I talk a lot about being an intuitive artist, and have probably explained it about 6 ways to Sunday over the years, but today I wanted to talk about the side of being an intuitive artist that isn't rainbows and unicorns. The side where my canvas is my therapy couch.
My childhood was kind of rough. And right now, I don't want to go too deeply into what happened for me during those years, but I do want to say that without those experiences, I wouldn't be who I am right now, so I'm grateful for them. This past weekend, I was dealing with some physical pain that came out of nowhere. I'm also an empath, so this pandemic has been an exercise in listening to my body in a new way because one trip to the grocery store can often end in my having a panic attack or a "random" ache or pain. This wasn't that though, this was all mine: I needed to heal part of my relationship with my grandmother. My soul coach said I had to paint her.
I work with my inner child a lot because I've always been creative. Those little mes were always dreaming, doodling, and coloring. Their creativity is unmatched, so I want to tap in to that source. I asked them to help me. Now, I'm going to explain each piece as best I can, but I have to start by saying that this started because in my writing session, either my 8 or 3 year old self called my grandmother a monster. You ready?
The main canvas is 24x30 inches. Painted blue. I wanted blue in there because in my mind this is like a headshot. For a portfolio. I painted her face without intellectualizing the process. So it's not symmetrical. And to be honest, I liked the chalk outline better, but since I wanted it to be true to the perspective of the inner child, I painted over that and let her do the face as many times as she needed until she was satisfied. I surrendered "control" and waited until it was over before I asked why she chose to do what she did the way she did it.
Here's what it looked like:
My grandmother used to wear wigs, like most of the women I knew. They had a certain shame about their natural hair, hair loss, and their presentation that I don't think we quite share. And I know some of us feel like our hair is our crown, and we spend a fuck ton of money every year to maintain it, but the elders I knew were different about their hair. I wanted to talk about that in this piece because my grandmother's natural hair was beautiful. I hated her wigs. But I painted the one I hated the most. An auburn colored thing that wasn't necessarily ugly, it just wasn't as pretty to me as her real hair.
Her right (I'm speaking in terms of the piece out, so if you're looking at it, it's the left) eye is larger than the left and differently shaped. It's also closed. the right side of the piece, after it was assembled, represented the things that hurt me most about our relationship. She couldn't see me and her words would rip me to pieces. Her face as a whole looks battered and serene. This whole exercise was about feeling my feelings and dealing with myself without judgement, so painting a face like this was a little painful, and somewhat counter intuitive. Faces aren't really my jam because I want people to look at my art and see themselves, so to not only paint a face but to paint one that's so revealing and spot on was surreal. Life was rough for her. And she made it rougher, mostly unintentionally. But that chaos was her peace.
Next was the other "larger" canvas. When I started this piece, I knew it had to be constructed of a few canvases attached to each other, because every person has layers and dimension. I happened to have one that'd been damaged in the store and I knew it was perfect for her mouth. What I wanted to show was the side of her that most people didn't get to fully experience; how deadly and destructive her mouth was, and how she seemed to enjoy it.
I chose red for her lips because she used to wear this mauve lipstick that was so oddly colored against her skin. She hated when Black women of any color wore red lips, but most of her lipsticks were on the redder side of the spectrum. In this picture, you can see the beginnings of a fang and blood spatter. She would pick you apart if she sensed any weakness. Like a shark drawn to blood. Once she was done, there'd be little left of you, and she would be satiated and relish in her victory. The circles around the mouth represent reptilian scales, to show her ability to camouflage herself as a "normal, nice person" but still be able to inflict damage on people.
The next piece was her "other" eye. This eye is painted on a black 5x7. It's brown, like her eyes, with 3 "tears" coming from the wrong place because my grandmother rarely cried in front of people. The tears are dimensional, made with my palette knife, so they stand out against the brown eye and the black background. She lost touch with her emotions. She reared me to be the same way. Hard. Cold. She used to tell me not to cry because I missed my parents. Or because I was being bullied. She taught me both by her directives and her example, that expressing emotional vulnerability was a fool's errand. It made you weak and thereby open to exploitation and violation from others. In order to protect yourself, you had to kill that part of you. So that no one else could control you in that way. This kind of thinking isn't healthy. Being human, having emotions, crying, being vulnerable are all a part of the experience. And I didn't fully understand that as a child. I had to keep living to get it. But that's the point to this too, is to heal that trauma and correct the misinformation.
There's also a horn with a broken halo. I don't have a picture of that by itself. But the horn and halo exist in the same pane because she wasn't all bad. She was one of the best gardeners I've ever met. She loved caring for things, so it wasn't as if she didn't have the capacity for love, she was afraid to show it. Instead she showed the parts of her that would protect that gentleness. The horn. The fangs. They protected the beautiful parts of her. The innocent parts. The purity. The side of her that loved to laugh and play. The side of her that told funny jokes. The part of her that could cook a mean pot roast. Or the most delicious potatoes. Or put you in an ensemble to rival any runway. She was human. Someone hurt her, and she put up her guard and fortified it in ways that rival Fort Knox. She was impenetrable. Which made her seem uncaring. But she cared. Deeply. She wasn't the monster. It wasn't necessarily her that I battled against. It was her fear. And we see fear and are taught to see it as some sort of imp or, hell, monster, that robs us of joy. But fear also protects us. It's a natural part of our experience. It informs the way we do things. We're afraid of running out of gas so we make sure we get some before the light comes on. We're afraid of what could happen if we get in a collision, so we buy insurance. We lock our doors, we check the stove before bed or leaving the house. We don't talk to strangers. We make sure our bills are paid before we splurge. We check our surroundings. But for some of us, the things we experience are so traumatic and so overwhelming that our fear becomes our security guard. And if you've experienced something scary, being protected from that pain is ideal. I think that's what happened with her. And because I was so sensitive and different, she wanted to protect me too. So she did. By giving me her fear disguised as a modus operandi/personality trait, et cetera.
This is the piece all together. I believe I told the truth about it on canvas and in this blog post. I love my grandmother, and in working to heal our traumas, I have realized that telling the truth about her is what is going to free us both. Me, to create in ways I never thought possible, and her to be elevated in the ancestral realm so she can have the freedom to reclaim her goodness and love us the way she couldn't in physical form. I had trouble with this piece for sure. I doubted my inner child's choices and methods, I made excuses for the parts of her that were being represented. I felt it unfair to paint her this way. But in allowing it to happen, surrendering to that child's truth, I've been able to see all of us in a new way. And I'm grateful.