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Paint Me Happy

by Roberta McReynolds

The kitchen counter was covered by several small stacks of mail, all sorted by my husband after returning from the mailbox with the usual diverse load of paper: bills, catalogs, flyers, and the occasional old-fashioned letter from a treasured pen pal. The bills are paid dutifully, the junk mail is tossed into the handy trash can at his side. Anything with my name on it forms a pile to his left. Catalogs and general interest items stack up between us, once my husband has looked them over.

It was in that nether region on the counter, where things that aren’t specifically addressed to me but Mike has decided of are no interest to him, that the corner of a brochure stuck out from under several catalogs for music, movies and women’s lingerie. Curious, I reached for it and was drawn in by the pleasing cover design.The brochure was addressed to my husband from a nearby hospital. He is on the mailing list because we attended a seminar, hosted by the hospital, for cancer survivors a few years ago. Mike is an 8-year cancer survivor, but he correctly concluded that the information in the brochure would be more of interest to me, than to himself.

The hospital was sponsoring a series of workshops not only for cancer survivors, but for their caregivers, too. What intrigued me was that these classes were all about dealing with emotions through several various avenues: art, dance, aroma therapy, writing, etc. Traditional medicine deals with making people feel better by treating the disease. This may include surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. But these classes would explore other ways people can learn to help themselves feel good inside. The real hook for me was the affirmation that caregivers also need healing.

I read through the brochure and pondered the tugging I felt in my heart. Next I looked at the calendar hanging on the refrigerator, the tool for attempting to keep our lives organized. Amazingly the dates for each of the classes, spread over the next six months, were all free.

My husband had since retired to his hobby room, so I proceeded with the brochure in hand to ask him what he thought about me making yet another commitment to my schedule. He just grinned at me and nodded. I believe that at times he must make bets with himself on how long it will take me to act on my impulses. Mike knows me better than I know myself.

One quick phone call later and I was signed up for the entire series. I often find myself remorseful within hours, wondering, "What have I gotten myself into now?" Fortunately, the first class was art, and there was no way I was going to back out of that one.

I developed a preconceived idea about what would be expected from the art teacher as I waited for the weeks to pass. I could imagine being asked, "Paint what it felt like when you learned a loved one had cancer." What color is fear? What shape is sorrow? I could paint a large canvas in salty tears, invisible to those who don’t understand.

The class was held at a downtown art gallery. I arrived early and walked around looking at all the beautiful items hanging on the walls. I felt so envious of the creativity and freedom these artists had for expressing themselves. Intimidation was setting in deeper than usual, but it was too late to run.

I have always loved artwork, but never seem able to reproduce what I see in my mind. My own worst critic, nearly everything lands in the trash waiting for the Friday morning garbage truck to haul it away. Anything that survives that end is destined to be tucked away in a closet behind clothes that no longer fit. Art has always been a solitary activity for me. My ego is so fragile that I can’t bear anyone to watch what I’m doing. They’d never understand the process and judge it before it’s finished, I reason. Yet when I stand back and look at the finished piece, it doesn’t look any better than the early stages of creation to me either, and it’s off to the trash can to join banana peels and used tea bags.

So what was I thinking signing up to paint with a group of others? My stomach knotted up and I wondered how I’d ever got so far out of my comfort zone.

The instructor, Chris, had a aurora about her which was both soothing, yet energizing. She pointed out the various materials at four different tables for participants to try. We weren’t treated like students to be taught techniques, but individuals who had experienced much in our lives and had something locked inside just waiting to be released. I could definitely relate to that.

One table had concentrated liquid watercolors, much like ink, which would behave in uncontrollable ways when applied to gesso-covered Masonite boards. Control is always a big issue with me, so I decided to go with a medium that would prevent me from that paralyzing behavior.

Chris quoted Picasso as saying that he could paint like a master when very young, but that it took a lifetime to learn to paint with the joy and abandon of a child. She didn’t even suggest painting what cancer felt or looked like. I stared down at the blank white expanse on the surface of my board with the familiar feel of tension beginning to close in on me. I picked up one of the tiny bottles of paint and read the color on the label: iris blue. An iris it shall be!

I used the eyedropper to place a few droplets of the inky paint into the well of my palette and cautiously dipped a Chinese calligraphy brush into the blue. Courageously I swirled it onto the smooth gesso. The watercolor took on a life of its own and while it followed my general intention, it spread in graceful pools of its own accord. It also began to ‘paint’ a smile across my face.

I began mixing shades of green and some brown tones for the leaves and background. Bright yellow kissed the center of the bloom making my bearded iris complete. I sat back and looked at what had happened. I actually liked what I had painted ... I was even able to say that out loud in front of strangers.

The director for the cancer outreach program came over and asked if painting an iris had any significance. Yes, it was special to me. My parents’ home had iris growing in the backyard and they were very much a part of my memory growing up. It was a strong image of my roots. My voice cracked a bit, as I told Cheryl that both my parents had died from cancer. I fell silent, looking at my painting and all the emotion that had welled up from the image. Anyone else would see just an iris, but those invisible tears painted a deeper vision.

The instructor helped me select a mat board and showed me how to custom cut it for my painting. Her praise and supportive comments made me feel so accomplished. This was not something to be tucked away in my closet. I painted another watercolor without form, just for the joy of watching bright colors flow together. The third and final piece I did was with watercolor paper, Chinese ink and tempera paint. The evening was almost over, so I quickly painted a self-portrait in profile with a few brush strokes in black ink.

I painted a pleased expression on my face with my curly hair sticking out wildly, while holding a paint brush. Pink and aqua tempera paint splattered in abandon from the brush in my portrait, revealing confidence and fun. Behind my head I painted gray fading away off the edge of the paper.

Cheryl suddenly appeared at my side again, "I like that!"

Disbelief caused me to take a second look at the painting, thinking she was certainly no judge of art. I felt self-conscious, but shared what had been going through my mind. I saw myself emerging from a gray fog, representing the locked up things within myself which prevented freedom of expression. Before me was color and joy.

I shared with Cheryl how I had helped my father care for my mother for many years with her cancer. A short time after her death, my father was also diagnosed with cancer. Before having a chance to cope with the loss of my mother, I was a caregiver again. My father lost his life 15 months after my mother. I spent the following year settling my parents’ estate, going through possessions and selling the house they built, brick by brick. My husband dug up some of their iris for me to plant in my own garden.

Just when I felt I was about pull my life together, my husband was diagnosed with cancer and my world went spinning out of control. Yes, I said he’s an eight-year survivor and miracles do happen.

All that takes its toll, however. Years of being a caregiver can cause a person to lose oneself in the midst of concern for others. Identity blurs as you take on roles you didn’t expect or imagine. You trade off being an artist for nursing duties. You run a taxi service instead of writing the Great American Novel. Of course if I had it to do all over again, I wouldn’t have done things any differently. Now I was discovering hope to find the ‘lost me’.

The workshop for the art classes was spread over three nights and I attended each one. Each piece I created astounded me with the symbolism which emerged. It was truly a healing experience. I also made a pilgrimage to the art supply store so I could continue the process and encourage that buried creativity to blossom.

Next month’s workshop will focus on healing through writing. I’m so excited: I’ve always dreamed of being a writer.

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