I have known my good friend Louise for almost twenty years now. She has been an inspiration to me and an example of how to integrate artistic pursuits into a full time job at home. Through the years she’s always been adept at staying creative in the middle of the sometimes mundane, at times hectic routines of raising a family.
She is an artist who paints mostly landscapes and portraits in pastels and oils. When I go to her house I can see what her mind is working on at any given time. Scenes from coastal Maine are hung in the dining room, multiple charcoal sketch after sketch of the exact same landscape. Or a young girl’s face is taped on another wall, replicated four or five times side-by-side for comparison.
It is so evident that she is meticulously studying something over and over, scrutinizing some detail or trying to capture a fleeting moment.
I’ve heard it said that we only have one story to tell in our lives, and we tell it over and over again. You can literally see that with artists although I’m not so sure about writers.
Years ago when our children were little I used to model for Louise once a week. After dropping the kids off at school she would come to the house and she’d set up her easel and we’d have tea.
We had things in common, we were both stay at home moms who volunteered at our kids school. So much of our conversations centered around the middle school, how it was an exciting place, a rich environment for the kids to grow.
The main thing I loved was the way the teachers encouraged the students to be critical thinkers, to question and to find their own unique problem solving strategies. They wanted our kids to bring their own ideas to contribute something to the wider world.
For me, as I watched them engaging in all of this, I sometimes wondered about those questions for myself. What was I supposed to be doing outside of my kitchen? Besides mothering, what unique talent did I possess?
Anyone could see that Louise had talent. And when I watched her paint, I was a tiny bit jealous that she had such a gift. I thought about how satisfying it must be to have made something so beautiful all your own to show for yourself at the end of the day.
Louise once told me that she never painted anything that was ugly because she only wanted to add beauty to the universe, never anything but beauty. And I’ve thought about that over the years and come to see that I feel the same way.
The past several years I’ve spent time wandering through art museums, perusing classical and modern paintings and sculptures. A lot of it I couldn’t relate to, some of the ugly and violent pieces, the weird and abstract ones and some that were just plain boring. But I could always appreciate each artist’s attempt to tell a story.
But how do we tell our story? And why do we make the choice to tell it in a beautiful rather than an ugly way? I never thought about it but in the end I believe that we do make a choice.
These days I am thinking about my writing – why it matters, what part it plays in my life. And I’ve come to the conclusion that it simply makes me happy. I’m a happier person when I write. And like Louise I want to put something beautiful out there.
So what is my one story?
Looking at that portrait of me from the past, I think back to those years when I was home with the kids. It was a pretty boring, mundane story. It sure didn’t feel new. Raising children was hard. There were days that I just wanted to be over. Days that I was so completely uninspired and I felt like the sense of my identity was blurred inside of everyone else’s needs – where exactly was I in the picture?
But then I remember those weekly mornings with Louise and how she gave me a glimpse into how to create something in your own time and in your own small corner. It brings me peace to think of it.
It was like she painted me into my own role like the great masters used to do with the 16th century aristocrats who posed with their lavish possessions in order to display their status. In a way she placed me securely into my own surroundings. She articulated the scratched pine floorboards, the peeling kitchen door letting in the morning sunshine and she pointed out the Japanese jar on the counter. She gave me perspective.
And I remember how the longer I sat there the more rooted I felt in the old wooden chair and the more beautiful and graceful I felt. Louise brought a pointed clarity to my life through her brushwork. I saw what she saw: a homemaker, a gracefully confident young woman in her kitchen, the point person at the epicenter of that busy house.
And now I am finally able to see that I have always been the unflinching subject of my own life. Maybe back then the picture wasn’t complete and it was often a little vague. But it’s clear now that it was actually me who was the story waiting patiently to be told.
And the story at the time was that I simply wanted to be present. I wanted to be right there in that kitchen when my children came home from school. I wanted to be with them for as many moments as I could, they were teaching me and showing me something new every single day. It might not have looked like much from the outside but beneath the stillness was always a strong commitment to love, to contribute my gifts.
And now when I look at my little smile in the old painting I see trust, patience, perseverance, satisfaction, and even a kind of joy.
These days the kids are gone and the house is quiet and I’ve moved beyond that old role in the busy kitchen. And I think about my writing. I struggle sometimes to see the point in it or how it fits into the bigger picture.
But when I lose confidence I remember Louise and how she squints her eyes and meticulously analyzes the subject. How she keeps going back to the same lines and reworking them, painting over, highlighting, shading and erasing. How she trusts that she can get her vision on to the paper.
My friend reminds me that art is really about paying attention, about sitting still and then when the time is right, about boldly approaching the empty canvas and just starting.
Compose, revise, edit, repeat.
It’s a model for, if not exactly happiness, then something like wholeness or an integrated sense of things. Something like actually figuring out how to be both the subject of a still life and at the same time be the artist too.
For me it is challenging myself to bring some kind of beauty to this world in whatever way I can. To tell my one story over and over again, different versions of a still life that never really remains still but is always changing in perspective.
It’s my own small life put down on the page: compose, edit, revise, repeat. And sometimes I get lucky and stumble across the joy.