There is a reason I tend to choose abstract painting as my main mode of expression: because I don’t have to articulate what I’m trying to say. Who cares, right? The point is for the viewer to feel something. Once I release my work into the world, I can’t reclaim the original sentiments. I know what I felt when creating it, but overtime the certainty of my motivation fades and now the colours rely on the eyes of others to attach value.
But, I’ve made the attempt to seek out language to accurately convey the odd thought process that can sometimes occurs when I put paint down.
Everything starts in the same spot: what feels like me noiselessly screaming. These hushed sounds come out as red, and then an onset of horrific body shaking, fall-to-my-knees tears trickle down as blue, turning purple when it meets my soundless cry on the canvas. The intersection is a brief moment of clarity, joy if you will, where I don’t feel like my skin is crawling and my mind isn’t distracted by things out of my control. In an instant, my forceful thoughts are abstracted, stretching out across a flat visible surface; it’s all proof that those floating indefinite emotions and unclear recollections are factual. I then add white, almost in an attempt to erase the truth because who would believe me? White. Not symbolic of a clear head or heart, more so a lack of veracity. I suddenly feel dishonest and want to cover-up the mess I’ve made. These brush strokes, it’s me feeling like am empty vessel traipsing the Earth in search of meaning. Then, a splash of orange because it makes me smile and why not add on a cool off green hue, because in that soothing colour my centre holds firm. It brings me back down, grounding my senses in reality, and I no longer feel shame.
Finally, gold, because I want to believe that it does not have to go.
It is hard to revisit the past when you have worked so hard to mentally and emotionally distance yourself from it. I would like to think that even physically I am disconnected from every yesterday I have ever lived and I guess on the calendar I am. I can never physically revisit all of those yesterdays, but there are still traces of each setting sun that nestle deep into my skin, penetrating my bones. My thinned hair is a reminder of days past, my sallow skin and my aching bones can never fully recover from the torment they went through. It’s hard to explain pain, even hard to describe invisible ailments that strangers interpret as self-inflicted, and even more difficult to put into words the intangible forces that sit at the steering wheel in your mind for so long, taking you down unlit roads you and around sharp corners, all in an effort to thwart your efforts to push through, to prove you can beat this pain on your own.
I feel quite detached from the woman I was six years ago when I was at one of the peaks in illness, even two years ago when I officially sought professional help. Though my pain was still invisible back then, the effects were difficult to cover up.
It was about control. It was about something beyond my feeble minds comprehension. I still struggle talking about it, but I was anorexic, I had anxiety, I had depression, and I could barely get through the day. To be clear, these labels will never leave me, they will always be a part of my identity, but their control will not manifest the way they once did. Back then, night couldn’t come fast enough so I could go to sleep without having to explain myself. I would fall asleep each night with a promise to myself that tomorrow I would get help, tomorrow I would do better. So many tomorrows came and went and each day it would still take me four hours to eat an essentially calorie free meal. I avoided all social situations that involved food. I ate alone in my room. I went to the gym every day at 6am like clockwork, then promptly took a nap after my 8:30 am class. I don’t know how I lived like this. It seems like an impossible nightmare when I reflect back on those years. I treated myself with such disdain. There was nothing to love there, the mirror mocked me, and I tried so desperately to disappear. My hair fell out, my skin was dry and lifeless, my hips protruded and bruised, my nails broke off, my wrists were too weak to hold anything heavier than a pen, I look like I was made up of only sharp edges, and yet my mind convinced me that this was good, that this was the way of life I deserved. It was like Groundhog Day and I just couldn’t figure out how to move forward. Countless trips to the hospital could not convince me to eat and I still cannot pin point the exact moment things started to change, but I’m thankful they did.
My memories of these day are not solid, they are loose abstract formations that attach and detach themselves to create new narratives each time I try to remember. The past is hard to revisit if you cannot recall things clearly. It’s painful to think that I hated myself so much and that until 2016 I still had the same impressions of my self-worth.
I still feel like this isn’t worth talking about sometimes. I mean, who cares? There is this sense of guilt that trails you when you suffer silently for so long. You convince yourself that the voices in your head are right and that if you talk about your pain no one will believe you. They will think you just want attention. They will shut you down, turn their backs, and tell you to just get over it or else they will give you something ‘real’ to be sad about, because your current emotions are not rooted in anything visible and so they must be fake. You are a fraud. Get over yourself.
But that isn’t every day. Just some days. I know that everything I felt was real. I can still sense those urges trying to fight their way to the surface. When it feels like another creature is trying to escape through your skin and you start scratching yourself until you bleed or ripping out your hair and ripping off all your nails because the pain feels so inconceivable that you just need to distract yourself with anything. Hurting yourself always seems like the best option because they the pain become visible and you can see where it is coming from, only then you suddenly feel ashamed and try to hide it because maybe your pain will warrant unwanted attention, attention you don’t naturally seek but your body is screaming for it. I hate that pain used to be my way out. I hate that restricting food and killing my body used to be my way out. I hate that crying myself to sleep used to be my way out. BUT today these pains no longer manifest in self-harm and I am so thankful.
I am so happy that these are no longer options and that creating beautiful things and smiling all day is my reality. Maybe you can relate to this sense of defeat and triumph. If you do, I want you to know that your day of shining clarity will come and you’ll be oh so grateful to have stuck around to bask in its glory.
You know that scene in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" where Indy is attempting to get to the Holy Grail only he has to prove his faith in a higher power before entering by stepping blindly out off the edge of a cliff, hoping his belief is strong enough to create a path? Sometimes I feel like that only my belief in myself isn't strong enough and when I step off the edge I plummet to my untimely figurative demise. Then there are times where I feel like I'm navigating a tight rope (finally a tangible I can work with!) suspended between two mountains, only I have no cushy pile of softness to break my fall if I were to lose my balance.
Balance. There are a handful of definitions, yet none seem to accurately describe our daily pursuit to not lose track of ourselves amidst the trials and tribulations of daily life.
Losing our somewhat unclear grasp of that work/life balance is stressful because there is no one-size-fits-all guide for stability. I tend to feel an overwhelming influx of emotions when I'm presented two paths for my day and I know that whichever one I venture down, guilt will be trailing tightly behind. Can we really have it all? Meaningful work, a family, a social life, time for ourselves, time to give back to others?
So, how can we maintain our footing even when guilt or anxiety or depression clings to our minds?
I tend to favour the P's: perspective, positivity, priority, and being present.
Taking a positive and pragmatic outlook on life. Knowing that I'm fortunate enough to be able to pursue both of my passions on a daily basis because I prioritize them. I'm comforted by the fact that I've found not one but two career paths that I can commit myself to and actually feel rewarded at the end of the day. I don't ever wake up dreading work. I may wake up tired, I may sometimes wake up frustrated or anxious, guilt can sometimes linger, but when I put my day in perspective, I have only blessing to count and no pains to sulk about. I don't know how I got this lucky. I know that there are so many other individuals who are more qualified, maybe more dedicated to their work than I am, but I like to think I could challenge them on their level of passion. Even when exhaustion sets in and my eyes struggle to stay alert, I can't help but feel grateful for my tired state. Have you ever felt that? Gratitude in the present for being tired? Thankful for your day of labour? That concept was foreign to me five years ago. I now live for today, and today I'm prioritize positivity and not comparing the me today to my former self.
I get to do what I want to be doing every single day, and even though my teaching schedule can be demanding and takes away from the hours I would like to spend in front of a canvas, I've learned to maximize every minute I have with my paints. Whether it's five minutes or two hours, each second is a relaxed one. I feel no pressure to produce because I want to be here. I want to teach and I want to paint, and when you want something bad enough, your time management skills flourish.
What are you passionate about? How might your prioritize your time differently?
Know what you want out of life.
The opinions of others shouldn't sidetrack you or pull you from your focus in the now. You are capable of so much and I say that with first hand experience, scratching my way out of dark holes that dwelled on the past and the great what ifs. Corners that trapped me with my perceived shortcomings and lack of hope for a brighter tomorrow. Days and nights where I my strengths were blinded by my weaknesses and my passions seemed pointless.
Today is a beautiful one. Seize it!
Change is necessary,
Change is scary.
As an artist, I sometimes feel like I’m not allowed to change my style or alter my artistic output too drastically. Do you ever feel that way? As though you can’t evolve from who you are right now because maybe the changes will leave others questioning what you’re doing or why you’re doing it? Your identity ends up being questioned in a way that you feel uncomfortable with, or we assume as much anyway. It is quite foolish, I admit, to withhold change out of fear - this fear that I might disappoint others or perhaps lose them in my life all together.
Then again, this worry has no place in my life, and it has no place in yours either.
Yet, this fear tends to linger in the back of my mind and has me questioning myself on a daily basis.
The big what ifs.
What if I change and the whole world hates it?
What if I just actually suck?
what if what if what if...
These heavy what ifs sometimes make me contemplate throwing in the towel.
They’ll just move on from me and find something else. Something (someone) better.
Eventually (thankfully) I realized that this fear was rooted in the judgments of other people and not what I needed as an artist to feel fulfilled in my daily attempts to express myself. Fear should not hold me back from transforming into new versions of myself. I know deep down what I’m capable of and the sense of urgency I feel to try new things all of the time. I should not be making assumptions and pre-judging myself for others. That’s where the trouble rests, dormant until I throw some dirty paint water mixed with insecurity in its face.
Now, what changed my mind (finally)? Another artist.
It took going to see the Georgia O’Keeffe exhibit in Toronto to boost my confidence and reassure myself that change is good. Georgia, my fairy godmother, whispering in my ear as I glided through her eccentric exhibition. She gave me permission to evolve. I needed a female artist to stir the pot, to push me in a new direction, because I (insanely) saw myself in her (work). From all the landscapes to cityscapes, bones to flowers, sunrise to sunset, her career fearlessly evolved over the span of her lifetime and it would not have been the same had she simply painted the same mountain over and over again.
Looking at the work of an artist over his or her lifetime puts everything in perspective. There is a lifelong devotion to their craft that is inspiring and the commitment to themselves as artists, to follow their heart and not the audience. They knew their vision was bigger than themselves.
They were/are not one dimensional and for some reason this woke me up: I am more than the abstract artist I am right now. Tomorrow I will plant new seeds, they'll take root and grow into next year. Next year I will be different.
Don't allow fear, assumptions, and judgment hinder your growth.
Embrace change, assume less.
Common sense, right?
The truth is, most days I feel like a fraud, an imposter in the world of creativity, a real phony, and there is nothing I despise more than a lack of authenticity. Holden Caulfield would hate me. Sometimes I think I’ve shown up to the party uninvited and keep ducking behind corners, hiding in shadows and behind masks in order to remain undetected. I don’t want my cover to be blown! I really do like this little artsy party. I belong here, right?
I don’t like that I feel like a fake most days because I’m certain that it prevents me from ever really accepting any accomplishment as authentic and worth celebrating. I felt the same way in academia. I swear I tricked my professors into giving me good grades and those three degrees on my wall, total fluke! And the teaching job I’m about to commence in the fall? Witchcraft! Unfortunately, the excitement that accompanies each new conquest quickly vanishes the second my mind considers and questions my worthiness of them. Did I deserve that opportunity? I’m sure there are so many more qualified artists and educators out there who should be standing on the small platform I currently occupy. Sometimes I feel the urge to jump off and make space for those who lack phoniness and possess real talent. Then again, I like my little space I’ve carved out and I should very much like to stay here.
Do you ever feel like that as well? I don’t think I’m the only one.
It’s a vicious cycle whose frequency has thankfully diminished, replaced by more positive thinking. I’m obsessed with the happiness advantage and addicted to all of the benefits that come with a positive growth mindset. The main advantage being I’m now a little more comfortable accepting good things when they come. The road to happiness is not so hard to find after all, as long as our pursuit for success isn’t rooted in finding happiness attached to said success. Happiness comes before any reward, not the other way around. Crazy concept, I know, but it’s the truth. I’ve placed my faith in positive thinking and haven’t looked back. I know it sounds like I’m contradicting myself as I often question why and how I am standing here right now, but those questions lead to answers that confirm that my existence and my purpose in the world of art and education is no fluke. Every moment in my life, the good, the bad, and the ugly, have placed me here and I wouldn’t trade places with anyone.
I so much want everyone to feel that way as well. I want you to feel like you’re enough the way that you are, that you have purpose even if you feel as though you haven’t found it yet, that your life is worth living to the fullest. This is all coming from a genuine place. Hopefully I don’t sound trite, but seize your day before there are no days left. Get up with the sun and bask in its glory, tell your family and friends you love them, cuddle your cat or dog (or stuffed animal), work hard on your passion projects, don’t sweat the small stuff. I fear too many of us wait for tragedy to enter our circle of life before we reflect and make a change. You don’t need death to remind you that your heart is beating and your lungs are breathing.
Don’t wait for a new month or a new year.
Don’t put it off until tomorrow.
What are you doing today?
Today is what matters.
Being happy in this moment.
Not caught up in the what ifs of the unknown.
When we’re kids we think that nothing can stop us. We are essentially invincible to the perils of life and we carry that proudly on our shoulders. We can run and jump and stay up all night and then play in a basketball tournament with 5 games on a Saturday and still have the strength and energy to run around all day Sunday getting kicked in the shins on a soccer field. Unfortunately, my untouchable cloak has been lost somewhere and I’m trying to adjust to this slow recovery and accident prone reality I’m currently existing in.
I hurt my back painting. It was a slow gradual progression to a herniated disc, but still it was my paint posture that broke this camel's back. It’s hard to explain back pain if you’re never experienced it, so I won’t focus on the pain, but every simple action I took for granted on a daily basis and now no longer will.
Being able to put on anything below the belt like socks, shoes, pants, I just couldn’t do it without help.
Being able to sit.
Being able to stand.
Being able to walk (without holding onto a wall for support).
Being able to quickly move without thoroughly calculating my movements (getting out of bed felt like a chore).
Being able to laugh without crying from actual pain.
Having a shower wasn’t really an option for the first week.
Not being able to make my own food or drink copious amounts of coffee because I didn’t want to have to deal with going to the bathroom.
Having to eat while resting on my stomach.
Not being able to socialize because it involved sitting/standing/general movement.
I could not reach my cat's food to feed her and I couldn’t bend down to get her water dish.
Overall, just very dependent on others.
and I couldn’t paint.
I COULD NOT PAINT because all of my material was on the ground and I couldn’t bend to reach it.
I couldn’t paint because it required me to stand/sit/move.
I couldn’t paint because I’d need to get water and paper towels and paper and a paint palette and then I’d have to open my paints and mix them and put them on paper and then eventually clean my brushes which meant going back to the kitchen and standing there even longer hoping everything would clean themselves.
Suddenly this simple process of setting up and creating felt like torture. I went through these movements without second thought before and now suddenly it felt like a lengthy list of boxes I had to work through and check-off.
Once I accepted this as my reality until I healed, I had to prevent myself from falling into a bit of despair and self-pity. I would view this injury as a positive. I would manipulate it into something good while I rested in bed. But how? How could I hold on to that positive energy?
If I couldn’t paint then I could write, right? If I couldn’t paint, then I could plan out new ideas to work on once I was physically capable. I could read...oh so much reading.
Our bodies have limits, and sometimes our desires to push past them get the best of us. Pushing those limits can be fruitful, but there is also the risk of permanent damage if you keep pushing without properly healing.
What happens when we are physically held back from doing what we love? How do we adjust and not let our positive energy get flushed down into a negative dark tunnel.
I have to wrestle with this reality a few times a year when my body decides it can no longer sustain the wear and tear of everyday life. When I try to keep pushing, I risk irreparable damage, which ultimately puts any chances of a career at risk.
Without our health, it can sometimes feel like we have nothing. Even with a strong support system, our injuries can be isolating and inconsolable at times. Suddenly we are no longer invincible the way we felt as kids.
But do you know what does make me feel invincible?
Creating a world on paper and canvas that is authentically me.
Because as the wise Theodor Seuss Geisel once wrote:
“Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.”
I wouldn’t trade my beaten body for another. I wouldn’t want to be anyone but myself.
And no one can touch that. Invincible once more.
I had a moment a few years ago, an epiphany if you would, where I suddenly came to the realization that I didn’t want to be forgettable anymore. I mean, being forgotten is inevitable for most people in the course of history, but as we live, I imagine we strive to be remembered and not disregarded while there is still air in our lungs.
I think I’ve spent a good deal of my life trying to disappear, to avoid as much human interaction as possible and hide behind books and screens. I didn’t care if people remembered me. It wasn’t a notion that floated into the extremely narrow vision I had for my life, which was basically to hide and if someone found me I’d proceed to run far away and hide again. Obviously this tactic sounds unrealistic.
Running away is only a temporary fix, and then we see our reflection and think dang, you’re still here, you’re still this way, can’t run much further.
Hiding can only do so much until we must tighten our metaphorical belts and do something about it.
The moment came during a teaching placement. I had to go into a high school every Wednesday for a few months as part of my community service learning and unfortunately during this first placement I was bedridden for a handful of the Wednesday’s, and I questioned my desire to teach. If it felt like a chore to get there every Wednesday, how on earth would I survive two months straight? On a day that I made it into the classroom, my associate teacher was shocked to see my face in her office and said, “oh my, I’d forgotten about you! What’s your name again?”
Crushed. Absolutely devastated.
I know she was not being mean. It wasn’t her fault. She was making a remark because it had been a while since I’d seen her. But how could she forget me so soon? Did I really not leave any sort of lasting impression in our first few interactions?
What a realization.
I know this sounds trite, like it isn’t a big deal, but it was a big deal to me. I didn’t like the idea of being forgotten so quickly.
Now, even though I still might be shy or hyper-conscious of what people might be thinking or saying about me after we’ve met (so many lingering insecurities), what I’m most concerned with now is leaving a lasting mark with my paint brushes.
Each stroke is a stamp symbolizing permanence, my permanence. I want the colours to speak for me. I’m driven by this extravagant idea that people will remember my work, not what it looks like necessarily, but what it made them feel. In the end, when time goes by, we often don’t remember what it is exactly that someone said, but what they made us feel? Shame, sadness, anger (happiness, too!), those are the lasting impressions. That is permanent. I hope my paintings can someday sink in the same way words do, leaving their unforgettable mark.
My favourite thing about painting, besides painting (duh!), is that it demands me to be present. I know a lot of artists, myself included, who refer to their work as a practice. More so because of the sense of ritual it creates and less focus is placed on “if I paint today, I will improve, and if I don't then there are people getting better than me”. Perhaps after my years on the basketball court, everything I do on a daily basis is considered practice, only I’m not competing against anyone but myself now because comparing my practice to anyone else's in a pointless exercise. My beautiful ritual of creating arises from the habit of applying layers of acrylic each day and doing it everyday, whenever I can, even if I’m physically incapable. If I’m stuck in bed with an injury, then I’ll draw or colour or take some weird pictures of my surroundings or plot out my dreams, but just knowing that I can create something new each day is essential to me remaining faithful to my practice.
In the past month I've discovered the power of being injured. Injuries are a great way of forcing us to be present (and grateful for our health when we have it). I needed to spin something positive out of my herniated disc because being confined to a limited space and being so dependent on others can take a toll on your psyche. So in a way it has pushed me to be even more present, not just in painting but in my day to day life. When you’re focused on the act of healing, looking to plans that are past the span of a 24 hour period is not essential. I’m in each minute and I can feel my back slowly healing while I chip away at art projects that aren’t too physically demanding.
Being present is hard. There is no denying it. But it’s better than making yourself miserable longing for something so far away. It's a very impractical use of time, right? It’s time to be present in our journey instead of looking to the milestones. We’ll get there eventually, but let’s get through today first and enjoy every minute of it.
Whatever your rituals are, practice being present. Be in the moment 100%, soak up the glory of your journey, be grateful, and don't think ahead too much (at least this is what I like to do!). Stress levels rise the second I have to think too far ahead, so I'm just going to stand here and paint.
What are you going to do to be present today?
P.S. Take care of your backs!
I’ve had this mantra rolling around in my mind for a while now but couldn’t quite determine what it meant to me, or possibly others. Paint Positive. How can I (we) transform negative thinking into something meaningful through art?
It doesn’t mean you have to paint something beautiful or positive, but it suggests having an outlet where you work until you no longer feel all that bubbling negativity (which sometimes feels out of control). How can we maneuver the uncontrollable? Sometimes those negative feelings are hard to steer and manipulate into something productive. That being said, the simple act of dipping a brush in paint and pushing it around on a canvas or piece of paper, layering colours and textures, is so calming that it feels surreal. It transports me momentarily from a place of anxiety and grief to a euphoric destination, and I didn’t even have to leave my room (that's the best part!). I know that working out has the same effect, but sometimes we are just incapable of moving (literally or figuratively), so what then?
It sounds crazy, but then when others inform me that they’ve been inspired to take up painting and feel their own version of euphoria, then my nonsensical painting explorations are infused with more meaning and the paint positive mantra expands. And suddenly I feel less crazy for isolating myself in a room full of paint tubes.
Painting to help more than just yourself, that’s what it’s all about.
When I got the opportunity to paint my first custom piece of artwork, I was nervous. My process for so long had been very personal and I’d never considered someone else’s interpretation. In a way I felt that painting something specific for someone took away from the organic experience of creating that I’d become accustomed to and I feared that it would make me a fraud. A fake artist, trying to please others. That is what I felt in my core. I believed that doing a commission would ruin the purity of expression. It sounds silly because I think there is this perception that everything is made to be consumed in our culture (especially art), but I’d never considered it until people started to reach out and inquire about purchasing.
Maybe in the beginning I was just scared. For too long I was overly insecure about my work (ability) and that held me back from considering selling anything I made. Who would even want them?
Finally, I had to confront this hurdle and climb over it (if only I could jump) because I loved the idea of creating for someone other than myself. The next step was to create something meaningful and true to myself, while simultaneously meeting the needs and desires of my customers. How would I avoid feeling like an art fraud?
Trusting my gut instincts and riding out my chaotic waves of emotion.
I've created a system now that seems to be bulletproof when it comes to painting for someone else.
To get the seed of inspiration going, I now always fall back on feelings.
1. What do you want to feel when you look at your painting?
2. What emotion(s) do you want it to exude?
3. What colours do you want to represent these feelings?
4. What colour(s) do you despise?
5. What quote or adjective(s) do you want the painting to symbolize?
Seemingly simple questions to guide a not so straightforward painting process.
Commission painting is a practice in patience, empathy, and understanding. Every customer is seeking something different, and in that I’ve felt incredible pride knowing that I am trusted in helping them realize this abstract emotion. It is such a gift and nothing feels better than delivering the painting (usually in person) and seeing their reactions. It's like Christmas day in a way. Watching someone open a gift you've put so much effort and thought into.
Abstracts are unpredictable and so I had to find the few ingredients that seemed to have been consistent in my personal artistic expressions to make each work feel authentic rather than contrived.
The formula is reliable and the results, well, I haven’t messed up yet (paint brushes crossed).