The Art of Weakness

great blue heron painting

“Jen” 30x40, oil on canvas SOLD

I came across the following blog post I wrote on this day exactly two years ago. I was doing a 30 in 30 challenge in which I did one painting every day for the month. Each painting was based on a story sent in to me. The theme was inspired by the Brene Brown quote: “Don’t shrink. Don’t puff up. Stand your sacred ground”. This post was day 2. I had all but forgotten about my November of 2016, but I stumbled across it, and it struck me as worth sharing again. I hope Jen’s words touch you as much as they did me then, and still do now:

 

From the Archives: November 2, 2016

Yesterday morning I dropped my precocious four year old at pre-k and then went to mass for All Saints Day. In the pew in front of me was a young mother with a baby strapped to her and two toddlers. The younger toddler was, let’s just say, spirited. It was all too familiar. He didn’t want to sit still. He spoke loudly. He whined. He had to go “pee pee”. What wasn’t familiar was the mom– she wasn’t frazzled at all. She took it all in stride. His tantrums did not result in one of her own. I couldn’t believe it. How often I have lost my cool over lesser offenses? With just my one child.

Comparison is the thief of joy. I get it. But the mom stuff is hard in ways I could never have imagined. And then there’s the voice. The one that says you aren’t good enough, you aren’t doing enough, you aren’t enough. Most days I resist that voice, name it a liar.  Seeing other moms model patience and strength helps. Seeing other mom’s struggle helps too. The mom at church never looked over her shoulder to see who was watching or who might be offended by her not-so-quiet kid. She un-sanctimoniously handled it. I wasn’t jealous so much as impressed. I felt like pulling out my phone and jotting down some notes. Watching her made me realize that sometimes it’s okay to just be. I’m one to jump into “fixing” mode way too quickly. I’m one to worry too fast what others are thinking. This whole painting a day project was founded on the idea of standing your ground. And it’s okay to take up space in this world– even when that space involves an unruly child. 

I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating. I’m attracted to my birds, particularly the heron because of the calmness they seem to embody. The boldness. They’ll stare you down as though you are infringing on their space and not the other way around.

Today’s bird is named Jen and inspired by a woman who knows strength is born of weakness. She’s a mom I admire and go to for advice. Like the mom in the church pew yesterday, she’s the kind of person you’d want to take notes from. Trust me.

Jen:

So I’ve been wracking my brain for a moment when I felt like I was truly a strong person, and a few things came to mind, but no single one that I definitely wanted to send you. I asked my husband what he thought was the strongest thing he’s ever seen me do, and he said labor, which I said didn’t count because you don’t really have a choice 😉 So I thought of various things, but the thing that keeps coming to mind is this: the strongest thing I do in my life is admit my weaknesses. When I pray at the end of the day, I offer up every failure I’ve had that day: I harbored anger against my husband, I lost my patience with my kids, I gossiped when I had resolved not to, I ate unhealthy food, I didn’t give my teaching the energy I wanted to, my house is a mess. . . the daily list goes on and on and on. And thanks to my anxiety disorder, I usually have a few failures from years past intruding on my list. I have so many weaknesses, and I fail every day, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten more and more comfortable with setting my failures down at night and just trusting that God will transform them into blessings tomorrow. My failures today are my strength tomorrow because He makes beautiful things out of whatever we give Him. And I’m slowly learning to trust that. So I guess my strongest moment is when I feel the weakest and that finally enables me to trust.

I hope this heron shows both strength and weakness. The background is made of little broken pieces, and sometimes so is the bird. But it still stands tall, proud, capable. I’ve been working on this painting for days. It finally came together for me with the bolder blues in the negative space near the bird itself. It’s a big piece. I’ve got some teeny tiny ones coming up, but this one needed to take up space. A lot of it.

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Why Art? Part 2.

Why Art?

In my last blog post, I posed a question that a child had asked me when I told him that I was making a painting. “Why?”

Why art at all? The other day, my six year old was asking me about different jobs adults have. As we went through a rather generic list, he noted the importance of each: teachers, firemen, the cashier at our local grocery. Eventually, with a thoughtful look on his face, he said, “Mom, we don’t really need artists, do we?” Well, yes and no, I answered as I fumbled through an explanation of the difference between our corporeal and spiritual needs.

I’m sure I am not alone in this, but there is hardly a day that passes that I don’t ask myself if what I’m doing is important, if it matters– great ideas fall flat, inspiration dries up, paintings look trite or gaudy, or they don’t happen at all.

It’s easy to worry too much about grandeur, and since art is meant to be seen, easy to get to caught up in how it is seen. Why do it at all? I think it’s because I can. Because creating new work leaves physical evidence that I am in touch with the world around me, responding to it, needing it, part of it. It’s not because I have something magical to impose upon it, but that I can, however imperfectly, participate in it.

Why. The fact that there are so many divergent answers speaks to the richness of the concept itself. But always, there seems to be this idea of connection– to others, to oneself. In a world where we can so often feel like a Walker Percy protagonist– isolated, floating around in ideas, art connects us to the present, the past, ourselves, and one another. Like a pencil tied to the end of a balloon, or maybe just the string between the two, it can keep us from drifting off into nowhere by anchoring us to something or someone.

I’m going to keep thinking about this elusive, simple, complicated “why?” but for now I will leave you with a few of the answers I received in my last post:

“The art on our walls stimulates my imagination. I either imagine being in the scene or wonder about the lives of the people in the painting, or if it is a painting we bought on vacation, I daydream about the trip. Some of our paintings are old friends now.”

“Art: I make it, I study it, I buy it, and I love it. Why? You are right Denise, it is a very good question. For me, I think the answer is simple though. Art is the embodiment of passion for living… in sound, image, form. I “feel” deeply and, when art touches that, it is a part of me.”

“Making art & enjoying art brings about many emotions. Without it I would not be complete. It fills me in a way that nothing else can.”

“I don’t make art like you do, but I do in other craft/sewing projects. It’s an escape for me. Taking on 2 new crafty techniques in the next 2 weeks.”

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Finding Your Why

I didn’t think about it much at first, and now I can’t stop wondering if I’ll ever really know the answer to it: My why.

Last weekend I was painting at a lovely New Orleans wedding when a little boy who couldn’t have been older than eight approached me. Decked out in a suit that was too big and probably not the wardrobe he would have chosen for himself, he asked, “What are you doing?” I’ve heard this question before– from flower girls, great uncles, the bride’s next door neighbor, the groom’s college friend. I know the drill. Prepare, to be wowed and awed, little boy, I thought.

“I’m making a painting of this party,” I answered him with a smile. The script usually goes like this–  his face lights up, eyebrows rise in wonder, and he says something like “you’re going to paint all of this?” to which I laugh a little and say “yep.

Want to know what he really said when I told him what I was doing?

“Why?”

I hadn’t been asked that mid-painting before, and a million thoughts rushed through my mind like a mis-matched lego bucket being dumped onto an otherwise clean floor.

Because they’re paying me to. Because this is my job. Because it’s flipping cool, man. Because I like to put lines and colors on surfaces that once had neither.

Because, at the end of the day, human beings, unlike any other animal on this earth, have this weird compulsion to represent their experiences and thereby make new ones. We want to make physical and permanent what is abstract and fleeting. We want to remember and to shape. We want to hold onto, with both hands, the ephemeral.

Don’t worry. I didn’t tell him all that. I think I went with “It’s just cool, bro.”

But all these thoughts, different shapes, sizes, and colors, continue to pour out of the lego bin. I’m running my hands across them, spreading them out so I can see what I’ve got to work with. I might try to build something– a tall and sturdy “why.”

So if you make art or buy art or own art or like art, WHY? What purpose does it serve in your life? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments. Pretty please.

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Day 31. To sing with a human voice

“Open Hand” 24x24, oil on canvas Buy Now

“To make art is to sing with the human voice. To do this you must first learn that the only voice you need is the voice you already have. Art work is ordinary work, but it takes courage to embrace that work, and wisdom to mediate the interplay of art and fear.”— David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art and Fear

Typing day 31 brings a lot to the surface: relief, an ever so tiny tinge of sadness, celebration, wonder, and, even still, a little fear– have I really accomplished anything? Did I push myself or just pull up a lounge chair and settle right into my comfort zone?

If I have learned anything this month it is to just let go. It is enough to have showed up, to have, by painting day in and day out, accepted my voice as the only voice I need. Today’s painting was conceived days ago. I was wondering what “letting go” might look like as an abstract painting. After a couple primitive pencil sketches, I decided to take paint to canvas. The idea was for the blocks of paint to be falling from the top of canvas, as though being released from a hand that was once tightly gripping them. “Letting go” was the title for this painting before I’d even painted it, but when I realized I’d named my day 29 painting that exact same thing, I had to reconsider. “Open Hand” seemed a good alternative, and it hit me that by letting go, we open ourselves to receive. No longer bogged down by impossible expectations or all-consuming fears, we can accept hope, joy, even love.

I hope that after 31 days and 31 paintings, I am little more open and that my vision is a little less clouded by fear– possibilities more exciting than they are overwhelming.

Once again I have a village to thank– to all those who took on 31 days with me, I have been inspired and humbled by your efforts. Thank you for sharing yourselves so openly.

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Day 30. When I’m older and wiser

“What’s Next?” 6x6 oil on canvas Buy Now

Sometimes I picture this older, more experienced version of myself sitting at a coffee shop with a friend, and, between sips of my cappuccino, casually saying something like, “remember when I used to paint all those birds?”

It’s not that I’m in a hurry to be over this subject or wish it would stop inviting me in, time and time again. It’s just that I know, like all things, it has the potential to run its course.

I’m not so much worried about it as curious– what will my paintings look like in ten years? What will tomorrow’s look like? There is so much to love about painting, but the wonder, the surprises, the mystery and adventure is probably what I love most. And I can say that even as I paint my 456,234th little bird.

One of the main points of Art and Fear (which I’ve just completed) is that we have to learn not how to paint but how to paint our paintings. We are the only ones who can do that–

“We tell the stories we have to tell, stories of things that draw us in– and why should any of us have more than a handful of those? The only work really worth doing– the only work you can do convincingly– is the work that focuses on the things you care about. To not focus on those issues is to deny the constants in your life.”

I don’t know where I’m headed but I know it’s very much like that children’s song about “going on a bear hunt.” You can’t go over it, can’t go under it, can’t go around it.” Instead you have you have to go “through it,” and, I think I’d add, enjoy it along the way.

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