Sunday, March 30, 2014

Healing and Art: The Truth Will Set You Free

"The Way Home"          Finished Painting

Sometimes life is stranger than fiction.  Life certainly gets interesting when you are truthful with yourself.   Somewhere, deep inside our subconscious, where no one else can give you directions, where no teacher dictates right from wrong, where no dogma, definitions and simple answers can exist, there we can find the truth.

I began a strange and very interesting journey this month when I decided to write about my painting, "The Escape" in a post titled "Victim no More, Silent no More." (03/10)  Circumstances beyond my control compelled me to write about my own experience of domestic abuse and the therapeutic way it appeared in my art, revealing to me my suppressed emotions and memories.  Writing about the painting, I exposed myself to public scrutiny with my own issues, many of which have been subjects of pain, shame and fear.  I could not have foreseen the encouragement and insight that would bless my life as a result of the simple act of telling my story.

A close up from "The Escape"    There is a struggle and conflict in my heart and my mind, as I give away my power.

In the original painting, I appear in several forms.  One of these is a dog.  I allowed myself to be treated like one.  This is how it feels when you have lived through an abusive relationship.  And so many of us stay, like a dog that returns to an owner who beats it.  It is a dehumanizing experience, and looking at it as a part of my own personal history filled me with shame.  I think of myself as a strong woman.  Because I had memories of allowing myself to be treated in this way, there has been a fundamental disconnect in my own definition of self.  It lead to a certain lack of honesty in everything I did.  It split my self image into two parts, the one I cognized and the one I suppressed.  In the original painting I am the dog, but I am also a bird fighting the dog.  The figure who represents my abuser has his fingers in my head.  The suppressed self image remains in this passive dog-state without power and without a real form.  It is skeletal.

In reworking the painting the fingers get pushed out of the dog's brain and the dog and bird metamorphose into a new creature.  This new image of self is not perfect, but whole and united, with yet to be realized powers.

When I approached this part of the painting and saw what I was denying to myself, I started to remember parts of my life I had pushed aside and buried for so long.  Some were horrific acts of physical and sexual violence.  Others were moments of shame, when I supported my abuser and his actions with my silence.  When I met him I was 20 years old, and I was a naive and idealistic young woman who was in a state of constant rebellion from the world I was raised in.  I grew up with privilege, but I knew the world was unjust and was unable to accept it.  I spend so much of my teenage years battling my father and anyone who considered themselves a realist.  In my mind accepting the world as it is, unequal and unfair, was nothing short of treason to a higher sense of justice.  My youthful idealism met many obstacles head on, and an undeniable one was the injustice of my own middle class childhood in a world where many have so little.  My childhood starkly contrasted the world of poverty and violence my abuser came from.  His pain pulled at my guilt as much as his violence transformed my innocence.  That was the initial dynamic.  He showered me with praise and adoration, while reminding me of my shame: my birthplace in an unjust world.  When his behavior shifted from "sweeping me off my feet" into violence, rage and blame, I was left mute and paralyzed, like the dog on its back in my painting.  I was dependent on his affection as the only redemption for my guilt.  If I left him I only proved him right, life was easy for me and hard for him.  I did just that and I never found a way to address that fundamental conflict in my mind and heart.  How quickly and easily I went from rebellious teen to submissive victim, never leaving either completely healed.  It has been a truth of myself I refused to admit.  It has been the suppressed spilt.  I couldn't bear to see myself with that kind of unflinching honesty.

Facing my fears means facing shame, regret, and things I haven't wanted to believe about yourself.
It has made it possible to transform.  The transformation helps me feel courageous, powerful and honest.
I am becoming a person my idealistic teen self would have looked up to.

Since I started writing about this experience I have received vicious backlash from my abuser, I have been able to finally get a temporary restraining order signed and served, I have found inner strengths I didn't know I was missing, and I have been reminded, over and over, that I am not alone.  I have been added to a directory of healing artists, been highlighted in the local paper's e-newsletter and been asked for permission to share my stories with social workers and their clients.  I have sometimes stayed home, too tired and confused to face the world.  I have established healthy boundaries in all areas of my life.  My paintings have reached a deeper and more dynamic level, acknowledging the dualities of dark and light without judgement.  I have found a voice within me I didn't know could be so raw and honest.   I am moving beyond the classifications of abuser and abused.  We are all victims until we heal our own internal divides.  Only then can we understand healing in the world outside of us. 

I have never mentioned the name of my abuser and I never plan to on this blog or any public forum.  And yet he has revealed himself.  I was unable to get papers served by the police, but he showed up to confront me and was surprised by a Sheriff with papers.  The ironic and fateful way my story keeps unfolding as I do nothing but tell it with candor has given me a new faith in justice and fairness.  I do not accept injustice, but I am waking up to the realization of the divide, that creates it.  I can live without hidden shame and suppressed pain.  I can be my best, and that is what we owe to life, and to the world.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Everyone has a gift. Nurture It.

"The Escape" is now "The Way Home"

This painting is still in progress, but I felt the urge to write a short but hopefully sweet post reflecting on where I'm at in the process.

 Since posting the post "Victim no More" I have been asked if I need therapy, a guru, hypnosis… I appreciate the concern actually, all caring questions from caring friends.  But it seems to me what I need to do is just to continue painting.  When I'm painting the questions present themselves, the memories arise, the emotions resurface.  And a visual language I have spent over 30 years developing helps me to see these memories, feel the emotions and begin to process answers to questions I have until now been too afraid to ask.  It feels like a miracle.  It is certainly a gift.  I am incredibly grateful.

If you have a gift, all I can say is this: continue to exercise and develop it, even if you feel short on time and energy.  Just a little when you have time is better than nothing.  Some years I only had a few weeks out of the entire year to wholeheartedly attend to painting.  I'm so glad I did.  Nuture your gift, let it be important.  The unique way your gift will reveal its meaning and purpose in your own life will someday be clear.  Have faith.

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Healing Power of Art: To Look Without Turning Away

Painting in Progress.  The Escape is becoming a new painting.  I'm still not sure  of the new title.
I posted my last post ten days ago.  It began with the phrase "Victim no More,"  and when I wrote it I knew that would happen, but I didn't know how.  As I move along, I have learned if I try very hard to be honest with myself, my actions will continue to lead me in a direction that helps me to be the best I can be.  It is a destination that is far from the attainment of perfection; it may never lead to material success, and it will not make everyone like me.  What I do believe is that unflinching honesty to oneself is the only reliable guide in a fluid, ever-changing approach to life without a roadmap.

Sounds simple, but it's been the most challenging approach to life that I have found.  And it is the most rewarding,  if what you're striving for is to feel fully alive and present in your own life.

Anyone who read my previous post knows I recently opened up and told my own personal story.  As a survivor of a very violent and traumatic relationship in my early 20's I have struggled to regain my strength and power throughout my adult life.  Painting has been a vital tool that has helped me to understand my subconscious thoughts and suppressed feelings, and communicate them first to myself and finally, to my family, friends, acquaintances and even strangers.

There have been consequences to telling my story.  There was immediate retaliation from my abuser, in the form of comments.  I have been feeling exposed, both emotionally and physically.  Many of my fears have surfaced, not only in my painting, but in my life.

Facing my fears one by one and looking at them  long enough to understand them completely.

In the center of the painting I have discovered my fears, as each one unfolds.  I have been afraid of being physically harmed.  Being verbally attacked in such a public way by my abuser was not something I predicted, but it has always been a threat and a fear.  I was afraid I would be seen as a weak person for having even been in an abusive relationship.  (I was afraid I would be judged in so many ways.)    I was afraid of remembering what I have pushed aside.  I was afraid of so many regrets.   I felt ashamed, scared and anxious, but I wrote down my story and I posted it publicly.  And the fallout has been huge; for ten days every single one of those fears has sat down in front of me and beckoned to be seen. 

As I painted the visual manifestations of my fears I felt each one acutely.  I tried to see them through to their worst case scenario.   It was exhausting, but they are losing their power over me.  I am seeing the strength in vulnerability, the courage in taking chances and the power in honesty.  I have begun to realize that certainty is an illusion sought out by fear.  I have also learned that fear cannot be escaped by running or hiding.  As I paint, I literally FACE MY FEARS.  And they become known to me, and I regain power over each one.

      In order fully own our own lives we must fully participate.  To do this well we must
have boundaries, and our boundaries are our own to define and defend.

Boundaries have always been an issue for me.  I would venture to guess anyone who has been in a relationship where they were physically violated has boundary issues.  But just as challenging for me are emotional and psychological boundaries.  In the past few years I have begun to realize and assert boundaries, often with very little grace and a lot of clumsiness.  It's a learning period.  I intellectually understood my abuser had no right to contact me, by phone, email or Facebook comments.  But in order to emotionally understand that truth I had to feel my own boundaries.  This took time.  When I began to publicly tell my story I took a quantum leap in boundary setting and my balance was very shaky at first.

Fortunately for me I have had a few really strong foundations in place.  I have a solid relationship with a supportive partner who understands me.  I have friends who cheer me on, even if we have moved to different places and rarely see each other.  I have family members who support my choices with respect and love.  And I feel more and more safe.  Safety is never guaranteed,  but I am secure in my preparation and planning for what I consider "worst case scenarios."  If I felt isolated, alone or ill prepared, I would not have told my story.  Speaking out can, at times, be dangerous.  Each person must decide carefully.  It is not realistic to think it is always the right thing to do, but when the time is right, it is a choice that can give victims ownership of their lives.  That is what it has done for me.

Returning to my own life I weep tears for the times I have been emotionally absent.
There is a bittersweet blend of sadness and hope in seeing your life with clarity. 

Although I am learning that my boundaries can enable me to be vulnerable in many areas of my life, up until now I used the creative process to feel things fully and give those feelings and experiences form.  This has been my lifeline.  It is one of the most valuable things I have to offer from my life.  I know how to tap into emotions I have vaulted up and left in darkness, experience them in the present and give them symbolic form with line, colors and shapes.  A lifetime of thinking through pictures is now making so much sense.  It has led me to where I am, and I am excited to continue discovering what there is to be known in this life, through the visions in my paintings.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Victim no More, Silent no More. The Healing Power of Art.

The Escape

This is the story of the birth of a painting, but it is much more.  It is the story of life events that nearly destroyed me.  I was not destroyed, but these events followed me.  I moved from place to place, but they were never far behind.  I tried therapy, but they returned in the night.  I grew strong and confident, but they lingered in the corners of my world waiting for a weak moment to pounce.  I built a life for myself, but they built a wall around that life, keeping my fears in and real intimacy out.  This is the story of domestic abuse, abuse from an intimate partner. One of the most insidious and terrifying forms of violence, it is one of the most common.  And it is a story of a painting that has been my way of breaking down my walls, the real and the imagined.  
Two years ago, almost to the day, I awoke with my pillow soaked with tears.  I was still weeping as I awoke and recalled the dream.  I was at a party, a farewell party for a young man at work.  He was loved by everyone there, so when he announced he was leaving we begged him to stay.  He insisted on leaving, so we decided to throw a farewell party as big as our love for him.
At the party we drank and sang, and danced to live music under the stars.  Each person had a dance with the young man, and I was the last.  When I danced with him I held him so tightly, and I wept a river of tears.  I felt like I would not be able to let go.  Finally he held me back at arms length, so he could look into my face and tell me that it was all OK; he loved me and I had to let him go.
When I woke up I knew the young man was my son, who had died in my womb 22 years earlier, after I was beaten with the handle of a hobby horse.  I was beaten with repeated blows to the back, until the heavy wooden pole actually shattered into several pieces.  During the beating I twisted and turned, exposing my back in an attempt to protect my 6 month pregnant abdomen and the baby inside.  A month later I delivered a fetus that had been dead for over three weeks due to causes not completely known, but assumed to be strangulation by the umbilical cord.  This has always been my dark night of the soul.  And I am bringing it into the light.

I would like to say this was an isolated event, but it wasn't.  I was 22 years old, in the final month of a relationship that had lasted 2 years.  I was soon to run away and find safety in a women's shelter. Slowly I began to put myself back together in a life of my own, but at that time I was the shell of a person.  A person who had become a captive in a prison with no concrete walls, but rather walls of fear and manipulation. To this day, I cannot understand or even fathom the undeniable strength of those walls, made of blocks that were harder to shatter than concrete itself.  
Some people may believe that when an abused women leaves the abusive relationship the torment is over.  Yes, the worst of it is.  My own experience of leaving this relationship was in many ways a second chance at life.  I had escaped the brutal world I was trapped in.  I had a one year old baby girl who kept me going.  I had camaraderie in the women's shelter, where I was given the love and attention I had so missed in the years of isolation and abuse.  I eventually reconnected with my parents and my two brothers, and, with the support of my family, I began the long road of recovery at the age of 22.  But one reason so many women stay in abusive circumstances is because they believe the threats.  Most threats end with a promise: if they leave the brutality will be even worse.  It is not words that make the threats real, it is bloody noses, black eyes, and worse.  It is the monstrous way a sadistic person can weave lies through the brain of his victim.  I believed I would be hunted down, and possibly killed.  I believed this for so long, that even when my rational mind had worked through the unlikelihood of such an outcome, every cell in my body seemed to still believe it.  It didn't help that in the many years since I left, my abuser has continued to try to connect with me, sometimes with a twisted gesture of friendship and sometimes with condemnation and demands, but always uninvited, unanswered and unwanted. 

I awoke from the dream two years ago, almost 24 years after the day I entered the women's shelter.  I awoke weeping.  I had said goodbye to my son. Still in my pajamas, I walked downstairs and picked up a painting I had begun a few days before; it was one that had baffled me.  I put the painting down on the kitchen table and picked up a paintbrush.  I knew exactly what I needed to do. 

This is what the painting looked like it when I started painting that morning in my pajamas

When I paint a large painting I usually go through a stage of confusion, when I'm baffled or bewildered by the marks I have put down. This is not unusual.  What, if anything, was unusual about this painting was how angry I had felt while working on it.  At best I am usually challenged and inspired by this stage, at worst I am irritated.  I recognize the feeling and I know it's temporary.  This painting actually made me mad.  But that morning all the anger was washed away and I was mourning.  Suddenly I felt like I understood something very profound about the events of my life, and it was all symbolically taking form in this painting.  
I started "The Escape" as I do many of my paintings on boards, with collaged images.  I glued a print of mine with a dog and bird in ambiguous conflict, pages from the New York Times and pages from Tolstoy.  I thought I was painting about ideas, as I often do.  But the images that kept appearing were too personal for me to connect to the social and political content of the collaged scraps.  A figure appeared, looking suspiciously like my abusive partner from 24 years earlier.  He reached out long fingers that shot right through the head of the upside-down  dog.  A mask that looked like a demon from a dream looked over it all and a Thunderbird appeared that seemed to be flying off the page.  I say "appear" because at this stage in the painting I am not painting with any premeditated brushstrokes, I paint without forethought.  I am as surprised by what comes off the brush as any bystander would be, often more so. 

A close up of what happened that morning

I painted all morning and well into the day, without eating or getting dressed or even cleaning up.  There was a force driving me that surpassed any other needs, and it was the force of healing.  When I painted this piece I truly understood the transcendental healing power of art.  Pi is a transcendental number.  It is real, but not algebraic.  It does not have rational roots. If you try too hard to make rational sense of it all, it disappears, like the memory of a dream.  When I painted the section that most pained me, the one where my abuser stuck his fingers into my head, comforting images appeared to soothe me.  My daughter and my son were soon part of a vortex of circular movement that emanated from the source of my pain.  I saw the good with the bad, healing as an outgrowth of suffering.  One cannot exist without the other.  If you let go, it will be OK, as my son told me in my dream.
On one side, the dead infant leaves the thoughts of the abuser as a mere outline, almost a caricature.  He is in the bottom left corner of the painting, where the pain and deception of the past events weave imprisoning webs that eventually grow into a brick wall.   But the spirit of the baby boy emerges on the other side of my abuser like a rock formation, his leg turning into a wing that becomes one of the wings of my living child. My daughter is the one who was my only reason for living when, lost in the darkness of abuse, I considered suicide.  The left side and especially the bottom left corner of the painting are the beginning of the story, they are real events, but they are the past.  I will never forget the past, but I have to fly away.  
At this point I find myself in the painting.  I am flying away.  I am as far away as possible from the painful events, but my flight has also taken me away from those I love, it has taken me away from the center of the painting where my story is told.  In my desire for freedom from the fear and the pain, in my usual enthusiasm, I have gone too far.

When I realized where I was in the painting, I also realized I was connected to a pair of legs on the other side of the Thunderbird.  And holding onto the foot was a figure seated on a horse.  He has white hair.  I realized who he was and I was a little annoyed.  I can laugh now, but I was really irritated by this.  It was very difficult to let a man into my inner world, although I had attempted to have relationships in the last two decades.  I had either chosen unrealistic, unattainable partners, or I had pushed or pulled at the the men in my life, until the relationship fell apart.  No one had made it into a painting like this.  But the work I was doing at this point was exhilarating, and the white haired man on the horse was a person who gave me a lot of space, and was someone I considered trusting, something I had previously found impossible.  So eventually I was able to accept the goofy turn of events in this image.  After all, there was someone holding me back from completely flying away.  A good thing.
One thing I love about this process is that it can be so serious, intense, even frightening; yet it can be lighthearted, playful and irreverent all at the same time.  I have learned to accept all aspects.  I have learned to let go.  There was a moment, somewhere around two in the morning, more that 18 hours after I got up and started painting in my pajamas that I found myself leaning over the painting and screaming through tears, "You had no right.  You had no right to do the things you did!"  I was lucid enough to realize if anyone walked through the door at that moment they might be concerned for my sanity, but believe me, it was one of the sanest moments of my life.  It was the moment I released the rage inside of me for over two decades and with the rage went the fear, went the walls, went the prison I had been living in.  My catharsis was the result of 24 years of hard work, practice, patience, and all the stuff of life, but it came down like a crashing wall, and it took form in a work of art.

By the time I fell asleep, 20 hours after I started working that day, the painting was nearly complete.

I went to sleep that night as the sun was rising.  I had ended the day laughing through the tears, a day that began crying into my pillow.  There were finishing touches to be done.  There were parts of the painting I still did not understand.  There are still many walls around my heart to be torn down.  I could not know, that night two years ago, the profound effect that day's work would have on my life.  The therapeutic value in art for me is the potential for understanding, control, and release, all through the language of painting.  

Two years later I am revisiting this work.   I am actually making a printed canvas to save it in this stage, and I am taking it back to the easel, realizing now that I am armed with the truth and the absence of fear and shame.  With these tools I can see areas of the painting that are clearly unfinished, and I now feel ready to complete.

Releasing the past through creative work has proven to have a key role in my ongoing growth, most importantly releasing my fears.  What I dealt with in these past 26 years has been the stalking and attempts at communication from my abuser.  I had a very difficult time shaking the fear and damage that resulted from extreme abuse, and the inconsistent, incomprehensible nature of his attempts to insinuate himself into my life have never ended.  But years went by, and I am stronger.  I have armed myself with protection, material and emotional. My paintings, which over the years have become a diary of healing, help me feel less controlled by the past, and therefore, less threatened.  I can honestly say I am no longer afraid, but I am still not free from the unwanted attention from a past I have let go of - a man who has relinquished all rights to be in my world through his own actions 26 years ago.  I have realized that nothing I do or say would define this boundary more than the truth.  The most empowering aspect of my artistic process in this piece has been the courage to tell my story.  The truth, it is said, will set you free.  And now that I no longer feel the need to run away, I am claiming the right to be free.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Buddha Pages

                          Being a seller on etsy requires more than talent, creativity and passion.  It is a very competitive marketplace where one must consider most choices with asute business sense.  Because I have been moving away from my life as a business owner and back into the studio, I often struggle with the double edge sword of self employment.  The work is hard, and I still have to make choices that are smart from a business mindset,as well as inspiring to my artistic mindset.  Creating an affordable art piece that is unique, one of a kind and inspiring to the viewer is a challenge, but one I am beginning to enjoy as an important part of my artistic journey.

The Buddha pages are a new idea I brought to my etsy page as a way to combine the lessons I have learned from creating products that sell well on etsy with the projects that are on my table and close to my heart.  I have been sketching flowers, animals and images derived from my studies of Medieval art this winter as preparatory and preliminary work for my large paintings.  The sketches at times develop into finished pieces in their own right.  I offer prints of many of my drawings and paintings, but I wanted to come up with something more.  When I'm at work on a painting I so often rely on chance, or what at times feels like serendipity, to bring the meaning of an image into focus.  
Combining the images from my sketchbooks with pages from a vintage book is not a completely original idea.  Artists print on found paper, especially in the world of assemblage.  The personal significance for me is the particular book I chose.  I have spent many hours sifting through old books since my father passed away three years ago.  He was a voracious reader, and he loved to share everything he learned from his books.  Many of my memories of family vacations at our northwoods cabin getaway are of my father either reading on his recliner or asleep with a book on his chest.  He was so happy with his books.  I don't read nearly as much as my dad, but I do love books and I have had a keen interest in Buddhism in the past year, reading everything I can get my hands on.  So, going through my dad's collection, the text on the Buddha's life, "Buddha and the Gospel of Buddhism" 1969, has been the perfect choice for a backdrop for my sketches and studies.   I love to layer an image full of symbolic meaning with a page that somehow relates to the image, inviting further contemplation.  When I look at them now I see them as small versions of the layering process I meticulously work through in my multi media painted works.


I invite readers to check out the Buddha pages on etsy.  Each one has a special meaning that I begin to explain in the listings, leaving the rest of the discovery to each viewer.  At the top of this page is a link to etsy, it will take you to the shop: Dawn Patel Art, and the Buddha page section can be easily found there.  

Beneath the Snow
I would love to hear what meanings you discover in these small and precious pages.

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