June 11, 2015

This 10-day painting trip to France is more than a tra-la-la fun vacation. I say this because we just went through the first critique of our work — and it felt like a deep therapy session.

As you know from my daily postings about this adventure, our instructor Frank O’Cain, a master¬†teacher with laser vision. Even though I barely know the guy, he’s figured out my story.

He asked each of us to bring three samples of our work for an afternoon group chat. One by one, he put them up on an easel. We each got a five-minutes of pointers while everyone else listened in.

Another thing about master teachers — they deliver straight talk with kindness. If they do their evaluations effectively, you’ll walk away thanking them for that punch to the gut.

You’ll also realize that you are worthy, that you can let go of the past, that you can become the real you. Yup, this is exactly what happened to me today.

Now, a word about abstract painting before we go on. It is the opposite of representational art, where an apple resembles an apple. Compared to the representational approach, people don’t know what they’re looking at with abstract art.

So abstract artists must make their work visually accessible. The elements probably won’t make their brains think “apple.” Instead, the goal is to get beyond the surface decoding of images and tap into emotional reactions to colors, shapes and texture.

“The clearer your work, the more naked you are,” Frank explained to us before the critique. “The painting will tell you who you are. Make your painting as simple as possible. To do that, you have to let go.”

When Frank looked at my first offering, he summarized its message this way: “I don’t know where to go but I’m going there.” Guilty as charged!

He eyeballed the extra squiggles at one end of the painting. They were a diversion, a smokescreen from having people see my message.

Frank noted that my painting showed that I was a painter “in hiding.” I am afraid to succeed. “Don’t start messing things up because you’re afraid someone will like it,” he advised. “Remember, you paint for you.”

When he covered up the distractions at the side of the painting, my piece was instantly transformed. I suddenly marveled at the genius of my work:


Then he interpreted the message of the painting. “She likes control,” he noted. “Your painting will always tell you who you are.”

Hmmm. I guess the razor edges of the dominating gray square were a dead giveaway. Or maybe it was the sharp sawtooth of the zig-zag lines that nailed me.

On my next piece, which was all soft curves and pale colors, he talked about how on this one, I captured the “poetry of abstraction.” Sweet.

From here, he suggested, I should make more of a commitment to shape and space.

“You need to trust yourself,” he added before moving on to the next critique.

Big sigh.

This is the kind of stuff I tell my writing and journalism students. It pains me to see them underestimate their own talent by not believing in themselves. When we get to talking, they share stories about difficult family histories and tough parents. Of course, I relate.

That was it. Frank turned to the next person while I reflected on how I’ve been feeling about this trip…

We started in Giverny, which was exciting. I was thrilled to visit Claude Monet’s garden and paint there. But the truth? I hate painting flowers and nature scenes.

Now that we’re in Honfleur, I am struggling with looking at old houses and boats. They don’t interest me either. Yet once again, I love being here and walking around such fantastic architecture:


No one is forcing me to paint boats, buildings or flowers. Which raises the big question: Do I dare go totally abstract?

I was raised to seek approval from my elders and peers. If I follow my heart, though, they won’t praise me for painting pictures of pretty apples.

They might not understand what I’m doing. They might say, “Oh. Um, nice.” Or maybe, like the tourists in Giverny who peeked at my easel, they won’t say anything at all.

So here I am, wondering if I can finally be my own person.

Paint for me.

Live for me.

Be me.

Really, there’s only one way to go at this crossroad. If not now, when? For crying out loud, I’m turning 59 this year!

If I can let go of the past, maybe I won’t be so obsessed with control. I might even find more interesting ways to pass the time.

So. That was my day. How was yours? :)