It was remarkable. Transformative. And ridiculously fun.
It’s also a story that began weeks ago, when my dear friend, Vickie (one of the Wise Women) came from Virginia for a long overdue weekend visit. Vick and I talked and talked and talked, we drank good wine, we hiked Saluda Shoals and strolled up and down Main Street at Columbia’s Soda City Market. Then late on Saturday afternoon, as the sun moved across the sky just far enough to allow “reasonable” temperatures on my gigantic screen porch, I looked toward my friend and timidly asked:
What would you think about pulling out the easels and doing a little late afternoon painting?
That quiet little question ignited something fierce, I’m not kidding about that. By the time our palettes were laid and the canvases prepped, we painted like Mad Women into the night and all the next day—right up until the very moment Vickie had to chase the car out of the driveway to jump in the passenger seat (wet painting in hand) for the trip back to Richmond.
When the opportunity to attend a weekend Mary Gilkerson painting workshop (thank you, City Art!) presented itself, you won’t be surprised to learn I was on the phone in seconds, recruiting my friend Vickie. It took a bit of courage for each of us to register for the class; Vickie is brand spanking new to oil painting and I, still a novice, had never wielded a Palette-Knife-As-Brush before. Still, we bravely reserved our places, then marched boldly into that most magnificent of spaces‚ City Art’s main gallery, for class. (Do you know what it is like to approach a blank canvas inthere?)
It took about 30 seconds for Mary to make us all feel capable, so unassuming is her manner and her teaching style. I positioned myself and my overloaded bag of supplies right between Vickie and my dear Columbia friend, Pam, an interior designer and already trained painter whom I had insisted take the class with us. Along with the other dozen brave souls in the room, we began to paint.
I learned so much from Mary Gilkerson.
Develop a ritual. Look for the shapes. Thumbnails (X 3). Mix color, all of it, first.
Remember to breathe.
Cathy, are you breathing?
Then she got onto telling stories, our teacher did, regaling us with tale after tale of the most delicious characters*, all the while effortlessly creating the most phenomenal Mary Gilkerson Painting-A-Day**, right before our very eyes.
(I can’t possibly describe for you what it was like to stand there in that group gathered around her, each student mesmerized, the teacher chatting nonchelently about this and that while pure magic occurred at the end of her palette knife, there on a common 6 x 6 gesso board. Pure magic.)
We watched, we listened, we made copious what was that color combination? notes. By the end of the first day—six hours and 15 rolls of paper towels later—I think I can speak for all of us when I say we felt victorious, students bolstered by our ability to at least cover a panel with paint.
Stepping out into the late afternoon sunshine I looked down to find this little gem on the mat at City Art’s front door.
Well of course was all I could say.
We drove into town again Sunday morning, this time for the final day of class. A strange thing had happened over the course of the night. Rather than returning to the gallery emblazoned and ready, that familiar I’m just a hack and the world is going to discover it feeling had returned, an insecure undercurrent that does its dead level best to bring down any soul crazy enough to face off with a canvas.
But you know what awaited us right there at the door the City Art?
It’s going to be a great day we said to each other as we opened the big City Art door and made our way inside. And then we laughed, Vickie and I, knowing it was true, knowing in our hearts this was a grace-filled moment, painted with a magic all its own.
*I might have made a note or two in my Cathy’s Going To Write A Novel Someday I Swear It notebook.
My sweetest summer friends, sisters Eva and Helen, stopped by the WECO for a little morning visit. They’re the very best artists I know, and they also know how to have fun. So since we happened to be in the Green Room—the one with the big write-on wall—I asked them to draw me a picture of their Very Favorite Thing about summer.
This is what I think about a good bit of the time: how random are the relationships that bring substance and significance to our lives.
Forgive me for this: It was but a wild act of impulse, followed by another wild act of impulse (or two) that led to meeting, falling in love with, and marrying my husband. (To be fair, it was exactly the same for him.)
I totally agree with the person I heard on the radio today talking about this: The most important decision you make in your life—more significant than where you live, where you go to school, what you choose as a career—is whom you marry.
Yes, yes. And Good Lord it can be so random.
But I have gotten off track. This post is about my amazing friend Maria, who came into my life in a most unexpected way, but who is such a remarkable part of its baseline today. Maria brings all of this to my days: Calm. Creativity. Wisdom. Perspective. Beauty. Inspiration. Grace.
And the art for the header of thedailygrace, both that with which you are familiar and today’s gorgeous update.
And her own remarkable illustrated series, WORDLESS NEWS, which you can (and should) follow here: Studio Ria.
This is what my husband says about Maria’s daily wordless news illustration:
SHE HAS TO KEEP DOING IT. IT IS THE BEST PART OF MY DAY.
And I love her enough to just let that slide.
Thank you, Studio Ria. Thank you, Maria!
Editor’s Note #1: If you ever have trouble guessing at the news story an illustration represents—don’t fret. Maria graciously offers a link to it at the top of her Wordless News post each day.)
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and caldron bubble.
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the caldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and caldron bubble.
Cool it with a baboon’s blood,
Then the charm is firm and good.
I’m headed to Birmingham, he said, softly kissing my sleeping face in the darkness. Be back tonight.
I swam hard for the shore of awake that I might properly tell him goodbye, have a good meeting, be safe. But of course by then he was gone, the sound of the garage door closing behind him. And so I lay there thinking of the dream I had just been in, wondering where the story came from, what it all meant. And in a matter of moments I was fully awake, ready to get on with the day.
Coffee in hand (yes, he made coffee for me before leaving), I opened my laptop to find this email among the heap of overnight arrivals.
This one is great for the grocery store, the takeout burrito restaurant or anywhere else that involves really tired people trying their best, even as they fumble and flail. For example, the woman in front of you pays the cashier but then has to rifle through her overstuffed wallet to put away the change, then store the receipt, then mash the whole fat leather money accordion into her purse. She will usually complete this action with frantic fingers because she knows she’s delaying the whole line; she knows everybody just wants to go home; and she knows she should not save old, mostly-used-up gift cards with 63 cents on them. Telling her to “Take your time. I’m not in rush” always sets off the same reaction: first, surprise (really? because everybody’s in a rush…) and then a flash of sweet wide-open relief. You have just given somebody a three-minute holiday, not from the stress of life, but from the stress we put on ourselves.
Yes, I thought, remembering the power of my recent grocery store exchange. Yes, such a tiny little gesture, a gift returned to me in the kind acknowledgement of a stranger, this woman who, like me, is simply doing the best she can.
It worked for a while. And then expectation and complication intervened and my grand commitment to intention nearly evaporated—with one significant exception. Now when a true obstacle is in my path (ie I’m stuck behind a logging truck), I can hear God’s voice saying Girl, Why Don’t I Help You Just Slow. It. Down.
Just last week I ran into the grocery store, a stop I crammed into an already over-scheduled day. Not surprisingly, I was strategic in my choice of quickest exit lane. The woman just in front of me? Checkout line perfection.** Alone. Organized. Not interested in Jennifer Aniston’s ridiculously large engagement ring or award-winning crock-pot recipes. No coupon or cell phone in sight.
My cart and I pulled right in.
Things moved along perfectly, system working well as I quietly considered this woman and her grocery selections. And then with no warning, there was a minor complication in the scan-scan-scan process. And then another.
I could feel a twitch rising.
And just like that there it was, God’svoice reminding me to breathe, to relax, to simply wait. And so I did.
Eventually, the checkout process was complete. But before moving to follow her cart to the car, this thoughtful woman—with whom I had not even exchanged a glance—turned to me and said:
Thank you for being so patient. You have been a bright spot in my day.
I gave her an understanding smile, knowing it was true, knowing her life as well as I knew mine in that moment, busy, complicated, stretched. I thought about how little had been required of me; how I simply stood there conscious of the fact that she just needed a tiny bit of time, a tiny sliver of space.
And I considered the lovely gift she had given me in taking three seconds, precious as they are, to turn back and offer her thanks. What a lovely gesture, I thought. How unexpected. How nice.
It is usually about the midpoint of class when, hips tucked, back flat against the long mat, I hear Jan say:
Drop your chin toward your chest, slowly now, and feel that nice stretch along the back of your neck.
This must be what heaven feels like, I think, as the day’s tensions rise from my body.
I didn’t expect to love Pilates so much. But there’s something about how it folds so nicely into my life that makes it feel seamless, effortless almost. (I think that’s a funny thing to say, now that I read back over the sentence. I am sitting here on this couch and every muscle in my body aches from the Tuesday/Thursday combo class I have rejoined this January.) But this is the point I want to make. It’s like I’m gasping for breath and down drops an oxygen mask. A long, slow, intense stretch, and I can feel my body teem with life.
And it’s not just physical exercise that results in this miracle. It’s stretching of any kind.
Last Monday night I packed away my insecurities and walked bravely into a non-beginner’s painting class for which I am sorely unqualified. It’s ridiculous to be in the profession I am in (advertising) and know so little about art. My practical experience amounts to an afternoon at The Louvre (don’t mean to downplay the significance of that afternoon—it was one of the most amazing of my life) and a guided tour of the Who Shot Rock ‘n Roll photo exhibit at the fabulous Columbia Museum of Art. No art history in college, not even an “art” class in high school.
What I did have under my belt was one oil painting class last Fall that resulted in such a financial hit for supplies I knew I couldn’t quit. So I decided to start thinking of painting as a passion, just to rationalize the investment.
Anyway. Last week’s class was all about learning to look, and understanding that art is about interpretation. It was terrifying to pick up that charcoal for the first sketching exercise. It got worse when we were asked to move the charcoal to our nondominant hand. But the class flew by, and by the end, I couldn’t wait to move on to painting, next week.
It was thrilling to stand out there on the edge a bit, in unfamiliar territory, in a situation in which I could not predict the outcome. It made me realize how comfy cozy life can become if you don’t push it once in a while.
Pilates, and Painting, and What Else? I shall add to my list of What ifs for January:
This time last year I decided to give oil painting a try. So I wrangled a friend I thought would be interested, signed up for a class at City Art, then invested more money in a starter set of paints, brushes and canvases than I thought was fiscally possible.
Turns out it was all part of a larger plan. Because whether or not I had any talent, I was so deeply invested in the hobby after that first class I had to keep painting. And that taught me a thing or two:
1. It is a very good thing to step out of your comfort zone from time to time. I remember climbing those steps at City Art every week with the thought running through my head “I have no idea what I am doing.” And I was right. I didn’t have a clue about even the technical aspects of oil painting, much less the artistic ones.
2. It is a very good thing to exercise a new part of your brain. For me, simply holding a big paint brush and learning to use different strokes was like learning to walk, or ride a bike, or eat with chop sticks. I could feel parts of my brain stretching as I concentrated on How do I physically do this?
3. It is a very good thing to confront a fear head-on. If you’ve never known terror, strap a big blank canvas to a French Easel and approach it with a loaded paint brush. Your heart will race; your hands will shake; your knees may well buckle. It is terrifying. But my friend Kevin Smith, who is a very good painter, pushed me forward with this advice:
Focus on completing a painting in one session. Use big brushes and big strokes and fill up the canvas. Don’t worry about anything else; just complete it.
It was the perfect advice for me, a perfectionist who never finishes anything. Complete liberation.
4. It’s a very good thing to realize that you don’t have to be exceptional at something to enjoy it. I’ve created some really awful artwork. But I’ve also finished two or three paintings that I kind of love. And I know I’ll keep painting simply because I enjoy the process of painting. For now, for me, that is enough.
My sweet husband hung one of my paintings on a wall in our house. I see it every morning as I walk down the hall from the bedroom to the kitchen. Here’s what I thought when I passed by that Big Sky today:
Isn’t it wonderful that the world is filled with new things to learn, every single day?