why i paint
(Originally published in healing-power-of-art.org)
One of my earliest childhood memories was playing with crayons and paint. There was joy and excitement in the world of color. It was a time of innocence.
The sexual abuse tore it apart. I shut down, walls went up. The world became a terrifying place. Suddenly, I was no longer good and certainly not good enough. Emotionally paralyzed, I managed to survive over the years because an inner determination grew stronger as new challenges came my way — family alcoholism, a serious bike accident, divorce, breast cancer. At each turn, I confronted inner demons and the constant fear of failing. So much work was needed to build trust and self-confidence. If we can see the challenges through, we know they will make us stronger but that isn’t always an easy task. I had amazing support. Slowly a belief in myself and trust in others began to appear.
Artists always intrigued me. I observed them and their mysterious artworks with trepidation. I wanted to be like them. To paint and feel free seemed impossible. I never “fit in.” Instead, I became an interior designer which meant creating the visions of others. I loved it — but it was empty. I wanted to create visions of my own.
I knew it would be tragic and difficult to confront death without ever embracing what I always wanted to do. It took all of my strength and determination to make even the slightest attempt. The fear was overwhelming.
First, there were childlike swirly paintings. Then I tried figurative painting; that triggered my crippling perfectionism. Simple circles and squares came next. Nothing worked, nothing felt “right.” Art classes ended in failure and tears — the teacher’s tyrannical “musts” and “shoulds.”
On a trip to Bali I met an artist who became my mentor. Three more trips followed. Life was serene there — I felt safe — my fears melted away — my body relaxed. I discovered freedom and realized (so late in life!) that there was no right way and whatever I did was just fine. I learned to paint what spilled out honestly with no expectations and to paint with a new feeling which I now call a connection to spirit, something beyond me and my world. I gained confidence and became as happy and joyful as I could remember. My life changed completely.
I continue to paint my feelings. I meditate and there is no planning or thinking, no judgment and no expectations. My arm movements and the colors I select represent my feelings at that moment. Painting becomes play! I never know what’s coming next. Often I turn the canvas, and everything changes. My love of bright colors came out of nowhere — or maybe, just maybe, it came from that little girl I once was, so giddy and carefree with her finger paints and crayons.
When I try to force an idea or concept, the painting never feels right. Only by letting go does it everything begin to flow. With more awareness and discovery of self, I realize that art brings my insides out and destroys the darkness and pain. It gives me energy, healing energy, which I love to share.
This was what I was meant to do. This is who I am meant to be. Wonderful things have already occurred in my short career as an artist: events and exhibits have brought me closer to others, and this has led me to teach — something I would never have dreamed of! The rewards are tremendous. When my students and I are stuck, we close our eyes and paint. What appears is amazing because the art is coming from the inside out. We honor and accept these “blind” paintings without judgment, for they honestly represent what we felt at that moment.
I am truly grateful: Grateful for the courage which allowed me to embrace my long-lost passion and grateful for the ways in which I can use it to help others. Even on the most difficult days, a piece of my life is shared and the pain is eased out of my soul. Life is a baffling, scary, and miraculous journey. How fortunate that I believed that it is never too late to try.
One of the most fascinating discoveries I’ve made as an artist is realizing just how much needed to be unlearned. To be sure, one must grapple with the history and techniques of art, but the real challenge for me has been undoing my rigid ways of seeing the world through fear and judgment and rediscovering long-lost joy.
That may sound rather cliché, for in art (as in life) each of us strives for a bit of originality, but for me, it has been a wonder, perhaps an epiphany, to discover at the innermost part of myself there wasn't emptiness or dread, but a genuine curiosity that soon had me eager to travel and explore. I began to take risks — and enjoy them.
It was in Bali where I began to understand what this meant for my art and life. I gained confidence and discovered that art is really play. Painting need not necessarily depict a “thing,” but can actually become a “dance of color” that expresses how I feel.
I once saw a de Kooning exhibit of his most famous paintings and was most drawn to the final simplistic pieces that he created after the onset of Alzheimer’s. I was completely mesmerized because these loose lines of bright color were joyous and free, as if released from all influences, expectations and judgments. I wanted to paint from this place.
Art heals, and it does so by bringing the inside out. It’s certainly no great insight to say that life isn’t always easy — but art can bring light and joy and color to the darkness, the pain, the fear. As I began to untangle my life and view it as a journey, I allowed my love of bright colors to be expressed and to acquire a new healing purpose.