Vacationing along the Northern California coast on a shoestring budget, I found some cheap paper and a child’s watercolor set at a hardware store. At the grocery store, I remembered how green beans mkae the most glorious Kelly green brine, and of coffee’s rich indelible stain. I remember cringing at the waste of beet’s crimson juice spilling across white porcelain, disappearing down the drain. Back at the cabin, I made a strong cup of coffee, drained the beans and beets. Creating my own pigment gave me freedom to risk a flop. The image in my head was infantile. A heart. A simple shape. Disarmingly whimsical. I experimented with the stroke of a brush. Crimson juice bleeds into the paper, creating its own indiscernible shape. I didn't know how to make the paint stop and start. I tore the shape of the heart, about 12 inches across. Big seemed appropriate. On the diagonal I tore it in two. If I had been braver or weaker I would have torn it to tiny shreds - that's how I was feeling. Torn. I crumpled the two sides, dipped the crumpled balls in the beet juice. Spread them back out, careful to leave the wrinkles intact. I bruised it with lavender paint from the paint box. I glued the halves to another piece of paper, then tore new lengths of paper, dipped them in green bean juice or coffee and placed them around the edges - a mock frame. My first comment: “Looks kind of lop-sided.” And then a question: “Is it supposed to be so wrinkled?”
During the night, I got up to see how the colors changed while drying. The heart seemed to speak for me, “I’m not as strong as I appear.” As the art slowly revealed itself, gradually changing ever so slightly, I was mysteriously comforted, as if a small piece of passionate longing was being returned to me. In the days that followed, I explored books on art. Betty Edwards in “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” describes: “A drawing can let you see how you feel. Putting that another way, the right brain, by means of drawing, can show the left brain what the trouble is.”
Though my images were crude, I understood them and what was more startling wss they seemed to understand me, to explain me. I painted a woman rising from a hair follicle, children playing with a bear, a progressively deepening image of a woman sprouting a flower from a heart in her head. My art said what I was still too fragile to utter. The woman in place of the hair follicle refused her role as a hair. She was emerging, risking. A woman to be reckoned with. I became incrementally braver - like the wise children with the bear. They knew the bear was unpredictable, kind now, vicious in a twinkling. They still approached it. The woman with the flower sprouting from the heart in her head could not yet risk clarity. Habitually avoiding the painful, the coward in me often denied what Augustine summed up as “the whole life of the good Christian” as “a holy longing.” My art admits my longing. It is my confession; an axe to pretense, causing pain at the surprise of how much I need. Art reveals the peaks and valleys of real life. What do I do with all this longing? These conflicted feelings - I want intimacy without exposure, recognition AND anonymity - are mirror and flashlight, a peek at my hidden selves. A light that threatens more than the dark.
Art takes me out of Eve’s proverbial bushes, the deadening foliage of approval-seeking, closet-stuffing, mask-donning. In “The Sacred Romance”, John Eldridge says, “The true story of every person is not the story you see, the external story. This journey first takes us on a search for the lost life of our heart.”
If “being follows imagination” as Thoreau insisted, I should be encouraged. Art helps me put flesh, add color and shape to the unnamed shadows within me. My art brings light, and therefore, life to what I have deadened myself against: loneliness, powerlessness, alienation. I move from the cold shadow of faux contentment into stark honesty. Usually it does not go well. It is worse than I think. I am poor in spirit. I hunger. I thirst. I won’t be able to make it on my own. God does not refute me, dismiss me or minimize my need. God joins me.