Park with our dear friend who would pass away from cancer five months later. You could say it was the last day we saw her with vibrant energy. She saw a bluebird as we walked, and commented that a bluebird sighting was good luck and brought blessings. Tresa was always looking for the beauty around her. I wanted to capture that day. 

Constantly stepping back and looking at the composition and how it is fitting together. Gradually, it will come to be the photo that is below. Again, the photo below is a special memory of when we did an Art in the Dark night at an art barn. The sun was about to set, and all the wonder of that night and what it came to be are in this photo. The painting is the first one in the blog. 

Photo of sunset that we have painted. 

The texture starting to gather in the storm here. 

                 I absolutely love all the texture and layering in this picture. Each layer adds depth, interest, and color.  

                                            Elias's rendition of the shepherds this Christmas

   My own painting of the shepherd fields. I titled it, "I can finally hear the angels singing." When I painted this picture, I could feel the angels pushing away the darkness and coming into light. As I painted, I heard and felt the story I have heard hundreds of times more in my heart and head. 

Looking for the light source in this picture at twilight when the sun is beginning to set. 

This is is the first picture we ever used a palette knife. There are so many layers and contrasts in this painting. 

                                   We kept looking for the source of light constantly in this picture. 

If you want to watch our YouTube about art and autism. It is called My Journey of Colors.  

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Amanda Gorman: Raising hands and voices...


 There is always light if only we're brave enough to see it, if only                        we're brave enough to be it.  --Amanda Gorman 

                 "Lift where you stand."  --Dieter F. Uchdorf

At the recent United States Inauguration, the Youth Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman galvanized a wounded nation with her poetry and oratory skills. We stood, as a country, transfixed as she raised her lilting voice, reciting her own poetry to try and heal us. No matter what aisle we see ourselves, in blue or red, or a mixture of violet, her words shone in our hearts. She taught some sermons as she strung together her rhythmic syllables. Those who struggle with speech impediments or other fears of inadequacy can look to her for inspiration. Someday with work (and let us not forget encouragement from others), they can raise their voice too. Hers was a call to reach over hurting divides and give hope to our unfinished democracy. 

At the beginning of her delivery, I was surprised to see one beautiful hand raise, and then her other hand gracefully lifted. Together, her hands and words became her voice--moving seamlessly together. Her hand gestures beckoned me into her world and message. She drew me in, and I wanted to hear every word to see how it rhymed and fit into the beat. But more than anything, the words and hands soothed, taught, and encouraged us, her listeners. Her hands reminded me that progress not only happens with our voices: hands are needed too to accomplish visions. Combined together, words AND hands are necessary for action. 

When I read about Amanda Gorman's young life, I am struck by how her voice almost did not happen. She had a speech impediment until she was a sophomore at Harvard University. She not only wanted to pen words, but she also wanted to deliver them. Yet, she knew her slurred words would invite criticism or misunderstanding. Her soul-felt words would be misconstrued, perhaps ridiculed. What was her solution to casting off her speech impediment? She listened to the song "Aaron Burr, Sir" in Hamilton.  She wagered if she could sing along at the same rate as Leslie Odam Jr. in the musical, she could forever erase her "r" speech problem. And then? Everyone could clearly understand her poetry that is calling them to action. There would be no mistake or mocking about it. 

When I hear Amanda's poetry and witness her beautiful delivery (Let's not forget the gorgeous canary yellow coat she wore at the Inauguration), I can't help but think of millions of others who have voices that are still blocked. There are many children out there who need a paintbrush, camera, pencil, or a musical instrument to bring their soul to fruition. As I view people (especially children and teenagers), I want to more frequently ask myself, "What is his/her voice that is begging to come out? What can I do or say to unleash all that may be trapped inside of this beautiful soul?" 

I would not want to miss out on one voice that is aching to emerge on the canvas, paper, stage, or screen. Not one single one. Amanda Gorman is a testament to that. 


Thursday, January 14, 2021

China: Embrace Wintering...

We have seasons when we flourish and seasons when the leaves fall from us, revealing our bare bones. Given time, they grow again.
That's the gift of winter: it's irresistible. Change will happen in its wake, whether we like it or not. But we can come out of it wearing a new coat.                                             --Elizabeth May

                One of the group of "wild swimmers" that comes to Meijyang Lake every day at 4:00

                                                  Getting the ice broken for the swimmers

            Elias with some of the "regulars" that come every day. Believe me, we know them all now. 😀

Last week was the chilliest week for fifty years in Beijing and Tianjin, China--about 15 below Fahrenheit. Also, in a sense, almost everyone in the world has been "wintering" for the past year in the global pandemic. Over the past few weeks, I have been wondering: How do different people winter? When it is bleak and gray outside, how do we become alive again inside of us? What triggers our souls to feel the warmth when we only see fallow, frozen ground? How can what we do in our hibernations to rejuvenate us? I have learned a few things about wintering from the Chinese here in Tianjin, China: to go outside and hear the silence of winter speaking to you.  

We often come to Meijiang Lake at exactly 4:00 pm when retired men meet together daily near a specified pavilion. One by one, they arrive on bicycles and scooters in every season to be with their adventurous pals. (They are mostly men because the women are doing synchronized dance near another bend of the lake. I, too, enjoy watching the elegant motions of the women, like a flock of birds gliding across the sky in a perfect rhythmic flow). But it is mostly the men's group we come to cheer on in the winter as they break the waves of kitty-benders in the ice daily. Their aim? To brave the frigid waters and plunge into the inky shadows of cold. To see the counterintuitiveness of someone breaking the ice to take a polar bear plunge and then an ice skater glide behind him is one of our forms of entertainment these days. 

They come as fellow comrades and friends, eager to bend winter, to subdue it for a few moments. I bring my husband and son to watch them swim. No, I do not follow them into the icy waters, but their courage spurs me to plunge into other shores that are challenging for me to enter. I watch and listen to them as they give encouraging words or funny jokes. This is their time and place every day to feel a community of people who support their adventurous spirit. You cannot help but feel the infectious cheeriness of their smiles and laughter. I like to come here because they make me laugh and show me how to winter in China. You could say we are friends now. The other day I heard someone who was breaking the ice say, "Well, the Americans are here now so it is time to get in the water." Curtain call. 😀

A Chinese friend who teaches history in Beijing tells me these are the last generation who are "the wild swimmers" in China--at least in the urban areas. They are the generation who grew up swimming in lakes, ponds, and rivers. Pools at the gym or community center were not available in their youth. Therefore, these retirees represent a tradition that will likely soon be gone in the cities. Elizabeth May, in her book Wintering: How to Flourish when the Ground is Frozen, says, "The cold has healing powers. After all, you apply ice to a joint after an awkward fall. Why not do the same to a life?" This philosophy has led her too to plunge daily into frigid water, gradually building up a tolerance.  She suggests, "We let the cold unburden us of our own personal winters, just for a few minutes." These Chinese men are ardent followers of May's approach to wintering. Embrace it--every moment. 

In these "wintering" times, what are you doing to invigorate your soul? And just in case you need some more ideas for winter, here is one of my blogs that has three ideas from Sweden

This is a video that was all over TikTok in China in November--before the ice. Someone was filming us as we talked to the swimmers and divers. I had just had shoulder surgery, and they jokingly encouraged me to jump in the river. The Chinese characters say, "May America and China always have good relations." 

              Many of the men were about 80 years old. Gingerly and slowly, they walked into the icy water, with glistening shards of ice all around them.  Each time, I notice that the swimmer is quiet, reflecting on what this entrance onto the icy shore will bring--eager to completely blast his comfort level. To plunge into icy waters is to switch to another world where instincts and nerves are alerted.  Perhaps, it is a grasp for long-gone youth, for a clap from the enthusiastic Americans, and a nod from their friends. Yet, more than anything, I think it is a cup of joy that is refilled every day at 4:00 on Meijyang Lake. A feeling of conquering the frozen waters keeps them coming back. 

                                 Everyone pitches in to help remove the layers of ice. It takes about an hour every day for them to get the ice ready for them and their friends to swim. 

One man was getting his muscles warmed up with another friend who had already taken the plunge.

One man took off his shirt to wave a banner and then do some yoga.  

An outing at the lake for one grandfather to teach his grandson how to ice skate 

The grandfather brings a chair, and then scoots him around to get him accustomed to the ice, and then pulls him up to begin to ice skate. 

Here, the grandfather is with the chair and letting his grandson try the ice. 

My husband and son standing on the river near our house 

Thursday, January 7, 2021

2021in China: Year of the Ox and hopefully a year with more light...

                       I keep choosing the same word to fill in. I have had it for a few years now... light. Light means to push away the darkness, see the light in others and in myself, to paint with new light, to gather light, hold the light. I am always reminded if there were no darkness, the light would not be so exceptionally luminous. 

May it be a light to you in dark places, when all other lights go out. J.R. Tolkein

I am crushed and ashamed at what happened on January 6 in the United States Capitol--in my own country. Everyone should know better than to have violence eclipse their emotions. In a country where we have been given so abundantly, we have not shown deference and understanding with one another--our fellow passengers. Our gift of freedom so dearly fought for, is for every generation to make it better and more accessible for all. Others are depending on us, both those who have passed on and those who will yet live. Furthermore, we live in a global world and need to cooperate and work together--instead of fighting amongst ourselves. 

It has now been about ten years of my life I have lived away from America. In my travels, I have been humbled when talking with people all over the world about the freedoms and advantages I have been gifted. While living and working in United Nations refugee camps, I saw anguish, but also immense hope. Every day I observed yearning faces who daydreamed of a better life. All they wanted was to live without fear of being killed by civil unrest or another country's power trying to dominate them. Domestic and foreign terror is all they had ever known. Others desperately want our freedoms that we should hold dear.

We have all begun a new year with expectant hope and the desire to shake off the clutches of COVID in whatever ways it has controlled our lives. I like the idea presented to me a few years ago by a friend. She told me of her family's resolution to choose a word that would fill in a desire they had for that year--to become someone different by thinking, reading, and learning about that specific word. We have chosen peace, light, charity, and a few others. Sometimes each member chooses a word, and other times, we have all worked for the same outcome. 

As I live in China, a new year will begin on February 12--an ushering in of the Year of the Ox. Here in China, oxes are appearing everywhere in windows and stores. Very soon everyone will remember the attributes of the ox, and try to emulate them. The ox is known for its diligence, persistence, steadiness, and honesty. It is a faithful friend and contributes greatly to society. The ox is always glad to help out in any way when someone is in a predicament. That sounds like a positive description to me of what many Chinese people will be thinking and trying to emulate this year.

What will your word be for 2021?

Some pictures of oxes I saw this summer in Yangshou, China Indeed, they are loved and revered here.