As artists, many of us are shaking our heads and wondering why we haven’t been painting during this time of “lock down” and isolation.
We thought about it, had the time, but just didn’t have the will or energy to pick up the brush and slosh around those beautiful colors with brush strokes filling the heart with joy. The question is “Why didn’t we paint or feel inspired?” The answer: We have been in, what I call, the cocoons.
I have been teaching painting and drawing for 45 years. Through these years, there has been a common thread that runs through all of my adult students, women and men. Many were artists in their younger years, loving the quiet inward time of pushing the pencil or swinging the brush. Very few artists have been artists their whole adult lives. They come to me, eager to learn to create again or create for the first time. Sometimes the student has taken a few classes in the past, only to fall back and put away the paint for years before picking up the brush again. When this happens, it is very normal. It happens to all artists, hobbyists and professional painters. It is the cycle of the living artist.
Caterpillars are amazing creatures. They eat their way through life, never knowing there is anything else more wonderful than munching leaves. Then, their lives change and a strange new silk starts wrapping around their bodies. All goes dark and quiet, the caterpillar becomes encased, wrapped in it’s new stage of life. It seems for a while that there will be no more green leaves or sunshine for the little caterpillar. Then, one day the silks drop off of the caterpillar and out steps a new creature, one with wings. One that has the ability to fly quickly, to find new and exciting tastes in flowers.
My mother loved nature. She would point out beautiful colors in the bark of trees. Our family strolls along Lake Michigan with my sisters always resulted in our pockets coming home full of wonderful pebbles we found along the shore. One day she pointed out a beautiful chrysalis dangling from a twig on a tree in our front yard. Over the next 2 weeks we watched this little pod. Then, one day, she called to us to come quickly and see what was happening. The little “cocoon” was opening and a whole new creature was emerging into the sunshine.
What the heck! Why am I writing about this caterpillar in an OPA Blog??? Well, we have all been through a very shocking, sad, emotional period. This virus has rocked our world. So many, many, many of our artist friends have not been able to paint, me included. We had the time, but not the spirit. We have been stopped in our tracks, stuck in the mud of life…. The threads of life, like the silks of a caterpillar, have tightly wrapped around us.
Through the years, I have talked about this happening to my artists. Over and over, life came, often unexpectedly, and started wrapping the artist tightly in silks. The brushes were forgotten, sometimes for months, sometime for years or decades.
Nope, this is not a sad blog about wasted time, NO! There is more to the story. Read on….
Meanwhile, back at the chrysalis in our back yard, the butterfly was emerging, my sisters and I were jumping and squealing with joy. Then we fell silent. The poor little creature was not a beautiful delicate butterfly, but a horribly wrinkled tight little quivering mass. I started to cry. “Oh, Mommy, it is suffering!”
“Just wait”, my mother gently said. So we did. The tiny creature kept shaking, quivering and jerking. I could barely look, I felt so sorry for it. Was it dying? “Wait” she quietly said again.
So we did. The shaking didn’t stop but edges started to unfold. The wrinkles started expanding. It was pumping blood into it’s tiny new wings. The little masses started to stretch out. Over and over more blood was pumped and pumped. Quiver, quiver, shake, shake, we started to see the possibility of wings happening. We waited and waited. The shaking turned into up and down motions and as if by magic, beautiful wings unfolded and reached high above the creature.
Then it was tired. The wings continued to move but very slowly, resting in the joy of the new motion. Sometimes the wings even stopped moving, pressed together, as if in prayer. Was it, also, amazed and grateful at its transformation?
As artists, we live in 2 worlds, the real world and the world of creation. We live in a life that is full of changes, surprises, disappointments and joys. Over and over again the “Silks” of life wrap around us, unexpectedly, often silently, resulting in our brushes getting dusty. If the silks remain, the easel is put away, the canvas forgotten, the paint allowed to turn hard in their tubes.
But wait, whatever it is or was in life, which wrapped the silks around you, (maybe you got married, have children, are caring for a relative, start a new job, move to a new location, or you have been sick), there are many reasons preventing you from feeling the joy of creating on canvas. Now, this is the exciting part…While we are in the cocoons, our creative juices are still flowing. They might be used to teach a child, help a mother or father or care for a friend. You might find yourself creating a special meal, or designing a garden, or a new decor for a room, or making a cabinet, or creating a get well card for a friend. Little ways and big ways, you are still the creative creature you have always been. You find yourself drifting into web sites of artists you admire, dead and alive. You look though books of paintings or a beautiful greeting card catches your eye. Your mind has not been stopped from growing as an artist even while the silks of life have engulfed your hands and heart in other matters.
In time (could be weeks, months, years, or decades), one day, these silks unwind and slide away, even if your circumstances have remained the same. The silks keep falling away. You find yourself signing up for a painting class, or while cleaning out a closet you find your lovable brushes. Maybe a friend tells you about a new color. Something starts the process and the silks start falling away.
When this happens, do like the little butterfly, start jiggling your wings and pumping blood.
Pump pump pump! Set an apple under a light, Draw the apple on a small piece of paper or canvas, ( pump-pump-pump), Then, turn it into a tiny painting. Practice brush strokes, ( pump-pump-pump), Paint a single flower, add dramatic light. Throw yourself into the painting class you just signed up for, Purchase videos from your favorite artist watch YouTube painting Videos, Sign up for live Zoom art classes, Pump – Pump – Pump those wings!
Yes, when you come out of the confinement of the “Silks of Life” your artistic wings will be wrinkled. At first, your attempts to draw or paint will be frustrating and you might fear you lost your ability or desire to create, but keep pumping those wings. Like the little caterpillar, you will recover from the confinement to discover you are a new creature in art. Your abilities will come back and surpass the former artist in you and become the new and improved artist that can fly to heights unimaginable.
Pump Pump Pump.
These horrific experiences which we mentally and physically are currently enduring have wrapped all of us into cocoons. Our artist juices have been frozen. The left side of our brains ( where all of the worries happen ) have been terrified and has overridden the creative right side of our brains. We have spent countless hours reconnecting with friends and family, watching the news, reading, waiting and social distancing. Art classes and workshops immediately stopped. Like all of the other scheduled shows throughout the world, OPA’s Show and Exhibition was immediately stopped and rescheduled.
So, how do we get our little cocoon to start falling away? Do it slowly: Thumb through a book of inspiring paintings Find out how many different brush strokes you can make with only one brush See how many colors you can make with just 3 colors Paint another apple with nice light on it and use as many colors as possible.
Paint your cat Paint your dog
Paint a series of paintings looking out different windows in your house Open a drawer and pick 3 things and create a mini still life and paint it, pull out 3 different colorful socks and paint a happy abstract of them all piled together
Be sure to put on music you love with NO WORDS and a calm tempo. ( I recently started painting with earbuds in my ears. Using sound to surround me, my creative side soared.) Seduce your creative side to come out of hiding and when it starts coming out, do not be critical of anything it does. Yes, your wings will be wrinkled. Yes, your attempts might look clumsy and not as you used “to do”. But keep pumping blood into your creative wings. It typically takes some time to get your wings fully extended. Look out! You will soon be soaring higher than ever!
P.S. These cocoons will come and go often in most people’s lives. Now you know, when the juices stop flowing, your circumstances are recreating you into a new “butterfly”. You CAN set yourself free and you will be a new artist. I think you get the idea… now go with it. You don’t have to paint the most incredible landscape, still life, figure or portrait. Paint like you are pumping your wings with power.
Then start flying with your brushes. Life is too short to let the silks in life wrap us up and force us to stop creating. You CAN choose when to let the silks fall off. We are all butterflies! Now get out there and FLY!
Sarah Miller says
Thank you Susan for this inspiring story..I am starting to emerge from a cocoon..after 25 years after laying down my brushes..the pandemic lockdown was my moment to restart painting…even with all the death and sadness caused by this virus, it has been a period of awakening for me..for many reasons.