Faintly but undeniable, the “Chiiing,” called me quickly to attention. My heart sort of danced. I felt anxious yet sort of giddy. Someone had bought a painting. That someone thought I was an artist. After decades of painting, I still find myself a little shocked that other people value what I do. I wonder if I should claim the title “artist” at all. So I keep a reminder of who I am hanging on my wall.
“Blue Ribbon Girl,” a painting on an old piece of wood, resides in my den. She’s a girl with bobbed brown bangs and sweet chubby cheeks. She’s surrounded by every color on earth, swaddled in a long white gown. In the hem and up the border, there’s a ribbon of blue, the shape of a slender grownup woman.
She draws attention from other people besides myself, too. Visitors to my home make their way to the frame and I watch them with as much interest as they watch her. Regularly they ask for her story and I am always eager to tell of the girl that’s beckoned them in, the girl lost and later found, the girl hurt by so much, and the woman who decided to paint again—me in my fifties.
When The Painting Stopped
Forty-plus years ago, I was a college girl who’d begun to starve herself. I packed up my things and headed back home resigned to accept that I never belonged in university. I had lost my scholarship and believed it shouldn’t have been mine in the first place and I’d lost my innocence to a jock who decided I should be his and then hovered behind me in Chemistry. Buried in the rubble I left behind as I hurried away was the watercolor I painted on thick paper; pink, blue, and faded greens formed a tapestry. The piece was awarded a blue ribbon in the Freshman exhibit, I remember it resembling a sanctuary window.
I thought I had left behind the act of painting with the blue ribbon painting itself. The college girl who feared she lost it all because of a keg party and a too-tight sweater wouldn’t believe that one day she’d have a studio where an easel cradled a thickly layered painting. Thick, because of rethinking color, shape, and the execution of what I hope it will say. In the end, I painted the shapes of shadowed onlookers in one corner and the shape of a woman in a contemplative private prayer much larger.
Picking Up My Pencils
My return to painting begins with a blue Bible, a gift. The intention of the giver was that the Bible was meant for filling in the margins with illustrations. I was reluctant, raised not to treat the Good Book as anything less than royal. Slowly, I began to use pencil and color in my visual translation of verses. Esther, surrounded by women vying for position, Hagar shielded by trees with her hair messy, the woman with the unceasing flow standing in a crimson puddle, downcast. I found comfort in finding my failure and hurt in their detours. The women stand steady and confident in the pages of my Bible.
Slowly, I began to feel comforted not corrected. I began to believe a life without shame was possible. I moved the women in my margins to canvas and others began to notice. Comforted by painting, I decided to share this comfort in the settled and safe postures of the women I painted.
Comfort became confidence. From confidence came increasing bravery. My art became bolder, the evidence of redemption in the stroke of my brush. I began to display and sell my pieces, to have conversations about my art, and to attend gallery openings I once felt too poor and unskilled to stop by. A three-word song settled into my mouth, an affirmation. “You are brave.”
The Gift of Bravery
A friend and I stood together in my den on Sunday. He’d commissioned two paintings to complement one from years ago. His request, following the death of his mother, was for two pieces to represent the darkness-to-light transition.
I painted sun-dappled pines and a landscape with sway and slope using Payne’s Grey with Limelight Green. I loved it. I loved the thought of moving from a shadowy sorrow to delight. The adding to and taking away of color was a comfort, becoming a character in my friend’s brave story of deciding to live fully was satisfying. The paintings leaned against a chair. My friend gazed above the mantel instead. The room was quiet. I noticed his stare. I explained the painting, the one I called “Mercy Mornings.” The colors are indigo and surround a woman blushing in a gown. In the background fading, a strong-shouldered figure is walking away. Neither the resemblance to my daughter, a newlywed then, nor my son, leaving home for military school was intentional. “Mercy Mornings” is a surprise sister to “Blue Ribbon Girl,” both symbolic unintentionally. Neither piece was designed to help heal until they did.
But if their healing elements are a surprise the fact that God brushed my story into these two paintings isn’t. The healing keeps coming and I keep finding evidence that the affirmation of bravery is doing its job.
I said yes to an invitation to be photographed for an exhibit. The photographer would place my photo alongside other artists' portraits. And not even once did I make up scary stories about the stranger behind the camera. The portrait he selected is gritty. The shadows are heavy, and the shading is intentional. I am positioned with my profile facing the light. Pensive and steady. I’d chosen a necklace of beads with an oyster shell I’d painted and attached, wired in the center. Gilded in gold and cobalt blue in the hollow place, edged with earthy green and subtle pink, a dot of white for the pearl cradled in a crevice, a symbol of grace, of redemption. I felt brave when I accepted the images that conveyed my spirit and celebrated this much more than my angst over my wrinkles.
It’s bravery that led to my painting and keeping “Blue Ribbon Girl” and placing her brazenly in my own living room to draw the eye and questions of her beholders. It’s bravery that has led to pure joy in the sharing of her story. This little girl grew up into a strong woman who knows that stopping painting would be dishonorable to that child. Dishonorable to my Father who gave me the gift and didn’t forget it is a part of me, but who instead kept me safe for it and waited until the time was right to see it flourish again.
Cover image by Buse Doga Ay.