Mary’s Story: Painting to Heal
Twenty years ago, life challenged me. I became depressed and everything in my life shattered and changed. I felt like I was drifting away from myself and all that I knew. In a moment of despair, I realized I had a vision and a dream that I had never actualized. I always wanted to be an artist but did not have the time or skill, and did not know how to go about learning. It was a turning point in my life. I became increasingly depressed and immobilized. In spite of therapy, self-help books, and workshops, I was floundering. I was trying to find something outside myself to ease my pain.
Then, there was a miracle. A friend of mine invited me to a studio to make art. It was a ray of hope—something that interested me. Everything in my life had turned bland until I started to paint. Art became my sun, my water, and my food. It energized me so much that I felt alive again. I fell in love with becoming an artist. I started painting every day. My creative process was like a river: a wellspring of energy that was profoundly healing and transformative. This experience changed me to my core. I had an experience of healing so profound I became well and I became a different person.
I tapped into my own enthusiasm and power to experience being truly alive. I worked every day in my studio. I invited the artist into my life and I became the artist of my own life. It was a point of departure where I never looked back. My life was on a path to fill a destiny that was unfolding. I knew something was happening that was deeply profound and connected me to my spiritual purpose.
I took out a large canvas and did not even know how to hold a brush. I looked though magazines and saw a picture of a woman who was broken and distorted. That was how I felt. I started painting. I got excited about the colors of the paint, how the shapes appeared on the paper. My painting was large. As I worked, it started to look like something—it looked like my pain, how I felt. I forgot about how I felt and instead looked at how I felt. I got excited about the making of the painting.
Then I got another canvas and started a series of paintings of woman. They were all distorted in the beginning. I painted garish backgrounds. I took photographs of myself and I started painting self-portraits. I become absorbed in the process and painted how I felt, instead of thinking of how I felt. I began to realize I was painting my life.
Next, I created a studio space for myself and simply began painting. In the beginning, I made no attempt to define myself or my process. I painted from pure feeling states. I became absorbed in the pure expression and gesture of painting. I could completely release my energy passionately on the canvas. The series turned out to be self-portraits. The first painting I called “Cut Out My Heart.” It was my pain, a deeply intense and dying pain. The figure was broken, distorted, diffuse, crumpled, crying, and bleeding. I painted “her.” This figure had been my despair, my uncensored and purely emotional energy. And in the moment I had released this image, I stepped back, looked, and gasped. What I saw was an aspect of myself that I hadn’t faced until now, it was so ugly. Yet I felt calm and detached in this moment face to face with myself. I had let go, on an intense emotional and physical level. Painting is physical for me; I embody my pain as I paint it.
For the first time, I was experiencing my pain in a strange, new way. As a painter, I stood in front of my canvas and was in control for the first time. I painted my emotions. I painted my body. I could feel that I was the creator of myself.
When I returned to my studio, I saw that the painting had captured and contained a moment that was now past. The painting remained, though the emotion had passed. It was an object that contained an image created in genuine expression. I had moved past it. I realized that I was witnessing my own transformation.
As I painted a series of self-portraits, I struggled with form and perspective. Metaphorically I was recreating and reconstructing my inner form and inner perspective. The external creative process mirrored my inner world. I realized the manifestation of movement and change was powerful. It was a process of knowing myself. As I immersed myself in painting, I not only became well, but became the artist I had always wanted to be. My creativity was a part of myself I had neither acknowledged nor honored. Through this experience, I realized that art could be used as a vehicle for healing.
Art became a way to know myself through the experience of my pain. In seeing my emotions, I could step away from them. They became my art, completely separate from me. In essence, I became free.
I spent two years as an artist in my studio. I painted my children playing on the beach. I painted the surrounding landscapes that I saw. I set up still-lifes on the kitchen table to paint the things that I loved.
Since I was a nurse and art had healed me, I hoped to bring art into the healthcare system. This was my opportunity to help others help themselves. No one had ever told me I could take my illness and use it constructively to help myself. Everywhere I looked it seemed like I had been in relationship with a form of healing that was disjointed from my life. It did not support me in the way I needed it to. It wasn’t until I threw myself into my creative work that I felt a powerful healing effect. I needed to throw my whole life into something powerful. I needed my whole life immersed in it because that was how I was involved with my sickness. Art and healing transformed my life. I healed myself. My process was not fragmented: one hour, twice a week. My illness was so overwhelming I needed to live my healing all the time, not just in visits to a therapist. Since I was a nurse, I hoped to bring art into the healthcare system. This was my opportunity to help others help themselves. No one had ever told me I could use my illness constructively. What was going to heal me—and others—was a relationship with myself that was fundamentally different than any I had had before. I could always be there for myself.
Excerpted with permission from Healing With the Arts: A 12-Week Program to Heal Yourself and Your Community by Michael Samuels, MD and Mary Rockwood Lane, PhD and published by Beyond Words, 2013.