Over 10 years I’ve created 55 paintings in the Without a Net series, and last month I finally had the images made into a deck of cards. It was a marvelous and overwhelming moment to hold all that work in my hands for the first time. I had ideas for the deck, but the intentions weren’t well articulated or developed. After having several prototype decks printed, my enthusiastic focus group and I are now experimenting with uses for the cards. As I come closer to offering the cards to the public, I’ll share our progress and insights.
Becoming more familiar with and even welcoming our shadow side is not a new concept. Rum’s poem from 800 years ago illuminates the idea beautifully.
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
— Jellaludin Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks
I’ve always looked up to dead people. As a lifelong fan of history I’ve felt small and insignificant compared to the pantheon of superstars from all walks of life, whose names and stories are remembered through the ages. I’ve counted as my heroes the ones who made the biggest impact on humanity and our planet. There was a bit of torment in my fanhood. I painted this piece when I kept coming up against the unpleasant reminder that, as enormous as these giants of yesteryear were, they are now gone, and I, little old infinitesimal me, am still here. I have the very human longing to make my mark, express myself, offer my voice, and venture forth into making things happen. But I let a meddlesome comparison—me vs. the greatest minds and hearts that ever lived—make me feel like a peon. Its effect left me expecting less of myself, and daunted by the daring task of getting out in the arena.
I chose to paint my historical friends as colorless plaster busts, a certified gesture commending their monumental contributions, but implying that they bought the farm long ago. To represent myself, I wanted a small animal, but a brightly colored one to contrast the blanched figures that dominate the piece. I attended a bird banding a few years ago, where we caught migrating birds for tagging. Holding a Painted Bunting is like tending a little rainbow. They are indescribably bright, and, like most songbirds, light and delicate. I love it when an animal with which I’ve had a close encounter becomes appropriate for my work. The wallpaper is old fashioned, another nod to history.
Oil on board 2013 16″ x 20″
Someone once told me that my past was my greatest asset. I took it as a prompt to value my experiences in their ability to give clues on the path of transformation. That said, I hated the saying for a long time. There were plenty of experiences I avoided revisiting, and many things about my past that seemed unfair or too difficult to ever expect to find meaning within. Over time, and with the help of this painting series exploration, I have found my past to be an exceptional—although tough and scrupulous—teacher. The pains of looking back and looking inward were sometimes excruciating, so I painted this piece as an homage to faith—a reminder that I would be OK, no matter what I uncovered in this examination.
My animals are inspired by the archetypes of various religions and cultures, and this one is no exception. I chose the sheep, one of the world’s most obvious symbols of faith, as expressed in Christianity. (For those unfamiliar with this symbolism, Jesus is the Good Shepherd who watches over his flock.) I adorned my sheep-girl in a dress I would have loved when I was a kid. The luxury of blue velvet and the high collar give it a Sunday-going-to-meeting feeling. I drew inspiration for the background from some of the morning walks I take on local public paths near my home. Along the trails sunlight pours through trees to cast shadows on green lawns, which can’t help but start my day with a welcoming greeting. Corny, but heavenly.
In my sheep’s hand is a bloody Band-aid, an emblem of childhood wounds, which she holds almost timidly. This small thing near the bottom of the painting, away from the usual focal center of attention mirrored my trepidation at going forward with this painting/writing project, knowing that my shadow side, my past, my secrets, my mistakes, my doubts, and my blindness would be under the microscope.
This piece embodies an offering. I’m offering myself—the good, bad, and whatever— to my own scrutiny, to whoever wanted to look or listen, to God, to nobody. I didn’t feel proud or brave, just willing.
Sometimes life is so confusing that I assume I’m not seeing reality clearly. I’ve had times when I would label myself as crazy, and I’d feel the shame that accompanies such a classification.
I chose a chimpanzee for my painting because they act zany. I dressed him in a straightjacket because that’s where crazy people can end up. A straightjacket is also a metaphor for constraint. I used to feel incarcerated by the maze of thoughts and feelings that converged when situations and people were beyond what I thought I could handle.
I imagined the cast of a circus would sum up the whole idea of crazy with its outlandishly costumed characters and their variety of exaggerated body sizes. What a joy it was portray the clowns and weirdos! I kept the background a monochrome blue to relegate their presence to a dreamlike haze of sameness. They are presumably an influence on the monkey’s craziness, but he stands out on his own as being the main-event nut. (Excuse my use of these politically incorrect words for mental instability. I’m not meaning to be dismissive of real mental illness. I’m using offhand lingo to vaguely sum up a felt state.)
Join Dori for her next Creativity and Awareness Workshop at Embody Practice Center, Birmingham, AL. Held Saturday, July 28, 2018, this day of gentle introspection and creative exercises in various media will be the best way to take a break from the heat. Embody is a yoga center, and will offer opportunities for diverse activities to broaden our creative repertoire. Click here to sign up. Click here for more info. Click here and nothing will happen. Or will it?
My first drawing was of a man. His body was a big, round, wobbly circle and his limbs stuck out like the rays of the sun in all directions, with crooked circles for hands. He was smiling. I still have that drawing, and ever since then I have known I wanted to be an artist. I still have a faded sheet of paper with a list of questions I answered in a first grade quiz, one of them being, What do you want to be when you grow up? I wrote Artist. Fast forwarding many decades finds me still loving making art, as well as teaching it, selling it, and singing the praises of it. I have led a life of non-stop creativity, so I have plenty to say about it. A painting about it seemed impossible, but I gave it a shot.
I looked up ideas online for an animal that might represent creativity. When the spider repeatedly came up as a possibility, I was at first taken aback. Creativity is joyful and often associated with beauty. Spiders are mostly feared and squish-worthy in our culture. But immediately on the heels of my cultural prejudice was the obvious, unassailable, awe-inspiring, perfect fact that spiders make gorgeous art all the time. I was easily converted to a spider-lover. Out of all the fascinating types to chose from, I chose the jumping spider simply because it caught my eye. Ironically, the jumping spider makes no web, but does make a cozy little tent to hide in at night. Because my paintings veer far from reality on a regular basis, I saw no problem in setting my new friend on a web.
I like to think I’m an accepting person who treats people without prejudice. But this painting came about when I caught myself being cynical and judgmental in spite of myself. Even as I admitted that I was being judgmental, a thought-string of excuses trailed close behind, hoping to erase the idea of examining my mean habit too closely. Everybody does it, the excuses said. It’s normal, it’s human nature. I went forward with the painting anyway, because whether everyone does it or not, it was becoming uncomfortable for me.
I started to become aware of how I sometimes pretend it’s fine to be annoyed with others. Not only did I sometimes feel disgruntled thoughts about people, I often entertained others with explanations about my observations and opinions. I can make an art out of relaying clever stories about people who annoy me, complete with funny imitations and a didactic punch line about the way “good” people should do things. This encourages listeners to add their own story about a similar experience so I can feel validated in my mudslinging. In the South we often use the phrase “bless her heart” (or his) which follows a badmouthing rant, implying that we mean no harm, and we wish the person well. Most people giggle after they say it, knowing that it really means “you can let me off the hook for saying these things, but that person really is a jerk.” I usually follow my badmouthing with a humorous chastisement of myself for being so judgmental, a feeble attempt to excuse my behavior.
A few years back, with my recent status of Empty Nester, I had the strange and wonderful experience of having (what seemed like) unlimited time, energy, and space at my disposal. Like other newly free moms with whom I spoke, I decided the best word to describe it at the time was Weird. I didn’t hate it but I didn’t love it either. I knew intellectually that there would be an adjustment period, but my equilibrium took it more seriously. I felt shock, ecstasy, and confusion all at once, mixed with an inability to sit still and a constant feeling that there was something that needed to be done when there really wasn’t anything that needed to be done.
I didn’t want to fill the void with the first impulses to come along. I wanted to leave the time and space empty for a bit, hoping that a new direction would radiantly unfold. I had a sense that just about anything could be next for me, that a whole new world was up for grabs, and I wanted to be as open as possible about which new ideas and prospects would take hold in my life. This painting asked to come to life, a representation of all the possibilities at my feet.
When I was a girl I wanted to be a princess. I had stacks of coloring books, and I would only color the pages that depicted lovely ladies in ornate gowns. I drew pretty women all day long, including during class at school. I wanted to go as a princess every Halloween, and would have preferred we lived in a time where evening gowns were a regular part of our wardrobes. My definition of good fine art was the frilliest Rococo paintings with delicate ladies on swings reaching their pointy toes in the air to reveal a bit of their ample petticoats. At the time I lived in a small mountain town where almost everyone wore jeans and t-shirt every day.
This painting was a throwback to my days of being enthralled with princesses. After years of drawing and coloring them, I felt I owed it to myself to paint one. And then I gave the princess the head of a tiger cub. Even though I adored fanciful girl stuff, I was also an outdoorsy athlete, and a brain. In the time I grew up I would have never made a good, well-bred princess for real. The tiger is roaring (or maybe meowing, at that age) with a manner unfitting for her apparent station. In the background are power lines, an indicator that her indoor set-up might not be lodged on the grounds of a grand palace. She looks uncomfortable and off-balance in her chair. She tries hard to play the princess part, but she can’t escape the fact that she’s based in reality. The shadow she casts is stiff and pointy, not in keeping with her flowing surroundings.
This painting shows, among other things, the contrast in my life of having been encouraged to express my old-fashioned womanliness in a time when Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman Hear Me Roar” was playing in the background. On a deeper level the painting offered me reflection on how my characteristics can contradict each other and befuddle me, especially until I learn to free myself from over-identifying with them.