Painting what I once most feared.

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 “Flew The Nest” 18×24, oil on canvas

What do you call a cross between a daydream and a nightmare? Whatever the word is, I had a recurring one when I was a kid. I would often imagine that I had a very rare disease that unbeknownst to me made all my thoughts audible to other people. My parents, having been told about the disease from doctors and knowing it would prevent me from functioning in the world if I knew about it, conspired with the whole community to keep it a secret from me. Laws were passed that stated no one could so much as lift an eyebrow to react to whatever they heard in my thoughts no matter how crazy, funny, outrageous, or ridiculous. There was no hiding anything from anyone. I was thoroughly and perpetually exposed, and, in the world of the dream, just beginning to realize it. 

I’m not sure exactly why I let this dream play out so many times other than I felt sure that the most terrifying thing in the world would be to have my innermost thoughts exposed with no ability to filter, control, edit, or even misrepresent them. 

Lately I’ve been painting women with, for lack of a more eloquent way to say it, “stuff” on their heads. When people ask, I tell them all that “stuff” is their thoughts. It’s always just a touch chaotic even when it’s blooming or beautiful. 

It occurred to me recently that, in a way, I’ve been illustrating one of my greatest childhood fears– the thoughts are not invisible and stored internally but take on actual shapes and contours that manifest themselves outside the bodies from which they come. They have weight. In “Flew the Nest” in particular, the swirling thoughts started to form what looked like a nest to me. So I, at the very end and without having planned to, painted a hummingbird near where the heart would be. The bird has left the comfortable nest of thoughts. The invisible and abstract have taken shape, have been made visible and concrete. They were let out. Shared.

It turns out, I don’t have the audible-thoughts disease. My thoughts and ideas, like yours, are invisible until I let them out– in a conversation, a look, a gesture, and more often than not, a painting. I get to control when and how and in what context they are revealed. I get to share them when and how I choose to. I’m not a bug, pinned and wriggling on the wall (hat tip, Prufrock) and how good that is. 

I’m learning to have a healthier relationship with my thoughts. In a perfect world, I’d never bury them or let them take over entire canvases. I’d look at them and let them go. I’d share when they beckon and keep them inside when they are content to be there and I am content to host them. The ones that fly the nest would do so without fear or judgment. They would do so with sincerity and kindness.

I didn’t start “Flew the Nest” with any of these ideas about it. They grew as it grew. I very much relate to Joan Didion’s famous line, “I don’t know what I think until I write it down.” So often I can only understand what I’m thinking after I’ve written about it. But before even that, to understand my own interior world, I’ve got one more step before writing. I’ve got to paint about it. 

Not all my paintings make me feel particularly proud, but “Flew the Nest” does. It reminds me of how far I’ve come– from a soft-spoken and reserved child to someone who discovered her strength was located in the very thing she used to most fear– vulnerability. This painting has a gentleness to it I’ve tried to replicate and can’t quite. It went through countless changes, additions, and rounds of scraping off; there was doing and redoing. There are layers. It makes me think. 

If anything in “Flew the Nest” speaks to you, I’d love to know about it in the comments.

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Picture of Denise Hopkins

Denise Hopkins

March 9, 2022

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6 Responses

    1. I know! I can’t tell you how many times I imagined this on the bus ride to school. Thanks for reading, Gretchen!

  1. Such a great post! And it made me think of two recurring dreams I have had throughout my life. Both are end of the world scenarios. I don’t have to investigate far for the causes to those.

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