Monday, March 18, 2019 was, perhaps, one of the most significant days in my career as an artist. That morning, a representative from the Federation of Canadian Artists phoned to let me know that the Federation's Selection Committee had awarded me Associate Signature status. I was elated.
For 35 years, I have been an active member of the Federation, entering juried shows, taking workshops, and attending their plein air painting holidays. These not only helped me develop confidence as an artist but gave me great joy. During dark times of distress, art helped light the way.
However, I had long wished for AFCA status, and almost 10 years ago had submitted a portfolio but was turned down; it was too eclectic (although the senior artists who gave the critique liked the portraits because they each had a concept). So, over the years, while painting landscapes and birds, I have also been painting portraits that tell a story. About two years ago, in the midst of problems with my siblings because of my mother's dementia, I started a second submission but encountered technical problems with the new digital requirements and so gave up.
Then at the 2018 Burnaby Artists' Guild fall show, Roxsane, a sister artist, expressed surprise that I had not tried for or got my AFCA status. Her faith in the value of my work gave me confidence. Then followed Gaye Adams' article in Art Avenue, 'Want to Apply for FCA Signature Status?' in which she wrote, 'Feel the fear and do it anyway.' Then I recalled the quotation 'To succeed, your desire for success should be greater than your fear of failure.' So I decided to feel the fear.
It has been a long journey, but many people have helped me along the way, from the instructors at Emily Carr (especially Ken Wallace); the many instructors at the Federation of Canadian Artists; Ted Clarke, who took care of my photography and reformatted many of my digital images; my friends; other artists in the Burnaby Artists' Guild (especially Roxsane Tiernan); and above all, my husband, Ron Johnson, who has always had faith in me.
This validation has more than eased the pain of the past difficult three years, including a dismal winter. The burden of managing my mother's affairs has been made increasingly stressful by a vitriolic younger sibling, who has set herself against my mother's care home staff and administration, my mother's companions, and me. The stress of this situation has exacerbated my health problems, which now include two auto-immune disorders. However, being given AFCA status has lifted me out of the morass into which I was sinking. Now I feel renewed energy to keep going forward, to keep painting, and to embrace the joy that the world has to offer.
Most artists and writers encounter creative blocks, and there is a plethora of information on overcoming these. In the past, a call for submissions or an upcoming guild exhibition has usually sent me into a painting frenzy. The last few months, however, have been very difficult, and until August 5, I had not painted anything since the guild's spring show in April. On May 4, after months of worry over my mother's financial situation and over the means of paying for the private care her social worker said she must have, as well as the emotional abuse and unethical behavior of a sibling, a judge appointed me private committee of my mother's affairs. In other words, I was her guardian and in charge of her money and property. Now I could get the kind of loan that would enable her to stay in her home. That should have been the end of the financial elder abuse that had sent me to the Public Guardian for help. That should have been the end of all worry, of all strife.
But it wasn't. The unethical behavior continued. My mother's health and affairs, moreover, continued to take up a great deal of my time. She suffers from vascular dementia and now needs full-time care; however, she does not want to live in a care home. Because she lives twenty-three kilometers away, I spend a lot of time driving in heavy traffic, often gridlock. I do her shopping. None of this is fair to my husband, who, I feel, is sometimes neglected. He has had a quintuple bypass and his health is not robust. So I have been caught between my husband's needs and the demands of my mother's care.
Since April, I have had all sorts of ideas for paintings and drawings, including a portrait of my husband eating chocolate cake (his favourite), and I had actually taken many photos of him but was never able to settle down and paint. The canvas stayed untouched. A painting of a pond that I had started early in April stood unfinished on one of my easels for most of the spring and summer. At the end of June, I had even ordered a large number of canvases, various kinds of acrylic mediums to experiment with, and some new types of paint, also to experiment with. They sat in my studio unused.
Then, on the morning of August 4, I suddenly felt very weak and could not stand up. Lying down, I realized my heart was pounding in a way that it had never done before. I was breathless. This was no panic attack. I could not control the pounding with breathing exercises or counting. It was terrifying. I thought I was having a heart attack, that I might die.
I called 911.
The paramedics said it was atrial fibrillation, and because my pulse was so rapid and my heart beat so irregular, they took me to Burnaby General's ER. There the doctor diagnosed the problem as paroxysmal atrial fibrillation, and the problem resolved itself by mid-afternoon. However, the danger of this, the doctor said, is that it can lead to clotting in the atrium and, therefore, strokes. My mother has atrial fibrillation and she has had a number of strokes which have caused her vascular dementia. My younger sister had a stroke as well.
The day after this terrifying event, I felt that I had to begin the portrait. It now needs only a few finishing touches. The painting of the pond that had lain neglected most of the summer is completely finished, and now I have started the under-painting for another.
I would like to say that while lying in the ER hooked up to a ECG machine, with an IV in one arm, that I had an epiphany, that I thought of the manuscripts I had not finished, of the projects I had not started, of the changes I must make in my life, but that would not be true. Being in the ER as a patient, rather than as the caregiver in charge of the patient, was too novel, too disconcerting, even surreal.
When my husband and daughter-in-law arrived at the ER, they said, "We've been discussing your situation, and we think you need to change your life." At that time, I was just grateful that the episode was over and that I could go home. The idea of a serious life change did not enter my mind.
Only in retrospect do I realize that this frightening experience reminded me of who I am and what I must do. I am an artist and a writer. Such a calling does not preclude looking after others, but at the same time, one must heed the call.
Recently, I painted a lily pond with reflections of tree trunks and a network of bare branches called "Autumn Reflection" - without an s.
On arriving at this pond in Van Dusen Gardens last November, I felt a deep sense of peace. It was a tranquil day - no wind, no rain, no blazing sun - and I was with a quiet, thoughtful friend. On seeing the patterns of the reflected sky and branches, of the dying lily pads, I thought it would make a well-designed abstract painting, with the contrast between the light of the sky and the lily pads and the deep browns of the water and trees, between the cool blue of the reflected sky and the warmth of the yellow lily pads and orange overhanging boughs.
But the painting came to be more than a composition.
Reflection refers not just to a mirror image but also meditation or the consideration of an idea or situation. When we reflect on something, we may give it a great deal of thought. Reflection is a quiet process, suggesting stillness, contemplation, and sometimes some sort of insight. There is a kind of stillness involved, a cessation of other activity, of strong upsetting emotions, of distractions.
As I painted this pond, or this design (for that is how I saw it), I was once again back in the quiet, tranquil garden on that November day. Although there was turmoil in my life, brought on by the malice and desperation of those who would exploit and steal from my mother and then attack me for trying to get the Public Guardian involved, all that evaporated. All that existed was the tranquility of this autumn scene. It was a reflection on the peace, on the calmness, that nature can bring.
Often, when I paint, especially outdoors, all that exists is the subject and the painting. I do not exist. I am part of something larger, more important. We are tiny wee nothings - - just specks - in the vastness and beauty of the universe. Surrendering to that can be liberating. So when I paint, when I see this scene, I am part of something greater than myself.
For some, reflection might be a form of narcissism. Consider the myth of Narcissus, who fell in love with his reflection. He is considered synonymous with a fixation on oneself. Consider how many people post selfies and videos of themselves on the Web. Two parents recently posted a video in which they scolded and frightened their children, causing them to cry. The father tried to justify his cruelty and thoughtlessness by saying he wanted to make his children proud of him. He said that because he was not a doctor or lawyer, he did not feel they had reason to look up to him. He sought their respect and admiration by posting the video. Instead of being kind and loving by focusing on them, on their thoughts and feelings, he thought about himself, about being admired.
Reflection, however, is not a state of self-absorption (although it might be for some) but instead can lead to liberation from the self. It can mean paying attention to what is outside of oneself - - to one's spouse or friend or to the patterns that nature forms.
Each artist could submit three images for jurying in the Federation of Canadian Artists' show "Humanity." Liz had painted a semi-abstract in acrylics of her landlord, an actor, posing as a Mel Gibson character, looking both holy and brooding, a cross between Hamlet and Jesus. The landlord had already decided to buy it. The second was an impressionistic oil painting of a stall in Chinatown, the vendor surveying approaching tourists pensively, and the third, a clever and humorous one of her friend Julia at the hairdresser's. Each one told a story, and each had taken months to prepare and paint.
For Liz, this competition mattered. The cash prizes, large enough to attract international attention, were huge, and she needed the money. With the recognition, she had an excellent chance of being accepted into the Federation as a Signature member, which meant that doors would open for her as an artist.
"How are you going to frame them?" asked Jack as he started to pack his photographic equipment. He had spent the afternoon photographing the portraits.
"I'll see if they get accepted first."
"C'mon. The jurors will love these."
"You can never tell. It really depends on the jurors' tastes and how many have been submitted. For this show, there will be hundreds of entries."
Car doors slammed outside. Liz started involuntarily. Ever since the car accident, her nerves had been taut. The loud voices of an aggressive male and a squawky female drew closer.
"That the guy who lives upstairs?" asked Jack.
Liz nodded. Resignation extinguished the enthusiasm in her eyes.
Small and thin, Liz had once been pretty, but now pain and fatigue had left puffy shadows under her eyes and etched lines in her drawn, pale face. Although she was till in her 30s, her once luxuriant auburn hair had turned white from stress.
The accident had left her unable to work outside her home, and she walked with difficulty. Lifting her feet higher than her ankles was agony. Despite the headaches and painful back, she had almost managed to finish art school. She met Jack, a graduate of the Emily Carr Institute himself, while taking the Handidart to classes. He drove the bus but had also been happy to carry her equipment and canvases.
"Didn't your landlord evict that jerk?"
"He's trying, but he has to give three months' notice, and Romeo's still got a month to go."
Romeo wasn't his real name, but he had a succession of girl friends, none of whom stayed with him for more than two dates. They heard him now, shouting as if he were at a hockey match. A door crashed open and slammed shut. Again Liz winced. Heavy footsteps thudded upstairs.
"Something tells me they've been drinking," said Jack.
Overhead, the floorboards creaked and groaned. A dog barked, the neighbor bellowed, and the woman cackled. The bass beat of the stereo began to pulsate through the floor.
"You've gotta get out of here."
"I know. I've got my eye on a top floor condo with an elevator - with a north light, too."
"What about the settlement from the accident?"
"It's not quite enough. I need a little more cash."
The dog upstairs barked excitedly.
"I didn't think you were allowed to have dogs here."
"It must be the woman's. He's not the kind to have pets."
As Romeo stomped back and forth, Jack noticed that each thud made Liz cringe. "Will you be all right? Too bad I have to go on shift, or we could go out for coffee."
"I'll be okay. They'll probably drink and talk for a while, then head for the bedroom. While they're overhead, I'll sit in my bedroom. At least they won't be directly over me. Then when they move, I'll come out here."
But she wouldn't be okay. If only she weren't confined to a ground-floor flat, she thought. If only she could drive. And there were times, like now, when she wished she hadn't been born an artist. An instructor had said that art was a calling, bu sometimes she felt it was a curse. And it was all so ironic.
When she had been ten years old, she'd imagined that artists were miserable, starving people who lived in attics - dark, cramped attics like the one in her parents' house, low-ceilinged with a steeply slanted roof and dark, impenetrable corners, with two tiny windows at right angles, one in each gable, so covered with cobwebs and grime that they let in almost no light. She spent several years in one small part of that attic. It was her bedroom, and she still recalled her fear of the monsters that lurked in the shadows and in the other part of the attic, behind the cheap partition.
Her father had liked to paint every evening after dinner, but her mother disapproved. When her mother looked around at the rented house, she saw mismatching second-hand furniture and chipped antiques. She shopped at the Salvation Army Thrift store. When Liz was sixteen, her father stopped painting. By then, her parents had bought a house, and he threw himself into his new job. In the evenings, he drank.
Although Liz was offered an art scholarship, her mother persuaded her to go to university to get a well-paid job. But after ten years of nursing, a divorce, and a serious bout of depression, she realized that she had become her father. Then a careless driver changed her life, and she went to art school. Now, instead of a dark, shadowy attic with monsters in the corners, she lived in a cheap, ground-floor flat with an ogre over her.
She had escaped the maelstrom that had raged in her parents' home beneath her attic years ago, but now, a rowdy, perpetually angry lech banged cupboards overhead, stomped on the floor, and shouted at both his date, who screeched back in protest, and the dog. The dog's barking reached a crescendo.
"Put him in the car!" Romeo shouted.
Liz moved into the bedroom, put on her headset, and opened her novel. She had read thirty pages when a scream pierced her headset. Instinctively, she pulled it off, ready to act. Should she telephone the police?
"No! No!" she heard the woman scream. "Oh, my God."
Liz had always considered herself a coward. She hated confrontation. But she had taken a course in self-defense, and she had cans of spray - fixative for her charcoal drawings, varnish for her paintings, and a can of white spray paint. The screaming increased. She heard a crash, a thud on the floor, and then silence. Was that crying she heard? Once before, Liz had called the police, but the woman that time had told the police to mind their own business. Another scream rang out, then another.
Stairs were torture for her, but there were banisters. She pulled herself up slowly, then knocked on the door. No answer. Inside, she heard the woman sobbing.
"I'm calling the police," Liz said loudly.
Romeo flung open the door. Tall, with the muscular torso of an athlete, he could have been handsome, but now he was livid, his face twisted with hate.
"F- - - off, you little cripple," he snarled.
"I want to see if she's all right."
"Get out of here."
He grabbed her hair. She sprayed his face. He screamed and doubled over. Inside the room, a disheveled redhead, one side of her head bleeding, lay on the floor, moaning, beside her an unconscious beagle.
Liz started to check her vital signs, but the neighbour began to recover. She sprayed him again. Staggering blindly, he groped his way to the kitchen to wash out his eyes.
"Don't call the police," whimpered the redhead.
"I'm a nurse. You need a doctor. That's a serious head wound."
"My dog. Is he okay?"
"He's alive, but he needs a vet."
"Just call a taxi, will you?"
"Okay, but I'm going with you to make sure you go to St. Paul's. Then I'll take your dog to an emergency clinic."
Liz hurried the woman out of the apartment and called a taxi from her cell phone on the street. A Yellow Cab turned the corner within minutes.
When Liz returned home, the house was quiet. Her door was open. Where was her neighbour? His lights were out. Liz's lights were still on. Was he there, waiting for her? She stood outside in the cold, unable to decide what to do.
To her relief, her landlord's red BMW pulled up in front. When she told him what had happened, he went in first.
The studio/living room was trashed, the curtains torn, furniture slashed, and paint everywhere. Worse, her neighbour had defaced and ripped up all her paintings. Her head felt suddenly very light. She felt dizzy and cold, and then she was violently sick.
When she came to, she was on a stretcher, with an IV in her arm and a paramedic taking her pulse.
"Shock," she heard someone say. They took her to St. Paul's.
When her best friend, Julia, brought her home the next day, the landlord and her other friends had cleaned the place. They had duct-taped the slashes in the couch. The curtains were gone, sheets in their place.
Exhausted, she took to her bed and slept, but her sleep was full of nightmares. Just before she awoke, she was in the attic of her parents' old home, trying to find her cat, who liked to crawl into the deepest, darkest recesses, as if escaping from the rage below. Cobwebs clung to her face. At one end was a tiny window. As she drew towards the light, fearing the shadows, suddenly, in the way of dreams, she was back in art school, in class, standing around an ugly, black monstrosity of papier mache. The instructor was Romeo, extolling its merits, for in this class, ugly was good.
When she awoke, she found that her friends had left sandwiches, cookies, and cheery notes to phone them when she got up. Her landlord had changed the locks.
She took stock of her art supplies. The man had slashed and torn all the canvas and paper in sight but a large wooden panel underneath the bed. He had stomped on her tubes of oil paint and emptied the jars of acrylic, but missed the two-ounce pots. And he had failed to look inside the cupboard under the kitchen sink, where she kept her largest pots of acrylic, her gesso, and acrylic gels, the kind she used for glazes and collages. He had snapped the handles of her brushes (or most of them) but the hairs and ferrules were intact. He had missed a large pile of magazines (Life, National Geographic) at the back of the closet. And she had scissors.
She covered the wooden panel with gesso and then she began to tear out pages and images from the magazines. She cut out pictures of liquor, hiking boots, pneumatic drills, stereos, and ads for headache remedies. In a Life magazine, she found pictures of Nazis. She experimented with the images, making a collage. Over the collage, she slathered layers of semi-transparent acrylic and then painted over that. She lost track of time.
When her landlord dropped by to say that Romeo was in custody, he asked, "What's the title?"
"Could be asking for trouble with that one," he said.
Liz looked at the images half-hidden under the glazes and all the dark corners of the paintings. "Shadows," she said.
The deadline for the digital submissions or slides was 5 p.m. the next day. At 3 p.m. , Jack photographed the collage, emailed the digital, and Liz got her application with the fee to the gallery just in time.
Liz told herself she didn't care if it was chosen. The exercise had been cathartic. And yet when the notice of acceptance came, she was relieved.
In the past, someone would phone her to tell her if she had won a prize, but when the day of the opening reception came and no one had phoned, she knew she hadn't won. Despite the pep talks to herself, she was disappointed.
She did not want to go to the reception. Ever since the accident, she had avoided crowds and parties, but her friends and landlord wanted to go and wanted her to go, and they had been good to her.
The gallery was crowded. Near the front, on an easel was the First Prize winner - a traditional Impressionist portrait of a woman playing a violin. It was almost identical in technique and style to one of her portraits, the one her neighbour had destroyed. Second Prize was a semi-abstract, a cross between cubism and surrealism, of a woman's face. She was curious to see the other paintings but also demoralized. Slowly, she and Jack worked their way around the room, but with the crowds and her small stature, it was difficult for her to see.
Then they heard the voice of the Federation of Artists' president ring out. There was a hush. They were presenting the awards. She heard the president announce the First Prize. People clapped. Then Second Prize, then Third.
"And now," the president said, "a new award - the Sprezzatura Award. Sprezzatura for us means art that does not seem to be art. It is the appearance of spontaneity or effortlessness, the ability to show you're not showing all the effort you obviously put into it. This work clearly demonstrates great skill - - effortless virtuosity."
There was a pause.
"Is Liz Whitson here?"
Her friends pushed her forward.
Next to the president, on an easel stood her painting "Shadows." But when she looked at it, she did not see her vicious neighbour at all. She did not see the hate she'd felt. She did not see revenge. Instead, she saw herself, her life. There in the shadows, under the smoky glazes, were the attic, suggestions of her father's drinking, her mother's anger, the accident, and all the oppression her neighbour represented. But gone were her haunted eyes, the tired defeat, the pain. Staring out was blazing defiance. The energy was shocking. I will forge my own fate, it said, regardless.
"Could you tell us something about his work?" asked the president.
Could she tell the truth?
"Victory," she said.