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Friday, 28 December 2012

Painting To Escape



Let nothing disturb thee,
Nothing affright thee
All things are passing;
God never changeth;
Patient endurance
Attaineth to all things;
Who God possesseth
In nothing is wanting;
Alone God sufficeth.

St Teresa, 1515 - 1582


When I was at perhaps my lowest ebb, in the mid 1990s, these words fell out of a book and landed at my feet.  The words telling me not to be disturbed and affrighted pierced the fog in which I was living, and I remember holding onto the prayer and thinking that I had just received some divine consolation.  I was being told not to be afraid, and at that time I was very afraid.

I took from this prayer whichever line that I needed at the moment of reading it, to help me through the next few years.  Sometimes I was being told that all things were passing.  I would not be like this forever, this would pass.  Sometimes I went back to the lines that told me not to let anything make me afraid, and sometimes I wanted to know that God never changed.  I couldn't be dismissed nor be passed over by God just because I was not in control of my life and was making some very bad decisions.  And sometimes I wanted to hear that patient endurance attaineth to all things.  If I kept going, trying to find the light at the end of the tunnel, then I would get there.  Sometimes I fitted my life and circumstances into the entire prayer, and found that the whole thing told me I would not be like this for ever.  There was a day coming when it would be in the past, and I would not feel so low.  There was more to life than this.

I was divorcing my first husband.  I had three tiny children, one of whom was under a year old, no income, and was having to protect myself during a difficult divorce.  I had to find an income, quickly, I had to find a way to get all of the children to schools and back, to feed us all, to pay all the bills and the mortgage, and I had to deal with the legacy of having been married to, amongst other things, a very heavy drinker.  I was also about five stone overweight.  I think I was very afraid, of everything and everyone.  And I felt so helpless.

But, I had not lost my inner optimism.  There are a few paintings that help to tell the story of those years, and today I am going to find them and speak of how they came about.  I will begin with this one -

Throwing Away My Troubles, about 24"x 18"

A very large me is floating in a bright and cloudless sky and dropping her troubles out of her basket onto the world below.  Because I didn't want anyone else to be knocked on the head with them, I have given them umbrellas so that they are protected below.  Flying in the sky behind me, far above and getting rid of their own troubles, are my dearest friends from University days - Eileen Rafferty, Tasha Yarker McKenzie and Rhona Reedie.  What I wanted to say in this painting was that I was not completely overtaken by events, and that I could see a way to keep myself sane, and that I was not alone.  It is a gentle and special painting.  It was painted in a time of great turbulence and yet I am looking out at you with a wry look on my face.  And I make eye contact with you.  I know how I look, I know how things are, and I am still able to float up into a wonderful blue sky, far above you all, and throw all my troubles, nicely packaged, out of my basket.  And, just to prove that I am not alone, my friends are doing exactly the same thing in the same sky, just there in the distance.

At this difficult time, I had found a room in an old abandoned office block near to where one of my brothers was working, and I had set up a studio in there for very little rent.  It was a strange place, and it was to this studio that I escaped whenever I could.  I painted the above painting, Throwing Away My Troubles, in there.

From the abandoned office block came another painting, Fat Ladies Diving.  I painted this as a means of sheer escapism.

Fat Ladies Diving, first edition

This was only a small painting, but it made me very happy.  I would paint fat ladies, like myself, diving carefree and lovely, in matching swim suits and hats, through the sky and not paint any water or any suggestion of anything that they are diving into.  We would live in the sky.  We would dive forever in the bright blue of this happy sky.  It was a good way of escaping the madness of my daily living at that time.

Soon, I had moved from the room in the abandoned office block to take up a proper art studio a little further away from my house.  Directly because of the Fat Ladies Diving, the first of my commissions to paint portraits of people floating in the sky appeared.  I was, at this time, taking the words from the prayer "patient endurance attaineth to all things", and was finding that patient endurance, did indeed, attain to all things.  A new commission, my first, had popped up thanks to this painting. Here is that commission -

The Floating Franckes,  Oil on wood, 24" x 24"

Bliss!  What brave people!  Here is Donald and Margaret Francke, wanting to be painted falling joyfully through the sky with their two beloved dogs.  Margaret, an opera singer, is dressed in her finery and has a bouquet of roses falling with her.  She carries a lovely parasol to help her float with grace while Donald, an actor and singer, had chosen to wear a Victorian bathing costume and hold his beloved anemometer.  Donald is fascinated by science and wanted to hold at least one of his collection of scientific instruments.  Below Donald is the planet Saturn.  Another of his interests is astronomy.  These two venerable people came my way and this is what we came up with.  I did a number of portraits of people floating in the sky after this, and found that quite a few people wanted to escape up there, it was not just me. 

All things are passing.  Time moved on and you will be glad to know that I joined Weight Watchers and lost five stone.  How so?  Well, I did this in order, one fine, far off day, to run the London Marathon.  This is how it happened.  I went with my three tiny children to cheer on my brother John as he ran one of his many marathons.  I took up much room in the crowd, not only because I had tiny children and a buggy, but because my body was just so big.  My movements were slow, my legs hurt, and I looked like just the fat mother in the crowd.  And then, amongst all those people running past me, came my brother.  He ran with ease, he looked fit and alive, and he ran past me at the nineteen mile mark, smiled and disappeared into the distance along with the other runners to the roar of encouragement from the crowds.  I would have given anything to have been able to run, to have been in that mass of people who passed me with such seeming ease.  And so, all things are passing, in 2004, five stone lighter, I ran my first and only marathon.  My brother John trained me, and my whole family came to cheer me on.  It took me 6 hours, and I will never ever do such a barking thing again.  I am utterly thrilled to have done it, and think that possibly I am a genius, but it took a year to lose the weight, and then a year to train. That is quite enough to be going on with, on the life changing front, and I needed a rest after that.  To celebrate, I painted the following picture a couple of years later (when I had got my breath back)

Marathon Madonna.  Her time is spookily the same time as mine.

Mary, the Mother of Jesus, or as she is known, the Madonna, is running the London Marathon.  This is at the finishing line, and though everyone else seems to be running past the line with aplomb, the Madonna is barley able to stagger her way past it.  We all had our names on our vests, and she has Mad 1 on hers.  Her hair is straggling under her headdress, she is really very exhausted.  I remember staggering past the finishing line straight into the arms of my mother and my older brother Ralph.  It was pouring with cold rain, and all I could think of was cheese sandwiches.  The Madonna is more sophisticated, I have not painted that into her experience.

I am going to finish this account of those difficult years with a painting that was quite different to any that I had been asked to do.  I was very afraid of this commission as I had done nothing like it before.  It was a seascape, and contained portraits where no faces were visible. I have to admit, I found every excuse in the book to delay starting to paint.  I needed the money, I was lucky to have the work, but I just couldn't think of how to go about it.  I think I spent nearly a year doing it in my head, and when I could not hold off any more, I did it in just a week.  At that time, I was a very slow worker, and completing a painting in a week was almost faster than the speed of light.  After all that fuss, I found that I could do it.  Planning it for a year in my head was the key to this one, but I was getting better at the whole business of painting, and since I was being asked to paint for other people, I was having to learn how to charge for the work, how to do what they wanted and how to stick to what we had agreed.  Here is that difficult piece, which was in the end, not difficult at all -

Santa Croce Yacht Club

I will end this section of my life through my art with this Santa Croce Yacht Club.  I look back on that time, fifteen or so years ago, without much pleasure, but I did always continue to paint.  It gave me an escape and an escape was just what I needed.  I was finding out what I could paint, what I wanted to paint, and what I was being asked to paint.  All of this was very valuable, and I began to make sense of my new life on my own. I began to make my way back to health with my weight loss and I began to make friends through painting and taking on commissions.  It was a long slow journey, and I am glad that that particular part of it is over.

Let nothing disturb thee,
Nothing affright thee
All things are passing;
God never changeth;
Patient endurance
Attaineth to all things;
Who God possesseth
In nothing is wanting;
Alone God sufficeth.