On “Metanoia,” My Divorce Painting

I want to talk about how “Metanoia” came to be and what this piece means to me. I’m going to warn you right now: it’s going to get very personal in here. Grab a snack – it’s a long one!

Learning and Evolving as an Artist:

 

Cats, Princesses, and Cat Princesses. Circa 1993

Cats, Princesses, and Cat Princesses. Circa 1993

My understanding of what it is to be an artist has evolved as I have grown up. As a child, it was about expressing myself and making use of my creativity. As a teenager, it was about connecting with whatever media I was working with and discovering myself through the work I created. In my college years, it was about pushing boundaries and seeing what I was capable of. Post-college years, it was all about refining my skills and finding my place as an artist. Once I became a full time, professional artist, that meant that I had to keep a certain standard while continuing to challenge myself. And now, at 31 years old, I think I’m finally getting what it means to be an artist: channeling my experiences and perspective into what becomes my best work.

Me at the IMC 2017 – Photo by Jada Rowland

Me at the IMC 2017 – Photo by Jada Rowland

Let’s discuss “best work” for a moment: that definition is different for each of us. For me, it’s what I call a “level up” piece. I have 1-2 of these per year, out of the 25-35 pieces I complete in a year. When I know I have created a “level up” piece, there’s this feeling like I got the recipe right this time. That meant adding a new ingredient, adjusting the measurements, or baking it a little longer. Sometimes all three. My Level-Up paintings always take a lot out of me. There’s crying, there’s frustration, there’s little victories and ah-ha moments in every inch of the painting. However tiring it can be to make these pieces, it’s always worth the effort and I see real, actual growth in myself and my work. These pieces are mile-markers in my journey as an artist.

“Impasse” was a Level Up painting from 2015

“Impasse” was a Level Up painting from 2015

“Metanoia” is one of these mile-markers. It was conceived at the IMC in June 2017, a weeklong workshop for artists and illustrators put together by the venerable Rebecca Leveille Guay. This was my second year at the IMC – my previous being in 2016 – which was more or less a bit of a waste as I was very distracted by a personal issue that I was unable to shake for the entire week. The IMC is notorious for inspiring emotional breakthroughs and breakdowns alike in its attendees, and it skipped over me that year. I was determined to return and have a proper IMC experience in 2017.

I chose to be in the Gallery group that year because I wanted to create something free of expectations and to be completely vulnerable and open to the wisdom of the instructors. I knew I was ready for this because of my divorce the previous summer.

My Marriage and Time as a Jehovah’s Witness:

My ex-husband and I married in June of 2010 after dating for less than year. We were Jehovah’s Witnesses, so the dating pool was very, very small. He grew up as a JW. I did not – I joined it at 19 and was baptized a year later. We were only 22 and 23 when we married. We hardly knew each other due to the limitations that being a JW places on those who are dating. We got along great intellectually and saw that each of us were “black sheep” within the religion as creative types that weren’t very good at following all the rules.

My wedding day in June 2010

My wedding day in June 2010

The problem with marrying so young and after the limited interaction we were allowed as Jehovah’s Witnesses is that we didn’t truly get to know one another until after the wedding day. We were compatible in many ways, but in some of the most important ways, we were not. I fought against the expectations of the doting and demure Christian wife, and he struggled against the expectations of being the figurehead of the family and taking responsibilities in the congregation. These things lead to resentment, struggles in expectations, and hours-long fights.

Because I had a traumatic childhood, I had grown up seeking family and community, which is why I became a Jehovah’s Witness in the first place. I felt loved, accepted, and was welcomed into the community immediately. It was really easy to follow along and study the Bible and knock on doors, which ultimately lead to disowning my non-JW family and friends. Also due to my childhood, I did not know how to handle conflict properly and the PTSD caused me to freeze into a motionless human ball until it was all over. This is what kept us married for 6 years – the fights that ended in me complying because he was very good at putting the words he thought I should be saying into the conversation as I wasn’t really capable of communicating through the fights.

Me and a gummy baby Penny

Me and a gummy baby Penny

Eventually we had Penny. I had hopes that this would realign us as a couple and within the JW organization. Because we were now an actual family with a child, maybe things would change. Instead, it got worse. I dealt with severe Post-Partum Depression, and he had his own string of issues that were eventually diagnosed. Due to our particular combination of problems, I often felt like I was taking care of two babies until my own PPD got so bad that I couldn’t take care of anyone, even myself. Once I received help, I was able to get back into creating as I found some stability and stepped into my role as a mother. This brought me a new strength that ultimately allowed me to leave our marriage; I was no longer living for myself, but for my daughter too.

It wasn’t long before we began to resent the expectations put upon us as Jehovah’s Witnesses. People noticed we weren’t going to meetings, or services, because we were so exhausted with our new baby and frustrated by the lack of understanding. Our local friends turned out to be the “fair weather” type, and everyone distanced themselves from us during times when we needed their support the most. I felt incredibly lonely and channelled my frustration into my art. Only my ex-in laws offered support, which I’m grateful for, but it just wasn’t enough to help alleviate the isolation I felt.

Additionally, I never felt very fulfilled by the work I was making. I couldn’t pinpoint why, except that I felt like I was following a formula just to meet deadlines and keep some semblance of sanity by being productive.

Me in my studio in 2014

Me in my studio in 2014

I didn’t realize what the issue was until I began going to therapy in early 2016. My therapist noted that I was justifying everything I was upset about. I would justify mine and my husband’s very strained relationship; I would justify why I still wanted to remain a JW despite how disillusioned I became; I justified my own lack of action during fights. In fact, I went to therapy in the first place in order to learn how to handle our particular brand of conflict. Over the first few months of therapy, I learned how my childhood gave me PTSD and why I acted the way I did during these fights. I learned how to clear my head and eventually access my emotions during a conflict so I could slowly begin to hold my ground. I had become emotionally calcified over events in my lifetime – especially so in my marriage. Early to mid 2016 found me chipping away at the stone until something vulnerable showed through.

In the summer of 2016, we had another epic fight. I’d call these “divorce fights” because he’d eventually toss out, “we should just get divorced” as a way to get me to react, I think. Every time, I’d snap out of it and do what I could to convince him that we could fix everything, that I could do better. I was so terrified of change, of leaving everything I knew, that bringing up divorce in these fights was a surefire way to get me back in line. However, this time, I saw the evidence of that chink in my armor and did not immediately react to the D word as I always had. There was a pause, and I solemnly said, “yeah, I think it’s time.”

Not long after, that chink lead to the armor falling away almost completely. The split was terrifying and brutal at times, but we did our best to remain amicable for our daughter’s sake. We each realized that it was time to find ourselves outside of the JW religion and outside of our marriage. Outside of being Jehovah’s Witnesses, we were clearly ill-suited to each other.

Since I didn’t grow up as a JW, the transition back into the outside world was incredibly refreshing – like taking that gulp of air after a game of who-can-hold-their-breath-the-longest-in-the-pool. The only really difficult aspect was that I was truly starting over – I officially distanced myself as a Jehovah’s Witness by getting divorced and therefore lost the community I had been a part of for the entirety of my 20’s. Plus, I had to rebuild my credit, buy a new car, and truly live on my own income as an artist and now single mom, hardly a month after turning 30.

Finding Myself at 30:

Making these massive life changes at 30 came at the perfect time. Something about turning 30 makes you start thinking about mortality and how every decision, every choice has a sense of gravity that it didn’t before. This was exciting to me! Now that I was free of a religion that suppressed almost everything in my nature, I was determined to live by the knowledge that this is the only life I have and so I’m going to make it an absolutely memorable one.

Me and my boyfriend at Illuxcon 2017

Me and my boyfriend at Illuxcon 2017

I began dating the man whom I’m certain is my soulmate – a case of finding each other at precisely the right time, as he had also left a very long term relationship earlier that year. I was inspired in ways I had never been before. With the calcified layer crumbling completely, I began to feel intense emotions again. Everything was so raw, and, of course, it found its way into my work.

The entirety of my 30th year was spent refocusing on my work as I rebuilt my life. I was so energized by it all! Everyone noticed that I was smiling and even glowing in photos like they’d never seen before. I learned to listen to my intuition again and find my own version of spirituality. I allowed myself to be in a little more in tune with the universe and its ebbs and flows. I let myself believe in magical things again, to be excited by the unexplained and inspired by my imagination instead of being tethered to the strange version of reality that I had become accustomed to as a JW. I wanted to be completely open to new experiences and ideas I had previously shunned. But above all, my goal in all of it was to be the best version of myself so that my daughter could have a happy, fulfilled mother.

Being a Single Mom:

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I dealt with a lot of guilt in the divorce and what it meant to split the family my daughter had. My own parents divorced when I was 9 years old. I was old enough to know that it wasn’t my fault, but that didn’t stop my mom from accusing me of causing it all by speaking to the CPS when they came to my school to ask about my bruises.

When I went to therapy in early 2016, one of my goals was to understand why my mom did the things she did to me when I was a child. I just couldn’t understand her, and asking her was out of the question, since I chose to remove her from my life completely at 21 after repeated efforts to have a normal relationship failed spectacularly. My mom is/was bi-polar, a compulsive liar, and really – a sociopath. When I was about 12 or 13 years old, I realized these things and made a conscious decision to do everything I could to not become her, especially since I knew I wanted to have my own children eventually.

Having a daughter, this was always in the back of my mind. I was terrified that I might have some kind of dormant personality defect that would show up once I had my own children. However, therapy helped me to see that this would never be the case, if only because I was concerned with this at all.

On Mother’s Day 2017

On Mother’s Day 2017

Penny is the best thing that ever happened to me. She’s the reason I was able to distance myself from being a Jehovah’s Witness because I didn’t want her to grow up within the religion. I had seen so many people grow up within it to find that once they reach adulthood, they don’t know who they truly are and have a serious existential crisis (i.e. my ex-husband, and that was awful to watch happen). I didn’t have the strength to leave that community until I knew I had to do it for her.

The divorce, though… that’s where the guilt comes in. Every child deserves two loving parents and a safe home. Within my marriage, though, I was depressed, stressed, and incapable of being the mother I needed to be for Penny. Her father was in a similar position. We knew that she deserved better, and that meant splitting up. She still has two loving parents and now has two homes. It breaks my heart every time I have to drop her off to spend time with her dad, but I’m happy that we’re equally in her life. The time I have with her is never taken for granted. I know how lucky I am to be able to co-parent with her father, truly, and I know he loves and cares for her as much as I do.

Penny is now three years old!

Penny is now three years old!

The hardest part is the money. In a dual-income household, I didn’t have to hustle as hard to make ends meet because there were two of us. Now, it’s all on me to make sure my part of the rent is paid, that daycare is paid for on the days I have Penny, that dinner can be made and the lights stay on, and that she has everything she needs.

Through all of this, I want Penny to see how hard I’ve worked to have the life that I want. I want her to see the strength it takes to make the hard decisions that are ultimately for the best. I want her to see that being a good person is her job and that she doesn’t need a religion to tell her who to be. I want her to have the freedom to find that out on her own, and I am honored to be her mother and help facilitate that.

Back to “Metanoia,” aka, My Divorce Painting

With nearly a year back on my own behind me as I attended the IMC, I set out to create a painting that would bare my soul and what I went through in that transitive year. I showed up with the faint idea of creating a piece with three mermaids. I didn’t know yet what they represented, or why there were three of them. All I knew was that I would bring an 18″ x 24″ prepared watercolor paper panel and be open to the experience.

Thumbnails

Thumbnails

Sketch & Revision

Sketch & Revision

Final Sketch

Final Sketch

I showed up on day one with a few thumbnails and my vague ideas. Rebecca and guest artist (and all around awesome guy) Andrew Hem were there to critique. Rebecca’s feedback was to focus on that first thumbnail but crop in and emphasize the relationship between the three mermaids.

Then, I produced a 9″ x 12″ sketch, which Rebecca used tracing paper to improve upon the flow and composition. As I worked on the final drawing, I got to know these mermaids better. I studied the expressions that were being built, how they were holding one another, and where their attention lied.

At this point, Cynthia Sheppard came by to offer feedback, and as I was talking aloud about who I thought each of these mermaids were and what their relationship to each other was, I realized that this is a self portrait, and these are different stages of how I’ve handled my divorce. It was an extremely emotional epiphany – I found myself fighting back tears as I realized Cynthia had her own divorce painting several years back, also with three figures as a self-portrait. It was an exchange I’ll never forget.

Color Study

Color Study

Photoshop Adjustments (Dan's on the Right)

Photoshop Adjustments (Dan's on the Right)

Color Picking & Matching

Color Picking & Matching

I built upon the symbolism of these mermaids: The top figure is the sentry. She’s keeping guard from further pain, wearing the armor and wielding a defensive weapon. The middle figure is reflection and care. She’s the vulnerable core trying to learn from the experience, at the same time administering self-care to heal and grow. The bottom figure processing grief and loss. She’s holding the broken chain of pearls (representing the necklace I made and wore on my wedding day).

From there, I scanned the final drawing and transferred it to a smaller piece of watercolor paper and created a color study. I looked at one of my favorite pieces by Edmund Dulac for inspiration for the color palette, and I used a base of watercolor, followed by acrylic glazing, and finalizing with acryla gouache for that lemon yellow.

Following the color study came scanning it in and pushing the colors further in Photoshop, a part of my process I’ve added in the last year to get more vibrant colors. At this point, I asked for feedback from another mentor of mine, Dan Dos Santos. I always go to Dan when I’m feeling particularly good about a piece, because I know he’ll find something to improve upon!

The next step in this process is to color match. I like to keep a limited palette and create all the colors I need with as few paint tubes as possible. I took this out of my friend JAW Cooper’s book and creating a to-do list as well. This piece is so big and so complicated that it required it!

Up next was to enlarge the final drawing to the same size as the paper panel (18″ x 24″), cover the back with graphite, and then transfer the drawing. I use this process regularly too, though sometimes skip some of these steps if it’s a smaller piece or I have less time to work on it because of a deadline.

The first layer

The first layer

Slow progress

Slow progress

Final at at IMC sharing the "Ugly Stage"

Final at at IMC sharing the "Ugly Stage"

Then come the first baby layers! That “Nickel Azo Yellow” is just so brilliant for a layer to start with. Next, I masked off the fish and the pearls to preserve that bright yellow underneath as layer after layer was piled on.

As per usual, a lot of salt is used to create texture. Much of this is covered up in the layers beyond, but I like to have that established early on, since adding additional texture in watercolor is difficult beyond the first or second layer. I used primarily course Kosher salt.

On the final day of the IMC, every student shares their piece, usually still in progress. Mine was very much still in the “ugly stage,” as I like to call it. I didn’t pick the piece back up until mid-August in order to finish it in time for Dragon*Con.

I picked back up on glazing and layers in watercolor, trying to build those sickly, unsettling blues and greens with the yellow undertones. I loved this stage – the skin literally glowed.

Building up the luminosity in the skin

Building up the luminosity in the skin

Meticulously painting the fins

Meticulously painting the fins

Watercolor underpainting complete!

Watercolor underpainting complete!

After a few more days, the watercolor underpainting is complete. The masking fluid is removed and the yellow fish and pearls are revealed and ready for further work. I sealed the watercolor underpainting with 3-4 layers of Golden Acrylic Spray Varnish in Gloss. Then I added a layer of diluted matte medium, sanded lightly, added another layer of diluted matte medium, sanded again, and then one more layer of the matte medium. Glazing with fluid acrylics begins.

This stage moves so fast that I don’t get any pictures. I glazed alternatively with alizarin crimson at the top and then with a blue/purple mixture at the bottom. The glazes build up slowly. I worried a little bit about losing all of the hard work I did with the watercolor on those translucent fins, but I know I can build it back up with acryla gouache, which is exactly what I did. The final touches involved using Lemon Yellow acryla gouache by Holbien to get that glow, just as I did in the color study.

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I knew this was a “Level Up” piece because I didn’t know how to feel when it was complete. During the entirety of the painting process, I also processed my divorce that the previous year in ways that I can’t put into words.

What I’ve Learned

I was able to look back on previous work after finishing this and seeing the vast difference between the time in my life when I had no access to my emotions, and therefore couldn’t put them into my work, and comparing that to work I made in the last year. Several pieces made me feel something while painting them, whereas, while in my marriage, I tried so, so desperately at times, to dig into that calcified layer to draw inspiration from.

A large series of works are waving in and out of my subconscious since completing this piece that will make use of this new, better version of me. I feel like I actually have something real to share now. I have real, difficult, and incredible experiences and realizations I want to channel into my work, and I’m so excited to see where that leads me.

“Limerence” is one of my favorite paintings from 2016 that pulled from those raw emotions.

“Limerence” is one of my favorite paintings from 2016 that pulled from those raw emotions.

“Metanoia” is just the start. I want to thank Rebecca Leveille Guay for making a huge impact on me at the IMC. I tried to thank her twice but ended up a blubbering mess both times and instead a hug had to do. I was so incredibly inspired by her wisdom and emotional strength. I have never, ever been able to pinpoint a single person in my life to look up to as an example of who I want to be and what I want to accomplish in my career. I’ve seen through her the raw strength, courage, and emotional aptitude it takes to create the work that she does, and I was completely overcome by the realization that it’s now my goal to find that language in my own work in my lifetime. I think that’s key here, too. I’m 31. I’m only 31. In my twenties, my career was all about finding my voice and making work that reflects that, while building a fanbase, establishing relationships with galleries, and making a damn living off of it. In my thirties, my goal is continue to build on that, but make work that isn’t just interesting or beautiful or easy to sell… I want it to make people ache. I want it to reach into a viewers soul, make them learn something about themselves and find truths. I know now that can only be accomplished by starting with that in myself.

Thank you for reading.

Disclaimer 1: I suspect this might be read by those who are Jehovah’s Witnesses and may have known me while I was one. While I’m no longer a JW, I do not consider myself an apostate. I left because I no longer believed it was the way of life I wanted. I also left because I feel very strongly about LGBT issues, which is something that Jehovah’s Witnesses do not support. I followed my conscience and I’m now the happiest person I feel I can possibly be. I believe that Jehovah’s Witnesses are generally really wonderful, kind, generous, and good people. I found family for many years through them and have only the highest regard for most that I knew. I love and miss many of you and I’m grateful for my time as a JW – I know it made me a better person.

Disclaimer 2: I don’t think it would be fair to my ex-husband to air too many of the issues we faced while married, so I’ve omitted a lot of what transpired and tried to stick to the facts and things that we could both agree upon. We’re divorced, so obviously our marriage had to get to such a terrible point that we made that decision, but I don’t wish to put any ill light on him. We’re co-parenting really well for the sake of Penny and he’s a wonderful father to her.