Mortality

Self-portrait Hollifield

The Crone- self-portrait by Suzanne Hollifield

Last night I participated in a Facebook live session with my Moonshine class and teacher Effy Wild. One of the topics was grief and how we as a culture tend to shove it into a nice, neat little compartment.

I totally agree with this, and I could write pages on grief from the death of friends and family, grief from divorce or other loss of relationship, grief from loss of home, grief over the loss of a pet (I’ve cried more over the death of my dogs than over breaking up with my fiancés. And yes, that’s plural), even empty-nest syndrome, which is a bittersweet kind of loss.

However, the grief I want to explore is one I think that is especially taboo. It is the grief we experience as we grow older and realize we are mortal, that we can no longer do the things we used to do, and that we are in danger of losing our independence because of illness, frailty, or finances.

I imagine that different people confront these feelings at different ages. No one really talks much about it, and there really isn’t a lot written about it that I’ve found. Even seniors themselves avoid talking about it in a deep way, but I am convinced we all have to deal with it at some time.

Some people deal with it at retirement, and others when they get a serious illness or when a spouse or significant other dies. For me, it was right around the time I turned sixty-five, which was the age my father died. It was then I realized I had outlived my entire immediate family–my parents and my siblings. Not a long-lived family, I realized I could die of a heart-attack any day. I began to get very jealous of my time.

There were other signs of my aging that were creeping in as well, and I am sure they added to my feelings of mortality. I am not sure if I went through the stages of grief in the traditional order, but I think the journey was very like the stages and gradually led me to acceptance. By the way, I was not really afraid of death. I was afraid of dying. There is a difference.

It seems to me society tries to make getting older some wonderful, happy place, and it is. But so is young adulthood and so is middle-age. We don’t deny the problems that go with being a twenty-something or a middle-aged person. We need to acknowledge both the advantages and problems of elderhood as well.

I am happier now than I’ve ever been in my life. I wish I could still walk three miles without feeling like my psoas muscle is going to lock up, and I’d like to have my thirty-year old body and still be able to eat pizza or burgers and drink beer every night. But my understanding of who I am and what I want is closer to being spot-on than it ever has been. That’s not a bad trade-off.

I just turned sixty-eight. I’m in a much better place than three years ago, but it was a hard pull up the road. Now, I am enjoying being a crone, and I’ve even resolved to enjoy my eccentricities openly. I realize that my senior friends who are dealing with aging with the most wisdom most often do it a bit tongue-in-cheek, and we appreciate those who can smile at the absurdity of life. We value the time we have left, and realize that life is precious.

Now, I don’t do things unless I really want to do them. I don’t have time to do otherwise. I spend more time in stillness and in just enjoying the present moment than I used to. I paint nearly every day. I suffer fools a little less gladly, but I do worry it is because they are mirroring the parts of myself that I haven’t worked on, so I had better get busy with that. The recognition of others that I used to crave seems sort of silly now and too much work. I do like giving people massages. I still love rock-n-roll and sing in the car.

I’ve found that helping people with grief, no matter where it comes from, is about listening. It is not about offering advice. Listening to someone talk about fears of their own mortality may be uncomfortable, but if someone shares with you, just listening is the best thing you can do to help the other person to move on.

A Blog a Day

I started this blog because of a challenge in 2017 from one of my online art teachers, Effy Wild, who is a master of art journaling. Twice a year, in April and September, she challenges her students to blog along with her every day for a month. It is truly a challenge for me because although I used to write all the time, I am finding that as I grow older, my right brain is becoming more and more dominant, and my left brain doesn’t really want to form logical paragraphs.

I’ve been thinking I should start writing in this blog if for no other reason than my art has improved. I was actually shocked to see how long its been since I’ve written anything- shocked and a little embarrassed. I can do better that this.

Suzanne Hollifield original watercolor for a class taught by Ildiko Karsay called Nature Art, Spring 2019.

Indeed, my art has improved. I’ve become independent, and I’m using more mediums regularly. If I copy now, it is so that I can learn instead of because I can’t produce anything of worth on my own. That’s been both liberating and satisfying. I’m learning to use Photoshop to combine elements of reference photos, and I am using collage in the same way. I’m painting flowers and animals as well as faces. I’m happy.

Sometimes I will hear teachers talk about how art helps with getting the pain out on the paper. This is true. I have certainly worked through depression and anger by arting it out. However, more often painting is pure joy for me. I don’t really care if others like it although I’m happy when they do. It’s just that when I paint an apple and it actually looks like an apple, or I do a pastel owl that is delightfully quirky and fun, I feel joy. I have lots of my paintings in my home. They make me smile. Undneath some of them, especially the art journals, are some writings where I poured out my soul, but always by the time the last of the paint dried, I felt happy.

I encourage you to try to draw even if you think you can’t. Start with stick people or cartoon people. Lots of folk art looks fairly simple in style. It is the joy in the painting that make it worth something. Do it for fun. If you can’t do that, buy a coloring book. Give up that idea that you aren’t artistic. It just isn’t so. You might find joy is as nearby as your pencil.

The point of writing in my art journal

Journal page white on black

Journal page in tribute to my mother by Suzanne Hollifield

I used to keep a written journal every day. In fact, I’ve got boxes of them taking up space in a closet. When I taught high school English, every class started with ten to fifteen minutes of the students free writing, which I never read. The point was to develop fluency, to support thinking in words instead of images, and to develop a writing practice that just might carry over to life after school.

At some point, however, I began to write less and less. It wasn’t that I had nothing to say, it was just that after I retired from teaching and especially after I stopped dating on a regular basis, I had less drama in my life and so less need to bare my soul on paper. 

When I began painting two years ago, I began to write again more regularly. At first, I only wanted to document my learning process, and then I started taking classes that encouraged self-reflection before picking up the brush. I used the prompts supplied to me by my teachers, initially by Kelly Rae Roberts in her Spirit Wings course to create mantras for the paintings and then by Effy Wild in Book of Days, a year long course that comes with a prompt for every day. The fact that I often painted over what I had written gave me a freedom to express myself without reservation.

Journal page

Journal page by Suzanne Hollifield

Over the last year, I’ve strayed from the prompts more as world events have challenged me to think about where I stand on certain issues. I often feel the stress of my values in conflict with those of people I love or care about, and although I am aware that nothing will make me stop caring for certain people, I wonder if we might become estranged by events if push comes to shove. 

I made a commitment several months ago to read the words of great leaders like Mohandas Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. when I get really upset with the way things are going in the world. I have also started listening to podcasts that either explain events or that offer a positive viewpoint. They help me stay rational and positive rather than reactive and fearful.

One podcast that is just back from hiatus is #ReikiRadio, which you can find on Blog Radio or on iTunes. It is hosted by Yolanda Williams. She spoke on a recent episode about how during the last year many people have been dealing with the Shadow, and she indicated that our country might also be dealing with its Shadow. I’ve been thinking about this ever since I heard it, and I’m sure it will provide days of fodder for my art journal. 

If you are wondering how that works for me, I usually write on the paper; then I either paint over it or glue collage piece over it. I have, on occasion, torn the writing and used it as collage pieces. (I’m thinking of doing this with some of those old journals.) in this way I get my feelings out, and then make something beautiful out of the pain or anger or frustration I’ve expressed. 

Another way to art journal is simply to make the writing a part of the page itself as in the two pieces here. Sometimes, I just use a poem or a quote that is meaningful to me. Recently, I’ve been using music as a jumping off point, thanks to a class I’m taking called Mixed Tape II.

This is not to say that I never save things I write anymore, but art journaling has given me a way to express the irrational and the confusing parts of my mind and heart without judgment. It is surprising to me how often simply doing that finds a resolution that all the self-analysis of previous years did not. Besides, I get to paint. 

My yappy inner critic

Art journal page

Art Journal page for Book of Days with Effy Wild

I spent all this past weekend painting. I usually do some art every day although it may only be a sketch. I’ve only been painting for two years, and yet, it has become a necessary part of my life. Most of the time, I can see that I’m improving, and even when I am not as happy with a piece as I might be, it is okay because I feel like I’ve learned something about composition or combining materials or any number of other things I can practice improving when I tackle the next piece.

Several of my favorite teachers encourage introspection while art journaling or before painting a canvas so that one meets oneself on the page or canvas. On several occasions, the prompt or exercise has involved listening to one’s inner voices and facing or combating the inner critic. My teachers may describe the inner critic as the voice that often tells the artist she isn’t good enough or that she doesn’t compare with other artists. They speak of the voice that says, “Who do you think you are to think you can be an artist?”

Fold out of Book of Days Journal page

Maybe it is because I am 66 years old or maybe it is because I don’t really expect to be able to sell my paintings commercially, an least not in large enough quantities that I need to worry about other artists, that I don’t hear the voice of this specific inner critic. Instead, the voice I hear says, “Why are you spending all day painting when you need to be cleaning the house? Why are you spending money on another online art class when you haven’t done all the lessons from the ones in which you have already enrolled? Why are you buying more Golden paint when you could be using craft paint? Why aren’t you reading? Why aren’t you working on your genealogy projects or (fill in the blank)? You’re getting obsessed!!”

Close up of Book of Days Journal page

The inner critic is also called the superego. I was once in a spiritual group that did work on silencing the superego and was told that you could never really get to your True Nature as long as you listened to your superego; that is because the superego does not want your success but only wants to keep you down. Originally, some time in childhood, it may have begun as a voice that wanted to keep you safe, but it quickly turned into a voice to keep you subdued. You cannot escape the ego if the superego is constantly yapping in your ear.

Painting puts me in a place where there is no yapping. What I don’t know is a challenge, and since my classes are all online, I can learn what I want. In fact, I can go back and repeat lessons that I really liked after my skill set has grown. Next year, I may do just that. I have signed up for more classes than I easily complete this year, but fortunately, I can download them or I have lifetime access to them. I plan to go back to some that I skipped and even to redo others. Next year, I will not need to enroll in so many online classes.

Close up of Book of Days Journal page

I can live with that. I have finally come to a place where I feel like my own style is emerging. I am using Effy Wild‘s note taking strategies with the videos in my classes and doing my own paintings by synthesizing techniques I have learned whereas a year ago, I copied a great deal more.  This way, I can skip lessons that don’t really appeal and still learn the techniques.

I’ve stopped referring to myself as a student artist and started calling myself an artist. I have even made some notecards with prints of some of my work and sold a few in my massage office.

So, I am going to keep painting every day, in spite of my yapping inner critic telling me to dust the furniture. It gives me pleasure. Furthermore, I live 43 miles from Huntersville and Donna Downey Studios. I live about 80 miles from Asheville and Alena Hennessey‘s studio. As soon as that car is paid off, my bucket list has a live class in Huntersville or in Asheville on the agenda. The dusting can wait.

Beginning Again

It’s been over a year since I first started this blog, and although I intended to use it to document my learning journey in painting, I never really got it off the ground. As a result, I ignored my own advice to “just begin”.

Over the last year, I have continued taking online art classses, and I’ve continued to draw or paint nearly every day. It really has become an important part of my life. I am finally at the place where I feel like I am developing my own style, and I want to do my own thing more than I want to copy my teachers.

One of my favorite and most respected teachers is Effy Wild. She recently challenged her students and her blog followers to blog every day in September. In a way, she is responsible for my being back here blogging. I need to give her credit for that; otherwise, I’d still be procrastinating. Thanks, Effy. BTW, Effy teaches some really dynamic classes on art journaling. You should check her out.

Underpainting of portraitToday begins the Labor Day weekend, and I decided to paint a canvas since I have the time. I chose a reference photo from a copyright free site named pixabay.com.  While the photographer didn’t ask to be credited, his named is Jerzy Gorecki. I used a technique I learned from online teacher Kara Bullock, in which I first placed a grid on both the photo and the canvas and then did the sketch. Afterwards, I completed the underpainting. One of the things I’ve learned from Kara is to spend time on the underpainting, and like her, I use an app called PosterShine to break down the reference photo into the darkest darks, the midtones, and the highlights. Once the grid and the values are in place, it is easier to start adding layers and details.

PreliminaryAfter I started adding other colors, I changed the skin tone to a pinker shade. I spent most of today  just doing layer upon layer of skin tone, then the eyes, lips, hair, clothing, and background, and even now, I am aware that I still don’t have the dimensional quality that makes a painting come alive. Still, it was a good day, and the painting is my own. It was as good and satisfying day, Tomorrow, I will have time to work on it some more. I am excited and looking forward to it.