Wednesday, August 19, 2009

A transformative moment

Steven over at The Golden Fish has invited people to write about a transformative moment. It’s been interesting over the past few days thinking about moments that have changed me--and I’ve experienced quite a few. But looking back I see that many of them are steeped in loss. Now I do know that without experiencing pain and loss we do not grow, but rather than revisiting these times today, I’ve chosen to tell about a small moment that opened a long-closed door for me.

For as long as I can remember, I loved to draw and paint. As a child I dreamed of being an artist. In high school I took art classes and then after a couple of years of university I enrolled in art school. But for me it was kind of a negative experience. I attended for a few months but didn’t feel confident about painting. In fact as weeks went by I became more and more frozen and eventually I left art school knowing that I would never be an artist. I returned to university and in 1969 graduated with a teaching degree. I still did the occasional drawing but I completely stopped painting.

Fast forward twenty years, through a short stint as a teacher, a failed marriage, the loss of a child, many jobs, a second marriage and a new son, Jamie, born in 1988. By then the dream of being an artist had faded far into the background.

When Jamie was three years old he decided he wanted to be a frog for Halloween and so I had to figure out some kind of a frog costume. I decided that I would make a frog’s head out of paper mache and using flour and water paste, just like we used to do as kids, I created a kind of helmet mask complete with google eyes. It came down over his shoulders and he looked through the wide smiling mouth.

When it came time to paint the frog mask, I went to the art supply store and bought some paints. The moment I opened those jars the smell of the acrylic paint transported me back to art school days. I was so excited to pick up the brush and plop the paint onto a board and mix the colours. I just loved painting that frog mask. I was so happy playing around with the paint. And I realized that I wanted-- actually, needed--to do more painting. I didn’t want to do a painting; I wasn’t ready to tackle a canvass. But I could use paints to decorate things. So I built paper mache forms—bowls and trays and urns—and I painted and sponged them with layers of colour.

Once the door was open I began to expand. Before I knew it I was taking an evening painting class, which led to a two-week painting intensive, which led to life drawing and printmaking. It was a concentrated time of self-directed art discovery. Painting that frog mask for my son’s Halloween costume allowed me to break through my fear of painting and begin a seven-year path rediscovering my artistic side. It culminated in two paintings being selected for a juried art show where one of them was sold. The other one (seen above) still hangs on my wall to remind me that left-behind dreams can be picked up again.

Post script: This process of defining a transformative moment has had some transformational effects of its own. Ten years ago we got our first Border Collie, Maggie, and I was catapulted into the dog owner world. Because there are only so many free hours in a day I left art making behind (again) as I learned about dog sports, training, dog behaviour and got involved in an organization that advocates for dog owners. But recently I’ve been feeling a pull to get back to art making. And thinking about the thrill of painting that frog mask is again inspiring me to take some time to for drawing and painting again this fall. Thank you Steven for encouraging me to open that door, once again.


  1. You seem to have traveled a similar path to my wife who put aside her artistic interests and became a teacher, also.

    After our daughter's moved out to start families of their own, she returned to her original passion with great joy and much success.

    I'm glad this meme of Steven's has reignited your artistic side once again.

  2. from Barry's wife.......... the art door is always open we just need the courage and time to walk through. When I retire next summer, I will clean up my brushes and begin again. Steven is so inspiring! I am happy I visited today.

  3. Isn't it interesting how scents can trigger such strong memories? Thanks for stopping by my blog and commenting. The picture is of my daughter, who is 30 now.

  4. Really enjoyed your post, i think this idea of stevens got us all thinking of things that get put aside on the journey through life..i hope you do start painting again.

  5. Joanna, I enjoyed you post and can visualize & even smell the odor of your paints when you were making Jamie's frog mask. These moments are indeed powerful. Thank you for sharing. Lizzy

  6. An interesting challenge - you met it well. I enjoyed your story of the frog costume. What funny little doors opportunity knocks on, sometimes.
    BTW, I still have - and proudly wear - my papier mache snail brooch.

  7. Great post!
    I too was an 'art kid' in school, but I stopped short of going to art school and stopped painting for years. Then I picked up some yarn and taught myself to knit, and I picked up a camera and taught myself to click and all of that creativity came rushing back.
    Maybe I should let go the apron-strings of the day job and just fly with it.
    Thanks for the inspiration!

  8. hi joanna, first of all thankyou for this opening up of yourself. the painting at the top of this posting is amazing. i think if it were mine i would keep it as well. something i have experienced with art - which for me has been all consuming and then completely and utterly gone and then returned again and so on, is that it is always there but it's how available we are to it. the availability isn't always just about time but can also be that we can't see or feel what is passing through us as clearly at some times as at others. i really hope and encourage you to paint. you very clearly have talent and access to the flow of creativity. thanks for this joanna. steven

  9. Whilst not immediately dramatic, when I was reading this I recalled that same feeling I experienced in different circumstances in doing something and the sense of liberation and fulfilment it gave me. Empowering stuff as well as transformative.

  10. Barry, yes this meme has inspired many people I think. It's been a treat to read all the personal stories. Thanks for reading mine.

    Linda, you're so right that the door is always open and we just need to walk through. I wish you good times with your paint and brushes.

    Golden West, I agree that scent can take you completely into a past experience. Isn't it wonderful! Thanks for visiting.

  11. Kay, you're right that this has been an opportunity for all of us to look at the big picture. I loved reading your post about art school and I will be stepping through through the painting door again.

    Lizzy, thanks for your comments, and for visiting my other blog as well. I really thought your post today was brilliant.

    Stephanie, yes, one never knows what will trigger a big shift. Glad your brooch is holding up.

  12. Nanu, thanks for your note--and for your blog post on faith. I really liked reading it and your blog. Art and science are so interconnected aren't they?

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  14. Nanu--I should have said art and science and life. I've been creative with my camera as well. Your photos on your blog are lovely. Painting isn't nearly so immediate. A more meditative process.

  15. Steven, thank you for your words about art being always there and the shifts in us regarding our availability to it. You are so right. I appreciate your comment about my painting. I am looking forward to being more available to it. Thanks again for hosting this day. It's been amazing.

  16. Sid, I've heard it described as being in the flow and I love that concept.
    And yes, it is empowering. Thanks for your comment.

  17. I bet that frog mask was the best Halloween costume in the neighborhood! I wish you well in your new artistic endeavours.

  18. I'm so glad I am taking the journey with these blogs and their transformative experiences!

    I just adopted a australian/border collie mix from Sarge's Pet Adoption - she is a joy.

    A lovely post.

  19. I'm incredibly inspired by your story. Thanks for sharing this transformation. I'm very interested in reading your next installment.

  20. I'm so inspired and delighted by your story and by the fact that doing this meme has brought you back to one of the loves of your life - art!

  21. Lovely post.
    I'm no visual artist (as yet!) but I made my daughter a wolf costume two Halloweens ago that won her a prize! Boy, was I proud!

  22. Joanna - loved this, and fully intend to steal the frog mask design! Doors do open, but of course we have to take that step through them. Also very excited by the dog agility stuff as one of my younger sons has decided it's time he started training the actual Titus (our dog - it is his picture I have stolen) to run through tunnels and jump over obstacles. Thanks!

  23. Eryl, yes the costume did look pretty good. I made long froggy gloves too and he wore green swim fins on his feet.

    Kathryn, your dog is adorable. Hope she's feeling better.

    Rudee, I'll keep you posted on my progress with the painting.

    Bonnie, thanks for your comment. I just checked out your blog and there's lots of inspiration there.

    Rachel, I bet that wolf costume was fabulous.

    Titus, thanks for your comment about stepping through. I hope your son and the real Titus have a great time with agility. It is a lot of fun.

    Thanks everyone for your comments on my post. It's great to meet new friends this way.


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