Art is a powerful, personal, mysterious force. It can be a modality for healing, an agent of change, a recorder of history, a means for confronting and exploring emotions, and so much more. In my constant search for an artistic expression I can do in my infinitesimal moments of free time, an artistic expression that can be done while I’m in the grips of exhaustion and in the midst of mothering and worrying and domestic mess, I started to paint again after an over-five-year hiatus.
As I completed one, then another, and another canvas in a colorful series of butterfly/planet paintings, I would use any leftover paint to spread color on a blank canvas. I had no immediate need for the canvas, so the playing wasn’t focused. I’d smooth a stretch of color here, make a few swirls there, then go to bed.
When I ran out of blank canvases, I turned to the one I had used as a spillover zone. I liked the preexisting shapes and immediately started developing them with some of the visual language I had used in three earlier paintings from the butterfly/planet series.
Without much effort, I found myself quickly satisfied with the way the canvas developing. I loved the circles, and rushing waves of pastel-hued, multicolored markings. I was—I felt—close to finishing the painting. Yet, as the days went on, I developed the disconcerting feeling that the painting needed to change radically. I wasn’t talking about uprooting and moving to a new city, or even changing the color on my bedroom walls, yet I was disturbed. Confronted by the need for change, I stopped painting. I leaned the painting against a wall and left my paintbrushes dry for days.
As I watched myself—not painting, rather than alter the forms I had already laid onto the canvas—I developed yet another relationship to art. Painting became not just a pastime or an artistic pursuit, it became a metaphor for life. As I stared at the painting, wondering what to do next, I started bristling with self-awareness. I realized I was stuck, much as I (or any of us) can become stuck in life. I saw this stuckness as a choice borne of my unwillingness to “mess up” the progress I had already made.
I found it fascinating that, even as I knew that the painting would never be complete as it was, I refused to alter it for fear of losing the images that I loved. Far from living in the moment, I was so attached to the sections of the painting I liked that I was willing to leave the whole painting imbalanced and incomplete.
Do you know anybody who lives their life like that?
Change is disconcerting. Especially when you’re relatively happy with life—or with your painting. Your life works as it is. You have some pretty established ways of being which may not be comfortable, but they work for you. And yet, you know you need to take a different path, move in a new direction. The amorphous “time for a change” has arrived, and you are less than enthusiastic about shaking up your world. Looking at the painting it was easy for me to see that I had reached the end of the path of exploration I had begun. In life, however, it’s not so easy to know when a change needs to happen. Maybe it’s an itch, or a slight bit of discomfort in a rarely used corner of your soul.
With the painting, it wasn’t a feeling, it was a solid truth sitting before me. After about a week of doing nothing, I finally decided to take the plunge and make a drastic departure from what I had been painting. What I added to the painting made the rest of the painting useless and there I was again, in the same dance of the need for change, feeling stuck—refusing to move forward, aggrieved by the need to destroy the bits of beauty I’d created.
Paint on a canvas seems like a small thing to spend so much time thinking about, yet the thoughts came over me in waves. These strokes of paint on the canvas—these are the cycles of life. The creating of something, it reaching its fulfillment, then needing to be released (or sometimes even destroyed) to create a harmonious and functioning whole. In life, the moments come cyclically, the moments when the status quo has to be departed from, inertia has to be disrupted, comfort—mental, artistic, emotional—has to be disturbed. Pushing myself through the discomfort of change in order to move my painting to the next level made me really value art as a metaphor for life.
Art is setting off on a path that you arbitrarily decide will be productive, getting to a destination or two, and then realizing that the path doesn’t take you where you want to go. You’re grubby from the journey, probably a bit tired and thirsty. You’ve been walking this path for a while now, you know the curves and inclines. Does veering off into the unknown really seem like the right thing to do? You trudge along, knowing you’re headed nowhere fast. Then what? Standing in the wilderness of all that is not-quite-right, artists, people, have a choice. They can stay on that same well-worn path and keep traveling through what they are attempting to flee. Or they can make a mess—go off in a new direction—and (perhaps) arrive where they always wanted to go, or (perhaps) find themselves in yet another cul-de-sac of not-quite-rightness. Regardless the search yields new contours, new traveling methods, new terrain. The journey to your right, authentic place is almost always unchartered, and it is most-certainly unchartered by you. When you’re seeking to reach a new place, breaking a new path is the only way to go. I know, because my paintings told me so.
Be well. Be love(d).
Kiini Ibura Salaam