From Shadows.

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“From Shadows” 20×20, oil on canvas

I’ve been MIA on my blog. On May 28th, surrounded by family in a small ceremony, I got married to the love of my life on the steps on St. Rose de Lima church in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. The next day, we jumped in the car and headed to the mountains of North Carolina where social distancing was easy, beautiful. That mountain air renewed my spirit after what has been a challenging, to say the least, few months.  

I wish that could somehow be the end of my post–  a preface to writing about my renewed desire to paint after such a relaxing and well-timed break. But so much has transpired since my brief break from art, that I’ve taken more time off than I was actually gone from the easel. There were no words I could conjure that carried any weight. They all felt frivolous and they still do. 

I didn’t start painting until college– a time when both art and literature took hold of me, began opening my eyes to a world far bigger, more beautiful, and more terrible than I had ever imagined. Since I grew up, worshipped, and socialized only in homogeneous communities, my most memorable encounters with experiences vastly different than my own were through the books I read and the art I viewed (sometimes on little two inch slides projected onto a screen). My first (and only) painting professor told me tree trunks weren’t brown but green and yellow, orange, purple and blue– it blew my mind when, sure enough, I could see all those colors and more on the bark of the oak trees that graced the campus of Spring Hill College. That professor gave us an assignment to paint the shadows of objects, to find what colors lay hidden in what we assumed was just grey. I could not believe what I found when I looked closely, challenged the assumptions I had, did my best to approach the subject without seeking to find what I thought was there. Almost twenty years later, and I am still obsessively staring at shadows, wondering what vibrant colors they will reveal. 

When I attempt to apply this concept of honest looking to my broader life, I have to acknowledge some painful truths– about the racial injustices I would rather didn’t exist and sometimes, honestly, just wish I wouldn’t have to see. I also have to acknowledge my own participation in the systems brought out from the once-grey shadows of a cursory and unfocused, unwilling vision. 

There are universes I still don’t see (and undoubtedly have the privilege to turn away from) when I look at the world around me, places I still first see grey when there is obvious purple and orange. There is no final destination, no “wokeness” achieved. There is just practice. There is just trying. 

From our first encounters until now, art has beckoned me, repeatedly, to look closely, deeply, to understand more (there is always more). I am at my very best as an artist when I do. I am at my very best as a human when I do, too. I fail often. The effort is always imperfect. The stakes of not looking, not listening, not putting aside assumptions, is far higher when we’re talking about life and not paint. People can go their whole lives seeing only brown tree trunks and grey shadows, and that is perfectly okay. But to go our whole lives ignoring or denying the experiences of those we claim matter under a universal “all”– that is a travesty, one that can never lead to peace or justice. 

Just as I am continually trying to better see what truths lie in the subjects I paint, I will try to better see the social realities around and beyond me– my place in both unjust systems and also the opportunities I have to stand in solidarity and use my voice (frivolous and useless as it may seem).

My life has changed in the last few weeks. My family (and therefore my heart) has expanded. I’m so proud of the people I’m honored to now share a home with. My home of two has become one of five. I’m looking for ways to expand more– my vision, my focus, my listening, my understanding.

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Picture of Denise Hopkins

Denise Hopkins

June 11, 2020

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