I am home recovering from a back injury and have turned to a drawing meditation as a way of staying grounded and positive. It is easy to complain when one is in pain or physical discomfort and I decided to focus on an image that represents a moment in time when I felt abundantly filled with love – my wedding day. I did a tentative sketch and then went at it with colored pencils. I have been working on this for the past two weeks in small increments of time as my body allows. I must note that the color palette and some of the symbolism is directly referenced from an original ornament by artist Kate Cartwright. *
This portrait is still in process, but near completion so I thought I’d share. The other inspiration for this idea of self portraiture contemplative drawing came from a friend and fellow art therapy cohort, Linda, who has a very cool directive involving trying on different labels for self descriptors as a way to promote self compassion. This portrait represents my efforts to exchange the label of “in pain and cranky” to ” radiating love and compassion for myself and others.” As I said , it is , and I am, a work in progress.
*you may view Kate’s beautiful art at http://www.katecartwrightart.com
On this icy, foggy, frozen in day, I put my energies into Dad’s old moniker: Keep the clean and everything else will fall into place. I’m suspecting that this is a remnant of the Chinese Kitchen God, translated through the heart and hands of my engineer father who always had a word of wisdom, albeight practical and earthbound. Have you ever found that the best ideas come to you when your hands are in hot soapy water? My thoughts turned to a current graduate school project: my cultural self portrait.
The creative problem given was to fashion an aesthetically cohesive self portrait using your choice of media that reflects your cultural identity, values and experience. For those familiar with the multicultural counseling acronym: ADDRESSING, you will know that the following elements are considered:
A for Age and generational influences
D for Developmental and acquired
R for Religion
E for Ethnicity
S for Socioeconomic status
S for Sexual orientation
I for Indigenous heritage
N for National origin
G for Gender (1996, Hays)
Just reading through this acronym, for me, opens up perspectives of the various facets making up the unique identity and experience of any one individual.
For my own portrait, I found that I see myself as heavily impacted by the religious and ethical values of my parents. Mom’s Catholic upbringing resulted in my lifelong education within the Catholic school system with teaching nuns figuring strongly in my learning and academic experiences. Dad’s Confucious based system of ethics was infused in so much of our homelife, this was a silent education communicated through decisions, actions and interactions of daily life. Living in a biracial household with one immigrant parent and one parent living with mental illness was isolating. It is no wonder that my support came from these value based and more or less spiritual elements. To communciate this more directly, and to accentuate the dark figure from the dark background, I surrounded her in phrases that reminded me of my parents, and places with strong personality where my parents lived or where I lived that contributed to my cultural identity.
One thing that did startle me was the appearance of a skull as my artistic process emerged, and in particular its central placement as the face of the figure. Even though I am a person who thinks about death often, one who has experienced loss, and am currently working in a hospice program learning about art therapy with bereaved children and adolescents, I was STILL surprised to see this grinning skull appear. It rather gave me the creeps, the chills and the full on heebie jeebies. This is supposed to be a “Self Portrait” emphasis on self, note the skull face. CREEPY.
But after reflecting and reading up on the archetype of death as transformation, I suddenly felt surprisingly good, warm, even affectionate towards my little skull faced figure. When I view death or ending as creating the space for beginning, as part of a circular cycle of life that happens rather frequently as we grow, explore, learn and change, I feel empowered rather than devastated, interested rather than in despair, hopeful and energized
What would your cultural self portrait look like? Which archetype are you feeling resonance with these days?
Image: by me, rendered in chalk pastel on black drawing paper. words included as follows: Keep the kitchen clean, Joi de vivre, Be kind, Be kind to others, Love you lots, Eat the bitter in bitterness and become man above men. Thank you, world. Places included: Shanghai, Topeka, NYC, Riverside Drive, Chicago, The French Concession, San Francisco, Soo Chow, (and how funny I did not include NJ where I have lived so many years – I must be in denial, ha ha )
Information on the ADDRESSING Acronym : Hays, P.A. (1996) Addressing the complexities of culture and gender in counseling. Journal of Counseling and Development, 74, 332-338.
Though I will never be a blonde woman who sings like Bette Midler, I am sometimes a cranky old soul who resembles Howard Stern.
Another blind contour drawing with color and “mood” embellishments, done for fun and as a Psychology of Art Materials class assignment.
I am not, however, feeling cranking this morning, as I am wafting in fragrant streams of Fracas perfume by Robert Piguet, and eagerly awaiting a first sniff at Petit Fracas, the house’s new release. You can read an enticing review about it at Candy Perfume Boy’s excellent blog.
So after I lost my job, a few of those angels from the ER (aka: nurses) took me out for a drink and a pep talk.
Pretend you’re on vacation, give yourself a good week, maybe two, one of them said.
Look, I’ve been through this, you need to decompress a little. Then, on the first Monday after the two weeks is up, get yourself up and dressed and start looking for work.
Things always happen for a reason, said another.
You’ll be fine, they chorused. It’ll all be alright.
I clinked my glass to theirs with a weak smile. Cheers.
After a couple of day trips to my favorite museums, I had a plan. I did the only logical thing. I went down into my husband’s basement studio and announced that I would be doing a self portrait. Ever attentive, he set me up with a palette, gave me one of his large primed canvases and most importantly, left me alone.
I sat in a rocking chair in front of a mirror for a while, I had this feeling that the answer would only come from me, myself and I. The initial question was, what do I do now? Immediate answer : put on Prince’s Purple Rain track and start painting. I am not a sitting meditation kind of woman, and this standing, moving, musical painting experience became a daily meditation, a spiritual practice of sorts. I had read in Natalie Goldberg’s excellent Writing down the Bones, freeing the writer within about how, after whining to her spiritual teacher about how difficult meditation was for her, the teacher suggested why not use your daily writing as your spiritual practice? Ah ha! she thought.
Good enough for Natalie, good enough for me.
This weekend I was at the Art Beyond Sight Conference on Multimodal Approaches to Learning at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. The keynote speaker, brilliant Peter Sellars gave what was for me a deeply spiritual talk about the necessity of experiencing art and being human. He described each work of art as being a portal, or doorway to infinity. When you stand in front of a piece of art and give it loving attention, it opens to you, it lets you in as you let it in. And it deepens you in a multitude of ways.
I suppose that was what I experienced in my basement as I worked on my homage to well, myself, shamelessly a la Frida Kahlo. (note: animal and Day of the Dead elements) Every detail and color has a meaning to me, every stroke soothed my worry and reinforced my place in the world. It gave me time to think, to be, to move. Painting is such an embodied experience. It’s physical. You have to be in it. All the way. It’s spiritual too. You have to be in it. All the way. Like giving a massage, or making love, or praying.
Standing stripped, jobless, displaced in my society, I thought, gah! if even the squirrels in my yard have a way to live, there’s got to be a way for me to be in this world, as misfit as I may feel at times. A way that I can give my gift, be myself, and put bread on the table for myself and my children. One thing I knew: I did not want to live as a consumer but rather as a generator. One day I hit a patch of despair, and, on that very day, I had a message from Maria Taveras, a Jungian therapist and sculptor who somehow found me on linked in, (perhaps she dreamt of me?) whose art spoke to me and whose very existence heartened me – oh, kindred spirit! Thank you again for your not so random email.
After that moment of encounter, I deeply settled into my painting. I touched earth and stopped worrying. I knew that everything would be fine. Maybe that is why artists need artists, creative souls need one another. Do corporate lawyers for example need corporate lawyers in the same way? I think not, but who am I to say?
As I painted I meditated on my place in life, imagining invisible threads of meaning, reaching out, making connections. In my self portrait,the bookcase is in red, the color of blood, for the life source that feeds me through studies, stories, and all things written. The Katrina doll sits atop it, looking over my shoulder, representing the unspoken dance with death that we engage in with or without awareness. My work in the hospital kept me so close to that edge it was a grace. After all, the awareness of death makes life all the more precious. The tiny spider represents Anansi, the origin of the alphabet, and my wish to write and to write and to keep on writing. And the rabbit on my lap – well, that’s my pet rabbit, Hot Fudge.
Good enough for Frida, good enough for me.
The painting was meant to be the first in a series, but after three months, as I was finishing it, as if on cue, the phone rang. One thing led to another, and the other was an invitation for new, meaningful work.
Image: Self portrait with Fudge and Katrina, Renee Folzenlogen, oil on panel
In class we did an exercise you may be familiar with. You get a mirror, a paper and a pencil. Looking into the mirror you place the pencil at a spot on the paper. Still looking at the mirror, without ever looking at the movements of your own hand, you draw yourself. The other condition is that you never once lift the pencil from the paper, so that the end result is a self portrait rendered blind, using one continuous line. Try it.
When done, we were to look at the portrait and, adding to it with colored marker, the directive was to draw yourself as a celebrity.
Not ever feeling like much of a celebrity, I decided to choose someone blond, flamboyant and well, like so: