Oil Pastels and Making Peace

6 Years ago yesterday, life for the Johns family changed forever. Cancer won a physical battle and my father passed from this world to the next. 

It was one of those surreal events where time seemed to stand still and at the same time the world is spinning at its fastest pace all around you. The logic and understanding inside of me could take in what was happening. It all made scientific sense and we new that he would be drawing his last breath sooner than later. We had known for 16 months.

That same time standing still, world spinning like crazy feeling hit hard the night we called 911 and my Dad was rushed to the hospital. The news of brain cancer set it all into motion. 

The feeling of utter helplessness and fear. The uncertainty and confusion. The deepest heartache and the incredulous thoughts. They took over. Mind and body. Sick. 

How could it be that this invincible man, the cornerstone of my family, my Daddy, could be changed like this. Never to be the same and now set on a path for death. 

At this time, I had 4 month old twins and life had already been hard. Food stamps and medicare kept us afloat. Life's stresses had my art supplies in a bin at the back of a closet. My creativity had been shelved. 

Desperate to make sense of these 3 tumors now nesting cozy in my Dad's brain, I dug out my oil pastels. How can I know and understand the reality and gravity of the situation and still find peace? The canvas and oils would help me get there. 

I began with blood-shot eyes from all the crying and a grumbling stomach because I had hardly eaten in days. I sketched with my pastels and was immediately pulled into the images of the bay at night. My Aunt had a beautiful home on the Grand Traverse Bay in Northern Michigan. Its one of the most beautiful places to be. I thought of it at night with the moon glowing and the large rocks catching its light. I sketched roughly with some agitation and force. My reality and the scene in mind were far too different. There was no peace in me. But wasn't that what I was getting at? I needed to smooth this out, make a connection and sit quietly with it. With turpentine and a brush I began painting through the rough lines sketched in oil pastel. They began to smooth and blend. 

By the time I was done with the painting, I felt different. The heartache and fear hadn't magically gone away. But I was overcome and keenly aware of the beauty in the peace offered, though the large rough rocks rest on its shores. Knowing, in my bones, that my hope couldn't be in defeating cancer or excavating the rocks. They hold their own beauty. The thing they give to us is the understanding that our world is broken. They juxtapose the hope to come.  

If I place all my money on beating cancer and we all die in the end any way... then whats the point? Ive got to hold onto something bigger. Something true and good. Now, don't get me wrong here, I wholeheartedly believe in fighting. Fight like hell and get every drop of this life out that you can, but know that this isn't the end. 

I often cry because I miss my Dad and I really just want to sit at talk with him. My husband is quick to remind me that I will. He reminds me that my last conversation with my Dad wasn't our final conversation. There is someone greater that came to this mess of a place to live and die all on our behalf. He came to right wrongs and he came for redemption. We see through a mirror dimly now. But one day, when we are on the other side, we will see more brilliantly than we could ever imagine. The war on death has been won, it doesn't have the final say. 

Holding onto that gets me through. But its still hard. Every time I set up for and art show I think of how much my Dad encouraged me. He was always the one to tell me that I should pursue my art. I know he would be ready in a heart beat to cary tents and poles and paintings and get me all set up. I watch my kids, growing up before me. I love every minute of them and It breaks my heart because he would have loved it too. They would have the best Grandpa out there, but instead, they have no memories of him. Yes, the tears come and my heart is heavy, but I look at this painting and I am reminded of what's to come. 

This painting got me back in the world of creative expression that I had left for a few years. I haven't left it again. It oddly feels like a parting gift from my dad. There is just something about working things out on canvas and sitting quietly with the creation. It has become a way of life. Creativity has become lifeblood. There is nothing else like it. 

So heres to my dad, a wonderful man with the bluest eyes that would tear up in a second because of the compassion in his heart. Here's to his quiet laugh and dry humor, his commitment to his family, his willingness to lay down his desires for the sake of ours, his integrity and honesty. Here's to the love he gave.

Hold your loved ones tight, find peace and keep creating. (and if your creativity has been shelved, pull it out! Who cares if its awkward and messy, who cares if its ugly with lots of 'mistakes!' You get to interact with one of the most amazing things inside of you. It will bring you places. Good places.)

Much Love, 


Kate Thomas
Sitting with Creativity


4am, wake wide with an image bright and bold in my mind. Fall back to sleep.

7:30 am, wake, groggy and tired. Jump into the morning chaos of making breakfast, passing out multi vitamins, listen to them tell all about the weird dreams they had, while telling them not to argue, to leave each other alone, 'did you brush your teeth yet?!' I love you's and kisses and prayers for a good day. 

9:10 am, time to sit with my own breakfast and think through the day. I've been pushing that image away. Morning time is like survival mode around here. Just gotta get my little army set for the day and off to school. I cannot afford any distractions. Every time that image popped in, it got swatted away because the task at hand was packing lunches. 

Now that it is time to sit and be quiet with this new image, this new spot of golden inspiration, I can take a deep breath. I want to give my creative mind time and space. Room to speak and work itself out. But heres where this practice gets tricky. The big ugly F word always rears its nasty head. FEAR. Something happens and that precious bit of inspiration suddenly gets criticized. Fear comes in and say, really?! You want to create that?! Its too different from what you usually do, people wont respond well to it. Its too similar to what you do and people are getting bored of you. I could never actually execute this idea, I'm a fraud, I'm not a real artist. Its too simple, its too complicated, people wont get it. And on and on it goes. Fear, the accuser of all. It's a weight so heavy, it takes a lot of muscle to push off. Yep, a lot of muscle. And like I said, I'm tired.

So... where to go from here? Something I have learned through my life is this; creativity is suffocated by fear. It may sound strange, but choosing to be motivated by this is a way out. Deciding to say, I'll be damned if that fear kills this creativity. Choosing to be endlessly stubborn about not letting fear win. 

Here's the secret, its just me, my paints and a canvas. No one is watching. Nothing is permanent. So whats the worst that can happen? Really answer that question. The worst that can happen is that it turns out terrible. That I couldn't connect the ideas in my mind to the physical space of the canvas. 

OK, thats not that bad right?! I can deal with that. I can even throw the painting away if I want. I can always try again. And no matter what, I am positive that I will have learned something through the process. I was once told that by doing the work, pursuing the creation and trying, I'd be earning a masters degree in fine arts. Experience is everything. 

When I can think of it this way, the fear seams much lighter and much easier to kick to the curb. Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Big Magic, speaks about never demanding money from her creativity. I love what she has to say about it and it resonates so deep. If I have a price tag on an empty canvas, planning on it making me a buck before I even paint it, then the stakes are higher, fear is present and ready to suffocate. So a word of advice, don't do it. Don't demand that what ever you create brings in X dollars. And similarly, don't demand that whatever creative activity your are pursuing will bring in X amount of whatever it is you think you need or want.  

A blank canvas, or a camera in hand, creative parenting, organizing, writing, or whatever it is you do, should be ready for YOU. For you, the creator, the artist. Its a waiting vehicle for you to drive through barriers of fear and doubt. Its a place to express and use your individual voice. You're the only one that can. 

Embrace the process. Embrace the failures, always knowing that they do not make YOU a failure. They make you brave. 

Embrace the process. Embrace the wins, always knowing that its an honor to interact with the creativity inside of you. It makes you brave. 

Embrace the process. Either outcome, may you learn to kick fear to the curb, stay humble, and keep creating like crazy. 

Much Love, Kate

Kate Thomas