Everyone born comes from the Creator trailing wisps of glory.
I don't think of myself as a painter.
But when my one word for the year found me, the first impression that came was the most literal. My word this year is canvas. I instantly thought of a painter’s canvas - that smooth, toothy white expanse where one (not me) could add color and texture with a paintbrush.
While I wondered if it was too obvious, I still signed up for a painting class at a local studio.
Don’t miss what’s right under your feet and in front of your nose, right?
Bird’s Eye View Studio is in the artist’s garage, tucked in behind her Bungalow next to a chicken coop. To get to her backyard studio, you walk along the sidewalk in front of a front porch where paper stars hang, the perforated kind that let light shine through. Step around the side of the house and you see brick red French doors peeking out at you. Follow the signs.
This art house used to be a preschool so the hooks along the wall are at the three-foot level. Now, it is Bird’s Eye View Studio where a delightful artist and old soul named Suki is the art teacher. The kettle is already on when you arrive. Chunky mismatched pottery mugs nestle on the open shelf in the dwarf kitchen. In the center of the room are two canvases, one a square table covered in fresh Kraft paper and another, a sheet of blank white paper ready at eight spots around the table. At each place are just the materials we need for this class.
The walls around us are lined with narrow shelves of art supplies like Washi tape, paint brushes, colored pencils, inks, X-acto knives, linoleum block carving tools and palettes. Atop those shelves is a deeper shelf running the length of the room on one side where jars filled with sea shells, clothespins, paints and feathers march along the shelves like children lining up for drinks at the water fountain.
Suddenly, happily I am five-years-old again, in a sailor dress minus my two front teeth, back in Miss Faulk's Private Kindergarten, where everything is awash in her favorite shade of purple, even her hair. I can smell the pots of thick white paste, the ones with the applicator attached to the apple-red lid. I need to come here more often, to my kindergarten heart.
The one-day class is Painting with Gouache. We learn that gouache is a cross between watercolor and acrylic using less water and more pigment. Our subjects are in the center of the table: various vegetables cut out from magazine photographs and fresh fruit. We students are eight strangers around a table. We introduce ourselves and, as an icebreaker, we share what inanimate object we might be and why.
Here are the responses I can remember:
I would be a typewriter key because I like to write.
I would be a white pitcher because you get to fill up things.
I would be a paintbrush because in someone’s hands you could make things colorful.
I would be a key because they open things that are locked.
I would be a candle because they add light and scent to a room.
I would be a seed because you can grow into another form.
I would be a stapler because they connect things together.
Suki is inviting us to relax, to use our imaginations. "Breathe", she says. She is warming up our souls to express their hidden, much-afraid selves.
The idea of a canvas is thrilling, after all there is all that space to explore.
But wait, there is all that space to explore.
Suki knows this; that the unknown lurks on the paintbrush and brings fear onto the page. She doesn't mention fear, but she banishes it like a pro.
Suki is a natural teacher, imparting real information and techniques while putting all of us newbie painters at ease with her humble ways and genuine smile. We talk as we dip our brushes into paint, then water and back into paint. We chat about everything from what’s for lunch to where to buy these art supplies to crazy maternity bras and their lettered sizes (who knew the letters went up that far?).
We learn to sit on our hands while we were supposed to be paying attention, be still to learn, pause and watch before doing. Some lessons work for kindergarteners and f o r e v e r a f t e r.
We sip tea and paint. We look at objects and try to express them on the page. We surrender to seeing, really seeing, and then we paint what we see, not merely what we expected to see or hoped to see. There is a sense that we are coaxing out what is already there, that those surfaces are truly blank. Maybe there is an invisible outline or a faint image that appears as you give into it.
What is it Michelangelo used to say about a block of stone?
I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.
Michelangelo took over the cathedral sky as his canvas. Our medium might not be paint or a chisel, but the idea is the same for us all. There are surfaces all around us waiting to be seen as canvas, waiting to set angels free. On this day, slowly but surely, that paper surface takes on color and shape and light; a little here, a little there, a little more over yonder, a little more on top, in layers much like a life.
But am I adding layers or uncovering them?
Does it matter? Is that all just a bit too woo-woo?
Circling around the idea that something waits to be discovered in the canvas is meaningful. That way of thinking brings us closer to our Creator and the image we carry. It also becomes clearer that our hand matters. It is the play between Life, our life and the canvas, whatever that surface may be, that reveals meaning, purpose and God's original design. We are made for that connection.
I left that afternoon with three pictures that had not been discovered until that morning. They might be rudimentary and rough. They came with some struggle (have you tried to make violet?). They aren’t perfect. They aren’t professional. Yet they conquer some fear and open up corners inside me. They come from seed, from God's creative world, from my willing hand and time spent listening and learning around a table.
I walk out of that backyard art studio that Saturday afternoon and feel impossibilities rise to the surface to become possibilities. Just making space to explore one canvas on a Saturday morning opens corners of my soul. Could I set angels free from the stone, from the page, from my heart?
I walk right past my car and stride into a coffee shop I’ve never been to, one that makes homemade pies from scratch. On the spot, I order coffee and pie instead of lunch. My slice is a handmade Kentucky Bourbon pecan pie that makes my tongue tingle.
I sit at the counter eating pie, sipping strong coffee and thinking about all the ways my word canvas has found me this year. So far, there has been a burlap banner, snow and now blank paper for painting.
I wonder what other angels need setting free?
I am thinking about a canvas as any place with space where one can explore, discover and receive beauty. On this day for me, canvas was a blank sheet of paper, for the baker, a handmade piecrust. For you, it could be your front door, backyard garden, dining room table, a woven fabric, reclaimed wood, a journal page, a musical instrument, a non-profit organization or an Etsy shop. Your canvas might be an empty wall on the streets of your city.
I discovered this mural across the street from the pie house.
The exponential possibilities for what might be a canvas shimmered in the sun. You might have more than one.
What are your canvases?
What could you discover if you went exploring in your kindergarten heart, in your own town, in your home, neighborhood or everyday life? What about in your marriage or each of your children's lives?
Those are not blank surfaces. There is life and design already there waiting to be seen and freed.
Some of those seemingly blank spaces may thrill you, challenge you or scare you to death?
What if you made your mark there?
There will be fear. Uncertainty. No one knows how it will all turn out. That is not the point.
Breathe. And bring us what you've got.
Steven Pressfield writes,
Creative work is a gift to the world and every being in it. Don't cheat us of your contribution.
Give us what you've got.
We are all in this together, looking to know God and leave a trail. Let's find our canvases for trailing wisps of God's glory. I will see you there.