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September 2013

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Painting Through Pain...reprinted from Watercolor Magic

So, by request, I found this in my WC Magic files...this is the original version, not how it was edited to appear in the magazine, but I think it was not much changed.  I added a couple of the pieces of art that appeared in the article...

Of course the "best friend" I refer to in the article is now my husband...life really IS good.

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Painting Through the Pain

    Painting isn’t always fun and it isn’t always convenient.  It isn’t even always pretty.  But sometimes making art is just what we need, even in the most extreme circumstances.  As artists–and as human beings–we have a need to express our feelings, our thoughts, our experiences, the things we care about.  Even when they are painful.

    Not only is this a way to communicate with others at an almost instinctive layer–the visual does speak very loudly, even when we cannot find the words–painting through our pain is a way to get outside of it.  It gives us a bit of distance, an new perspective.  It allows us to see it more clearly, to externalize it rather than internalize it. 

    Internalizing pain, holding it in, can result in a squirrel-cage cycle of depression or despair.  When we get it outside of ourselves and onto paper or canvas, we can find that it may indeed be our pain, but that our pain is not us  It’s not who we truly are, no matter what its cause.    

     Whether this is actual physical pain or the result of something going on in our personal lives or in the world, transforming it into art lets us begin to find a creative solution, either for the problem at hand or for our feelings about it.  We feel a bit more in control of our lives–and our emotions–again.  We feel as though we are doing something, rather than being trapped in something we can’t change.  And we are.  Transformation.

    Even if we don’t choose to directly depict the subject of our pain, just painting at all–being creative, doing what we truly need to do, no matter what–allows us to hang onto a shred of normalcy, a degree of control.  Again, it reminds us who we are–we are creative beings, we are not our pain.

    There are times we don’t even realize fully what it is we’re feeling until we acknowledge it by painting it.  It’s almost as if we are doing an illustration for ourselves.  And once we see the demon we’re facing, out there instead of lying buried within–whether it’s anger, fear, depression, anxiety, resentment, pain, helplessness–we can begin to deal with it.  We may even have the beginnings of a solution, now visible, that we didn’t even realize we had.  Let go and let the images flow out onto your paper, and you may surprise yourself!

    Remember “Grandma” Elizabeth Layton, who began drawing herself at age 68, to deal with depression.  It not only helped her acknowledge and overcome her emotional problems, but making art became one of the loves of her life.  Her work was lively, affecting, and sometimes humorous–she is an inspiration to many.

    I know people who have chronicled the death of a loved one, or dealt with an illness of their own through their paintings and drawings, artists who have explored these dark reaches and brought some light to them.  And in my own life I’ve found this to be a wonderful exercise in realizing that the pain is not us.  When I wrecked my knee a few years ago, chronicling the progress or the damage was not only good practice as an artist, it allowed me to keep my sense of humor–through the pain.




    Painting, making art, can distract us from what is causing us pain, as well.  There have been many times when I forced myself to pack my gear and go out to paint in nature, when I was tense or worried or angry or hurting, and discovered, once I entered the act of painting itself, that I had become a different person.  Or rather, who I really am–ironically, I nearly always recognize that fact with surprise, and wonder why I allow myself to forget...    

    There are times when our art can be simply cathartic!  I was very angry with my husband one morning before work, when he lost his temper with one of our cats.  After he left, I drew a caricature of him, lashing out at this tiny animal, and it was in fact so funny that I laughed out loud!  Defused my own anger, that one did!

    The last year my husband was alive, he was very ill, and we both knew it.  I was also under contract to write and illustrate the Sierra Club Guide to Painting in Nature, and I wondered how on earth I would be able to concentrate, how I’d manage to paint.  In fact, the times I was able to escape and just spend time in the healing beauty of nature, I was strengthened beyond measure by the act of creating.  Even more precious in my memory are those times he felt well enough to accompany me–he’d sit at an old picnic table, reading or just resting, while I painted.  We’d talk, a bit, or just be quiet and comfortable together while I worked.  We forgot all about illness or hospitals or the future, and just rejoiced in the sweet, sweet now.  Those are still some of my most meaningful paintings.  Needless to say, the ones done while he was with me that year will not be for sale.




I remember sitting with Harris at a picnic table in the woods while I painted this one...

    It IS hard to make yourself start, when you’re dealing with emotions, even if they’re unacknowledged ones.  Often, we just want to play the ostrich and pretend nothing’s wrong, or be a Pollyanna.  Sometimes the very last thing we feel like doing is being creative!  When we’re depressed it is almost impossible to make ourselves move, let alone be creative.  We can’t imagine that we could paint, in that condition!

    But sometimes you just have to do it–just begin.  At first you’ll feel that you’re only going through the motions and there’s no way in the world you can do anything worthwhile.  Well, you may not paint something worthy to hang in the Louvres, but there are many types of worthwhile.  The act of doing is itself worthwhile–it’s action.  You’re breaking out of the squirrel-cage you may have felt trapped in.  That is the power of creativity.





    Like many of us, I was deeply affected by the events of 9/11/2001.  Normally a non-television watcher, I was glued to the set for three days, till I literally forced myself to turn it off.  The empty skies were ominous; fear was palpable.  My best friend worked very near the Washington, D.C. attack site, and I was terrified for him. The wife of one of my best friends was only a block from the Twin Towers when the planes plowed into the buildings; she barely escaped.  Many, many did not.  The sense of security we’d enjoyed for a halcyon time was shattered–for me, and for the country.

    In the intervening years, the event has taken on the mantle of political overtones, disturbing ones.  It was, and is, something that is not going to go away easily (nor should it), and I found that I had to do something with my profoundly affected emotions.  Facing that need was difficult, in itself.  The painting above was wrenching to do; I cried often.  It is highly symbolic, for me, and I wondered it if would have any significance for anyone else, but I knew that I needed to do it.

    To my surprise, it has made at least three strong men cry.

    And to my surprise as well, finally making myself paint it allowed the cloud I was under to lift.  After more than two years after the actual event.  It was outside of me, at last, and I could move beyond it.

Comments

Thank you for that!

*prints*

*hugs*
You're very welcome, Natalie!
*finishes reading*

That is beautiful Kate. It brought dampness to my eyes...

*hugs* again.
Awwww...now, sweetie, make your wonderful art. It WILL help.

(Anonymous)

I'm goingto print this out and post it in my studio.
Thank you, Casey! It has really helped me deal with life...whether I'm focusing on something beautiful that is NOT the stressful thing facing me, or simply drawing what stresses me. Last year when I had my surgery, I continued to draw the CAT scan machine, and in the pre-surgery waiting room. I drew the day after, too, and it looked like a blind contour drawing, but wasn't!*G*

It helped me take my mind off the pain, though..
Lovely, and inspiring!
Thanks, girl! I think I've re-posted it here before, just couldn't find it...

(Anonymous)

Thanks again

Thanks for dropping the pebble into the pond - one more time. ~ Laure

Re: Thanks again

If I'd pay attention to my tags, I could have just referenced the LAST time I posted this, but I'm not sure I included the art, so just as well...
Kate, you never cease to amaze me with your incredible talent. That painting inspired by September 11 is beyond my ability to describe. And your writing, too, is superlative.
What a person you are.
Thank you...it really DID help me get past the depression and anxiety, though researching it was ghastly. I burst into tears in the library...I think I really needed to paint that one. Actually, it was precipitated by an online class conceived by moderngypsy, here on LJ.
And look at YOU, girl, you got a Live Journal account! (I wasn't sure it was you because I occasionally hear from a lovely person called Laure, too...but checked user info after answering and there you are!)
I had set this aside a few days ago, so I could read it when I had time to pay attention. I just happened to come across it again today; and it's really well timed. Thank you!
More synchronicity! I love it when the Universe smiles...

(Anonymous)

Thank you!

Thank you for this. Just a wonderful article, Kate!

I don't think I could manage without my sketching and painting. It's a comfort and a necessity (amateurish as it is), that is for sure.

Re: Thank you!

I'm glad you enjoyed it! And yes, sometimes when I'm hurting most, the sketches look pretty bad, but they still HELP. I think it's the act itself that's therapeutic...

Well put...

This is a wonderful piece of writing- and so true :) Thank you for sharing it again!

Re: Well put...

You're welcome--I'm glad you enjoyed it again!

(Anonymous)

This was very helpful to me

Hi Kate,
I was directed to this posting by Vicky Williamson of the EDM group. I am so glad she sent me the link. Since I lost my husband on 3/27/09, I had been on auto-pilot, but have recently gotten back to drawing and painting. Your article is spot on. Thank you for this insightful and helpful article.
Warm regards,
Trish (Yahoo ID pepsikay)

Re: This was very helpful to me

Hi Trish...I am SO glad to have been able to help, even a little bit. I remember when you lost your husband, and my heart went out to you. I've thought of you since, and wondered how you were...and I'm so glad that art DOES help...