They say life imitates art. I have learned that art is life, and without it, we have no outlet for human expression or an understanding of our own humanity. Wow, such a heavy statement to start this book with.
But how could I not? On February 3, 2020, I was forced to say goodbye to a business that I’d put my heart, soul, and body into. I felt the pain of failure and the despair of lost dreams in every cell of my body. Although I still had another business, the one that had sustained me for twenty-eight years, I began to feel my life would never be the same.
During the weeks after the closure, My Person and I realized we had much more free time, and we began to look for activities to fill it up. That’s when I remembered I had an orange plastic bin of painting supplies that I’d put into storage seven years earlier after a rather memorable “first painting” experience. I decided to dig them out and take a shot at painting, since I hadn’t really started back then.
My Person and I spent a couple of weeks cleaning out our basement to create a studio space for me. As we cleaned and planned, I found myself getting excited about the idea of painting. I had no idea how to paint, but that did not dampen my enthusiasm. I knew I needed to start from the beginning and teach myself, which felt like a good challenge to undertake.
Over the next three months, I painted thirty-four pieces, and no matter how good or how bad I thought the paintings were, I put them out in the world by posting them online. I was adamant that I would not censure my art; I was determined to become more resilient to criticism from others—something I have a history of not handling well, especially after having to close my dream business.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but when I started painting, with each stroke of the brush and scrape of the palette knife, I began to heal, and not just from the loss of my business. Wounds returned that I thought had been healed long before, and new issues emerged, crying out to be resolved. The healing was not easy or linear, and many times, My Person thought I was a little unhinged, but that didn’t cause him to tell me to stop.
As an extremely self-critical person who has a difficult time seeing my positive qualities, it’s easy for me to point out my not-so-positive qualities. That, paired with being a perfectionist who is quite competitive, created some volatile interactions between my two selves. Yes, I have two selves—not the “split personality” type, but two very strong internal voices that are constantly in battle.
Good Victoria and Bad Victoria are always at odds. After the immense amount of introspection I undertook as part of my “painting journey,” I came to the realization that I should rename each persona because good and bad are not accurate descriptions, just lazy ones. Hopeful, happy, can-do Victoria, who was formerly Good Victoria, became Sunny Victoria; gloomy, negative, I-hate-myself Victoria, who was formerly Bad Victoria, became Bleak Victoria. Those names are more accurate depictions of the warring Victorias. No matter which names I attributed to them, though, I was able to continue to paint, learn, grow, and heal.
In the midst of my initial three-month painting journey, I also recommitted to the business that had supported me and my family for almost three decades. Although I was no longer the CEO of a unique and vital gluten-free baking company, I was still an accomplished graphic designer and marketing professional with much future potential. Because I had reduced my client load over the prior five years while I ran the gluten-free company, now I was faced with the need to grow back my business in the least amount of time possible.
I knew I could build it back quickly, and I loved aspects of that business, but the truth was, my heart was still hurting from losing the gluten-free company. For five years, all I’d thought about was the time when I would leave my old profession to completely focus on the new one. The reality that my new direction would never become my single focus caused me to question what the rest of my life would look like. For many weeks after closing the doors, I felt as if the rest of my days would be spent waiting to die. I was only fifty-three, but in the fog of despair, I did not see much hope for my future. Beginning my painting journey helped bring me back to life—and even open me to other new endeavors, including the idea of writing my story.
For much of my life, I have wanted to write a book. I always knew I would write, someday, but I didn’t know when, what, or even how. While running my gluten-free company, I had focused my design and marketing business on the self-publishing world. Since 2016, I’ve been designing book covers, book interiors, eBooks, websites, and more for self-publishing authors. Discovering the world of books and authors turned around my career and gave me a reason to love designing again. After creating over 125 covers and working with as many authors, I felt this could be the time to get started on “that book” of mine as I simultaneously rebuilt my design business. Now with only one business to run, I had the time, so why not?
After I made the decision to write, I asked myself what the heck I would write about. With that question, came many more questions and comments from Bleak Victoria:
Why would anyone read my book?
This is going to be so narcissistic!
My story is not very interesting.
Others have more compelling stories.
I will suck as a writer.
I could list even more, but that would be a book in itself. What happened next turned out to be an incredible revelation that immediately shut up Bleak Victoria.
As we talked during our first of many Zoom meetings, my writing coach suggested I frame my story around my art journey since it brought up so many memories and emotions for me. I immediately loved the idea, and the more I thought about it, the more it made complete sense. Every painting I had completed up to that conversation resulted in reliving aspects of my life. The pain, agony, frustration, contempt, joy, sadness, elation, and dejection I experienced during those initial three months gave me immense clarity on my path forward while allowing me to revisit and heal old wounds.
Along with the warring Victorias, another constant I experienced when I painted was the canvas stare down. When I get ready to put the first strokes of paint on the canvas, I encounter the stark and scary vastness of blank canvas that sits patiently on the easel in front of me. In those initial moments, many thoughts and emotions dart in and out of my brain. I feel an excitement to start and a fear to fail. There is a feeling of renewal at the beginning and a feeling of chaos in the middle, that time when I am not sure my vision will even come together. Then, at the end, there is the elation with the finished product, quickly followed by immense inner self-criticism, stating in great detail not only how horrible the painting is, but how terrible a human being I am, focused intently on my failings. And to add more fuel to the fire, Bleak Victoria finds a way to throw in some general, “You suck and will never amount to anything” comments. (Please, don’t be scared to paint after reading this paragraph. There is a happy ending, I promise!)
When we are born, we are, in fact, that same blank canvas every artist stares at with both excitement and fear before they begin to create. During our childhoods, our parents are the artists of our canvases, as they add paint each and every day of our young lives. Some parents are prolific artists and some paint less, but by the time we are teens, we have a painting, or story, we take with ourselves into adulthood..
If you were lucky to have parents who loved, appreciated, supported, and raised you up to be everything you could be, then you most likely started with a masterpiece of a painting. If you were raised by people who questioned your very existence in the world, found every way to beat you down, made you question everything you thought and felt, and filled you with self-doubt and loathing, then, well, you have a painting that is in need of repainting. This has been my story.
Paintings, just like the truths of your history, can’t be erased. You can’t erase your life, but you can repaint your story. In painting, canvases can be repainted over and over, revealing some of the hidden layers or completely obliterating them. After I started painting, I realized I have been metaphorically repainting my canvas my whole life.
As soon as I left home, I began to repaint my canvas. I didn’t fully cover up the original painting, but as I covered small pieces of it, I began to start painting my own life, not the one the people who raised me thought I should have. As I moved through life and different people came in and out of my world, sections of my canvas were repainted by both me and the people closest to me. For many years, I felt a constant push and pull as I painted sections that reflected who I really was, only for them to be repainted again by others who wanted me to be what they needed. It was a very long time before I began to take complete control of my canvas.
I alone paint my canvas now, and this book is about the journey I took to finally reach a place in my life where I am the one who controls who I am, what I feel, where I go, what I do, and what I think. I will never allow anyone to paint on my canvas ever again. I know now that I am a unique individual, and I deserve to chart my own course and decide who I am and how I show up in the world.
So are you.
If you don’t feel you have control over your canvas, my hope is that my story will inspire you to reclaim yours. My story is only unique in that I experienced it from my perspective. Many things I experienced, endured, and survived are common to far too many people. As someone who took quite a long time to “figure it out” and make lasting positive change, it is my hope that, after reading my story, you will, at the very least, pick up a metaphorical brush and get started repainting your own canvas.
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