Monday, September 19, 2016

Between Fences and Freedom - New Self Portrait

This summer was one of dramatic highs and lows. It was a summer of scrapping entire projects after hours of time invested, and of learning from my mistakes the hardest way... by having to start over completely (more than once!). It was one of very little productivity and a lot of self doubt and thwarted efforts to paint something of significance. It was one of discovering my own limits and realizing I had imposed those limits on myself. It was a season of learning and growth - the painful kind - with no real breakthroughs except small victories here and there, and a whole lot of realization that sheer willpower and gritting one's teeth doesn't necessarily make your art and life better.

Before I go further... let me clarify something. The struggles mentioned above are not entirely because I'm a mother of a two year old! Cecelia is wonderful and ever the joy and sunshine in my life. But as I reflect back on the last two years and look at where I am now, I can see that I've become a different person, someone who is more self aware, both physically (hello, clean and press! That is one thing I've gotten right... a regular gym routine) and emotionally (learning to set boundaries... more on that later).

My whole life I've been a "yes" person and a people-pleaser. I would constantly strive to keep the peace in all of my relationships, even if it meant giving up my own needs and wants in order to accomplish this. I grew up hearing the golden rule repeated over and over: "Love others as yourself." But somehow I began to believe that meant, "Love others MORE than yourself." I saw it played out in the lives of women I looked up to, who constantly met everyone else's needs before their own... like the mom from "A Christmas Story" who "hadn't had a hot meal for herself in 15 years."

But eventually this kind of life just wears you out and makes you bitter. I think this summer I hit a new kind of tired - one that was very different from the exhausted fog of pregnancy, the sleepless nights with a newborn, or the physical exhaustion from a 10-mile hike.

In short, I realized I couldn't be a great wife and mother (or daughter, sister, friend, etc.), maintain the house, make and sell great art, stay in shape, and juggle everything... by myself.  I needed to break free of my self-imposed chains and allow God and others to work in my life. He did so using a number of invaluable outside sources.

Two of those sources were my dear friends Linda and Laura, who simultaneously recommended I read a book called "Boundaries" by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend. This book has changed my life (and is continuing to do so), as I'm learning to build safe boundaries in all applicable areas, including... surprise surprise... my art. I already knew this about myself, that if I had a good painting day, I was elated and on top of the world... but a bad painting day would put me down in the dumps and I'd take everyone I loved down with me.

Additionally, I was relieved of some "mommy duty" when Steve and I agreed to start sending Cece to a Montessori preschool two days a week. Cece absolutely loves it, and it allows me to have some solid working time. The first few weeks felt like a waste, because I was struggling so much with painting anything "good," as I had completely fallen out of a rhythm, and every time I sat down to paint it felt contrived - like I had forgotten how to do it. But gradually I got my 'groove" back, and I'm starting to hit my stride once more.

During my lowest point this summer, I began a self portrait that encompassed the conflicting emotions I was trying to sort through. Ironically (though it was NOT funny at the time!), I made a grave technical mistake on the portrait and ended up having to scrap the whole thing, even after posting a detail of it on social media and getting a lot of positive feedback. However, some of my closest friends saw what was really going on when they noticed the sadness in the painted likeness.

As my creative energy has returned, I have moved the portrait in a different direction from when I started. It's actually a good thing that the first one didn't turn out. I've taken this painting to a better place - one that looks outward with fresh confidence and drive, instead of within towards a grave vulnerability that teeters on the edge of depression.

"Between Fences and Freedom" - 48x22 inches - oil on linen mounted to board

So I think the narrative is fairly straightforward, and most people (women especially) can take away whatever meaning from it they want. But here are some of the things that I wanted to say in this painting.

1) The corset. A splurge of mine while strolling about at the Colorado Renaissance Faire has now become the item of controversy in this new painting. Does the corset represent a thirty-something woman's attempt to hold on to her youth and sensuality, in spite of the utter lack of glamour in everyday life? Or does it represent the impossible standard that women have been held to for centuries? We have been deprived of oxygen and freedom, but I can't emphasize enough that many of those chains are ones that we have placed upon ourselves! This indeed has been my biggest light bulb moment through all of this. It is up to me whether I choose to be free of that which steals my life and breath. Gal. 5:1

2) The vines. Those tangled brambles share a similar purpose to the corset - they attempt to choke and take away from the fullness of one's life. What are the vines in your life? I know what mine are, one of them being those self-imposed limitations I mentioned earlier.

3) The fence. Boundaries, represented by the fence, can be healthy and good, or they can cause us to become jaded when we allow nothing good to come in or out. In my case, I would often allow people and/or things to knock down my fences and walk all over me... I am slowly learning to have a healthier respect for my property.

4) The flock of geese. Symbolically, geese represent journeys and wanderlust, but also faithfulness and family devotion. In former days I traveled the world and left the house whenever I wanted. I loved being able to come and go as I pleased. Now I don't have that freedom, but I know it's only for a time. Right now I'm embracing the second part of that symbol: family.

I'm stoically preparing myself for mixed reviews of this painting. I have already gotten comments from people saying they'd like it better if I looked "happier" or wore a smile, because that's more "becoming". Anyone who knows me, knows that I love to smile and laugh. But that's not what this painting is about - there is more to me than that.

Upon seeing a detail of the face, before she even saw the rest of the setting, one of my artist friends made an incredibly insightful comment that I thought I'd share with the rest of you. She said, "So often, women are told to be sweet, be gentle, be nice. To 'smile!' To bite our tongues, else be called some unfortunate term. Thank you for capturing the steadfast spirit, pushing against the corset and encroaching vines, not softening to society. There are important messages to share - this painting seems to be toeing the edge of something that society might find uncomfortable ("stern," "mad," "ticked"), but that must be said. Keep going!"

Thank you, Erica... for that comment. I have kept going and now I think this painting is ready for the world to see. I haven't done anything this personal since "The Wait and the Reward." But as I discover more and more who I am as an artist, I am coming to to terms with the fact that, like it or not, my work will always be deeply personal. I just hope the message is worth sharing.



  1. What a treasure for fellow Pilgrims on our journey through art and through life itself. Thanks for daring to share... both the encouraging commentary and the beautifully compelling portrait. As a man, I'm noodling my own versions of walls and vines and geese at this stage of life.

    1. Thank you, Sean. I'd be interested in hearing about those walls/vines/geese from a man's perspective. :-)

  2. I will indeed. So similar and so different. Also, finalizing my thoughts from my original post way back on your article Nudity in Art From a Christian Perspective... as not only a traditional artist, but also from my perspective as a photographer.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...