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“In Loving Memory” 8×10, oil on canvas

Robert Howard Lavigne 1927-1987


Painting a day, part two. This time around I wanted some kind of theme and since my last thirty in thirty was all about me (sometimes painfully so), I thought it would be a great idea to share a story each day– someone else’s.

I didn’t think making paintings of other people’s stories was just a great idea, I thought it was the best one I’d ever had, an idea that would launch me into stardom and fame. Impossibly brilliant.

That’s how ideas typically start. And then, somewhere, they become not only not great, but devastatingly awful– the worst, silliest, dumbest, most asinine concoction of a brain not fully developed.

Tell me I’m not the only one to judge my visions in extremes?

I asked people to send me stories of “pivotal moments” in their lives as though the masses would be eager to bare their souls with me in exchange for a tiny painting they may or may not like with their personal story on the world wide web for anyone to see.

Needless to say, the stories didn’t exactly come rolling in. The few I do have are absolute gems though and even though September’s officially started, I’m still banking on getting a few more. Nudge. Wink.

Donna e-mailed me the same day I asked for stories. She e-mailed me at nearly the exact moment I’d gone from I’m-the-most-brilliant-woman-alive to how-could-I-ever-think-that would-work?

It’s not the first time she’s saved me.

Let’s just say, in a moment of absolute despair she gave me a gift that I won’t ever forget, one that got me back on my feet and brought me a little bit closer to being Denise the artist instead of Denise the broken-hearted.

Donna’s one of those “strong” people– the kind you imagine having abundant wisdom in every situation, the kind who never seems to stumble, whine, or be at a loss.

She is stunningly beautiful, thoughtful, kind. I knew a little of her life story because of the many margaritas we’d shared at various happy hours, but I was really surprised by what she wrote in response to my request for stories.

Donna and I worked together as teachers and my first memory of her is at a faculty meeting when the principle was taking prayer requests and updates from faculty members. Donna spoke about her daughter-in-law. I didn’t know the whole story, but I knew that she had died and that Donna was grieving for many things, but particularly grieving for her son who is the same age as I.

I’ll never forget Donna saying “God has been in all of it,” and, because she taught religion, I sort of dismissed it as a religiony teacher thing to say– that brave, God-is-in-control attitude I sometimes find hard to believe.

Later, after I got to know Donna and always thought back to that moment of her as a stranger in a faculty meeting. I realized what she had said that day was grounded in an absolute struggle, a terrifying anger, and, ultimately, a sincerely held and oftentimes demanding faith. When I struggled years later with miscarriage and divorce, I imagined her saying those difficult words: God has been in all of it. Not that he wills it or delights in it, but that he, quite simply, is in it.

Donna has spoken affectionately of her father before (she always refers to him as “my daddy”) but I’d never once considered the notion that her strength and beauty might be rooted in another person. Why do we view the strong as islands emerging from nowhere and always lending but never receiving support?

Of the pivotal moment I asked for, Donna wrote that it was the death of her father on January 19, 1987. She explains:

“I had given birth three times, buried my son’s wife, experienced my three children getting married, had two grandchildren, had a life-altering and near-death car accident, had a cancer scare and started/ended careers….but still, my father’s death is the most definitive event of my fifty-five years on earth.”

I thought certainly her story would have involved one of the many events she listed prior to her final answer, and even she said she was surprised by her answer. She continued:

“I think the best explanation is that his love was the most pure, most unconditional experience of love that I have ever had. I think that his love for me and his genuine appreciation for who I am crafted my vision of the world and continues still to frame my reference for people, relationships and my self worth. I am an only child. This has a set of gifts and challenges that resonate through the times of my life. I never had to share his love with a sibling. However, when he died, no one else experienced their father’s death. I remember thinking when he died… the one person who loved the whole of me, both the good and bad of me, is gone.  For everyone else, I will have to be worthy of love. For him, I just had to be. Pure. Genuine. True.  Everlasting. Honest. Complete.That was how I can describe my understanding of his love for me. He was a man made to give to others. He was a person with a giant laugh that others could not resist. He did not forget his friends. His family knew always and forever that they could count on him. He had a great sense of fun. He loved his racehorses and loved the water. He could fix nothing without breaking it worse than it already was broken. He had terrible luck with cars and all dogs and babies loved him. He was my hero and never told me no without explaining in detail what he was thinking. He would have given me the moon if he could have. Because I knew this, even as a small child, I never asked. I did not make really stupid choices as a teenager because I knew it would hurt him if he found out. My earliest memory is me sitting in his lap in a very crowded place…feeling safe and loved. I talk to him frequently and think of him always. I am surprised by my answer to your question, but nevertheless, I find that this is it.”

Ah! I thought.  So that’s the foundation from which her strength so freely flows.

I was inspired and humbled by her answer and found myself thinking about if for days. I didn’t, however, know what I was going to paint. Again, I felt foolish for asking people to share with me when I had no idea what I would do with their words.

Portraits have been on my mind for some time so eventually that was the obvious answer. But the photos I had of Donna’s father were old, most likely an iphone photo of an actual hard copy photo. It was difficult to make out his features, and when I tried printing the images, they lost even more of their already limited detail.

I decided I would have to do a portrait of Donna herself as a kind of tribute to the man who influenced a woman I greatly admire. I facebook stalked her photos for a couple days, landing on the most perfect image of her gazing at her son on the altar on his wedding day. But again, I had trouble with the quality of the images lifted from facebook.

I abandoned that idea and looked once more at the images of her father she had sent me, and the one I ended up using grabbed my intention. It’s probably the smile that gets me. It seems to be just as Donna described: Pure. Genuine. True. Honest.

I was terrified to paint this, but said a little prayer:  Help me. Somehow the strokes came out as freely as I had planned them– just an impression of a man I never met but to whom I now feel very much indebted. I covered the canvas in a wash of yellow ochre and then sketched out his face in venetian red.


I blocked in major color blocks and then went to work with quick but deliberate brushstrokes.

IMG_2170 IMG_2171

I really, really wanted to get this one right. This was a human face after all, not nearly as forgiving as my many birds who, if you get their beaks too long or wings too narrow, there are no real consequences.

Somewhere in the beginning of the process, I heard a little nudge, a little inner voice say “lime green”. I thought it ridiculous but decided to obey. I was only about twenty minutes into the painting and could always start over. I filled a section of the background with lime green and, voila! I love it. Painting doesn’t usually happen this way for me. It’s usually far more painful.

Thank you, Donna.