Entries Tagged as 'trees'

Don’t use pink; skies aren’t green

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Dont use pink

In order to re-engage with this still-unfinished painting, I had to break two of my own rules: Don’t use pink, and skies aren’t green.

The pink rule came from messages I received in childhood, messages about femininity, the frivolity of bright colors, and not drawing needless attention to myself through embellished appearance. I questioned this rule as I felt compelled to make pink leaves. Perhaps the rule has been limiting me, not just on the canvas but in other arenas of my life. Pink is putting it out there, without apology or self-censorship. Pink is flamboyant, worldly, exuberant, even childlike. I was taught that children should be quiet, obedient, seen and not heard. Seen, that is, but not in bright colors–not in pink. As the pink leaves came in, I realized I had ideas, not just about pink but (sorry here, if you love pink) about the kinds of people who wear pink, use pink, like pink. I had to come up against these rules and judgments just to paint pink leaves, pink leaves that won’t hurt anybody or otherwise cause damage or pain. Innocent pink leaves. And you know what? I love the pink leaves, possibly more than any leaves I’ve painted. Go figure.

The other rule, skies aren’t green, came from, well, never seeing a green sky before. The actual background color is a sea-green, which depending on the light, tends towards blue, green, or gray. In Tennessee, the green trees filled the skies in domes of luminescence. “Skies aren’t green” didn’t allow me to express the feeling of green skies. When I mustered the courage to break this rule, I was glad I did.

After working on this painting for much longer than usual, I’ve begun to think that commitment to a practice may be another kind of freedom.

Loss and Life

Monday, August 18, 2014

Loss and Life

Yesterday I took a long, solitary hike to a waterfall, where I saw, among other brilliant trees, this towering specimen. The rugged beauty of this bare old-growth pine silhouetted in grayish light moved me to a silent stupor.

This time last year, I painted a similar tree from memory after hiking in the Appalachian mountains and returning home to heartbreak. The painting was about the prickly quality of loss, that utterly naked yet defensive state where we want to draw inward and lash out, where we want run away and give up, yet by some sardonic miracle, we’re still standing, stripped to bone, left to begin again.

As a person and a therapist, I find the starkness of nature reassuring. Even dead trees contain myriad life; the barest branches hold the birds.

Why I Paint Trees

Monday, July 28, 2014

Why I Paint The Trees

Yesterday, a colleague asked me why I paint trees. It’s a question I’ve rarely answered because it’s a long answer, and I never know how interested someone really is. So here it is, if you’re interested, as I know it to be: Why I paint the trees.

It has, like most true stories do, more than one beginning.

Years before I started painting, I was sitting on a surgeon’s examination table awaiting lab results. He’d operated on me to remove pre-cancer when I was eighteen. There was a chance it would come back. This was my first confrontation with my mortality, and I was terrified.

I scanned the windowless walls for images to comfort me–a forest, perhaps, or a tree losing its leaves–something natural to remind me that all living things are in transition, that I was not alone. But I found nothing of the sort–no paintings, no posters, no plants, no art, no color.  It was the first time I distinctly remember missing trees–the first time I needed them and they weren’t there.

The incident stuck with me as I went to other appointments, routine and non-routine check-ups in the years that followed. Very few medical offices seemed to take an interest in art, and what decorum was there–a dusty fake plant, an amateur sea-side painting rescued from a deceased grandmother’s attic, a Wal-Mart poster in a shiny plastic frame–these struck me as vapid as the elevator music playing in the background. Why was this, I wondered? What other places did people go frightened and alone, facing the great unknown horizons of their lives, without access to natural light, windows, breathing plants, and other helpful reminders of the natural world? What other places were people vulnerable and waiting without anything close by to remind them of the larger whole?

I thought of prisons and hospitals, of windowless offices and apartment buildings and cells where people lived without access to nature or without art in their lives. I thought of the art I’d grown up with–the elaborate icons along the front of the Coptic Orthodox church of my youth–how many hours I’d escaped into them while the service droned on in a foreign tongue and the incense and fasting made me nauseous. I thought of the time my parents bought a painting at an art festival and arranged to send the artist 50 dollars a month until we paid it off. We were poor but to my parents, that painting was survival; they needed it.

All this made me think about art as necessity rather than as luxury.  I thought of the museum exhibits I’d seen where ancient cultures adorned their everyday objects with extraordinary beauty, using whatever was available–shells, stones, feathers, gems, clay. They didn’t have to make these items so ornate–after all, they were “just” utensils, water vessels, clothes, shoes, blankets–but they did. To me, this pointed to a way of living in which the everyday was sacred, was worth noticing and imbuing with intention, craftsmanship, wonder, and love. Perhaps you, too, know the feeling, the way morning coffee or tea tastes better from a handmade mug.

That was the first beginning with the trees.

Then, early in graduate school, I bought my first original painting for 400 dollars. It was an oil painting by a self-taught Gainesville artist, a passionate and informal impression of purple pines in late peach light. I hung the piece over my couch and spent countless hours staring into it, imagining I was walking through the pines towards the sunset behind them. It was an extravagant purchase; I’d used my student loan money to buy it, and it cost me as much as a month’s rent. But I needed the painting, needed the window it opened over my couch, and ultimately needed the new horizon it opened in my life.  That was the second beginning, but I still hadn’t started painting.

The third beginning had to do with a now-defunct place called the Gestalt Center of Gainesville, Inc. I was in training there for five years, in addition to the training I received in my graduate program. We had a joke around the Gestalt Center that school was the place you went to get licensed, but the Gestalt Center was where you learned to do therapy.  For me, that was the truth.

The Gestalt Center was run by my beloved mentor, the late Dr. Pat Korb, who was a contemporary of Fritz Perls. She was old when I met her, and very wise. On the chalk board at the Gestalt Center, the “rules” were written: 1) Show up. 2) Slow down. 3) When you speak, speak your truth. 4) Put your attention in the process, not the outcome.

I did a lot of my own personal work in those gestalt groups, and got to watch a masterful therapist work with many, many group members over the years. The mascot or symbol of the Center was a hand-drawn tree, with each of the roots symbolizing the theories and ways of being that support gestalt therapy, the trunk as the person-in-relation, and the branches as the skills and techniques available to a gestalt-oriented therapist.  The tree also represented a very important concept in gestalt therapy–that of holism, process, and the continual interaction between a living organism and its environment.  This was a different way of looking at myself and the life around me than the perfectionistic lens I’d been using. For me, trees came to represent a sort of vital acceptance–both of myself and of life as a process that could perhaps be trusted.

I started looking at the trees more intently, noticing their similarities and differences, learning their names. I also saw their scars, the places they’d been pruned or dropped branches in a storm. Places where they’d gotten a disease or suffered a bug infestation. Even the same kinds of trees were so different from each other. Their shape expressed something about their innate forms, but also their interactions with the environment.  I found in this metaphor permission to begin to accept myself. I could find no perfect tree, and no perfect me.  But I loved the trees for their differences, for their scars, for their ability to grow anyway, even if they weren’t quite getting the optimal resources. I began to love myself in this way, too.

When I felt the urge to paint, it was during one of these weekend gestalt groups. I actually got up in the middle of the group, left, and went to the art store right then. All these beginnings had gathered inside me enough to know and trust the urge. I’d wanted to paint for a while, and now it was time. I went home from the art store with my supplies and immediately started painting, trying to follow the same “rules” of process I’d learned at the gestalt center.  I wanted to just show up and paint my truth, and focus on the process rather than the result.  I wanted to allow whatever was inside me to emerge.

And then the trees just came.  They came as my first subjects, and though I painted (and still paint) other things, the trees keep coming. And they mean all these things to me, have all these beginnings, these possibilities for growth, for solace, for acceptance, for process.  I make my paintings thinking of those windowless rooms of my past, and those places in all our lives where we feel lost, frightened, and lose sight of how our story connects to a larger whole. I try to make the paintings I would have wanted to see in that surgeon’s room at 18, and the ones I still want to see today, when I’m waiting, when I’m worried, when I’m hurting, when I feel alone.  I want to bring the trees, and all they mean, inside, so I can be reminded, along with anyone else who needs the reminder, to show up, slow down, share our truth, and put our attention on the process of living.

Minutia

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Minutia

Pictured above is a small area of a much larger painting I hope to finish today. There’s a lot to do–all the branches and trunks need attention, need to be lightened and darkened, need texture and form. If you look closely, you can see places the branches don’t quite align as they pass under others, and black outlines that need slight thinning. Before I can sign it and move on to the next, I must address all areas of irritation.

Today is long work in the trenches, the concentrated minutia that will ultimately make the work shine. It’s also the tiresome work, because the composition is done, and part of me is already finished, too, impatient for the next yet-unknown arrival. I’ve worked on this painting for over three months, losing steam in the final character-building stage. But it’s also in the minutia that I learn commitment, learn to carry a labor of love all the way through.

While I prefer silence early in the painting process, during the minutia phase, I’ll listen to music and podcasts. Time in the trenches may be repetitive, but music and podcasts remind me that others are down there too.

Their signals help me keep at it.

When I Get Stuck (part 2)

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

When I Get Stuck 2

This is the painting that came out after I applied the “just for me” treatment. I loved it. Then I sold it. So I guess it wasn’t just for me after all. But I did get to keep what the painting taught me; those lessons weren’t just for me, either, but they were–and are–certainly mine to use.

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