From the breath of babes.

I’m reading this book called “Think Like a Monk” by Jay Shetty. He describes an encounter I keep thinking about: One day at the Ashram, Shetty sees a child no more than ten years old teaching a group of five year olds. When he asks the child what he’s doing, the child explains that he’s just taught the younger kids their first class ever. The child asks Shetty what he learned on his first day of school. Shetty answers as most of us would– numbers, alphabet, etc, and then turns the question back to the child, “What did they learn?” The child responds: “how to breathe– It’s the only thing that stays with you from the moment you are born until the moment you die…When you get stressed– what changes? Your breath. When you get angry– what changes? Your breath. We experience every emotion with the change of breath. When you learn to navigate and manage your breath, you can navigate any situation in life.” 

From the breath of babes. 

I couldn’t have crossed paths with this book at a better time either. A couple weeks ago I was having an abusive relationship with a small commissioned portrait– you’re wonderful! You’re horrendous! I love you! I hate you! Why can’t you just do what I want when I want! 

And so on. After a few days of this roller coaster, I was ready to call it quits. Like the villain in a horror movie, I was clutching my palette knife above the surface of my victimized painting. I was going to stab or scrape the whole thing away. I had the same size canvas prepped and waiting for version 2.0. I got out the tools I needed to sketch the face on the new surface and start from scratch.

But I was tired. Frustrated. Knowing that my best art comes from neither of those places, I took a breath. A nice long, deep one.  And in that breathe I realized there were no universes that hung in the balance of this painting. Then I boldly declared: I hereby grant you permission to start over IF you still feel like you need to… tomorrow. With that, I put down all my murder weapons and went to bed. 

The next morning, I went into my workspace fully prepared to carry out the previous day’s nefarious intentions. Might as well get to it, I thought. But somehow, miraculously, when I approached the canvas, I saw that it had completely transformed. Well, more accurately, I had transformed. I saw the painting with new eyes. Ones that had rested. Ones that had taken a break from staring at all the little pieces and saw the whole thing. 

What a joy and a surprise it was to not to have to start over after all. I took another long breath and let gratitude settle down somewhere in my gut a little. 

Sometimes this story happens in reverse. I love the painting, and then when I pause and come back to it, I realize I need to begin again. It doesn’t bother me when I make that choice from a place of calm and honesty. It’s when I’m making those choices out of frustration that I typically go astray. 

I haven’t mastered my breathing yet, and I don’t know if even monk school could ever get me there. And yet I am amazed at how much of a difference a small change can make in even one tiny instance. Breathe. Just Breathe. 

The painting in this story just happens to be of a child studying a flower in that way only small children really can– with fresh and curious eyes. The kind of vision just breathing and walking way can help us cultivate. 

Have you had the experience of seeing the same thing differently from one day to the next? Was it because of your mindset, your inner monk-ness, or some external factor? I’d love to hear about it! 

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“Walking Peace”

 

About a month ago I painted live at a gala for St. Tammany Parish Hospital Foundation. They had asked me to do an abstract– something I love but had not done in quite some time. The morning of the event, I took to my easel to try to work out what kind of painting I would make– a practice round. There’s something thrilling and difficult about abstracts– without any limitations, I often feel paralyzed by the possibilities. I wasn’t about to paint in front of others without a solid plan.

I started with some vertical lines inspired by tree trunks (pictured on the left). It was okay. Eventually, and in a panic to come up with something I could live with, I scraped through the whole thing and went to back to the idea that inspired my very first abstracts years ago– horizons. I drew fluid shapes on the top half of the canvas and left the bottom one large rectangle. From there I filled in with color, letting the little orange-pink of my original wash peek through. Not fully satisfied, but enough to call it a day, I packed my supplies and headed to the event. 

The painting I did that night was one of my favorites (pictured below). The practice round gave way to an effortless “abstract” that was unapologetically landscape-y. More importantly, the painting was FUN and even in the midst of a somewhat crowded though relatively social distanced gala, I found the strokes to be peaceful, light hearted even. If I’m honest, I’ll admit I was not particularly looking forward to the event. When it was over, I felt renewed. 

A couple weeks later, my great aunt and art mentor passed away. I wrote about her influence in depth here. She was one of the kindest, most gentle people I’ve ever met. Her friend used to describe her as “walking peace.” The next day, I went for a tear-filled early morning run on the beach and witnessed the sunlight breaking through the clouds in a way that, at that moment, felt exactly like her spirit. Peace and heartache rushed through me. 

From then on I worked in my studio determined to bring the spirit of my first art teacher to the canvas. Since I felt her peaceful presence in the sky and in the horizons, I kept painting them– like the one from the Gala– but this time even more loosely, even less constrained. Not tethered to visual realism, but seeking some spiritual truth. 

I feel her calm influence on my life now more than ever. Sometimes when I’m stuck, I whisper a prayer of petition, asking her to guide me. Art for her was not painstaken or strained. It wasn’t a hair-pulling, nail-biting effort. It was free of anxiety or judgment or hardship. I imagine it flowed freely from some deeply centered interior life. 

I am more delighted by these paintings than any series I’ve yet created. They remind me to be gentle, to be calm, to be astonished, to be free of worry. They remind me of the woman who taught me that art is about more than what you create, that it is a holy and profound undertaking. She was this little sprite of a woman with an abundant spirit–one of endless landscapes, suns rising and setting, peace flowing like a river.

Collection release, November 11 at 10 am.

    

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Studio in the Woods

 

“Maybe our world will grow kinder eventually

Maybe the desire to make something beautiful

     is the piece of God that is inside each of us”

–“Franz Marc’s Blue Horses” by Mary Oliver

 

 

My first art lesson was in a small second floor studio in the woods of Lacombe, Louisiana. I was a teenager about to leave for college completely unsure of what I wanted to be when I grew up. My teacher was a Carmelite nun I’ve heard described as “walking peace.” My great Aunt, Sister Catherine Martin, had a tiny voice that could speak directly to you with the weight of love. So many people have booming voices with empty messages. She was the opposite.

She was a master of pencil— slowly, methodically, effortlessly, without worry or anxiety or fear pressing it onto the paper to form gently rendered faces, eyes that really seemed to be windows to the soul, not just of the person who was her subject, but the soul of a human experience I was beginning to understand.

Everything she taught me from those few sessions in her studio, I eventually taught my own students at the school where I may have been destined to teach– Mount Carmel Academy. In three or four lessons she created the basis for everything I knew about art. I learned how to shade the top of an iris because that’s where it’s most in shadow; how to suggest rather than articulate a lash line; I learned that art was as much about the movement of your hands and heart as it was about what appeared on the surface; that it was good in and of itself; that art could bring you to God. She taught me to create without judgment or fear or anxiety. These things did not exist in the studio in the woods.

Aunt Catherine died peacefully last week, and it feels like a light went out. She was physically so small but her spirit was a considerable, constant, gentle force in my life. Like a large shadow cast by a tiny creature when the sun shines upon it at just the right angle, her impact reached farther than her frail frame would suggest it could. She looked for and found the good in others. No matter who you were or where you had been she would find and celebrate your innate goodness. To be in her presence was to feel seen. 

When my son was born in 2012, I gave him the middle name “Martin” in honor of Sr. Catherine and her two sisters, my grandmother and other great Aunt, each of whom have a variation of that same loving spirit; each of whom has informed the kind of person I long to be. I wish his world could have her in it the way mine always did. I hope I can share with him and my stepsons some of Aunt Catherine’s spirit- gentleness and kindness, calm amid chaos, peace in turmoil, seeing good before fault, and an openness to a God bigger than our imaginations, politics, or fears. 

When I took my first art lesson in the studio in the woods, I had no idea I would one day become a professional artist. I didn’t know I would one day use art to heal from grief or create a new future. I didn’t know who I would become. I owe so much of what transpired to a tiny little nun who could draw better than anyone I knew. 

The lessons in her studio didn’t seem profound at the time. We drew in silence for much of them. I’m learning that the profound often isn’t loud or loquacious. The profound is often adorned in simplicity. Her life left a profound mark on me– one I pray I carry with me all my days.  

 

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Fail Early and Often

I’m sitting on a row of raised seats in a small hallway looking through a large, glassless window at a group of kids kicking and punching into the air. 

“Repeat after me!” a booming voice demands. 

“Failure!” it says. A chorus follows: “Failure!”

“Is my friend!” and the chorus repeats: “Is my friend!” 

I often think about that karate class my son took from the time he was five until he was seven. I find myself repeating the sensei’s words about failure to myself. I don’t kick or punch or break any boards, I just whisper the words in my head when I need the reminder.

His point was that failure can teach us, help us grow. That is, if we don’t snuggle up to it like a warm familiar blanket or pretend it’s a fictional character we can will away. 

Matisse said “Creativity takes courage.” I’ve searched, with no luck, for the context of this often-used quote. I imagine he meant it takes courage to put ourselves in front of others, but also to fail. Creating things means I inevitably fall short or flat. And by doing so I almost always learn something (eventually). 

It isn’t just about painting either. I’m listening to what failure has to tell me about being a parent, a wife, a friend. “Well that didn’t work” I say to myself often. “What might next time?” 

I used to be so afraid of failure that I hid away from it. The irony is that by avoiding it, I was evading success too. They are opposite sides of the same coin. We have to go through one to get to the other. 

Accepting my own inherent, undeniable, inescapable imperfection is the heart of my courage and the catalyst for my growth. So I’m planning to continue to fail early and often. I’m planning to keep going back to the easel, the dinner table, the loved one, the hard conversation, the running track, the parent/teacher meeting. I’m planning to remember, as the wise sensei once instructed my then five year old, that failure is my friend– the wise and old type that helps me to see things I hadn’t seen before. 

 

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It’s Worth Celebrating

Since I’ve been painting less and less at weddings and events, I’ve changed the model for my at-home painting. This marks the third month in a row that I’ve put out a small series of paintings on my website. It’s a change and sometimes a challenge, but I firmly believe it’s worth celebrating. 

Since the start of my painting career over six years ago, I have repeatedly whispered these words to myself: “make a mark.” This mantra is a reminder to physically create art– putting colors on blank surfaces, but even more, it reminds me not to hide myself from the world in fear or insecurity but to confidently engage with it. The marks we make become part of the world, and I have learned that I don’t have to be perfect to be part of something beautiful. 

The collection released this morning is called “Celebration, ” and is an invitation to celebrate that which might otherwise come and go without much notice– small kindnesses we can show ourselves, the ability to notice and engage and stand in awe of, even the sadnesses we can let sit with us for a spell. Even those can connect us deeply. 

The painting that I soon thought of as the “cover” image for the entire series, happened late in the process. I started it early on, but by the time I went to photograph it for the site, I saw two thousand things requesting (maybe demanding?) revision. “Just make a mark,” I whispered as I changed the entire background, and added a field of thickly painted flowers below the figure’s marching feet. Big changes like that don’t always work out, but this time they did. This painting encapsulates the spirit of celebration that has informed the entire group of paintings. 

Another painting in the series appeared almost magically. It began as a figure study of a man playing trumpet, but before the paint was dry, I scraped it all off and replaced it with a goldfinch atop a flower– a complete change this time but one that started to emerge effortlessly and with some of the same spirit as the original painting.

Of course, there are still my little birds on tiny canvases– my go-to images for remembering to notice, to be amused and surprised by the world around me. My backyard (and my feeder) is not so small that the little visitors to it cannot teach me about the universe. 

I could write a blog entry for each new painting (and maybe I eventually will) but I’ll leave it at this for now. I would love if you would check out the new paintings and let me know what you think. Even more than that, I’d love to know what unexpected joys you are celebrating today.

View “Celebration” Here

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