Painting past the panic: Refuge

The thing that touches me the deepest is the invitation to create a piece that will sit in someone's personal meditation space. This has happened multiple times, and came at a moment where I dreamt of designing a chapel, a la Rothko in Houston. So someone says that they'd like me to interpret a concept in "my style" that will hang in an area of their house where they will have their spiritual reflection time. These people with their dedicated spaces, they are serious about this environment. And they invite me in. And we work together to craft a piece that gives them hope and keeps their eyes looking forward.

It's the greatest honor: to speak into that space.

My first piece centered around Psalm 46. The one with "be still and know that I am God..." Such a familiar and hope-giving passage. And I knew her reasons for requesting this. I knew the concept of this want for stillness and knowing. I knew the reach for peace, and I wanted to reflect that in the painting. I dug deep into the psalm, peeling back the layers of meaning, and found utter turmoil. Nations are crumbling, mountains are giving way, enemies are encroaching.

Not the "feel good" stuff.

But REFUGE was there, in the beginning middle and end of the psalm. Book-ending the meaning, and sitting at the heart of it. Refuge. Refuge in the storm. The river that makes glad the city of our God. And the fortress. And Martin Luther writing "A Mighty Fortress" in response to this psalm. It's all there. The good and the bad. The calm and the storm. The protection and the war.

This was not what she wanted. In turn, this was my first moment of panic in this process...

I warned my patron that my handling of this psalm might not be as sunshiny as she'd like. Still, she trusted me with the process, so I put paint to canvas and began the stormy but serene process of capturing the truth of this tumultuous passage.

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I started with the mountains, knowing I would weave fog throughout. This fog being a "fortress" in its own right, both concealing the hunted, but also making it difficult to see the impending dangers. Layers of fog and layers of trees, pushing into the foreground.

And of course: the river making glad... And there's the tiny fortress, nestled in the farthest mountain, barely visible except through its strong reflection in the water.

And then I laid awake that night and panicked. Panicked at the messy flat elementary look of it all. It needed more: more grit, more truth, more layers. But how? It's so cold, stale, sterile.

Destruction rushed in me. To bury it all and start over. I imagined a thick layer of gesso over it, a new beginning. But, then came the pattern paper. Warm. Engulfing. Thinly covering over those layers of fog and mountain and tree and fog. Bringing a dynamic depth to the painting, while also reflecting motherly love, caregiving, nurturing. Sewing, making, building. All wrapped in that pattern paper.

This was the foundation it needed. And in big strokes and splashes of energy, I pulled the foreground, with heavy blacks and shadows and layers. Splatters and details and messes, and the piece came to life.

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My emotions were high at this point; I was taken in by the intensity of what was building before me. But yet, I couldn't take my mind from the word "refuge." Throughout the process, I kept in my mind the intent to include the hebrew word for "refuge" in the painting--prominent and demanding. Overpowering the rest of the painting. Sitting in it. Resting in it. But where would it go?

Panic again...

I buried a layer of soft blue in the mountain, and stacked "refuge" on top of it. It settled in, declaring piece over the harsh conditions of the painting.

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I stepped back and asked myself if it was done. NO. And then came a fresh wave of panic. The blacks were too black. The look was too "complete" -- I felt a sense of destruction roll over me again. Strong. I grabbed the watery white, used in creating the fog. I buried my brush in the milk mixture and started slinging. And the storm came. The torrent of rain.

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I knew that this was it: the final layer of the painting. Refuge from the storms of life.


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