Courage. Courage and some unlearning on my part. I was not an artist. I know this because I was told so in first grade. Maybe not specifically but I was smart enough to figure it out when my teacher passed over my drawing to choose the boy-in-the-front-row’s drawing as the best. Holding up his drawing to the whole class, she pointed to all the good stuff he had done that I hadn’t done in mine. Mine was different and different wasn’t good. I didn’t like my drawing anyway, at least not now. So it was easy to figure out I was not good at drawing and therefore not an artist.
Taking a drawing class as an adult, I was surprised to learn how much I enjoyed drawing. We were on the eastern point of a barrier island in NC, sketching live faces of sun-drenched skin. It was amazing! Drawing the contour of light and illuminating the liveliness of living tissue was fun! With the sound of the surf, the salty air and call of water birds and new friends, I placed charcoal to paper to make my own marks. What a welcome experience of indulgent absorption to look deeply into the looking, rendering what I see in a 3-dimensional world and translate it onto a 2-dimensional white paper. With wide-open permission to translate these worlds, in curious open seeing, I discovered an exhilarating new freedom and process of discovery. I actually got some compliments, though they were secondary to my utter newfound enjoyment.
This was a first for my deliberate new mark-marking. It stood upon the confidence-gain that I had developed from painting. As I said, I’m not an artist, but I loved art. Dancing around the periphery of appreciating art, buying art, reading about it, and doing art crawls, I finally took a deep dive into painting by going to an Art Jam. I booked the evening to go on my birthday taking the Discovery Bay ferry over to Central Hong Kong with a new friend to be given an apron, glass of wine, brushes and camaraderie. My brushstrokes were tentative, their range was narrow and the general demeanor on my canvas was on the far-end from exuberant, but the art-piece was mine and a mirror for me to resonate with its emergent form. The paint was still wet that evening so it took a second trip across Fragrant Harbor to claim what was mine.
It was easier to sew then commit paint to an empty canvas since I had to navigate great carefulness to not make a mistake. Using needle and thread, I could stitch together harmonizing patterns and colors, interweaving light and shadow. When I made a mistake, I could simply take the stitches out and try again. It was forgiving and forgiveness was critical to my pioneering attempts at art. I had taken a beginner’s quilting course, getting to know my sewing machine, and when the twin towers came down at 9/11, I reached for thread and fabric as a way of relating to the cataclysmic event. There was a stateside group that posted they were accepting quilted squares for a memorial piece, so I designed and made my first square to send it in. Then I read about a competition calling for entries and I entered to win 2nd place with my first finished quilt. Grandma Rose must have been with me and beaming with pride for my quilt to hang in Hong Kong City Hall.
Quilting, a process of patchworking fabrics together for a top layer, adding a batting layer of cushion and then a bottom layer, is the integration of all 3 layers in pattern, design, in a personalized artistic expression. Contemporary quilting encompasses silks and novel forms beyond the square bedcover. Rich and subtle undercurrents of rhythm juxtapose in unique signatures. My mother’s mother quilted, Grandma Rose. She had made a wedding quilt for me, gifting it to me when I was an early teenager, a promise that someone would love me. Quilts highlight a quality of union, union of layers, union of difference in the larger harmony of the whole. Grandma Rose quilted from her soybean farm in the flat land of Michigan. There are over 100 quilts carrying her steadfast hand stitches of her hopes and dreams.
My love of fabrics, color and design steered me deeper into feminine art forms. Traveling in China with the Hong Kong Textile Society, I learned more about this relationship of the feminine, textile art, protection and love. Most textile art is created by women by hand with love. The pieces are destined for warmth and comfort. Finished pieces include blankets and coats, or even thankas, sewn for a son departing to a monastery. Textile art include items of closeness and belonging, to be used and worn. It has frayed edges and torn corners not sterile in idle abstraction. Women weaving, threading, stitching, and sewing, in pace with their beating heart in color choice, integration and gifting.
We were in Shanghai when my confidence in sewing migrated into paint. In the land-locked concrete urban living amongst 20 million people, the water element was calling me. I was going to learn how to paint with the movement of water. My teacher was an Olympic Canadian white-water rafter, teaching me the art of painting with the movement of water in a brushless art technique. It was exhilarating, immediate and responsive. There was no waiting, no hesitancy. Working over a flat surface, we applied acrylic pigment to a wet canvas. With each spray and dispersement of pigment, there was no time for thinking, no time to freeze; there was just surprise and delight that bubbled up and over.
Expressive art is relational, and relationship is where growth and learning are possible. I found this relational engagement of expressive art challenged my learned helplessness in art. I had not know that learned helplessness was a “thing” until I had heard about it from a dog trainer. The trainer stated how important it was to work with my dogs for them to recognize the pathway of action with a stimulus. He said that he had come across dogs, who when confronted with the tone and shock of an electric fence, just laid down in the shock zone. He said these dogs froze in the shock, resigning themselves to inaction, not knowing they had the capacity to step back away from it. They had learned to be helpless and this, he stated was learned helplessness.
Painting through the shock of how art was supposed to be with each of my sprays, I poured pigment over all pre-imagined perfection. Covering all expectations with free flow streams of color, I challenged the hardened learned helplessness with each brush stroke. With no more waiting to be given what I could do for myself, I confronted each mini-shock of “futile effort” with deliberate presence, alert awareness, and active mark-making. No stopping and no thinking in the sustained exercise of self-reflection, I often found myself holding my breath and reminded myself to breathe. Painting through the shock, breathing through the terror, inhaling strength instead of helplessness and exhaling “freak out” left me free to be in the unleashed movement. I challenged my long history of not being an artist.
Expressive art opens access to wider perception, sensing and feeling underlying feelings and attitudes that are evocative and alluring. Each time I stand with a canvas, I feel a more intrinsic sense of self that comes alive in a connection with something larger. A mind opened by wonder. Art had been the realm of expert professional specialists, the boys in the front row. I was now initiated in the emergent interface of my own creative process.
The power of imagery activating regions of my brain different from verbal language or conscious thought, fed new stimulus in expression for new discoveries of self. Awakened in the no-more-waiting of the shock zone, I was surprised by courage. She emerged in the movement of water upon my canvas. Bestowing me with her strength, standing firm in the mouth of fear, she emerged in steady poise, claiming center in dawning light.
Courage to rise up, to challenge my perceived limitation. Courage strengthening my reach beyond conformity, flexing inner authenticity. Courage to care, enabling me to grow and learn, inquiring into my inner dimensional worlds to unlearn limiting conclusions of who I believe myself to be. Like a yoga practice for my psyche, I step on the mat of accountability, the canvas of self-reflection with courage and confidence to confront inner gremlins, inner younger conclusions of what I’m not. No more waiting for happiness to arrive or freedom to be given. No more waiting for courage to be – that is why expressive art.