I bought the most ridiculous apron at Walmart the other day. It was hanging forlornly on a hook by itself among the dishtowels and oven mitts and pot holders in the kitchen isle. It’s aqua with rows of multi-colored, poisonous looking cupcakes festooned across every inch of it. The package said it was “adjustable,” which basically means it comes with about three yards of a ribbon-like string you can slide the apron up and down on to put it higher or lower on your chest, and then use the rest to wrap three or four times around your waist to secure the apron. I bought it because I’m supposed to paint every day for the three weeks before I go to Taos, New Mexico, for another process painting workshop in September.
I never bought myself an apron before for this purpose. The other workshops I’ve taken have required no such shielding and protection of my clothes. I don’t usually get paint on myself, whether I’m painting pictures or the walls of a room. Yes, I get the paint on the walls, the floor, my hands, in my hair, but so far not on my clothes. I suppose if I took nice outfits to wear while I was painting that would guarantee I slopped myself, but even then I think I might emerge unscathed from days of painting. I’m taking what’s called a “Master Class” this time, so I got the suggested apron. I’m going not only to paint for a week, but to learn how to teach others this technique I’ve so grown to love.
I discovered an interesting thing about myself taking these workshops. This is the first year I’ve picked up a paintbrush for I don’t know how long. I’ve framed some of my “art” and hung it around my house so I can sit with it and appreciate the stuff I’ve done. This is a dire sin according to the method I’ve learned. You aren’t supposed to frame your work. You’re supposed to keep it hidden, even from yourself, maybe in a bag under your bed. You’re not supposed to paint for “product” or even appreciation. The point is the process, not the product.
I finally showed my stuff to a friend (another sin) and she told me I was an idiot to keep it hidden. “You can sell this stuff, Chris, get it framed.” So I did. Not to sell it, but to see it. I actually like the stuff that I had formerly held in disdain. Most of my art looks like a five year old did it.
“These paintings are very happy,” a very wise, astute older friend said when he and some other people came over for lunch one day. Yes, I might have to agree now that I look at them again and again. Even the ones I know came from a darker place in me share a certain light, or joy, among the bright colors. I want to access that happy place in myself again. She clamors to get out. Too much death and loss and change has colored the last several years of my life. Is it possible the irrepressible little girl who always wanted to be an artist is coming to the fore again? I hope so.
I paint imaginary creatures and spaces and landscapes that have always filled my head for as long as I can remember. I judged myself as weird because other people just couldn’t get where I was coming from, or told me the stuff was not good just because it didn’t look real. What, after all, is real? What we see in front of our noses? Read any article about witnesses to a crime scene and each person, watching exactly the same thing, will relay a different story. Doesn’t that mean that none of us shares the exact same reality? The tree I look at outside my window is not going to be the same tree you see looking out that same window.
When I was a little girl my father gave me some great advice. I had had a terrible nightmare and woke up crying. I couldn’t get back to sleep. My father came and sat on the edge of my bed. “What was so scary about the dream?” my father asked me.
“A terrible monster was chasing me!” I remember saying.
My father looked at me for a minute. “Well, maybe now that you’re awake you can make friends with the monster,” my father said. “Do you like picnics?” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Why don’t you use your imagination and invite the monster to come and sit with you and have a picnic together. Maybe if you sat and ate some good food together you could be friends. It wouldn’t be so scary anymore if it was your friend, would it?” he asked. I didn’t quite think this was going to work, but I was willing to give it a shot. Truth is, it did take the fear down a few notches and I was able to go to sleep again.
I think that’s what I do with my painting. The things that come out to be painted have been transformed. They are brightly colored and multi-faceted, even if they are bugs and birds and monsters and things that nightmares are made of.
I painted a picture after my brother died that made me cry from the effort to stay with the process, that picnic with the things that scared me. “Why, Christine,” my sweet little French teacher-inventor of this method said in her thick accent as she came upon me in class. “There is nothing to be afraid of. All this feeling is for your own good! The Universe really is benevolent!”
I had never quite thought of it that way before. When my heart clenches with some emotion as the brush slides across the paper, as long as I keep moving, it really does pass. For me when I am painting, the Universe, as that wise lady said, really is benevolent.