Paint Understands – Using Art to Express the Unbearable

“If I could say it in words there would be no reason to paint it.” – Edward Hopper

We tell small children to use their words. We want to teach them to express negative feelings verbally rather than through biting, scratching or kicking.

What do you do when words cannot adequately express the saddest parts of our hearts? When the darkness is so great you are swallowed in inky pain?

Give them paint, brushes or a lump of clay.

As an Artist, I’ve often struggled over my message and if it would be meaningful to anyone. I retreated to safe themes: flamboyant gardens and florals. Who doesn’t like flowers? But they were mute little bouquets – mine had nothing much to say.

At the end of 2012 my mother’s Avon lady found her in the driveway disoriented and unable to breathe. On the way to the ER Mom told me that she did not want to die this way. “Are you dying?” The child in me expected my mother to tell me what to do and how to do it. She has always been the Matriarch, the Oracle, Everything. Now I was speaking for her. They told us repeatedly that Mom was close to death. And each time they would intubate her and we’d wait for the next trauma.

My days were daily rounds of dropping children off with a babysitter, sitting in the icy ICU watching machines breathe for my elderly mother and wondering if this was what she was wrenching to make calls of life and death even those based on her own wishes. But I did – every day. Just when you think you could not take another bout of her dying – it would happen again. I felt like a warrior – defending my mother and speaking for her. I could not paint during this time but I sure did a lot of praying.

Mom slowly improved and they moved her to a rehab facility, I took a painting class. I was creatively stiff and needed the exercise. The instructor asked us to create a painting based on death. I was stunned. “C’mon” he said, “All Art is about Sex and Death, anyway!”

I stood silently in front of my canvas and wondered how to depict what little I knew of death. I recalled my mom in the ICU. I had wondered where “she” had been and what the experience might have been like for her. I thought of my Mom – so much had happened but death had not taken her from me. I sketched an image of Mom, colorless and intubated in a hospital bed. It was dramatic and certainly adquately gruesome but empty and superficial. I hadn’t painted the truth. I wanted to reach the essence of the strange place she might have been, in her fluid-filled and sedated state – the odd feeling of floating along hospital corridors wraith-like and wondering what you would discover at your destination. The struggle to find meaning in it all.

I flipped the canvas upside down and painted out the identifiable shapes and allowed the painting itself to tell me what it needed. Keep the hospital colors. Add the essence of a desert – a lonely place or a strange alien landscape. I tried to imagine where she might be. Where she might be going and where was I really? The paint, the nubby brushes and smudged pigments anchored me to my body. While my mind and heart we left to speak their truths and feelings. I created abstract paintings to speak the abstract feelings that can’t be contained in representational imagery.

Back in my studio I went on an emotional story-telling rampage of art-making. Through the pain I had found a new language in paint and found so many more ways to show the struggles and excitement about renewal.

Mom is in hospice now. We have been blessed with many chances to say good-bye and to speak deeply of life and death. It is such great luxury to know that there will be little unsaid.

And also liberating to find that art can speak for me. Paint understands – it tells that paint lifts the soul and finally while it speaks my truth to the world.

Have you used art to tell your story? Get some paint and use it to tell your story. It doesn’t have to be pretty.


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