Abstraction, Criticism and Clicking Delete

Last week, I posted the image above on my Instagram as well as my Facebook fan page.

I was excited to post this photo because this new work has been important to me.

You see, I have spent a lot of hours in the studio playing with color and texture and trying to work out this thing called abstract art. I have always leaned toward abstraction and it has held my attention since I first started painting, back in 9th grade.

I was taught classically and learned about the old masters and a myriad of techniques. I have sketchbooks full of traditional, representational art. I am so grateful for my education. It laid the foundation for all I do today. That said, when classical art is ingrained in you, it feels like a bit of a betrayal to veer towards abstraction.

I grew up in a world where sports where king and the arts took more than a back seat. The culture around me valued numbers and scores. Concrete things that were exactly what they appeared to be.

Even as a little girl, I observed the world around me and knew that I was different. Imagination was King of my world. My little one person world that I cherished.

Imagination however, was somewhat of a dirty word. Teachers, principals and many parents discouraged active imagination. The imaginative kids seemed to get in trouble, and not be able to focus on the tasks at hand.

By the time I was a young teen, I had been told dozens of times, ‘oh its just your overactive imagination,’ when I would express anxiety or fear, when nightmares hit I was reluctant to tell anyone because I knew this was the response I would receive. I was also told that God has not given me a spirit of fear, but of love, power and a sound mind. I love that and absolutely believe that is true.

The thing that happened though, was a mash-up of being scolded for an imagination followed by the truth that God hasn’t given me a spirit of fear. I somehow concluded in my adolescent mind, that God must hate my imagination too. I began to feel shame about something that was so fundamentally who I am.

As many difficult events transpired throughout my young life, I finally decided to speak out about the sexual abuse that I was experiencing. The response was once again, focused on my imagination. I wasn’t believed because I had a track record of that dirty word, an overactive imagination.

I was crushed and left alone. Just me and my mind. I was hurt and confused and scared. It was the logical step to stop the visual light show, the dancing shapes and harmony of color that swirled my brain. I concluded to kill my imagination.

I had shut my imagination up, but I couldn’t leave art altogether. So I focused on technique and kept my mind out of it. My Dad had been my cheerleader. He saw how much I loved art. Against all other opinions, he encouraged me to go after it. And so I did. I went to art school and learned all the things. A year after my father passed away, I did my first art show.

It was my first body of work that was all mine. It wasn’t based on an assignment and I wouldn’t be graded on my shading or chiaroscuro techniques. It was just me.

The beat of abstraction was getting stronger, yet I still couldn’t commit. I abstracted my landscapes a bit and followed the inspiration of Louis. C. Tiffany. I was happy with my work, but that beat didn’t leave. I longed and wondered how I would ever be able to be an abstract artist. I looked at pieces by Rothko, Peter Doig and Helen Frankenthaler and felt as though my heart could burst into a thousand pieces. Burst for the love of it, burst for the longing to create it on my own, and burst for the futile desire it seemed to be.

I was sure people would say that I am weird or that they don’t get it, that it looks like mess and that its child’s play. I was afraid of these criticisms and shame popped up its nasty head and told me that abstract art was far too imaginative and that I would look like a fool if I created and showed it.

So hear I am, many years later, more mature and stronger than ever. I have climbed mountains of depression and anxiety. I have painfully pursued counseling to dig out of the pit of PTSD. The things that happened to me no longer claim me.

It is my hearts true beat to know that God delights in my imagination and, in fact, he gave it to me. The Creator of all has given me a dash of his own creativity. I, just like all of you, am made in his image.

Last week, I finished a series of abstract work that I am proud of. I have worked hard at letting go, not only of traditional, representational lines, but letting go of the negative ideas wrapped up inside of me. The idea that I am not allowed to paint what I want.

I cannot tell you how many attempts at abstracts that have landed in trashcans, been painted over or thrown on the bonfire. Because you know what? Abstraction is hard! It is all the things you learn in classical art: balance, color, harmony, and scale. The difference is, you throw the clear boundaries out the window and let your intuition, gut, and imagination take charge.

The Palette series is the first abstract work that isn’t linked to a landscape or a physical object. It is all about balance and play. This is a small victory for me. To have let go of so much artistically and personally.

I excitedly posted on social media. You wanna know what the first comment on it I received was?

It wasn’t a warm mushy, affirming one. It was simply, ‘Your daughter could have painted that.’

First, my daughter is 7. And I happen to think she is brilliant, so the woman that commented is possibly right. Wink, wink.

Second, guess what? I have the power to delete that comment. To say, no thank you. I don’t need shame showing its ugly head, I don’t need criticism.

And so I did just that. I deleted the comment and moved forward with my series release.

Honestly, this is an even bigger victory for me. Even just a year or two ago, I would have cried and questioned all my life choices. The mental and emotional mind game would leave my paintbrushes dry.

Pursuing my imagination in a healthy way, letting intuition lead the way in my art has been so life giving. I can’t even adequately express it here. It has been a healer. Allowing myself to express creatively feels, in a small way, like standing up to my abuser. It’s a way for me to use a different voice. It’s a way, through abstraction or not, to bring beauty into a world full of pain. It’s a taste of redemption. 

It will be difficult, but I’m going to keep shutting up the lies I believe about myself, see myself as a beautiful and valuable creation who is loved, who’s imagination is loved.

I hope this encourages you to do the same. And I hope you feel some joy and beauty through this body of work.

P.S. The cherry on top is that, even though my dad is gone, I feel him smiling. And my sweet mom is a fan, she encourages and loves my art work. There have been so many tastes of redemption and I am honored to express that through balance and color, scale and beauty.

Kate Thomas
All eyes on the Return
 Summer 1985

Summer 1985

My southeast facing window filtered in the day’s new sun. I could feel it, even through the eye mask. It was the one he bought for me after we spent 10 minutes complaining about the pressure that most masks put on eyes. It was mutual frustration. He found the solution and had presented me, bright eyed and happy to be my eye mask rescuer, with a new, contoured eye mask. This was just weeks before the 911 call. I pushed the mask to my forehead and cringed at the light. I wanted to stay in the dark, aching sleep that had enwrapped me.

The emptiness was palpable. I clenched my white feather duvet in my hands and pulled it up to my neck, too tired to cry.

The pit of grief was setting up shop in my stomach. I knew I’d have to physically get myself out of bed, but I felt so heavy. The pit must weigh a hundred pounds, but the day had plans for me. Plans I couldn’t forgo because I was a mom now. Two two year-olds and a one year-old needed me. Snacks, diapers, arguments, toys in the toilet, they were all waiting for me. Calling in sick wasn’t an option. They brought me life and light, but when the darkness was calling me, begging me to curl back up with it, it seemed impossible. It was a craving, stronger than any, to sit in the void. To stare blankly and think nothing, only feel the pit, the pain.

I couldn’t see him anymore. I’d close my eyes and try. I only saw the face, the smile, and the glassy eyes that exposed cancer’s victory over the brain. His swollen legs and feet, the scar on his forehead that lined up with his wrinkles but was too wide and deep to be mistaken for one. It was the gateway to the temporal lobe. Dr. Woo had entered, taken cells and closed up, leaving the tumor to conquer.

I wanted to close my eyes and see bright blue eyes that sparkled, and a smile that lit his face. I wanted to hear him say, ‘Hi Sweetie!’ when I walked in a room. I wanted a hug that wouldn’t make him wobble or fall. I wanted my Dad. But, for the life of me I couldn’t conjure up an image of him.

That morning as I contemplated getting out of bed, all I wanted was to pinpoint and remember what his last words to me where. I couldn’t find them anywhere. I’d frantically search my memory and the pit would only get heavier. It was grief on top of grief. I lost him, I lost the image of him, and I lost those words. Cancer is a nasty force that claims more that just a life.

Maybe I got out of bed that day, I don’t remember. There where many days that the darkness called so hard, Sean had to step in and take care of the kids. Or maybe I had an ok day and with the Disney channel’s help, made it through.

Fast forward seven years, to a crisp October morning. The sun shone through the darkness of my mask and I pushed the newer replacement up to my forehead. I wish I’d never thrown the old one out. It was too worn to keep, but was a connection with my dad that I missed. It was the day before the anniversary of his passing and the pit that has never left was weighty.

I pulled that same fluffy duvet up to my neck. “Open hands,” I told myself.  The lyrics to a Deb Talon of the Weepies song ran my brain, “The best laid plans are your open hands. Come on, come on, lay it down.” I was doing a good job this year. I knew it was coming and had prepared all October. Halloween would be a good distraction, I could power through and hold my hands open.

I grabbed my phone, read a couple emails, and checked my Facebook. A memory popped up of a blog post I had written 7 years ago. I laughed remembering the blog that had been long since abandoned. I opened it up and read.

“He has been in bed the last few days. He didn't open his eyes at all yesterday and hasn't eaten in a couple days now. Tuesday morning he opened his eyes while I was there for a bit. He looked confused and his eyes are cloudy... He did mumble and move his lips in the motion of, "I love you, Katie," before I left…It is definitely on my brain that these may be the last words that I hear my dad "say". I think that I am at peace with that. They are the perfect words to hear.”

I put the phone down and pulled that duvet all the way up to my eyes and sobbed. It was a cathartic sob that shook my body. With my eyes shut tight, I saw his face. I saw those brilliant eyes full of love. It was what I had been missing. I couldn’t ever imagine how I would ever know what his last words to me where. There where no recordings I could search through, only my memory that grief had savaged. And here it was, in my own words. I was literally holding them in my hand. Something so precious that I had lost was returned.

There was joy in this sadness. I felt a connection to my dad far bigger than that old eye mask could ever give. His words swelled my heart.

Things come and things go, that I have no control over. I can’t claim to know what God is doing and I especially don’t know why He is doing it. I do know that he listens to our heartache and sits with us in it. He knows what our hearts long for. And the beauty of open hands is yes, things can be taken from them, but things can also be placed in them, and sometimes it’s the very thing that was taken that’s given back.

Kate Thomas
The Pain Shift (and why I paint)

This Boy. He holds a whole lot of sunshine, but he does not wear rose-colored glasses. He looks like his daddy, but he has a whole lot of his mama in him.  If I had to guess we even share an enneagram number. Us 4’s love/hate to feel and dig into our feelings. A few days ago we were walking together and he told me he’d love to have that problem where you don’t feel any pain. I was immediately transported back to 1991 when I was holding my dad’s hand, crossing the street on our way home from the playground. I told my dad almost the exact same thing. He very sweetly told me about a little girl that had the disease and that pain is important and that if we didn’t feel it, our bodies wouldn’t know how to react and we wouldn’t get the treatment we need to stay alive. It made sense, but I didn’t like it.

It was like a time bomb. Here I am, now the adult, entering into the same conversation with my child. And I still feel that pull of wanting and longing for a way out of pain. The reality is, as Prince Humperdink says, ‘Life is pain, Highness.’

It’s cancer spreading like wildfire, taking the life of one you love. Its living life without that person, the incredible emptiness that lingers because of the void that can be filled by no one else. It’s having to deliver your child, knowing that all your labor will only birth death. It’s dealing with postpartum and no baby to swaddle and breathe in the sweet smell of the top of its head. It’s someone’s hands on your body with whom you have not given consent, and the nights spend in complete fear afterwards. It’s a vicious cycle of unemployment and mental health issues. It’s broken relationships and dogs being hit by cars. It’s persecution and broken hearts. We all know pain in one way or a million ways.

Pain has been such a familiar thing for me that frankly I tend to be uncomfortable in its rare absence. In that absence, I scan the sky frantically, wondering when the next trauma or heartache will fall. I’m more comfortable with the old familiar pains, and I’ve had my fill, I don’t want any new ones.

I was once told that someday I will thank God for the pain in my life. The woman that told me this was trying to help me. It never sat right with me. I have thought it over many times, for years. I just don’t find comfort in this. It makes me sad, it makes the pain feel worse. Didn’t Jesus come to die for sin and death and pain? Didn’t he hang on a cross in excruciating exile and death for the promise of a life to come without pain? Why on earth would I praise him, or thank him for the pain? Thank him for something he came to save? But what about the nature of pain? What about the little girl with Congenital Insensitivity to Pain disease?

What do our bodies physically do when pain is present? They respond. This is amazing news. You see, God created our bodies, our intricate nervous system to react to pain. If I walk into an open cupboard door and smash my forehead, I immediately grab my forehead. And if there is blood, I’ll find the first aid kit and get a Band-Aid, and as it continues to ache and throb I’ll grab an icepack. My body screams at me, ‘take care of yourself!! Do something!!’

So there it is, this golden little shift in seeing God’s kindness. Its not in the pain itself, that’s a given, and that’s because it’s a fallen world. He weeps with us and his heart breaks over the pain. His kindness is in creating us with the capacity and ability to respond and take care of ourselves. Our bodies have an innate desire to want to keep living and keep thriving.

This is the shift. So much freedom here. Pain cannot claim us. This is what He came for. To end all pain. Like C.S.Lewis says, we are on the wrong side of the door, but it will not always be so. We will walk through that door, into the complete absence of pain and brokenness. But while we are here, on this side of things, we can breathe deep.

I know this is easier said than done. And it is ok, if when you are in the trenches of depression the best that you can do is lay on the couch in your pajamas. There is space for that. Sit in the quiet and let yourself feel this shift, hang out with this golden nugget of promise. He has made you for more. You are not a slave to pain.

Here is the amazing part. This shift, if we sit with it long enough, it starts to tint our glasses a bit rosy. We begin to give room for beauty to grow. We take notice of the simple breeze with fresh lilac on its breath. We see the power of the ocean and feel it swell in our souls, letting it’s beauty speak to something deeper. We can hear the birds chirping, whispering in our ear, ‘You are golden’.

This is the true essence of beauty. Its not beauty in the pain or because of the pain. It’s simply beauty. It holds its head high, it grounds you, even when pain is a rushing flood. This, in a nutshell, is why I paint. I get the privilege of submersing myself into beauty. It’s a privilege and life raft for me.

So, to my boy, yes. I want that disease too, but where the real problem is, isn’t that she cannot feel the pain, its that her body cannot properly respond to it. That’s the problem, she is missing a beautiful gift. It’s heartbreaking. But we have all the beauty to look too, here and now. And soon enough, we will pass into, and become a part of it. All because the most beautiful One came to break pain and death and sickness and depression and anxiety.  Forever.

Yes, Baby Boy, pain hurts, but we are going to be just fine.

Kate Thomas
The Push and Pull
 The Push and Pull

The Push and Pull

At the onset, let me tell you that I haven’t found an answer. But in the same way that I am trying to work this thing out on canvas, I’ve got to try to work it out on paper.

I chose to be an artist. Its something I tried to hide from, but it, in every good way, creativity won me over. Hiding from it is no longer an option. Similarly, my plan hide from love for a bit and to wait and marry when I was in my early to mid thirties was also foiled. He won me over and I couldn’t say no.

I regret neither of these choices. Life would be empty without either. I have been engrossed in a life full of hugs and kisses and laughter from my 3 little ones. A life, maxed to capacity, of sharing joy and sorrow and everything in-between with this little tribe we call family. It’s bigger and brighter than I ever could have imagined. Its also harder and more draining that I ever anticipated. I used to feel immense guilt for admitting that it is hard. I now have come to know the hardship of it so well, that I’ve decided, there’s no guilt necessary, its simply reality. We all know it. We all chose it because the good always outweighs the struggle.

My small people are getting not so small. I cry because the moments feel like water in my oily hands, slipping away so easily. Like it’s their job to slip away. I also cry because my individuality has been smothered by all those wonderful moments. (and all the not so wonderful grit of being a mom) I often look in the mirror, see dark circles, and wonder where I am. I wonder if it is still possible for Me to emerge from the fatigue and everyday ‘momness’ of my life.

At the end of a long day when all I want to do is play with some fresh paints and have my creative release, I’m torn. I see the kids laughing and wanting me to play a game with them or just snuggle on the couch, and it pulls at me. I know that sounds ridiculous, like really, you are trying to choose between painting and laughing with your children…?! But here is the thing, I feel guilty if I don’t choose the kids, and I feel like I’m going to suffocate if I don’t choose the release. Most of the time I stand still in frustration. I don’t let myself fully enter in. So how do I move forward?

How do I gain the freedom in heart and mind to fully access my creativity? How do I engage my family and truly get my fill when the basin seams bottomless? I am constantly left wanting more. More of it all. The push and pull is cumbersome and sometimes too heavy to handle. I want to be fully there. In both. Giving my kids and Sean my all, all of my heart and my mind. And I want to give my art my all, all of my heart and my mind. They have all given me so much, I want to honor the sanctity and give in return. And there it is, the word I’ve been searching for… balance. There’s got to be balance in the push and pull.  

This piece is a representation of these thoughts. The forces that ground me, make me stable and my heart true. The forces that make me want to reach, and stretch and pursue the creativity that intrigues me. There’s a mystery that I crave in my own creativity. I know it comes from within me, so I should know it well. But that’s the thing about it, it’s mystery and intrigue. Getting at it is where the joy and satisfaction come from. The same way that little toothless grins and quirky 6 year old thoughts on life give me more joy than could be conceived. Always leaving me wanting more.

What a struggle to have, right? The truth is, there isn’t a choice to be made. I’m in need of both and both need me.

More on the balance to come. xo- Kate

Kate Thomas