I traveled lightly, carrying my purse, one satchel, one suitcase, and a secret. Of all the things I carried, it was the secret that was most important. I had done something very brave, and possibly foolish. I had entered an international art contest and was in the final stages of submitting my artwork when I climbed onto that plane.
In the rush of packing and traveling I had almost changed my mind about entering, but the contest stubbornly insisted. Joe convinced me that everything could be submitted on time using my smart phone using the web based application I had already begun, and I finally agreed. That was the plan (and the secret). It was a pretty brazen move for someone who had only been painting for one year, and for that reason I told no one but Joe... and, my Mom, and, after the fact, my sister. Who was I to the art world, anyway? Heaven knows there were millions of artists out there far more talented and accomplished than I. Like I said, the contest was a nag, and this was a familiar feeling of divine urging… I’ve learned that this feeling is always in my best interests and not to be ignored.
As my dad rested and my mom worked a crossword puzzle at the kitchen table, I began finalizing the application on my tiny little smartphone. It was just about ready, but the little matter of my artist history statement was proving to be an insurmountable challenge.
“What history!” I mocked myself. “You don’t know what you’re doing!" I continued. “Did you wake up one day and suddenly you were an artist worthy of international consideration?”
My stomach tightened and my heart raced. What had I gotten myself into? Maybe I should quit before I embarrass myself.
The competition, however, insisted.
The contest rules popped into my head. Beginners and self-taught artists were invited to apply.
Joe’s fast work in getting the images ready to upload to my smartphone, so that I could make the deadline no matter where I was, popped into my head.
There was this feeling… that there was something big in this for me.
I looked up from the green wingbacked chair where I sat struggling with myself, half way between my sleeping father and my crossword puzzling mom. The walls bore the evidence of an accomplished painter’s work - my mom's. In every direction were paintings including, but not limited to lilacs, pumpkins, tulips, feathers, and a pelican perched on a pier in the Florida Keys. Mom had been an artist for years, had entered many shows, and had won several ribbons for her work. The memory of her carrying a piece from a recent show made me laugh because it wasn’t until she was taking her work down from the display that she noticed a second place ribbon dangling from one of them!
What are the odds that on this day, with this deadline, I would be sitting here in my mother’s house, surrounded by her beautiful work, grappling with my own questions about my validity as an artist?
I took a deep breath, walked into the kitchen, and sat down across from Mom, still working her puzzle.
I told her what I was trying to do, and explained that I had no history as an artist to speak of. This was all new for me, and I was just finding my way. My only history with art was in creating safe spaces for children in which to create- never for myself, until now.
She put down her pencil and crossword puzzle, looked me right in the eye and smiled. “You,” she said, “have been preparing your whole life for this," quietly pressing her index finger, crooked from arthritis, into the table with each syllable.
There, in an instant, everything changed. It was as if she’d been waiting for me to figure out that I was an artist. What had seemed impossible now felt easy. I wrote about my work as a teacher, how I began painting only a year before, and described my process. I gave the application one more look, and sent it in. Done.
When I arrived home to Joe and our new little house in Georgia, I pulled out a canvas and an old, barely used acrylics set that had been recently unpacked, and began to play with white on white. I had seen how this kind of paint can hold a texture. I don't even know what the process is called, but it was pretty nice (featured here at the top of this piece). It surprised me, since this was my first try, but, like my mom said, I've been preparing my whole life for this.... for today, for this one painting and every painting to follow.
Who knows where art will lead me? I have already gleaned more than I expected. All of the rest is up to tomorrow, and all of the Grace that has carried me to this point, and my willingness to accept more when offered.
To my delight, I was not selected as a finalist and so was safe from the hazards of being faced with winning a prize I knew I was not ready for. Winning was never my goal. I was counting on the probability that this contest, only in its second year, would have received many, many, wonderful portfolios from well-seasoned, ready artists. It was the contest, persistently insisting. It was that feeling, not to be ignored.
Not until just now, while writing this piece, did the real treasure become as clear as the high note in Oh Holy Night, when sung with brazen ease. Submitting my work for the contest, and being brave enough to share it with my mom, opened a window between us, and through it she passed a truth I would have probably never found on my own, or at least not for quite some time. I had been preparing my whole life for this; for this new life as an artist, and now, a month and a half after her passing, for living the rest of my life without her as the strong, creative woman she raised.