I’m still pissed.

I’m still pissed. 

As though it were a bad show on Bravo or the dead possum on the side of the road, for a long time I just wasn’t able to look away even though I know my spirit (and my queasy stomach) deserve better. 

It’s about something that happened so long ago. About something I should have handled then but didn’t. 

Once and only once have I not received payment for a painting– a really big painting. I want so much to go into the gory details of it, but I’ll resist my baser urge and summarize it like this: I was commissioned for this work by a relative of another collector, and it was in light of a gut-wrenching situation that the new collector wanted the painting. It was also time sensitive. Having had a positive experience with the first collector, I dropped everything I was currently working on, took on the project without a deposit, and fronted the bill for shipping. These are just the facts. Not my most saavy business maneuvers. Upon it’s safe arrival, the collector immediately messaged me his joy at having received the painting and said he would send the payment we had agreed upon at the start. It never happened. I reached out, nothing. I gave it some time, then reached out again. Rinse, repeat. Nothing. Months went by.

I was ghosted. Though I’ve never met this person, when I created the painting for him, he friended me on facebook. And the whole time I was reaching out, trying to procure the payment (or, let’s be honest, just some form of communication about the situation that would have undoubtedly led me to an “it’s on the house” response), I watched photograph after photograph after meme after status update of boats and planes and vacations, of a fancy suburban home and cars purchased, inspirational quotes about lives well lived, integrity, family. All in all it appeared a #blessed life. Can you feel me rolling my eyes thorugh the screen?

Eventually, after a long and overly heartfelt letter in which I definitely, I’m embarrassed to admit, played the “single mom” card, this isn’t a hobby it’s my job, I have a mortgage, yadda yadda yadda, I got my first response and a payment that did not even cover the shipping– not even a fourth of the agreed upon price. There was a weak assurance that the rest of the money would be paid. And I’m sure you can now guess, it never was. All my invoices and messages again ignored. 

I seethed and I raged. I sent invoice after invoice. I threatened legal action I didn’t actually want to take on. And what’s worse, I kept looking at the facebook posts mocking me from my feed, delighting in all the evidence I was mentally building that this was just an undoubtedly rotten person. I daydreamed about responding to some of the posts– “Nice car. Do they know you don’t pay your bills?” or “Beautiful family, I wonder if you’ll teach them to be responsible and decent?” Oh and the one about his taxes paying for the lazy and unemployed? That one really set me off. 

I was clinging tight to my comforting rage, letting it curl up next to me on the couch every once in a while just to stroke it’s forehead and listen to it purr. 

“You’re letting that ugliness take up too much space in your beautiful life”

That’s what my friend said to me after I’d recounted (gory-detail version) this story. I was expecting her to feel the same glorious, righteous indignation I thought the situation warranted. Instead she asked what I’d learned, and how I had behaved differently since then– I always take a deposit. I never ship without a payment. I only take on commissions I want to take on, not ones I feel obligated to take on. 

She was right. If I hadn’t done anything and was not planning to do anything about it, why was I letting the foulness of it all creep into my heart and mind? Why was I giving it a voice, prominence in a life that, admittedly was going pretty wonderfully? Why was I letting it onto the couch, where it would shed and leave messes for me to endlessly clean?

Let it go, she said. Unfriend him. Today. 

And after one last look at a ridiculous quote I couldn’t quite avoid, with the click of a button, he was gone, robbed of the power to take up any more space in my life. No more festering, no more ugly anger. Dignity isn’t something someone can grant or take away. And there I was hoping he would grant it, furious that he was withholding it. 

But it was always there, immovable, unshakable.

I was working on this new painting when my friend and I had our conversation. After I’d texted her a screenshot of the “unfriending” I went back to work on it. I added the birds. The ones the woman’s letting go of. The ones no longer beating around inside her, tying her stomach in rage-filled knots. And it’s funny how so often when I let something go, it’s not so much the thing that’s free, but me. 

I have to admit, I’m still pissed, I really am. But my frustration and anger no longer have an open invitation to hang out. I’ve shut the door on something that no good could come of. Letting go isn’t a one time thing. Those birds, I’m sure they will come back (though they certainly won’t be beckoned by a silly facebook post) and having exercised my letting-go muscle, I hope I’ll have the strength to do it again and again, until they’ve got no reason return at all. I think my anger, now that I’ve stopped looking at those posts, was really more about me anyway. I’m mad at myself for not standing up to this guy in a more meaningful way, a way that would potentially curb his next crime. But I’m letting go of that too, confident that I’ve become more assertive and confident in the process. Confident that history will not repeat itself. And that is enough for now. 

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Why so many birds?

How can you keep painting so many birds? No one but my inner voice actually asks me that. But she’s a bit of a nag, so I’m going to go ahead and answer her.

It’s simple, really. I am constantly changing the way I do it. Those birds? They are my little, light-footed, hyper-aware, graceful, elegant muses that lead me to new discoveries about paint, design, and color.

In the first painting of the splendid fairywren, I started with a charcoal sketch on a cadmium red/burnt sienna wash. I then used the palette knife to layer on thick (almost obnoxiously so) chunks of paint. When the bird was almost completely filled in, I scraped all the paint away using the long side of my knife. Scraped clean, the canvas revealed a ghost-like remnant of the bird. I then went in with a brush and added softer bits of color.

Painting two, the bluebird. I started with the same sketch and wash combo as the first painting, but this time used just one large brush– a flat size 10 which is HUGE for a 4x4 canvas. I worked with only a brush, careful to leave that red wash showing in select places where bird meets background.

Painting three, the cardinal. This one was an old palette knife painting from weeks ago; one I had scraped away in frustration. I took the old, splotchy painting and started to rework it. It was different from the fairywren painting because the original layer of paint was completely dry and those bumpy textures firmly set. I worked over the underlying mess with a smaller flat brush than I did in the middle painting. I wasn’t expecting much from this re-working but it turned out to be my favorite.

If insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, joy is approaching the same painting with new strategies time and time again.

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The Art of Not Staying in Bed

Every morning last week was the same madness.

I’d go into my son’s room at 7:00 am. With a flip of the light switch, I’d tell him good morning. He’d grumble from under the covers, his overgrown curly hair just poking out from the top of the comforter. If I didn’t know who was under there, I might have thought him a teenager and not my baby of six. I’d tell him his allotted ten minute “snooze” period had begun and leave him to his waking up. He wouldn’t. When I’d go back in his room, he’d refuse to get up.

I’m too tired. I can’t. I don’t want to go to school.

So all that week, I physically removed him from the bed. I put his school shirt over his body. I placed socks on his feet. I had flashbacks to what it was like to have a toddler.

I know him. I know if he’d just push through the initial resistance, he’d become my well-rested, hyper, and chatty boy who has so much to say on the way to the bathroom to brush his teeth that he often forgets to brush at all. But coming off a full week of spring break paired with a bonus day of school closing due to bad weather, he just couldn’t. The tired felt too big. His desire to not get up overwhelming.

Buddy, I’ve been there.

I’ve been there when the easel stares at me, and I look back at it not with excitement but with agony. Leave me alone, I tell it with my eyes. The thought of engaging with you is too much. I just don’t wanna.

Sometimes that resistance wins because I’m a grown woman in an empty studio– no one to take my hand and gingerly place it around the palette knife. No one to give me those hard truths (You have to. I don’t care if you’re tired) because while my son simply cannot stay in bed all day, I can avoid my easel. I can say no, not today.

What I realized today is this: painting, and any creative enterprise for that matter, is not a singular, contained act unrelated to what came before or will come after it. Painting is the incarnation of ideas that have interacted and developed over time

Today’s work is about more than just today. Opting out doesn’t just affect what I might produce today, but what I might produce in the weeks and years to come. I’m building something intricate here. Something with branches that shoot off from one another, intermingle, and grow.

I believe in rest. Recharging. Like my body after a good run, my creative mind needs recovery. But that’s different than opting out. Giving up. Staying in bed when a bright day will greet you two minutes after you shake the sleep from your eyes.

If only my son knew what I know– that the heavy weight of resistance he feels so intensely will vanish entirely the moment he compels his little body from the comfort of his bed and into the world. If only I always practiced what I know– that my easel doesn’t antagonize me as much as it invites me to create today what may or not be good in and of itself but what will be part of a broader, more intricate conversation, one that needs today’s little effort as it marches towards something bigger.

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Five Years of Failure and More to Come!

This post is the result of a heart over pouring with gratitude. Where to start. Five years. I’ve been at this five years. An eternity and a microsecond.

When I launched Denise Hopkins Fine Art officially on April 1 of 2014, I was in my early thirties, jobless, broke, and living with my parents for the first time since high school. I wrote the following about the pelican painting I’d just posted:

“I’m beginning my [first] thirty paintings in thirty days with this little guy who is flying on top several failed paintings. I can’t even remember what the surface originally looked like, but I love the way you can see some of the darker layers underneath the yellow/orange/pink in the bottom left corner. I’ve started listening to several artist podcasts lately, and one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned thus far is that EVERYONE, and I mean EVERYONE, makes bad paintings every now and then. If you use oils, you can wipe the surface clean and start again. But the virtue of acrylic is that it dries so quickly you are left with two options– throw it away or paint over what’s already there. There’s no wiping, scraping. And what’s underneath, the failure, sometimes helps what’s on top, the re-done painting, to succeed. I’m in love with the process of painting because it reflects the process of life. I’m slowly learning the difference between setback and failure. Maybe even the importance of “setback” in the process of success. I’m becoming more and more convinced beauty is often planted in pain, stems from it. Still can’t get away from the image of the pelican– her head turned toward me as she flies against a fiery sky.”

I wish I could count the bad paintings of the last five years, but I swear I’d run out of time. Besides, I still, five years later, love what they do for me. Love that they still create a whole host of interesting surfaces on which I can create, repeatedly teaching me about process, effort, dedication, ego.

I have about three thousand twenty two ideas about the last five years– what I’ve learned and how far I’ve come. I’ve taken to facebook and instagram to thank some of my very first collectors, but for this post, I want to focus on my friend and teacher, failure.

Thank you for all you’ve taught me. The “no’s” that led to “yes’s,” the rejections that turned into awards. Thank you for the roads on which you’ve guided me. Thank you for repeatedly taking my stubborn ego to task, rejecting my insistent “shoulds” and replacing them with “what now’s?” and “what ifs?” Thank you for landing me right here– a million miles travelled and infinity still to go.

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Day 31. Contradictions.

I’m not a huge fan of before and afters. When people finish a new exercise or diet program and post a split screen, I find myself yelling into the computer: you were also good and beautiful in the “before!” So when I share some before and afters of this month, please know that the “before” is not an illustration of my unworthy self and the “after,” me perfected. It’s more an invitation to look at what an imperfect person can accomplish with one tiny, daily devotion that adds up to something big. Let us not forget it’s the “before” person who did the work. 

Before this month I was a good oil painter with a messy, hardly bearable studio. After this month, I am a good oil painter who has added watercolor to her repertoire in a space that is far more enjoyable to work.

My last little bird of the month is based on a photograph a friend sent me quite a while back– his son had been in Australia and shared a picture of the Australian Kookaburra bird, which he correctly assumed I would enjoy.

There are many things I file into the “later” folder, but sometimes, rarely, I do eventually open it up.

I’ve been “latering” my studio reorganization for over a year now. It took me half of January just to build up the nerve, but eventually, little task by little task, I found my inertia– A person in the doing mode wants to remain a doer.

 

 

Every 31 in 31 I take on provides unique challenges and unique rewards. This time around I was gifted insight into a new medium all together, one that surprised and delighted me. I tried something new even as I worked within the very familiar. I faced disappointment in the form of a pile of rejected paintings and a Superbowl dream that died with a flag that never emerged from the shadows.

Into the background of today’s last painting of this 31 in 31, I’ve written reminders of this month’s insights, many of which are contradictions. “Try new things” appears more than once, but so does “paint what you know and love.” “Tidy up” has a counterpart of “be okay with messes.”

Among the other reminders– take up space, lose control, and disappointment paves the way for joy.

Once again, I have thoroughly enjoyed the work of all my fellow 31ers– poets, artists, musicians, writers, peace-seekers. Together, we have exercised that most human impulse to create and connect. I can’t speak for you, but I suspect what is true for me might be for you also: this month I have felt just a bit more alive.

All my watercolor paintings from the month (and a few bonuses) will be available soon on my site. Be sure to subscribe to my mailing list to be the first to know when.

If you’ve been following along for 31 days (or even just one or two), thank you. If you think you might want to take on a 31 day challenge in the future, you’ve got just under a year to get ready. The next one starts January 1, 2020. I hope you’ll think about it. 

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