Recently, I returned to the studio to paint, and when I say studio I mean my dining room. The bunkie is too chilly this time of year. I started a painting last June, trying an approach that was new to me. Turns out I didn’t like it. I haven’t painted anything since.
There were parts I liked about what I had done but I felt like I had painted myself into the proverbial corner. It wasn’t complete. There was no turning back because of the texture I had created. There was no hiding what I had done. I tried. You can simply cover up what you want done differently with some paintings. Not so with this canvas.
I did something like this once several years ago. I built a large canvas stretcher, 84” x 36”, stretched and gessoed the canvas, and started applying thick layers of paint. It was supposed to be a commission but it didn’t work out. I agreed to do a painting in a style that was not my own. The client wanted to control every brush stroke to the point I wondered if I should just sell them the canvas and they could complete it themselves! If you’re looking for an intuitive, authentic work of art in a particular style, it is best to find an artist who makes paintings you like rather than try to change how they do things. In the end (or rather midway), they decided to go a different route and I was left with a giant canvas that I didn’t know what to do with.
Eventually, after I had stored it for four years and carefully moved it from Angus to Utterson, the day came when I finally knew what to do with it. I ripped the canvas off the stretcher, folded it up, took it down to the fire pit, and burned it ceremoniously. Then I took the canvas stretcher, cut it in half, and created two smaller canvases. It felt freeing, the whole experience reduced to ash, and two paintings that have since been sold to someone who genuinely appreciates my artwork.
The one I have now is not like that. Well, I hope it isn’t. It is a commission of sorts. Zero expectations, this collector simply likes what I paint. I tried a few different things with it, partly in response to my new environment, wondering if I could/should paint differently but it wasn’t connecting. Through this process of discovery, I bumped into things I simply didn’t like. I tried to backtrack a bit, I painted another layer and it made it worse. One more attempt, perhaps whitewashing the whole thing will help get me back to a familiar place. I didn’t get halfway across the surface and hated what I was doing.
One could say this particular painting is a failed experiment. So I abandoned it. I was not released from it though. That other painting was easier to let go of because it wasn’t mine in the first place. This one, however, is all me.
At some point not too long ago, I realized this painting is something like a self-portrait. In the first place, I was attempting to make a painting that doesn’t reflect who I am. I was trying to be someone I’m not. The layers are symbolic of the many ways I have tried to bury the parts of myself I don’t like. At one point the painting looked like three or four different people were working on the same canvas, arguing about the right approach and outcome.
I left the canvas on the easel for months, trying to make myself resolve this painting. It’s a little smaller than the other one I burned, it’s only 5 feet wide, but in the studio bunkie, it takes up about half of the floor space. It was impossible to do anything with it in there. I left it there on purpose because I wanted to deal with it. Finally, I was so frustrated I took it off the easel and put it in the corner behind the chair. There, that’s better. Out of the way. But there it was, taunting me. A mix of guilt and anxiety lingered in the peripheral for abandoning it, yet unable to let it go and start over.
After a few months having not produced any other art of significance, I began to wonder if this painting represented what some might call an artist's block. I started looking at the painting differently.
Around the time I started this painting, I also started reading a book that launched me into a different (albeit parallel) process of self-discovery. The book is called Trauma in the Pews: The Impact on Faith and Spiritual Practices, by Dr. Janyne McConnaughey. If you had asked me about some of my experiences with the Church over my lifetime, I would have told you with sincerity and without exaggeration that I have experienced over and over the worst the church has to offer. I did not recognize it as traumatic nor did I understand how it connected to the trauma I experienced as a child. I made it about a third of the way into the book and I had to stop reading. Much like the painting, I got to a point and couldn’t go any further.
In hindsight, the various parts who were arguing about which direction to take the painting were the same parts who were conflicted about my calling into ministry. I have worn many hats, I’m a mom, wife, daughter, sister, friend, colleague, artist, and Pastor. Being a Pastor is the hat I’ve been the least comfortable wearing, pretty much since the day I received my credentials. When I started learning about what Spiritual abuse looks like, relating it to some of my own experiences and how the church has hurt others whom they have promised to help, I could hardly look at myself in the mirror. No wonder I've been uncomfortable. Wondering in the shadows if I'm destined to become just another leader whose influence over others pushes them away from God instead of running to His arms.
Have I begun down a path that can’t be resolved, to be abandoned like a canvas with no hope, only good to be folded up and burned, unrealized dreams reduced to ash?
I have tried a few different approaches to make this inner dialogue go away or to make it ok. It most often boils down to something I am doing wrong and I am fundamentally broken, a sinner. The dialogue goes something like this: everything that I allow to control me is a sin, and I must not become a slave to anything (1 Cor 6:12). So if anything holds me in bondage, I'm a sinner. If I'm a sinner, how can I be sanctified? If I'm not sanctified from sin, then I'm not saved, if I'm not saved, then I can't be a Christian, if I'm not a Christian how can I be a Reverend? And if all of this is true, that means I'm a liar, a fraud, and ultimately someone who can't be trusted. I have been convinced for a long time that all I needed to do to fix "this" was simply “control myself better, be more disciplined, and try harder.”
A few years ago when we still lived in Barrie, my long-time friend and I were having lunch. I told him I wanted to go work at a different church, one that had better systems and programs and more discipline because that’s the solution to the problem, that is the chaos I was experiencing within myself that I unconsciously blamed on everyone else. I would be happier somewhere else.
He said to me in a matter-of-fact tone, straight-faced, “You can’t. You will get fired.” I was really offended he said that, so I quickly retorted, “No I wouldn’t. I can get my shit together.” He looked at me with that look, you know the one that shouts, “seriously?” Because I’m the kind of Pastor who says things like, “get my shit together.”
Control myself better, be more disciplined, and try harder to not swear - at least in front of people at church. Get your shit together!
My friend knew something about God I didn’t know yet and he saw something in me that I had not seen in myself, in fact I didn’t see it until just recently, and still, the vision fades in and out as I wrestle with feelings that I am a spiritual failure and a vocational fraud because he was right. I would probably get fired, if I managed to get hired in the first place.
At chapter 7 I stopped reading Trauma in the Pews and sought out a trauma-informed counsellor. I had tried to “fix” the painting only to make it worse. This wasn’t something that I could just try harder to make go away - because that’s precisely what got me here in the first place! In the book, Dr. McConnaughey writes, “My sense of worthlessness and spiritual failure - with hell hovering close by - were both a result of trauma and a form of trauma itself… Instead of compassion for the challenges the traumatized face, there is often judgment and admonition to try harder.” I have had compassion for others who were traumatized. Still, I didn’t have any for myself. As a Pastor I judged myself harshly and have tried to cover up this sense of shame through “good behaviour”. I was paralyzed because to try harder meant heading down a path that I was and am still convinced only leads to hurting people, including myself.
One day shortly after Christmas, I ventured out to the studio bunkie to collect a few art supplies, and there of course was the painting. I decided to bring it into the house so I could look at it. I thought even if nothing happens, nothing really is going to happen if I can’t see it. I hated the colours I chose and almost couldn’t stand the sight of it in my dining room, where we eat every day.
Finally, one day I chose my favourite colour, Pthalo Blue, mixed it with some wax medium, and covered the whole thing. The layers underneath are still visible but it has a more cohesive feel to it and the layers don’t bother me quite as much anymore. I’m beginning to see possibilities with this work of art even though I haven’t made any further progress with it. There are even a few parts that I like, like how the light reflects in weird and wonderful ways when I change the angle of my view. It's really something. I think my artist's block has eased up a bit, I finished a different painting that I’m pretty happy with. It feels like someone I recognize and haven’t seen for a while.
I also picked up Dr. McConnaughey’s book again, started where I left off last summer and finished the book. What a gift it has been to me. To have someone put words to experiences that have been hidden even from myself. Learning that many things I have struggled with over the years have been mislabelled and misunderstood.
And my biggest takeaway so far: My can’t doesn’t hinder God’s can.
I didn’t abandon the painting this time because even in my inner turmoil, instead of judging it as a loss (I did consider it!) or an expensive mistake, a waste even, I suspended my judgment to look at it instead with curiosity and gentleness. I ask myself questions like, “Is it possible there is more to this than I can see right now?” “What are the possibilities?” Allowing myself to take time, “Maybe if I sit with it for a while the answer will come.” And considering how far I have already come, a thread of hope, “Don’t give up just yet, what about a little cad yellow just over there; what other colours might work?”
If this painting is a self-portrait of sorts, then considering the painting with curiosity and gentleness ought to naturally extend to the person that is me including the parts I’m not crazy about right now. I’m working on curiosity and gentleness with the part of me that is a Pastor too. This may not resolve as quickly as the painting might, I’ve been an artist a lot longer than I’ve been a Pastor.
I'm working on asking myself questions like, "Is it possible there is more to this calling than I can see right now?" "What are the possibilities?" Maybe if I sit with it for a little while longer the answer will come. Considering how far I have already come, I don’t want to give up just yet. I’m choosing to step into curiosity, gentleness, and compassion over discipline.
I’m going to be writing/talking about Trauma in the Pews for a while. Trauma is extremely complex as I’m discovering, both in what I read and what I’m still discovering about myself with the help of my counselor. My ‘tagline’ for Butterfly Way since the beginning has been, “You’re in good company” and that still rings true. I know I’m not alone in this healing journey and I want you to know, neither are you.
Until next time.