Abstraction, Criticism and Clicking Delete

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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