Tuesday, August 22, 2017

#SOL17: Transforming Heart Ache through Art: 18 Months of Journaling with Paint

Dreaming. (watercolor, digital remix, August 18, 2017, about 3 a.m., Molskine journal)

For the last 18 months I have been painting in art journals--some purchased, some made by hand. It hasn't exactly been practice, as practice connotes an end game and somehow the drawing and painting I have been doing was more elemental, more necessary. There was no prescribed end in mind. It began simply because I needed to expend energy after Rob died. Lifting my camera was a too familiar weight. Making a photographic image felt too passive and perhaps more so reminded me of Rob and all the times I had photographed during our nearly thirty years together.

In the time since his death, painting in my journals (and perhaps painting on a large sheet of watercolor--I actually took out a sheet in anticipation) has become essential.  I dream of painting, rehearsing in my mind what I will do. I can feel my hand holding the brush, moving paint with my fingers.  I don't remember many dreams upon waking, but I do remember my painting dreams.  Most mornings when I am not at work I paint. When I can I paint in the evenings too, especially late evening.  I paint, let dry what needs to dry and come back. I also work across numerous journals now using a lot of different media. Some days I sketch in different journals. These may be people I have been observing in public spaces, like at a Starbucks or photographs or images from magazines that I use as references. On other days I may spend hours just painting backgrounds on journal pages with little anticipation of what I might end up creating on the page. Now and then I will just sketch what I imagine or paint without any guide.

Oddly, it was without any reference that I began painting. Below is the first painting I made after Rob died. It is non-representational and I thought it nothing more than a sloppy mess. I titled it, "Let Her Paint" and posted it on my blog nonetheless. Beneath all of that grief, I think I knew that physical act of painting would be necessary. I needed it so much and how grateful I am that painting was possible.

from an art journal (March 18, 2016)
Two months later I began to keep an art journal in earnest. I selected an old atlas that had been Rob's and gessoed several pages.  It was an oversized book and allowed me a lot of space to work. I painted the image below using a stencil and also free hand. Even now, looking at it, I still enjoy the image--mostly because of the way I used space across two pages. This morning when I reread the image, knowing I made it two months after Rob died,  I notice how life percolates beneath the ground unseen--like the will to live remained within me.

Page from art journal, May 18, 2016

After Father's Day I made  the two images below, using newspaper, ink, gesso, Stabilo pencil, and acrylic paint. As I look at these paintings, I notice the empty spaces surrounding each and how the the grief image (6.19.16) seems to float without an anchor, whereas the other image of sadness is anchored to the bottom of the page. Each new holiday, like Father's Day, was mostly a terror that first year. Less so the second year.

(stabilo pencil, gesso, acrylic paint, ink, newspaper, 6.20.16)
(stabilo pencil, gesso, acrylic paint, newspaper, 6.19.16)

The image of two women I made four months later crossed two large journal pages. I think about how I was seeing and not seeing at the time. Grief and loneliness alter reality.  The arrangement here of images and collage elements felt new to me.  Uncharted territory. What to do with empty space is a question I worked out on this page--much like I was working out in my life. After the death of a husband, large blocks of what felt like empty space become more noticeable. Understanding that I had choices and perhaps, more importantly, needed to see my own hand in my life, I began slowly to accept that the life I was making was my own.  I had been waiting for life to be given to me, not made. In the fall of last year I was learning that if I waited for something external to show me all there was to see, I would be waiting for a long time. Most days now, I accept that living is always about partial sight. We never really know where we are walking and what we will see.


from my art journal, 10.22.16 (gesso, found papers, acrylic paint, Tombow markers, tissue paper, ink)

Five months later in mid-March of 2017 I was thinking a lot about the burden of grief and that lovely poem by Molly Peacock, "Putting a Burden Down."  Many years ago I took a class at the 92nd Street Y with Molly and after the class ended she became a private teacher for me for the remainder of the year. I was writing a final project for a graduate degree--a collection of poems. I painted the image below in my journal. It was a week after the anniversary of Rob's death and I began to think that putting down grief is a decision not a divine directive. What rested in my hands was mine for the making. As Rob told me so many times, the only way out is through. After a year of grieving I came to understand that defining myself through grief and grieving was a choice. So too was putting it all down. And if only it was that simple.


(watercolor, pencil, acrylic paint, ink, March 2017)

A month later, I decided to spend the next 100 days painting, drawing and on occasion photographing faces.  I wanted to represent faces better.  This led me to painting most days and learning how to first try to control the paint brush and paint and paint representationally. Later I experimented with leaning into the work and seeing where it led. Below is one of my more expressive pieces. The painting happened across a month.  It was a painting I started and abandoned, returning to again and again. Finally, I just painted and scribbled with much abandon. Just as grief was loosening its grip from my heart and life, my hand was learning how to hold the top of of the paint brush looser, to trust mark making both literally and figuratively.

acrylic paint, crayon, early July 2017)


12 paintings with blackbirds (July - August, 2017)

In the last month, flocks of blackbirds have found their way into what I am painting. A friend suggested the old Beatles' song, "Blackbird," as an apt metaphor. And perhaps it is new wings I am trying out. Painting offers a language that is complementary and different than the words I use to speak and write. Painting reveals truths I might not know or could not say. Below is a detail from a painting I completed in my art journal on August 19th. I wonder about the partiality of it and also the sensuousness of the image. It is more blended, less precise. More heart than mind. What might suggestion have to do with healing?  I suspect as I paint more, I will learn.

Suggestion (August 19, 2017)

Next spring I will be taking an acrylic collage workshop with abstract painter, Jane Davies. Lately the call of the non-representational is loud.  I want to explore it in large ways, using big spaces to paint. I have been drawn to abstract expressionist art for decades, but have never tried my hand at it. These days find me bolder, more willing to risk.

After the death of a husband, little seems undoable.

24 comments:

  1. This is lovely. Your paintings and writing reveal deep feelings through such beauty. Glad you are being bold and taking risks. I personally love your newly incorporated black birds. Stay strong and beautiful.

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    1. Thank you Mary. The birds do not seem to want to retreat. For now they are sticking around.

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  2. I wish I could paint! it is such a beautiful art form :)

    I try to write with beauty or listen to lyrics that emulate what I want to say (but can't put in to words)

    if you want, read my post about musical art :)
    https://hannahshappenings.net/2017/08/22/music-mondays-favorite-find-brother-ali-slice-of-life/

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    1. I did check out the post about Brither Ali. Thanks Hannah:)

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  3. Beautiful felt and dreamt work, Mary Ann x

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  4. What a beautiful piece that spans a long period of time. Your art and thinking are inspirational. I admire your perseverance in art and life. Thanks for sharing your journey!

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    1. Thank you Dawn for reading and for your kind words.

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  5. I know that you weren't intentionally looking for beauty in sadness, but you've created it for us to see and experience. Thank you for sharing these images and your self-reflection. Your slice reminds me that when the details of our lives want to take over (like today, on the first day of school for my students), I need to tend to the soul-work, too.

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    1. Chris, it often seems to be a balancing act. Best of luck with your school opening.

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  6. I've been following your art work on Facebook. One amazing piece after the next. It's so good that you have so many ways to create and find your way back to your life. Love the 92nd Y. I spent many years driving in to NYC on Monday nights for the Poetry Center with teacher friends. Hope you are finding some peace MaryAnn.
    Bonnie

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  7. Words on canvas (or paper, or...) always intrigue. Like symbolic tattoos or colliding mediashots.
    Really enjoyed this. Thank you.

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    1. Good to know Bruce. I like your descriptions here.

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  8. Art is a meaningful and blessed way to travel through life. Your process has led you to so many realizations about yourself. Thanks for sharing the deepest part of yourself.

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    1. Margaret, I had not considered art as a way to travel through life--blessed or otherwise. I will now. Thank you.

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  9. You were brave and wise to document your journey through grief. And now you have bravely shared your personal reflections on your process of grieving. I am awed by the beauty of your work, from day one of your grief. Would you consider taking this one step further and making it into a book? I know a book such as this one could become, would have helped me get through some of my personal challenges. We all grieve...not for the same reasons...but the process is the same. Since my retirement from teaching and a nasty close call with cancer, I have been doing a lot of reflecting...and some grieving. It's a healthy thing to do and opens the heart to new experiences once we "put down the burden." Thank you, thank you for an exquisite slice today.

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    1. I am in the process of writing a memoir that chronicles the last two years. I am doing it out of necessity and as I hope it might help others. I am unsure at this point if I will include visual art. Still thinking about it. Thank you Barbara for the encouragement. It is tough work. I love this line by you: "It's a healthy thing to do and opens the heart to new experiences once we "put down the burden."

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  10. I love the way you composed this piece - your journey, as lived and thought through, visually and through words. If you ever need a place to get away for a bit and paint, let me know. The farm has great light and empty barns for painting in , and you can have a few days of country bliss all to yourself.

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    1. I would love to see your farm. The images wow me. Thank you Tara. Yours is a generous heart and soul.

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  11. You are painting your way through your husband's sage advice - the only way out is through. Thank you for sharing these beautiful works with us - such an intimate post. I love your process and sense that it has provided you great healing - "I paint, let dry what needs to dry and come back." Thank you for this.

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    1. Maureen, I know you understand this journey. I wish most days I could be on the other side of grief and I suspect there is no other side--just longer intervals, perhaps. It changes so as time moves on,

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  12. I am not sure that I have the words to describe how amazing you are and how the words and images that you share echo into my very core. I have only followed your journey since this last March but your honesty and your determination to have an outlet for your feelings are truly inspirational. I especially liked this line as it is applicable to my own life... I accept that living is always about partial sight. We never really know where we are walking and what we will see.
    Continue to share your vision. It is amazing.

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    1. I am humbled by your words. It's hard to write about the grief, healing and the tangle of each with other. Your words encourage me and I need that. Thank you:)

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