My Story - "Painting Outside the Lines"
“Mornin’ Sitter Sue.” A gentle nudge to my foot was the unspoken cue that duty awaited. Chores on the dairy farm were not optional. From a young age I was responsible for feeding, watering and caring for the calves morning and night. Pretending to be asleep, I’d barter with the stillness of pre-dawn, to enjoy a few extra seconds of my dad tickling my feet. Slipping from beneath the warm blankets, I always answered his call. The calves depended on my devoted care.
As a farm girl, I learned the value of hard work and the importance of getting things done.
On my fourth Christmas, Santa surprised me with a most prized gift . . . a whole pad of paper . . . clean white pages with no lines where I could draw whatever I wanted. No guidelines, no one restricting the speed at which I moved from page to page. I could barely contain my excitement as I lifted the cover to start doodling. I felt alive and free.
With the wooden yellow pencil held firmly in my fingers, I began drawing on the top sheet. The sound of the lead gliding across the paper was music to my ears. The spontaneous scribbles, shapes and nonsensical images brought a smile to my face. Knowing that I had a fresh page awaiting under each drawing felt expansive.
When I was five, my mom took me shopping for new pencils and crayons in preparation for kindergarten. I remember feeling my artistic anticipation mounting. Mrs. Stencil’s classroom was up three flights of wooden stairs in the old public schoolhouse. Her small class fit around one wooden rectangle table, the perfect place to sit and draw.
Coloring time was my favorite part of the day. The teacher would hand us carbon copied pages with images in bold black lines for us to color. Tree leaves were to be green, skies blue, and flowers in our choice of rainbow hues.
I learned quickly that praise awaited those who colored smoothly and inside the lines. I will always remember the day one of my classmates was brought to the front of the class, Johnny’s picture held high as an example of perfection. That was the day comparison began informing the way I colored my world. Longing to be acknowledged by my teacher, I did my best to color neatly inside the lines. My best efforts fell short of Mrs. Stencil’s accolades.
In my hometown of three hundred people I had no access to formal oil painting classes, so trial and error became my teachers. At the county fair each summer, I intently studied the paintings displayed. Observing that the blue ribbons were most often awarded to those who painted inside the lines of realism, I determined to become a master at it.
Before long I was winning first place, grand prizes and being commissioned for works of art. Images of my paintings found their way into local and state news. “I had arrived,” or so I thought. Upon completing a beautifully detailed painting of one of my dad’s percheron horses, I was shocked at my internal response. “So what, I can paint any subject picture perfect, why not just take a photo . . . it would take a lot less work.”
In that moment, I knew I didn’t want to work at painting anymore. It no longer mattered that people loved and wanted to purchase my detailed portrayals of realism. Making money took a back seat to what I was feeling. In the wake of this dissatisfaction, I determined I’d rather quit painting than keep working hard to create the illusion of realism.
Then the unexpected happened!
It was the spring of 1994. I was 8 months pregnant with child number 5. I heard there was a woman from Germany making her way to a small neighboring town to teach an art class. It was such a rare occasion, my curiosity and desire to learn insisted that I attend.
“Today we’re going to paint joy,” she said. “We’re going to do what?!” I questioned in my mind.“How do you paint something you can’t see,” I wondered. The idea of painting feelings was completely foreign to me. This concept blew all my neatly defined painting circuits.
My first attempt was met by the teacher with a raised eyebrow and, “that doesn’t look too joyful.” “What do you mean,” I disappointedly replied. I had worked hard to create shapes and use colors I thought were joyful. “You have to FEEL joy inside first, then let that joy flow down your arm into the paint and onto the canvas,” cooed my instructor. Wow, what a concept! . . . an idea that sparked something deep inside . . . something I had to explore further.
Sequestering a day, I shut myself off from the outside world, determined to test what I had learned. I gave myself permission to play with paint as if I were a child again. I mixed paint with new wonder. I was the paint, merging my essence with the canvas. My mind silenced as it surrendered to the feeling of the brush plunging into paint, the sensation of one color merging with another. Stroking the paint onto the white canvas, I witnessed it’s transformation. Mesmerized by the process, my body began filling with a love beyond what I had known love to be, divinity breathed me.
A feeling of complete connection to ALL filled me as the last white space of the canvas disappeared. I stood back and visually took the whole thing in for the first time. I stared in awe and amazement. It was a beautiful cosmic flower.
Images of pure inspiration had emerged, birthed as new life onto the canvas. Transfixed in hushed fascination, tears cascaded over my cheeks as I witnessed replete love, my true self. I had created a painting from my heart . . . not my mind! My artistic spark was fanned to a flame that day. A new aliveness, foreign yet fun, flooded my being.
The old ways of creating art quit working as this new way emerged. I began stumbling into each new canvas not knowing. I playfully fell into the paint consumed by its buttery texture. Images magically appeared on the canvases from nowhere. Other dimensions were unveiled, unleashing a language of light that spoke directly to my soul.
This place of childlike wonder is where I continue to paint from today. As each painting comes to completion, I stand back as the curious child to behold its magic.
Painting has become a form of meditation. As I feel into which colors to use I am present in the moment. Like a compass, I trust the excitement in my body to make the choices obvious. I squeeze paint onto the palette as emotions build. Touching the various brushes, I find the one wanting to dive first into the paint. With brush in hand, I feel inward, noticing what’s there. Once feelings arise, I become the observer as they make their way onto the canvas, colorfully revealing themselves. Some emotions are soft and subtle while others are bright, even bold. Painting in this way celebrates and enlivens the soul.
Before going to the easel one day, I received a phone call informing me of a vengeful act toward someone I love. My emotions surged passionately, blood boiled and anger spiked. I made no attempt to muffle my feelings. I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to tap into the force of such powerful emotions.
Unwrapping a new canvas I let my feelings dictate the course. A large stroke of deep red was brushed intensely onto the canvas followed by more red, then black with red. Blue! A dragon head with fire appeared. The brush moved quickly, boldly and vigorously. Other emotions joined anger, dancing and exploding onto the canvas. Then . . . the energy began to dissipate as the colors consumed the surface. My body felt energized! A softness entered as feelings transformed, indicating the painting was complete.
And so it is with each painting I create. Life happens, feelings arise, in response I step to the easel and paint. I paint over traditional norms and erase lines that limit. This new artist scares me sometimes and when it does, I paint the scared. There’s nothing quite like seeing your particular brand of anger, sadness or happiness come to life on a canvas. That’s when the best paintings show up. When life gets juicy the paintings reflect the spice of my life and the portrait of the real me gets painted.
The farm girl no longer needs to work hard to get her paintings done. Her days of coloring the world within prescribed lines have disappeared. The million brushstrokes of perfection from the past have been painted over by a free spirited soul.
“Every canvas is the edge of a cliff. With each stroke of the brush I jump . . . free falling into the void where the paint catches me as it splashes onto the canvas. Each painting is a bridge to a world where you and I are one.”
“I believe the Universe is Expanding . . . because I’m Painting Outside the Lines!”
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